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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Wanting Jesus

May 26, 2017 § 1 Comment

Jesus, the Christ, and I—Part 2

I was raised in a moderately pious evangelical Lutheran family in Minneapolis. I was always quite religious by temperament, enough so that I think it made my conservative father a little uneasy. To his mind I think my interest bordered on excessive, to be excessive was to be a kind of radical, and therefore not to be fully trusted.

But my mother was very supportive and, in fact, they both were, really. I became very involved in church life, singing in the choir, participating in the youth group, getting the Boy Scout’s Pro Deo et Patria Award, and so on. In my high school senior year, I gave the sermon on Youth Sunday.

In my first year of confirmation class, as a seventh grader, I immersed myself in study. With my mother’s help, I memorized  the Sermon on the Mount, a couple dozen psalms, I Corinthians 13, and the entire Luther’s Small Catechism (it is pretty small) with all the Bible passages that were the answers to its questions. I loved it.

But late in high school and then especially in my freshman year at college, I found myself yearning for more. I looked around me at the good people in my church and our pastor, who was a gifted singer and sermonizer, and made two discoveries:

First, no one was actually experiencing God. They were going to church and doing everything else that was asked of them, just as I was, and it seemed to be enough for them. But no one spoke of direct communion with the God they were worshiping. For communion, the wine and the bread were enough. Me—I wanted God to light up my nervous system with something more transcendental and earth-shaking. I wanted some kind of inward transformation, though I could not have articulated it that way at the time.

This yearning was just a blind desire with no real content or context. I barely knew what it was I yearned for and had no idea what to do about it.

The second discovery arose from the war in Vietnam. My father, my pastor, and as far as I could tell, my church, believed that this war was maybe not so righteous as their own World War II had been, but necessary. More importantly, they apparently believed it was consistent with their faith in the Prince of Peace.

This was a deal breaker for me. Both discoveries were. I was not going to settle for a religion that could not deliver genuine religious experience and I was not going to practice a religion that could sanction senseless violence in violation of its teacher’s teachings and example.

For me at this time, Jesus was divine; Jesus and the Christ were the same thing—he was Jesus Christ. But I saw no path to his presence in the practice I’d been raised in. And I yearned for a path that wasn’t so hypocritical, that practiced what it preached.

What, if anything, is a yearly meeting?

March 4, 2017 § Leave a comment

I want to direct my readers’ attention to this post and upcoming series from Joshua Brown in his blog arewefriends.

Here’s the url: https://arewefriends.wordpress.com/2017/03/02/what-if-anything-is-a-yearly-meeting/.

Have we learned anything?

January 7, 2017 § Leave a comment

I recommend Joshua Brown’s latest post on his excellent blog arewefriends, titled Have we learned anything? about the lessons we could be learning from the recent divisions among us. Josh has been close to the divisions in Indiana Yearly Meeting (2008–2013) and North Carolina Yearly Meeting (2016), both of which revolved around sexual issues and faith.

In my opinion, Josh’s analyses and comments have been consistently penetrating, respectful, community-building, and faithful. This post is especially good.

That of God in Donald Trump

January 2, 2017 § 9 Comments

In every aspect of his being but one, Donald Trump assaults the sensibilities of liberal Quakers. His decadent moral character, his coarse, bullying personality, his utterly self-absorbed psychology, his willful and dangerous ignorance and lack of identifiable personal or political philosophy, his divisive and demeaning political tactics, his racism, xenophobia, and misogyny—all these things would make it really hard for a meeting to welcome him into membership.

But some Friend would inevitably pipe up and say, but there is that of God in Donald Trump.

Is there? The one thing left of Donald Trump’s humanity is his divinity?

How would we know if this is true? On what basis would we make this claim? Well, there is that of God in everyone, we would say; even him. This is the central article of liberal Quaker faith.

Okay. I do not know this experientially myself. To say that there is that of God in everyone looks to me more like a nice but very speculative metaphysical notion about human nature. But let’s say it’s true. Certainly, I do agree that anyone can commune directly with the Divine, whatever the metaphysics involved. (Though just because they can commune directly with the Divine doesn’t mean that they do.)

So there’s that of God in Donald Trump, whatever that means. What then? How do we answer that of God in Donald Trump?

The famous passage that Friends quote from George Fox’s Journal to say that there is that of God in everyone is a pastoral letter admonishing ministers to do their own inner work so that they may minister to others in theirs:

Bring all into the worship of God. Plough up the fallow ground. Thresh and get out the corn; that the seed, the wheat, may be gathered into the barn: that to the beginning all people may come; to Christ, who was before the world was made. For the chaff is come upon the wheat by transgression. He that treads it out is out of transgression, fathoms transgression, puts a difference between the precious and the vile, can pick out the wheat from the tares, and gather into the garner; so brings to the lively hope the immortal soul, into God out of which it came. None worship God but who come to the principle of God, which they have transgressed. None are ploughed up but he who comes to the principle of God in him, that he hath transgressed. Then he doth service to God; then is the planting, watering, and increase from God. So the ministers of the spirit must minister to the spirit that is in prison, which hath been in captivity in every one; that with the spirit of Christ people may be led out of captivity up to God, the Father of spirits, to serve him, and have unity with him, with the scriptures, and one with another. This is the word of the Lord God to you all, a charge to you all in the presence of the living God; be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your life and conduct may preach among all sorts of people, and to them. Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one; whereby in them ye may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you: then to the Lord God you shall be a sweet savour, and a blessing.

The minister who has done the “threshing” inwardly themselves “can pick out the wheat from the tares, and gather into the garner. . . . Then you will come to walk cheerfully” (in a way that brings blessing, not in a lighthearted mood) over a “world” that could not comprehend the light that was coming into the world in Christ (John 1:5, 9, 10)”. Do your own inner work, then you can answer that of God in others.

So. Assuming that Donald Trump has that “principle of God in him” (Fox), we must thresh out that chaff in our own hearts and souls before we can answer whatever that principle is in him. This means prophetic speech that has no hate in it or even disrespect, but only the power, the Spirit, of Love and Truth.

Hard to do. I find this very hard to do. I have come to think of Donald Trump as Jabba the Hutt, a toadish head of a criminal organization who yearns to lick the captive, scantily-clad princess with his oversized tongue. So I have some inner work to do.

But unlike Princess Leia, our princess must strangle him with the Word, not with a rope—not with counter-violence. We must embrace the third way, and choke Trump’s hatred with our love, not with counter-hatred. We must choke his lies with the Truth. We must protect the least of us from his assaults with ideas that lift everyone up, not just the rich. We must deny the worship of Mammon, for whom Trump is prophet, with Jesus’ proclamation of good news for the poor (Luke 4:18). And we must try for some measure of faith that the Truth will, in fact, prevail.

Then we can walk cheerfully over the world. But I don’t expect to be very cheerful while while waging this new Lamb’s War, or even afterwards. It will be a grim four years.

Making a testimony happen

December 27, 2016 § Leave a comment

I really liked this blog entry from Brian Drayton:

Amor vincat: From the Quaker toolbox—Making a testimony happen.

On Vocal Ministry—A Compendium

July 26, 2016 § 2 Comments

Dear readers

I have created a page for this blog that aggregates the posts I’ve published on vocal ministry in one place. I plan to do some similar organizing for other series in Through the Flaming Sword, now that I’m no longer working full-time.

Here’s the link.

Steven

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