Sunday, April 22, 2012
Interview With a Quaker
I sat down with my friend Mr. Woolman last night to discuss his religious history, and his current religious worldview. Unlike the first few interviews, Mr. Woolman didn’t stick with the faith of his youth, which made this a much more wide-ranging discussion.
Mr. Woolman grew up in Southern Oregon, raised by his grandparents. One of his parents was loosely tied to the Mormon church, so while he never attended, he will be baptized once he’s dead. Mom and dad weren’t fit to be parents, so grandma and grandpa become mom and dad, and he was raised in his grandmother’s fundamentalist church. Grandpa was a nature lover, not really caring about dogma and doctrine, so he stayed home. It was a point of contention between the two, but they managed to be married with different faiths. Grandpa was a huge influence, up to and including his death.
Growing up in his fundamentalist church, which he describes as being run by a bunch of grey-hairs that taught that when communion was given, everyone was to go and sin no more. Once he took communion, and subsequently sinned, he thought his salvation was lost. This feeling of needing to be good enough continued for a long time, probably even currently. He was heavily involved in the church youth group, church choir, summer camps, etc.. While he was attending, the church had a full-blown schism, as well as a pastor leaving due to abuse of a 13-year old. During this time, he also attended Jewish synagogue on high holy day because his mother’s boyfriend was Jewish. Mom was in the area, but not actively involved in raising him. Dad wasn’t around at all.
Mr. Woolman did a fair amount of dabbling in the latter part of his youth. He had brief involvements with Wicca and Laveysian Satanism (Satanism, despite its name, is not about the Christian idea of Satan. Satanism is the embracing of carnal desires - a direct rejection of the Christian notions of refraining from lust, gluttony, etc..). In college, he was involved with the George Fox chapel program, went to a Four Square church while trying to seal the deal with a lady, and after college briefly attended a Lutheran church.
Mr. Woolman finally settled on the Quaker church, and still identifies as a Quaker. He was drawn to its focus on pacifism, the embrace of women as equals to men when it comes to leadership roles and everything else, and silent worship. Quakers believe that silence it a great way to communicate with God. Rather than being spoken to by a pastor, Quaker services tend to have a lot of silence, wherein God communicates to the believer personally. Quakers reject symbolism - they generally do not worship with instruments, wear wedding rings, wear crosses, or any other symbols that they believe detract from the meaning of God’s message. They do not take oaths - when on jury duty they will affirm the promise of the court, but they will not swear to it. To them, a person’s words have enough meaning already, they need not “swear” something to make it more meaningful. Quakers are most known for their pacifism - the rejection of violence as the answer to any problem. They believe this message is biblical, as Jesus does not direct or condone any kind of violence, and in a few instances directs the opposite.
Despite his identification as a Quaker, Mr. Woolman isn’t sure if he believes in the Christian God in any meaningful way. He believes there is a spiritual element to the world, but the specific details are unknown. He finds value in Buddhism and poetry, the latter of which he considers to be his religion above all. Poetry is the expression of his soul, his way of making sense of the world. He leans towards inclusivism - the idea that while there may very well be one “correct” answer to the question of the afterlife, it’s quite possible that those following different religious paths will be receive the same afterlife, because they are following what they believe to be the correct path, even if they call it something else.
Socially, Mr. Woolman and I have common ground. Homosexuality is not a perversion, and homosexuals are not to be treated differently than anyone else. I really enjoyed our discussion on the abortion issue. Both of us reject the hard-line arguments of each side of the issue. The pro-choice mantra of “my body, my choice” is an insult to the issue. Certainly the ending of the human life continuum should be approached with sorrow and humility, even if it ultimately the best choice for some people. We do not know when human life begins. Science is not settled on the issue, and philosophy hasn’t provided a clear-cut answer about when a fetus takes on its own individual rights that must be weighed equally with the mother’s rights. We also reject the pro-life notion that abortion is clearly murder, and women and doctors should be punished for being involved in it. For us, if we are not willing to jail a woman for having an abortion, there is no sense in abortion being a crime. Thus, we ultimately settle on the pro-choice side of the argument, but not with any sense of pride or certainty. I propose that abortion is one issue where having a staunch position on either side probably means the issue isn’t being considered with enough empathy.
I have a lot in common with Mr. Woolman. I have become comfortable with atheism on an intellectual level, while Mr. Woolman never let go of faith in something, though it isn’t defined. But we both find value in the search for the truth, or if the truth can’t be known, we find value in the practical uses for faith and religion. Mr. Woolman is happily married, has a great circle of friends, and has an outlet for his feelings and questions via poetry. I don’t sense a dissatisfaction in his journey, though I think we’d both like a little more certainty from time to time. We both agree that once a person lets go of fundamentalism, it is impossible to go back. Coming to terms with faith at all is a lifelong challenge, so to be convinced that there is one literal, narrow, unchanging truth..I think the world we live in makes that difficult to take seriously.
2 plugs for materials related to this conversation:
Being at Home in the World, by Phil Smith and Mark McLeod-Harrison (a new Christian apologetic)
Lake of Fire, a film by Tony Kaye (the best analysis of the abortion issue I’ve ever heard or seen)