Wednesday, July 04, 2007

More On Non Theism

The Friends General Conference Gathering here in Wisconsin has given me enough to write about for months. I have a journal full of things from my work shop on language in the Society of Friends, from the Bible Half Hour, and from lunch conversations with my partner (I'm just tired of saying "my wife." Partner doesn't quite work but it will do until I figure out something more apt). And I have learned much from the fact of the non-conversations with my children, one in the high school and the other in the middle school program. They have disappeared but for the one mandatory daily check in and the non-scheduled phone call, such as the one I made to my oldest who was on the St Croix River during the tornado alert yesterday. Their absence is a different and instructive experience. Those in the nest are emptying it, right before my eyes.

Did I say tornado alert? I did. What does a boy from Oregon think about a tornado alert? An awful lot when he is in the interior hall way of a college class room building and his oldest child is on a river, somewhere, and his youngest is without a cell phone and in an unknown location. Tornado? My partner was somewhere not answering her cell phone so I just left her a message to call me from Oz if that's where she was. Turned out she was not. She was in a gymnasium watching my youngest play a game called "wink" with the rest of the middle school kids. Wink is an FGC game, apparently. Wink is...well, don't ask.

But before the tornado alert (which obviously had a big impression on me) I was at a session billed as a theist and non theist in a "non debate," "non dialog" kind of exchange of some kind. Two more such sessions will be held and I'll be there for both. These are both inclusive people and there is no hint of someone not belonging. In fact, the theist Friend wanted to do this in response to the now infamous review of "Godless for God's Sake."

The theist representative put forth a metaphor of the Society of Friends as being a "gathered community," sort of like a bus full of draftees on the way to boot camp. All were put on that bus by a force beyond their control. Some will like some of the others on the bus, and some will like others of the some on the bus. But all are on the same bus and all belong.

During the question period I asked the non theist Friend (with whom I have had a cyber relationship for quite some time and with whom I finally came face-to-face yesterday) whether he owned this metaphor.

My understanding of his answer is that he did not. As a non theist the idea of gathering implies to him a power or force that is working on these who share this bus-space and that, of course, gets us into theism. His preference, it seems, was to refer to the Society as "assembled" as opposed to "gathered," and the distinction is telling. People, in this sense, assemble themselves. People assemble themselves as Friends, he seemed to me to be saying, because they are drawn by the history and the ideas associated with the Society, not by some "force" or "power" pulling them in. It was an intellectual attraction, rather than a sensed calling.

On my way to my personal morning Bible reading this morning, at 4:30 AM, it came to me that this is actually the way that I first came to a Quaker meeting. When my partner told me, around the first birthday of my oldest, that she would grow up in a spiritual community it was the idea of a spiritual community--not the feeling of being gathered into one, that motivated her. She let me choose which community and I said "Quaker" because of some support work Quakers had done with me twenty some years earlier when I was in the Marine Corps, and because of the odd book I had encountered, since then, about Friends. (Quaker ideas. No call from God).

My sense of Truth, of God, is very much experiential, now, and very slightly intellectual. I hear IT telling me what to do and listen for IT. It's nothing I figure out or deduce from what my notions are of God and IT works. But that's not where I started. I started with a few notions about what Quakerism was and, over a long number of meetings and other experiences with the "space the words come from" began to experience Truth as that "person" (thanks to Doug Gwyn for the metaphor) that must be obeyed.

This is not to say that non theists or anyone else who comes to the Society will, in the end, express the experience of God as I do, as a theistic "force." It's just to say that I came through the same door and hung out with the same orientation for a long time, thinking of the testimonies as "values" and trying to reason from those to figure out what I should do in and with life. I am sure that this is not what all non theists see themselves doing, and I am sure there are plenty who self-identify as theists who approach things that way.

But the point is that "other" and "self" are entwined around one another, even as they emerge as "distinct" entities. But, hey, that's been the point of the Bible Half Hour...


charley63 said...

Hi Timothy,

As the nontheist you reference above, I am glad to clarify my understanding of how unprogrammed Quakers are drawn together. I hope I understand you correctly that you were drawn to Quakerism without a sense of Divine calling, but that you discovered the Divine calling you once you were among us.

I suspect that this happens to many Friends. I also suspect that it happens differently for some Friends who do come to Quakerism with a sense of calling.

What is interesting to me is that while you and I were drawn to Quakerism without a sense of Divine calling, many others who do have a sense of Divine calling are drawn elsewhere. Pentecostalism, into which I was born, has a sense that they are called to save souls before Jesus raptures all of them away and then God's wrath will fall on the mass of humanity.

But, I am called. Quakerism is where I have pursued that calling. I do think I could have pursued that calling among Unitarians or some other path, but how my life has shaped me, including the Pentecostal faith, has brought me to Quakerism as the place to live out that calling.

I do feel that Quakerism fulfills some pieces of my calling in ways that would be hard to do anywhere else. Quakerism is uniquely suited to my calling. Quakerism deepens my calling.

What is that calling? It is a desire to see the peaceable society of justice and love realized in the world. I get this desire from Isaiah's "beating swords into plowshares" and Lennon's "all the people sharing all the world." That vision and desire are bigger than Quakerism, but also find immense support among Quakerism.

peace! Charley

Micah Bales said...

Charley -

For a "nontheist," whatever that means to you, your note sure does make a lot of sense from my own, theistic, perspective.

Perhaps we are drawn into different faith communities by birth, by circumstance, by personal choice - though certainly some are called into specific communities by God. But the thing that unites the Church, which transcends all human communities, is our relationship with the same God who spoke to us in the relationship God had with Jesus Christ.

Just as you say, that Truth is bigger than Quakerism, but we find immense support and guidance among Friends.


Micah Bales

Suzy said...

Charley speaks to my condition!

As for "Wink" --- My best guess it is a Quaker courtship ritual, which will possibly ensure the next generation of Friends.

Tornado on the river --- my daughter was talking about reassuring the teens from the west coast who had never been in a tornado before. So your child was in good hands.

I am enjoying reading other Friends' experiences at Gathering.

kwattles said...

I have an entry in the Street Corner Society blog about Wink, prompted by your take on it.

It may be a unique example of an activity that Quakers have developed for themselves in the last thirty years, and it seems to reflect a lot of the tensions and dynamics of the Society of Friends today -- at least of the liberal wing.

One aspect is generational -- for instance the leeway that adult Friends give their youngsters to do things that appear risky, and the responsibility that the youth take in developing rules and understandings that reduce the risks.

Also on the generational aspect -- it relates to the question of what happens with our youth as they grow into adulthood. The game "Wink" seems to be a take-away memory for many, and they have enshrined it in a Wikipedia entry on it.

Another aspect relates to Quaker peaceability. The game that the kids have developed really tests the parameters for how much "violence" can be accepted in a Quaker setting -- violence including physical restraint and actions meant to break those restraints.

Thanks, Tim, for mentioning it and giving us your reaction to it.