Monday, March 09, 2009

Diverse Questions from Daniel Wilcox

Note: this is a reply to a comment posted by Daniel Wilcox to my post of February 23, 2009 entitled "Why Do Some Quakers Hate to Talk About Sin?"

#1 I see you identify as a Beanite. Do you know where I can find a good biographical study of the Beans?

I do not not. I have found scraps here and there on the internet and in books such as that you mention, but in a phrase I read somewhere "The Beans await their biographer." (and I am not that person upon whom they wait)

Aside from such as I have gathered from these sources, I spent a week or so in the Swarthmore library with the Bean papers a couple of years ago and made a great many notes. I also spent a day in the Guilford College library with the collected minutes of the College Park Association. Much of what I have inferred from this stuff is probably wrong. There are sources I would like to look at--including the papers of Rufus Jones which I think probably contain many letters from Joel.

But, no, I cannot direct you to a biography. If someone else can I hope they will direct me to it, as well.

If you have read back through my postings over the years you know that central to my affinity with the Beans is their conviction that the divisions within the Society are to be lamented and removed. Our differences are gifts to one another, and in abiding together we learn from and are shaped by one another.

It is notions--propositional beliefs--that divide us one from the other and sap our strength as a people. It is the transformative experience and power that we share and, although that may seem lacking in the "other domains" of the Society, it is equally lacking in all. That lack, I think, is ameliorated when Friends worship and live in relationship with one another, rather than living and worshiping only with "like minded" Friends.

#2 Do you have a blog where you share your transformation from a Marine to one who opposes war?

I do not. It had to do with spending three years learning that everything I was taught growing up about such things was wrong because it didn't work and then a lot more years figuring out what was right. Years later, after sitting in meeting for worship for a year or so a lot of things became very clear to me.

When I was near the end of my time in the Marine Corps, and thinking of deserting in despair at being a part of all that, I met some Friends who--like Chuck Fager--were called to reach out in love, support and encouragment to those in the military. Big help to me even if I was not ready for the spiritual message that was behind (and very much not pushed at me) that which they provided me.

#3 Does it conflict with your faith in Jesus that most versions of Buddhism are atheistic?

Not at all.

Christianity and Buddhism are both imprecise labels and each of us applies our own "take" on them when someone uses the term--leading to a great deal of misunderstanding.

I am an empiricist in that I use that which changes me and don't pay much attention to things that do not. I am into the "what" rather than the "how" or the "why." I don't care about theological notions (lakes of fire, life after death, virgin births and such) that are not about how I am supposed to live (see the Sermon on the Mount) (see the Eightfold Path, for that matter).

I get direct guidance every day on how to live my life and I try (at least anymore) not to worry too much about where it comes from, the nature of the source of that guidance, or what that source is up to in providing me that guidance. It is hard enough to follow the guidance, let alone figure out what no person can ever really know. I can know what it tells me to do and do it. That changes my life (improves my condition and the condition of those around me). The other, I have observed in myself, turns into trying to change other people's lives--at least their propositional beliefs. Why try to change things about other people that don't matter? I am not big on propositional beliefs.

I do conceptualize in Christian terms and specifically the terms I find in Quaker writing because they seem to fit with my experience of this guidance. I think it's Christ, Light, Spirit and it appears to be doing that which early Friends said it does--shows us the problem areas in our lives and gives us the power to do something about them.

Atonement? Trinity? I don't know. And neither does anyone else. These are "rational" deductions (at least given the assumptions from which they proceed) pulled out of the air by people who are into the "hows" and the "whys" and too often led by these away from the "whats."

(Resurrection is different. I know from experience that if I ignore the guidance I am given because it seems too hard or no fun that I am "crucifying Christ," and locking it in the tomb of my heart from which it will emerge in no more than three days time to put it all in front of me again. As Marcus Borg asks, would a video camera in the garden have captured Jesus emerging from the tomb? I don't know. In light of my own walk, however, does that really matter? My experience with ignoring the Light, myself, in my own life, gets the point across to me.)

"My" Buddhism is practice, not belief. It is meditation that is modeled on Soto Zen and what Americans have developed as "mindfulness" practice. It means, more or less, just sitting and trying to stay in the moment for a period of time on as many days as I can muster the discipline to do it. I do listen to dharma talks (Zencast, etc.) and read various writings (from a lot of traditions), but I am not into the theology (even the non theology theology) of Buddhism.

Reincarnation, for example, is one of those "notions" of which I can never really know the truth (like life after death in heaven) and that doesn't really matter, anyway, if I am on the Eightfold Path, if you know what I mean (or conforming to the Beatitudes).

Karma is more complicated than I used to understand and, although I don't obviously care about how it plays into reincarnation, my experience is that our actions have far reaching affect on our own lives and those of others so we should be careful about the actions we take.

A Buddhist practice can sit on top of any spiritual conceptualization without "interfering" with it.

#3 If it is true that we as humans first need inner transformation, why is it that the Quakers who put the most focus on sin and repentance (such as California Yearly Meeting, as it used to be termed), show a contrary spirit when it comes to actions? When I was a member there, many members actually supported nuclear weapons, etc. I still don't understand that.

I don't either, but I don't think that approving of war necessarily invalidates a focus on sin and repentance. I think it just goes to the point of my original posting about the two takes on sin. If one thinks that sin is a body of actions we cannot help but accumulate because of our nature, and that the office of Christ is to get those "taken care of" for us, then it makes sense that we can, albeit with great regret and even sincere angst, do that which we are specifically told not to do because we cannot help it.

If one experiences sin as states of mind, from which the office of Christ is to help us withdraw or escape, then one is led to try to lay down those states of mind that come together to create nuclear weapons/war in general (including the wars in which we engage every day with ourselves and others in our lives) and to testify against them.

Unfortunately, Friends' testimony in regard to such things doesn't always get presented in those spiritual terms. Too often public testimony is expressed in worldly terms.

A petition to the Portland City Council in support of a condemnation of the war in Iraq, for example, is based on the fact that we were led into it by lies and deception and that the money spent there is better spent on classrooms and medical care at home. Yes, but Quakers would be opposed to that war even if there had been WMD's and even if there was plenty of money at home for education and health care.

We are opposed to war because we come from a place in which the occasion for it does not arise--we are committed to laying down the states of mind (greed, fear, pride, lust) that take people to war (and laying them down long before a situation is so far out of hand that someone can smugly turn around and sneer "What now, Mr. Pacifist?")

And I don't necessarily think the transformation comes "first" in the sense that we wait til God is finished with us before trying to get anything different done in the world, although I don't think real change can happen in the world without real change in people.

I do think that, like two children who start digging on opposite sides of a dirt pile, intent on meeting in the middle to create a tunnel, our outward conforming to the guidance of Christ and the inward working of Christ in us go together--magnify, build on, one another. I do not think that either, alone, gets through.

#Why do you think Quakers who talk about sin so often strongly support sinful actions, but Quakers who seldom talk about it, often are the most proactive in countering sin?

I don't think they necessarily are, although I do think they think they are. Joyce Meyer once said that the sins that have others stuck look easy to overcome while our own seems impossible. I know a number of Friends with that outlook who are still engaged in re-building the Gulf Coast, and who are as anti-war and who are mourning climate change.

My frustration is with Liberal Friends who often display a conceit about our own righteousness that is at least equal to that of those with bumper stickers that say "Christians aren't perfect, just saved."

Motes and beams.

I think that Friends who never utter the word "sin" or "repentance" are often as afraid, greedy, cruel, covetous, proud, angry and dismissive of the suffering of others as those whose conversation (and conceptualization) is riddled with those words. I think that such Friends can be as manipulative and coercive (albeit in a more passive aggressive way, perhaps) as those who go to war or approve of others going to war.

Thank you, Daniel, for the opportunity to answer your questions. It is the gift of an occasion to grow to be put to explanation.


Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Timothy,

Thanks for the detailed response.
Your answers are like a trampoline, flinging up new questions and comments, but I shall save them for another day:-)


Liz Opp said...

I'm glad to have stopped by and read this. Thanks, Timothy; thanks, Daniel.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Alice said...

Thanks for sharing.

Re questions about sin, hope it's ok if I chime in. Did anyone point out yet that George Fox, if I remember rightly what I read, admonished hireling priest for preaching up sin? As I understand it he says something like, that the experience of Christ's Light shows us our darkness but that it's important not to get caught up in that darkness/sin but instead to turn to and wait in the light to be strengthened and transformed. As I understand it that's why sin is a minor rather than major topic in our discourse: because the discipline is to wait in Christ's Light instead. Not denying the reality sin and the need for repentance at all of course!

forrest said...

Something I found in a Borg recently... That the Greek roots of the NT word we translate as 'repent' suggest something like "go beyond the mind that you have." (That ought to help tie our Buddhism to our Christianity, yes?)

I don't think you should duck the theology indefinitely. It needs to be grounded in what God shows you, rather than in what upteen-thousand theologians have Figured Out for people to worship-or-else. But we live with heads in the air, as well as with feet on the ground. (One thing it REALLY needs to be grounded on is what Jesus implied about God, in telling us how to act. 'Be like our Father, and do good to everybody, "Good" or "Bad." ' Any notion of "Judgement" that doesn't take that statement into account is fundamentally bent!)

& while I'm here, to invite you to please come visit one of my heady blogs.

Tmothy Travis said...

Thank you, Alice.

You are right, of course, and that is the one "take" on sin that I refer to, the one that is exemplified by the words of the Penington quote up on top of this blog.

I do think that when Friends, especially in the Liberal domains of the Society, squirm when someone says "sin" thyy might be in denial about their own condition, one that would change if they actually did that waiting in the Light.

The other nuance, I think, in the phrase "preaching up sin" is the notion that we cannot grow out of it (thus magnifying its power), that we are doomed to repeat our mistakes over and again.

Thank you for the comment.

Tmothy Travis said...

Hello, Forrest

Thanks for your comment. Such as these keep me growing.

When I start getting into theology (and do I ever love it!) is when I start getting into conflict with other people. Roger Williams is reputed to have said that Christianity is a religion lending itself to conflict, and I believe that.

"Unity," Joel Bean wrote, "is to be found in the affirmations and not the negations of faith."

Maybe we are talking about two different things, but the "hows" and the "whys" of God (what I think theology is about) aren't very helpful to me.

My "faith" and "belief" are not manifested in my ability to ratify or validate ideas about where God came from, how God operates, or what God is up to.

What God wants me to do I'll take on, but how God lets me know that or why is above my pay grade.

For me, faith and belief are ultimately shown by doing that which is revealed to me, rather than, as I say, being able to explain how and why it was revealed and that what was revealed is in some sense intellectually "true."

I've learned to recognize that voice through hard experience and, through the same hard experience, not to disregard it (although too often I am unable to obey completely).

I do think, as you say, it has to be grounded in what Jesus implied about God--but not because Jesus implied it or someone said that he did. It's grounded there, rather, because my experience matches that which Jesus describes.

Yeah, and that "notion" of judgment is one that I tend to leave alone. If I am as faithful as I can be (and keep developing that ability) to that which is revealed to me I should do then I am expecting that judgment is going to take care of itself.

Except perhaps from direct conviction/conscience none of us can know what, or if, judgment as various theologies say it will be.

With my feet on the ground, I try to keep my head out of the clouds (and out of dark constricting places, too).

Sometimes, I once heard in a movie, the magic works, and sometimes it does not.

Thanks again for the comment.