Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Spirit of the Quakers

I came to the realization recently that if there’s one group of people whose faith system I could see myself embracing someday (and perhaps have already begun to), it’s the liberal end of the Quaker tradition.  I’ve gotten closer to a number of these folks recently, and there are a few common themes among them that are attractive, and more than that, they don’t have any of the “deal-breaker doctrines.”  Most of them don’t believe in a literal, eternal hell.  None of them think gay people, or gay relationships are an abomination, and most importantly, they’re all accepting of a recovering atheist asking a lot of questions during a meeting.

I’ve agreed with the social focuses of the Quakers for a long time.  As a 95% pacifist, their belief in peace works for me.  Their wide array of beliefs about almost every doctrinal topic also works for me.  They don’t have creeds, so there’s no list of things a person must adhere to, or else be kicked out.  A few of them are barely even theists, and yet the Quaker tradition holds incredible meaning to them, and fills whatever semblance of spiritual need they can identify.  The stirrings in me recently have been a lot like the last sentence.  A friend loaned me a book called The Spirit of the Quakers last weekend, and it includes a brief history of the church, along with a lot of quotes and journal entries from dozens of people.  A few of these quotes stopped me cold - I’d not read anyone say the things that are in my head so clearly.  A recovering atheist doesn’t meet many people in the same situation, and the sense I get from many in the current and past Quaker church is that the Quaker tradition, with its silence and sometimes vague notions about God, can be the last hope for those that yearn for belief, but simply can’t find it via their intellect.  I’d like to share 3 of the quotes that I’m in love with this week.  I’ll be attending a Quaker home meeting on Sunday nights for awhile, and it’s quotes like these that let me know I’m in the right place at the right time:

“You say, ‘But with the best will in the world, I can’t get to the point of believing in God.’  Well then, if you want to believe in him, if you feel something great behind it all and not just words, well, work for God, and you will see not only that it comes to the same thing as believing in him, but something infinitely more alive, more real, more powerful which fills you and satisfies you more than anything you might vaguely imagine under the name of ‘real and living faith’- a reality, a life and not words.

Pierre Ceresole, published 1954

“I begin to recognize that ultimately it is not for any intellectual reason that I believe in God, nor even possibly as a result of my emotional state, but simply from the growing sense that when I call he answers.
I don’t find it easy to write this, but I also need to overcome the sense that you will find what I say fairly ridiculous.  However, it seems worth the risk, because the alternative is rather bleak - that there is, after all, no converse with God, because we do not begin the conversations.  All I want to say is that once the conversation begins, once does not want it ever to stop.”

Tony Brown, 1984

“It began to dawn on me that I had at last found what I had been looking for all these years.  But not in the way I had expected to. I had expected, or at least hoped, to find an idea, an interpretation of Quaker faith that I could then put into practice. But it came the other way around. I found a practice, and out of this arose the faith. Not that I produced the faith myself, for the practice was and is a matter of opening myself to what is already there, receiving what is offered, responding to what is revealed to me. The faith was produced in me by something much deeper in me than my conscious ego, but something that made itself by twinges of conscience that told me that all was not well with me.  As I responded to these and allowed myself to be shown what was really going on in my life, I became aware of the self-deceptions that made me think that “I”, this conscious ego, was the centre of my being and my world - and aware of the truth, that my life was rooted in a reality way beyond my ken, but a reality that I could nevertheless trust. I had to use the word “God” to signal this other-than-me which gave me my being, though I was aware intellectually of the impossibility of using the word in a logically consistent way. Paradoxical though it may be, I had to say that God was the source of my new-found freedom and joy.”

Rex Ambler, 2002

The Spirit of the Quakers by Geoffrey Durham can be read for free on Google books.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

When she screams

You are my reflection , and
Today, I’m embarrassed by my appearance
Your rage is so easily projected
While I can’t seem to let mine come out
Neither way is healthy, but health is for the lucky.

You are my success scale
And so often I’m failing
Losing a game with no score
Made worse because I know the rules
While you just want more of my attention

To reason with a child is
To sweep the floor with a pressure washer
I’m answering questions you’re not asking
And missing the easy answers you need

On these days, it’s easy to feel like
I love you more when you’re sleeping.
But these are feelings, and feelings are illusions.

May these days be fewer, and our language become the same
May we both be happy with what we see in the mirror
And may you never know your parents’ guilt
Until the day you feel it yourself, and I can finally apologize.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Does Truth Matter?

Last night I attend a presentation/book selling event featuring a Multnomah Seminary Professor and a local Buddhist monk.  They have presented together on many occasions, attempting to bring people together in peace to discuss issues that matter to both of them.  There wasn’t much deep substance spoken (it was only 45 minutes, after all), but one of the questions from an audience member really hit home for me, and I think it’s an important question to ponder.  She asked, paraphrasing:

“I can understand mathematical truth, and I can understand scientific truth, but when you use the word “truth” to describe Jesus and faith and spiritual things, what does “truth” mean in this context?”

Talk about a million dollar question.  The presenters vaguely stumbled around the question, but didn’t really answer it.  It’s not their fault.  It’s a huge question.  But as I think about faith issues, I find myself torn between two different desires.  I desire to follow evidence where it leads, and be ok with whatever conclusion the evidence leads to.  But I also desire to find comfort in life, and in the spiritual conclusions that I reach.  Most of the time, I don’t think both of these things are possible.  As the Buddhist monk pointed out in the presentation, for fundamentalist Christians, there is a huge, unmovable piece of the discussion that simply is beyond question (the book of John, essentially).   In my opinion, this unmovable object prevents the fundamentalist from following the evidence where it leads, because if it leads away from this object, either the evidence must be wrong, or some kind of faith-speak must be used to whisk it away like evidence doesn’t matter.  (well…if we could really know all the answers, we wouldn’t need faith, and we obviously need faith, therefore it must not matter much if we can prove things).

But on the comfort side, faith, even if it’s unbelievable, provides really pleasing answers.  Faith tells me what I want to hear, and asks me to quit worrying about whether or not it all makes sense, because I can live my day-to-day life without worrying that my brain might turn off one day and never come back.  Heaven, eternity, these sorts of things.

So what is a person to do?  Some have chosen to pursue the evidence, in all its gritty little details, exposing exegetical truths that don’t matter to most people.  For these people, every single truth matters, and either supports the person’s faith, or supports their reasons for rejecting it.  Others decide the truth of the matter isn’t as important as the ability to let go of the need to solve the puzzle.  For them, the embrace of forgiveness and eternity is reward enough, and it includes the promise of even more after death.

So does it matter what’s true?  And if it matters, should unmovable objects be allowed to exist?  And if the truth doesn’t matter, would it be so hard just to say so?