Sunday, October 05, 2008

three questions....

I recently looked at a website about an upcoming conference.

I am sure that this will be a very fine experience. I am not interested in commenting on it or the book that describes the phenomenon around which it is organized. I am interested in the three the questions, however, that the book asks about "The Great Emergence" of a new Christianity.

What is this thing? How did it come to be? Where is it going?”

These are the three questions that, when asked not about something like an emerging version of Christianity but, rather, about God, caused the destruction of unity of the Society of Friends as well the fracturing of the Christian movement since who knows what point how many thousand years ago.

No one knows what God is, nor can ever know.

Know one knows how God came to be, nor can ever know.

Know one knows where God is going, nor can ever know.

We can only know what God is leading us to do, moment to moment, and do it. Like the micro organisms eating the detritus on the forest floor we can never know the context in which what we do takes place. We can guess, we can speculate, we can convince ourselves and others that we know but, in the end all we can really know--and all that really matters--is that we go on eating the detritus we find on the forest floor.

Love your God with all year heart, and your neighbor as yourself. We don't know that from a book, or a sermon--we know that from eating the leaves. We can't prove it and will fail to live up to it if we try to in any other way than by doing it, but we know it.

Yet, all the doctrinal divisions that exist within the Society of Friends grow from asking and answering these questions: what is God? where did God come from? where is God going? These are the questions that Rachel Hicks referred to in her memoirs in 1880:

“And now, as I write this, after years of reflection and observation of the effect of promulgating opinions and doctrines not essential in themselves, especially on the mission of Christ in that prepared body, I am confirmed in the belief that it tends to unprofitable discussion and controversy, and often to alienation of love for one another…Had love of God abounded in the heart, it would have been seen that obedience to Him in all things was the plan of salvation ordained by Him from the foundation of the world, and we should then have remained a united people of great influence in gathering the nations to the peaceable kingdom of Him who was ushered into the world with the anthem, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will to men!”

Rachel Hicks
(New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1880), p 39

Had love abounded in the heart it would have been seen that obedience to Him was not in the seizing of clerk's tables, not in the law suits over ownership of meeting houses, and not in the contemporary Society of Friends divided by the cherished notions of the domains of which this "society"' is currently composed.

Distracting from that love, leading us away from sharing and being transformed by it, are unanswerable yet continually discussed questions about what God is about, where God comes from, where God is going.

Early Quaker literature refers to questions like these, asked about the Divine, as "notions" and entreats Friends to eschew them as seeking knowledge that is both unnecessary and destructive.

The emphasis, instead, was to be on heeding the Light--obeying leadings and conforming to them--without any concern about how to explain it all, only about the transformations being brought about.

Fox and Woolman and others made plain that one can be transformed even without ever having heard the name of Jesus or having seen a Bible. Penn made that clear with what seemed like unending examples of people who were not Christians yet manifested the transformation that was the center of the Quaker faith and practice. These people were not persuaded of propositional "beliefs." Instead, the way they lived their lives was changed.

I think it's fine that people are interested in a new emerging Christianity. I don't think there is a thing wrong with people asking what this new Christianity is, where it came from, or where it is going.

I do know, however, that people who asked these kinds of questions about God--and then divided over the answers up with which they came (answers that were and never could be anything but a vain and speculative way to feed our pride)--reduced a small but great people, who had an impact of a magnitude beyond their numbers, to a marginalized and fragmented collection of separated domains more concerned about what each other believed than whether they were living out and being conformed to the leadings toward love and unity they receive daily from a source the nature of which, the coming into being of which, and the destination of which no one will ever be able to understand, explain or prove.

Questions like these feed that spirit of contention that Naylor's famous testimony eschews. It's the spirit of contention that animates "the world;" a world that once was being transformed by the way Friends lived out their religion together. It is the spirit that has now, because Friends have given themselves over to it and its notional, propositional "beliefs," in many ways conformed the Society to the world.

Many Friends today are concerned about the future of "Quakerism," what it should look like in the 21st Century. Some who fervently wish to re-invent it are re-laying foundations of exclusion and division, notions and propositional beliefs. Rather than a focus on living out their spirituality with those who are led and aspire to live the same way they focus on gathering those who share their beliefs.

But nothing is new that divides Friends (or the Creation) or keeps them divided. Nothing like that will restore the Society or the manifestation of the Spirit to which it once witnessed in the world.

What was new, long ago, was a faith and practice that brought people of very diverse belief together and, notwithstanding those differences of opinion (and theological belief) made it possible for them to be gathered into a fellowship and live out their religion of transformation together.

I sometimes think I know that the unity I describe will happen, again. If it does not happen through a re-emergence of a Quaker faith and practice like that upon which the movement was founded then it will happen through the operation of the Light in another people, at some other time, perhaps, in some other place.

But I can't really know that. All I can really know is that I am supposed to love God with everything I am and everything I have. That's my pile of leaves--and notwithstanding the shortcomings and lapses--I am making my way through it, becoming something different than I was, and having an influence I can never fully know, with each mouthful.

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