August 30, 2019 § 9 Comments
I have come across a phrase that I think aptly describes what modern liberal Friends are doing when they interpret the phrase “that of God in everyone” to refer to a divine spark in everyone. The phrase is ego-theism. The phrase was coined by William Henry Channing in the 1820s to denote the blurring of “the distinction between the self as a partaker of divinity and divinity itself” and the understanding of God as “the human spirit writ large”. The quote is by Gary Dorrien, author of The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805–1900 (page 48), which I’m reading right now.
This idea was the germ of American transcendentalism as espoused by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who prefigures liberal Quaker thinking by three quarters of a century. I would love to know whether Rufus Jones, who gave us the divine-spark understanding of Fox’s “that of God”, was a fan of Emerson. I have always thought he got this idea from the neo-Platonists, but maybe Emerson and Jones drank from the same well.
Darrien quotes Emerson, and might be quoting Jones: “God in us worships God,” and “God must be sought within, not without,” and “Make your own Bible”. Emerson “[identified] God with consciousness or the world spirit” (Darrien). “[T]he simplest person, who in his integrity worships God, becomes God,” wrote Emerson. (Darrien, p 62) “[Christianity] is a rule of life, not a rule of faith.” And most tellingly: “The highest revelation is that God is in every man.”
Channing was an early eighteenth-century Lewis Benson, a sharp critic of this emerging Transcendentalist idea who strongly believed in God as a supreme and transcendent being who had nevertheless created humans in his image. It was this image, the attributes of divinity we have been given, that makes it possible for humans to understand God. It allows us to project onto infinite divinity qualities we had been given in finite measure.
This is close, I think, to Rufus Jones’s own theology. He believed in God as a supreme being, also, if I’m not mistaken. But a divine spark is a big leap from qualities given us by virtue of having been created in God’s. Liberal Quakers have taken that leap and then left that gulf between the human and God behind. We have walked on into a new neo-Platonist spiritual landscape and no longer see the divine-human gap, but only the enticing and self-satisfying idea of our own micro-divinity. Hence, ego-theism.
As I’ve said many times in this blog, I’m not saying this interpretation is not true. I’m saying that we can’t know whether it’s true or not. It’s pure speculation; it’s just theology. Unless one can express with integrity one’s direct experience of the divine spark in every human, one can pose the idea as attractive, maybe even as reasonable, especially as it mostly does away with the very difficult proposition of a supreme being. But it remains what Fox called a “notion”, an idea. We cannot establish it—with integrity—as the foundation of our faith.
Did Emerson directly experience his neo-Platonist divine spark? Or was he, too, speculating, having found the idea of a supreme being hard to justify but still keen to understand religious experience somehow?
July 20, 2019 § 4 Comments
When thinking as a Quaker about my personal testimony on abortion, I find myself looking through two lenses and asking questions about where they intersect. The first lens is the legal/political, the second is the moral/religious.
The opponents of abortion rights base their argument on moral and religious grounds: the fetus is a human being and it is wrong to kill other humans, especially those who cannot protect themselves. But is an embryo or a fetus a human being? When does a fetus become a human being?
For conservative Christians, even the embryo is a human because it has a soul, which it “acquires” at conception, though I’ve never heard anyone explain the mechanism at work here. But the Bible is clear about the mechanism of “soul implantation” and about when a person becomes a human. Genesis 2 makes it clear that a person becomes a human/receives its soul when it draws its first breath: “…then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” (verse 7)
This anthropology/mythology regarding the nature of life and the soul gets reaffirmed by the gospels’ account of Jesus death: “Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and gave up the spirit.” (Matthew 27:50) Note that my NRSV translates “breathed his last” with a note about “gave up the spirit” because the word for breath and for spirit in both Greek and Hebrew are the same. In the Bible, life begins and ends when you breathe your first and breathe your last. And that is when the spirit enters and leaves you.
Now put aside the first-order question of whether this mythology is an appropriate authority for determining the theological question about when human life begins in the first place. We’ll get to that later. Let’s assume that this particular Christian mythology is authoritative for a moment. This means that the Bible does not consider an abortion a murder and the conservative Christian anti-choice argument is unbiblical.
Meanwhile, however, it certainly is the case that embryos and fetuses possess a precious and mysterious status and relationship with our humanity—with whatever the soul is, if you will. Embryos become fetuses; fetuses become human persons.
I am saying that the moral/religious approach to abortion does still hinge on our understanding of the human soul, by which I mean whatever makes us uniquely human persons.
Many liberal Quakers pivot right here to their understanding of “that of God in everyone”, which they usually take to mean some kind of divine spark. In essence, liberal Friends equate “that of God” with “the soul”—or at least they would make some sort of association.
So for the pro-choice liberal Quaker, at least those who believe that there is that of God in everyone (which I don’t, in the divine-spark sense, just to be clear), the question is, when does a fetus possess “that of God”? If you base your peace testimony on the belief that everyone possesses “that of God” and therefore we should not harm them (a faulty argument that misunderstands both Fox and the peace testimony, in my opinion), then you should not abort a fetus—at some point in its development, at least. When is that point?
This is a screaming irony. Conservative Christians and liberal, that-of-God Quakers use the same theological argument. The conservative Christians ignore the error in their theology and liberal, that-of-God Friends ignore its truth.
But back to when an embryo or a fetus becomes a human person. Conservative Christians tacitly rely for their argument on a crude, quasi-scientific understanding of fetal development, focusing on its continuity rather than on its developmental milestones, to say that at least the fetus is a person. In a way, this is an evolutionary argument. They have embraced the kind of science that they often reject when discussing creation; they ignore the actual creation myth for their theology of the soul and embrace the science that the creation myth denies. Another weird irony.
But liberal Friends, especially that-of-God believers—and indeed all of us who want to get abortion law right—have to decide when humans become persons, because, presumably, we all agree that killing humans is wrong. Various states in the US are making claims about this with their new laws. This will inevitably force the courts to start making moral/theological decisions about the nature of the human and, by extension, the nature of the human soul.
This is what’s wrong with the legal/political lens we’re using. The state has no business making these decisions, not about theology or human nature, not about a woman’s right to control her own body. It has nothing to do with privacy, which is the unfortunate foundation for Roe v Wade, and one reason why I think it will go down. It has to do with the separation of church and state.
For this entire argument is Christian-centered, and the state has no right to make its decisions for all Americans based on one religious mythology/theology. What do our American Hindus believe about the soul and when a fetus becomes a person? Or our Muslims and Jews? Our Arapaho and Comanche? Our atheists?
The entire abortion debate rests on a violation of the separation of church and state. In a religiously pluralistic country, the state has no right to base such questions on the moral mythology of one of its religious communities.
Meanwhile, what about us liberal pro-choice Friends? When do we believe a fetus becomes a person? If we believe everyone possesses “that of God”, what does that really mean, when does that happen, and how? These are the questions that I think should guide an individual choice regarding an abortion.
I am tempted to fall back on a common-sense default position that a fetus becomes a person when it enters the world and draws its first breath. This is a final, breathtaking irony.
Using the breath defines human consciousness in relation to the world, our shared world. Now the fetus did have a world to relate to; it used its own native brain activity to respond to the world of the womb, to the mother as one’s world, a world in which some of its senses are not even fully up and running yet.
Is the prenatal consciousness human? Is the prenatal consciousness a person? I think personhood is defined in relation to our shared world. Human consciousness is reflective; it is aware of itself. It needs something in which to see its reflection—the world. The fetus—even the late-term fetus—has only itself and the sensations it receives from outside itself, but which register only within itself, because its senses are so constrained, and which it must therefore process (I think) without any sense of itself as a self.
All that said, a fetus is something precious and alive and fully “human”, if not fully a person. I have pro-choice friends who think that hunting dear, say, is borderline evil. How much more so the killing of a fetus? I don’t think abortion is murder—quite. But . . .
July 6, 2019 § 4 Comments
My current yearly meeting (Philadelphia) stopped recording ministers one hundred years ago, in 1920. My previous yearly meeting (New York) still records gifts in ministry (the better way to understand it, I feel) because the 1955 reunion of its Orthodox and Hicksite yearly meetings brought in a number of programmed, pastoral meetings and the Orthodox yearly meeting’s practice of recording. But I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of liberal Quaker meetings don’t record gifts and may even have a strong aversion to the practice, usually for reasons that, in my experience, misunderstand Quaker ministry and the meeting’s role in its discernment and support.
I’ve discussed this topic in a previous post that mostly raises questions and cites some resources, including an article I’ve written defending the practice. Here’s a link to that post. Here’s a link to that article. In this post, I want to offer a way to think about recording gifts that I hope speaks to Friends who aren’t comfortable with recording as generally understood.
We already record gifts in all our meetings. We write memorial minutes for deceased Friends. We just don’t necessarily think of memorial minutes as recording gifts or consider the implications of this practice for a richer engagement with those among us who have been called into service of the Spirit.
A good memorial minute records a Friend’s spiritual gifts. A weak memorial minute will even do so, but only by implication. By recounting all the things a Friend has contributed to her or his meetings and to society at large, we name the fruits of the spirit in her life—her ministries, if you will, though we may not call them that.
However, such a memorial minute is really just a secular obituary written by a religious community, in that it points only vaguely in the general direction of the deceased’s spiritual gifts and does not explicitly appreciate a signature insight of the Religious Society of Friends, that a spirit-led life bears fruits of all kinds, that the services we feel called to in life are ministries of divine origin, however we actually understand that to work.
In this way, weak memorial minutes resemble a lot of the witness minutes approved by our meetings: they might as well have been written by a secular social change nonprofit. They tend to use arguments from politics and the social sciences, rather than moral and religious ones. They almost never quote the Bible or even Quaker “saints”. Maybe they cite the modern liberal Quaker trope that there is that of God in everyone.
I am arguing for an approach to memorial minutes that is more faithful to our faith, that reflects our unique strengths as a religious society—that clearly and explicitly names gifts of the Spirit.
Then, as soon as we think of a dead Friend that way, why wouldn’t we think of her that way while she is still alive? At the very least, worship and ministry committees should begin recording gifts for its members all along, as their lives and their service in the meeting progresses, so that the committee is ready to assemble a meaningful memorial minute quickly upon their deaths.
But why would you stop there? Once you have “recorded” such gifts of living Friends, what could you do about it? How could you nurture those gifts and/or share them with the meeting? Just asking the questions internally as a committee would almost inevitably require you to become more engaged with the members you’re considering. For example, “We know you’re volunteering in a hospice once a month. Why are you doing that? Do you need any support when someone’s death affects you especially? What else are you doing? Do you think of this as a ministry, as Spirit-led? If so, why? If not, why not?” Etc.
If we already record spiritual gifts in our memorial minutes, if only unconsciously, without explicit religious attention or insight, why not use that practice for the living?
June 14, 2019 § 3 Comments
Cleaning out a pile of papers, I found this letter I wrote to some editor in April 1993 about the massacre of the Branch Davidians led by David Koresh.
“Branch Davidians” evokes prophetic Hebrew scripture references to Israel’s King David as a Branch, which is also one of the possible readings of “Nazorean”, as in Jesus the Nazorean, which usually gets translated “of Nazareth”. The word Nazorean has no clear meaning; a third translation would be “Nairite”, referring to the vows taken by consecrated warriors in ancient Israel’s tribal period, of which Samson is the most famous—vows which Jesus seems to have taken at the Last Supper himself when he said he would not taste wine until the end; this is one of the terms of the vow.
“Koresh” is the Hebrew transliteration of Cyrus, the Persian king who freed the Israelites from Babylonian captivity, supported their return to Israel, and funded the rebuilding of the temple. He is the only gentile to be called a messiah in Hebrew scripture.
Religious apocalyptic communities rise up periodically in Christian history. It’s only a matter of time before another one challenges the state and its alleged monopoly on lethal force. It’s only a matter of time before the cataclysmic breakdown of ecosystems from global warming and the consequent breakdown of social systems encourages another group to imagine they live in the endtimes and now is their chance to play a minor but indispensable role in their apocalyptic unfolding.
Donald Trump’s assault on the FBI encourages us to defend the Bureau as the good guys these days, but their past sins are a reminder of what they are capable, and they are a police force; they believe in force. This letter reminds me not to forget.
Here’s the letter:
I wonder whether those who commanded and executed the siege of David Koresh’s followers felt a rage and contempt for his religious fanaticism that then became a blindness toward the possibility of less violent responses to the community’s actions? For instance, even my own knowledge of the apocalyptic scriptures and language that informed the community’s worldview suggests quite strongly that fire would be the inevitable outcome of a final, dedicated assault on their compound.
Did no one read the books of Revelation, Daniel, relevant passages of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, to seek some avenue to peaceful resolution, or at least the release of the innocents? Did the government consider bringing in someone who could offer alternative readings of Christian apocalyptic that do not involve serving in a violent war of judgment as a sacred warrior? Did anyone ever try to actually understand these people on their own terms?
Apparently the only terms held in common between the two armed camps were weapons, fear, and blood. As a Quaker, I am confident in the tradition that Jesus consistently and clearly renounced violence, both in his teachings and in his life example. Did anyone ask David Koresh how he made the jump from this example of messiahship to his own? Did anyone ask the ATF or the FBI, some of whom were, presumably, at least nominally Christian, how they made the leap from love they neighbor to teargassing children? Did anyone witness to either of them out of an authentic religious concern?
The incident asks us profound questions about the perversion of value in our society. I can’t stop thinking about the children, screaming and melting in untold agony. I think about the effects of watching that dreadful firestorm on our own children on television, thinking about their sisters and brothers in there, hardly different from themselves, except that they were burning to death, and that grownups can do this kind of thing. Or was it just another TV show?
Is nothing sacred? Or is only violence?
May 18, 2019 § 12 Comments
I saw David Brooks speak the other day. David Brooks is a conservative columnist in The New York Times and on PBS and NPR. I have not always agreed with his views, but I have always appreciated his moral sense and reasonableness. He was terrific—very funny, very insightful, with a deeply encouraging spiritual message: that we’ve been snookered into investing value and identity in outward things, but what really matters is relationships.
In his talk, he raised up a definition of soul that expresses something I’ve been reaching for in my Quaker writing for a long time, a way to talk about Spirit that is not theistic but still deeper and truer than the pure humanism that often characterizes Quaker nontheism. A way to anchor a theology—a way to talk about and share—liberal Quakerism that takes us forward, that honors the impulse against simplistic theism that animates our nontheists, an impulse that I share, without jettisoning our tradition completely.
Let me quote from the book he was promoting with the lecture (The Two Mountains):
I do not ask you to believe in God or not believe in God. I’m a writer not a missionary. That is not my department. But I do ask you to believe that you have a soul. There is some piece of your consciousness that has no shape, size, weight, or color. This is the piece of you that is of infinite value and dignity. . . .
The soul is the piece of your consciousness that has moral worth and bears moral responsibility. A river is not morally responsible for how it flows, and a tiger is not morally responsible for what it eats. But because you have a soul, you are morally responsible for what you do or don’t do. . . . Because you have this moral piece in you, you are judged for being the kind of person you are, for the thoughts you think and the actions you take.
Because each person has a soul, each person is owed a degree of respect and goodwill from others. [sound familiar?] Because each person has a soul, we are rightly indignant when that dignity is insulted, ignored, or obliterated. . . .
The soul is the seedbed of your moral consciousness and your ethical sense. . . .
Mostly, what the soul does is yearn. If the heart yearns for fusion with another person or a cause, the soul yearns for righteousness, for fusion with the good.
This last sentence is exactly how George Fox defined “that of God” within us, not as a piece of God within us, but as something in the conscience (which in 17th century English had a meaning closer to what we mean by consciousness) that yearned for God. It was this yearning that we could “answer” with our ministry, as he expresses it in the famous epistle that liberal Friends like to quote so often.
Of course, Fox was a theist and he believed it was God for whom we yearned, not just “fusion with the good”. But this distinction is one of faith, not really of practice, of doctrine rather than of living and acting. For Fox, the soul was more explicitly your identity before this God, something eternal. At the same time, however, Fox and early Friends did not fuss much about the afterlife or some deferred judgment; this life was what mattered and judgment was here and now. The soul might be immortal but what mattered was what it was doing in one’s lived life. In practice, Fox’s treatment of the soul was very similar to what David Brooks is proposing. And in practice, I see very little distinction between what Brooks means by the soul and what liberal Friends mean by “that of God in everyone”.
I will say, however, that both liberal Quakers and David Brooks focus on the wrong end of the ethical dynamic regarding the soul/that of God: Yes, murder or rape are abominations against another person’s soul, and against one’s own soul, as he says in his book. But the ethical impulse that turns us away from such abomination comes, not from regard for another person’s soul, but from the guidance of our own soul. Our testimonies are not grounded in the belief in that of God in everyone, but in the experience of that of God within ourselves, which seeks to guide us through this yearning for fusion with the good.
With this understanding of the human soul, we are talking about consciousness in an explicitly spiritual and moral sense without having to invoke the sin-judgment-salvation framework that we’ve inherited from our Christian roots, but also without abandoning its essential import for human action, personal transformation, and community life. We can speculate about where the soul comes from and where it goes when we die, but that’s just speculation. Real life happens right here and right now, and now, and now, until who knows what. This reality of the soul we know and can affirm experientially.
Next, I want to explore what I will call the collective soul, that piece of the consciousness of a community that years for fusion with the good. This collective soul is the medium of the gathered meeting. And I think it could bring us even closer to a new understanding of “God” or Spirit that is practicable, reasonable, experiential, and transcendental, mystical—deeper than a purely humanistic understanding of Quaker community and worship. And for me at least, it pushes right up against the membrane that separates us from simplistic theism. I call it para-theism.
For (in my opinion) nontheism leaves important aspects of our individual spiritual experience and our collective worship experience unexplained, unarticulated, incapable of being shared with others in a meaningful way. But simplistic theism fails to answer essential questions and assaults the intelligence of the inquiring seeker. I am reaching for something that satisfactorily explains what we experience in worship when our worship is gathered, a way to answer the question, what is Quaker worship?
April 13, 2019 § 12 Comments
Last week I attended a viewing of a relatively new documentary on Friends titled Quakers the Quiet Revolutionaries by The Gardner Documentary Group. The principals of the group, Janet Gardner and Dick Nurse, are members of Princeton Meeting in New Jersey. The film is quite good. The production quality is excellent and they covered quite a lot of ground very well. There were a couple of egregious misrepresentations of Friends, in my opinion, but overall, I give it a favorable rating.
As for these misrepresentations, the film claimed, as many liberal Friends do, that the foundation of the Quaker faith is the belief that there is that of God in everyone, and the film explicitly invoked the notion of a divine spark as the meaning of “that of God”. As my regular readers know, I believe this springs from ignorance of Fox’s real intention when using that phrase and of its revisioning by Rufus Jones around the turn of the twentieth century. It just isn’t true that this is the foundation of Quakerism or our testimonies. But I’m not digressing now into that theme.
The film also highlighted the SPICES in a scene with kids in a Quaker school. This scene made it clear why the odious SPICES are so successful—kids get it and they can remember it, sort of. Problem is, they’re getting the wrong thing. But no digression here, either.
In this post, I want to address a question that came from the audience in the Q&A: Are Quakers Christian?
The MC, Ingrid Lakey, and Dick Nurse gave what I thought were fairly satisfactory answers, given how difficult this question is to answer with integrity in the liberal branch. Their answers were the usual disclaimers about how diverse we are (it depends on who you ask) and good personal answers about the Inner Light. Here, however, is how I would have answered that question: Are Quakers Christian? Yes, mostly, yes, and it depends.
Yes—historically. Some meetings have become post-Christian only since the middle of the twentieth century. By post-Christian, I mean dominated by Friends who either never were Christians or have left behind their Christian upbringing. But the roots of the tree are Christian and most branches still draw their spiritsap from the Christian tradition. We are a Christian movement even if some of our meetings no longer identify that way.
Mostly—demographically. The vast majority of Friends today are Christians.
Yes—technically. By this I mean that Friends hold that we retain a tradition, identity, or position until we change it in a meeting for worship with attention to the life of the meeting held under the guidance of the Holy Spirit; that is, in a gathered meeting. Some yearly meetings have drifted into a post-Christian identity by a kind of thoughtless default as they remove more and more Christianity from their books of discipline. However, I know of no meeting that has ever clearly declared itself not Christian in a gathered meeting for business—or even considered the question, for that matter. Without such discernment, we remain technically Christian by our own standards—unless, as we apparently do, we consider these tacit unconsidered deletions from our formal statements of identity to be some kind of true discernment; or unless we think that just because our meeting doesn’t have many Christians that means Quakerism isn’t Christian. I don’t think this blind drift in our books of faith and practice does amount to true discernment, but I admit that this backing-out effect does carry some kind of weight—if there’s no Christianity there, then it’s not there—even if that weight is a negative weight of absence and is freighted with unconscious violations of the testimony of integrity.
Ultimately, whether we are Christian or not depends, not on who you ask or what you believe, but how you worship. It certainly is the case that many unprogrammed meetings are, in fact, post-Christian in terms of what most of their members believe. But more to the real point, since belief isn’t really the point, most liberal Friends do not put Jesus Christ at the heart of their religious lives and neither do their meetings.
That’s the real answer to the question, Are Quakers Christian? It depends, not on how a given individual might answer, and not even on how a meeting answers, but rather on how the meeting worships. Does your meeting worship Christ? Or—stretching things a little here—does your meeting understand itself to be worshipping in the spirit of Christ?
This begs a bunch of questions based on definitions, of course. What is worship? Who, or what, is Christ? And, following the stretch I offered just above, what is meant by “the spirit of Christ”? Questions for another post. Meanwhile, I think the answer for most unprogrammed meetings I know is: no, we’re not Christian. But are we then still Quaker?
As I’ve said many times in this blog, I think we in the liberal branch need to be more forthright about what our post-Christian reality really means. How can we claim to be Quakers and not be Christians? How can we claim to be a true branch of the vine when we have cut ourselves off from its roots? How can we claim our worship is true when it does not draw its spiritsap from the spirit of Christ?
I am going to make a bold apology for a clarified liberal Quaker identity that retains its roots and recovers worship in the spirit of Christ, but yet releases us from the orthodox Christian preoccupations that no longer speak to so many unprogrammed Friends.
It will take a while to unpack my thinking here. For one thing, I’m not done thinking. For another, a blog is really not the ideal format for the kind of long-form writing that careful theology requires. But this is the platform I have.
March 16, 2019 § 12 Comments
The testimony of community finds its way onto almost any list of Quaker testimonies these days, especially under the influence of the vexing anagram SPICES.
However: define for me the “testimony of community”. There’s no entry in the books of discipline of either New York Yearly Meeting or Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, the two yearly meetings for which I have copies. It doesn’t appear in John Punshon’s pamphlet Testimony and Tradition, nor could I find anything in my own fairly extensive library on such a testimony, though our tradition is rich with discussion of community life.
I recently asked some Friends in my meeting to define it and they just looked at me. And I looked at them. We have no clear definition of this testimony. Nevertheless, they insisted that I include it in a list of our testimonies in a document we’re preparing for our meeting defining what membership means.
Oh, if asked we might come up with something. But it would be just our own ideas, not something clearly and corporately discerned by our meeting, or our yearly meeting.
What does the “testimony of community” mean? Where did this “testimony” come from? How did we come to espouse it without any apparent community discernment?
I suspect a process may be at work similar to the one that has made “that of God in everyone” the putative foundation of all our testimonies: an unselfconscious thought-drift in a culture increasingly impatient with intellectual/theological rigor, or even attention of any serious kind, not to mention care for the testimony of integrity. These ideas arise somehow, somewhere, and then get picked up and disseminated because they sound nice, they meet some need, and they don’t demand much. They apparently don’t require discernment, anyway.
For “that of God”, we know the point source—Rufus Jones. But for the “testimony of community”? Any ideas?
If Lewis Benson is correct about “that of God”, the disseminator of this idea that “that of God in everyone” is the foundation of our testimonies was AFSC. Not surprising, since Rufus Jones was a cofounder of AFSC. I suspect that AFSC may also have given us the testimony of community. It sort of sounds like them—to me, at least—if you know what I mean.
Anyway, I hereby call upon Friends to do some actual discernment, to decide, in our local meetings and our yearly meetings, whether the “testimony of community” really is one of our “testimonies”, and, in the process, tell us what it means. And if we can’t, then I suggest we get rid of it. Maybe that will finally put a spike in the heart of SPICES. I doubt we’d continue with SPIES.