Praying for the Sacredness of Personhood

November 6, 2018 § 2 Comments

I have been traveling in Spain with my wife Christine for the past week, pretty far away from the drama of the American midterm elections. (We voted by mail.) When you travel, especially in a foreign country, you realize that there are millions—billions—of people who have lives, lovers, homes, jobs, just like you. They have dreams and ambitions, however grand or truncated by their circumstances, just like you. And your relative largeness in your own little world dissolves into a minuscule atomic reality in the midst of the galaxy of humanity.

In the face of this existential diminution, the great power of Christianity is its personality—the way it raises up personhood, the way it makes each individual life matter. One of the definitions of the soul in the Christian context is that the soul is one’s identity before God—each believer is a personhood who knows, and sins, and grows, and regrets, and ultimately is, on the one hand, accountable before the divine judgment seat, but also more positively, knowable by a divine Person, and even loved. This is some kind of ultimate validation of one’s personhood—at least as long as you pass the trial before the judgment seat—and can believe this in the first place.

Thus idea and context of Christian personality is a desirable thing, I suppose. But on many levels, of course, it’s completely unverifiable. My own personhood finds no solace in this framework. My own religiosity is essentially empirical. For the most part, I trust that which I have myself experienced. Thus my “soul” consists of something else, some kind of center of consciousness aligned toward spiritual growth.

For me, the soul expresses, personhood is manifest in creative action, God is a muse of that expression, a Source of that creativity and of that which is created (when I’m in the Life). Thus, I write, among other forms of expression. I write this blog, some poetry and fiction and nonfiction. I’m working on several books, several on Quaker topics for a mostly Quaker audience.

But this Quaker audience is a very small audience with almost no leverage with the Powers that rule the world I live in: Western imperial capitalism with its satellite principalities of corrupt or hamstrung political institutions, waning civil institutions, and collaborative religious institutions.

I dream of having some influence on this vast system of power with this blog, with my other writing. I have ambitions for publication. But I am one among billions, no more important than the hand-holding young couple I saw a few minutes ago walking below my window here in a hotel in Valencia.

Meanwhile, Americans will partially rebuke or partially affirm the sickness that is the Trump administration and its acolytes, with its lies, its fake conspiracies, it’s racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, it’s love of wealth and power for itself, and it’s sometimes violent assault on the sacredness of personhood.

There are very few true and meaningful counterweights to the dialectic of existing power and anti-existing-power power. The gospel of Jesus is such a third way, as Walter Wink has reminded us. But what counterweight, what third way, does liberal Quakerism offer? Can the gospel of that of God in everyone offer a meaningful alternative to the anti-gospel of power for its own sake or power for the sake of rebellion? Can it raise up human personhood beyond the mostly self-serving individualism that predominates in many of our meetings, that allows almost any heartfelt message to pose as vocal ministry, that mutes almost all attempts at radical collective action, that looks askance at radically mystical or prophetic experience, especially if it seeks to move the wider body?

Martin Luther King wrote that the universe bends toward justice. I’m not so sure. I’m with Dietrich Bonhoeffer on this one. That kind of a priori statement about the moral character of “the universe” is clearly unverifiable. It’s a sweet idea . . .

The battle between organization and entropy, between good and evil, between love and fear, seems much more perpetual to me. With no clear end in sight, how can we talk with integrity about how the universe leans? With such obvious relatively long-term swings of the pendulum toward evil (think of the genocide of the First Nations of North America or the enslavement for centuries of imported Africans), how can one generalize about “the universe’s” moral character, even given the other more positive developments that coincided with those evils? An awful lot of individual persons suffered terribly under the Christian context of those evils. Did the Weight that sits in the judgment seat just go out for a long coffee break?

Personhood is small, fragile, and virtually weightless. Only the collective has real weight. Only the collective addiction to fossil fuels could have permanently altered the entire planet’s energy and atmospheric processes. Only the collective weight of emerging capitalism could have made African slave trade a vertex in the great Atlantic triangle of trade. Only the collective hunger of North Americans could have wiped out the passenger pigeon.

And yet Jesus was just one person radically focused on other persons. Or was he? Certainly he was not alone. But even his closest intimates misunderstood him, in the end. And even his bending of the universe got bent again into the imperial monstrosity that is on display in the guided magnificence of Europe’s great cathedrals.

I don’t know where this blog is going, really. Or where I’ve ended up. Just musing, and praying, as it were, with one of the main tools at my disposal, my pen. Praying for a greater recognition among liberal Friends of the deep power that lies in the foundations of our root Christian-Quaker tradition, and for the activation of the forward-looking potential inherent in liberal universalism and its rejection of the imperial thrust of the Christian tradition. Praying for a prophetic opening that harnesses collective action on behalf of the sacredness of personhood.

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§ 2 Responses to Praying for the Sacredness of Personhood

  • friendviv says:

    Thank you, Steven, for the questions and the tentative exploration of potential answers. The absence of knowing is refreshing.

  • treegestalt says:

    “Practice the corpse position;
    it will be on The Exam” … except that the only empirically verifiable ‘exam’ facing us is quite different from the moralistic framework people typically impose on self & others, typically dread or dismiss.

    But as Jesus said [among so many other things] “~God does (and thus implicitly intends) all possible good for people, whether they be Just or Unjust.”

    Another perspective that I’ve recently posted elsewhere: Can an infinite Being find happiness, living as a vast assortment of finite beings?

    We are having to answer that question for our own particular instance… It doesn’t work out if we imagine ourselves as isolated be-ings, but that isn’t how we be. It doesn’t work if we imagine people are Intended to suffer… for whom? If we take the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ as something we can ask for and expect: that God’s intentions for us-all may be realized as directly here as in the heavens —

    we continue in this long process of not-necessarily dramatic life and ongoing ripening, of simply being a divine work-in-progress.

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