Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Progress and the Journey

As commonly happens, I read someone's blog and it started me thinking. Next thing I know I have too much to say to fit into a comment and what I want to say isn't really a response to what the blogger said, anyway.

So, in this way this blog post was inspired by, although is not a direct response to, a blog post that I would recommend to everyone.

I have not yet come to the wide-spread post-modern rejection of "progress" as a model for the human experience or human history. I can't say, one way or the other, whether things are headed in some pre-determined direction or, if it is, whether that was pre-determined by some super being or is a playing out of forces that are mutable or immutable. I just don't know.

Progress, however, in the sense of development (without a characterization of change as "good" or "bad" or "inevitable" or "evitable'), in the sense of progression--seems obvious to me.

While I don't know that "the world" or "history" is headed in a certain direction (how could I possibly know that?) I do know that my spiritual condition--my relationship with Christ and the ramifications of that for me and others--is developing in a predictable direction. That same process, heading in the same direction, is described by Friends (and others) historically and contemporaneously.

I find that maturity--sanctification--perfection--is usefully described and characterized as a journey. My experience also indicates that the destination, as an individual human condition, is also well described and understood in the literature. That condition is summed up in a lot of ways by different people, but each summation is a paraphrase or restatement of the others.

Some do use "journey" in the sense of a seeking something not yet glimpsed or even glimps-able, celebrating seeking as a permanent vocation that is based on the assumption that one will never "find." That is not a description of what I refer to, here. My journey is not a perpetual wandering with the idea of a destination being irrelevant to that up to which I am.

I cannot say, as I say, much about the "human condition" in the general sense, but I know that human beings do progress spiritually, in predictable directions, over familiar terrain. I know that because it is something I experience, something that others have described as what they have also experienced, and something I see people around me going through.

I cannot say that I know, in this same way, what I know "means" in the context of some one or the other larger thought-system about where things came from, how they were made, why they were made, the character of the God in charge, if indeed one is, or what that God may be up to. That's all notional, by my light, and not very important or useful to me.

But I do know there is progress in individual human lives, that it goes in predictable directions, toward predictable destinations.


Hystery said...

Process and context are important words in my personal philosophy as well as in my personal thea/ology. In human beings, within the diverse physical and cultural parameters in which they exist, there must be change over time. Neither human beings nor the Divine are static.

Martin Kelley said...

Hi Timothy, thanks for sharing this. I think progress vs eternity is something of a false dichotomy. Certainly we as individuals grow into our faith the same way we grow into our shoe sizes (my 6yo needs new shoes).

But "progress" has become one of those code words which has come to mean a whole set of assumptions I don't think it was originally meant to carry. It's "don't you tell me what to think!" In some Quaker circles "continual revelation" seems to mean "I don't have to care about past Quakers, it's all about my own self-gleaned insights." I don't think that's what Rufus Jones mean when he lifted it from Fox and brought it back to the RSOF, of course! To me "Journey" is very 1969 Woodstocky, "I'm on my own path, man" and "Vibrant" is another codeword I'm seeing everywhere now: a fine word, a nice image, but also code for a certain kind of cheap superficiality.

What's difficult is that these words mean different things depending on where you're coming from. I've been in liberalania so long that I roll my eyes at "journey" "progress" and "vibrant" but for some these words truly hold the revolutionary appeal that the first progressive spiritualists gave to them. Part of my practice is to try to sink deeper with the F/friend to try to get at what the word signifies in their life. Sometimes I'm surprised!

Tmothy Travis said...

Hello, Hystery

Thank you for your comment.

I certain know that human beings are not static.

I cannot say that the Divine is or is not static.

I can say that God seems like a different character over time to people (see Karen Armstrong's book about the "history" of God).

But I cannot say from my own experience. I only experience God now and describe that experience as best I am able.

I do know that my experience of God seems quite consistent with that of some people through time but not the same as that of others.

What I see as problematical, from where I sit, is how people attach a "meaning" or an "explanation" to that experience instead of merely describing it--and perhaps encouraging others to seek it, for themselves.

The fact that my experience of Christ leads me to do certain things is not an authoritative basis for me to prescribe the behavior of other people.

Nor is any notion I might come up with about where this Christ I experience comes from or what God as I experience It up to in the world any such basis.

If I try to live by my notions (or someone else's notions) about Christ and God--instead of living by the direct guidance of my spirituality (my relationship with Christ/the Divine)--then God will seem to change, I think.

Perhaps that is because my lusts and my reason (and sometimes both at the same time) are going to use those notions to guide me--and then I am lost.

Just my experience.

Tmothy Travis said...

Thanks, Martin.

My children continue to "need" new shoes, too, but, at 15 and 19 sometimes their use of the word "need" does not seem to me to describe the wellspring of their desire to have them. ;-]

I agree with what you write, for the most part.

I do empathize with Friends (and others) who staunchly and fiercely resist those who would tell them what to think--sometimes to the point of saying and doing self destructive (or just nonsensical) things in that resistance. Coyotes (and other animals) will chew off a leg, sometimes to escape a leg-hold trap. They avoid immediate death at the price of a crippling that will probably hasten that end.

I can nod, sometimes, when such people reveal an understanding that this is sometimes a reaction to some over-bearing professors in places like "evangelania" or to others who have cried "Lord, Lord" while unable to lead others to places that have little likeness to still water or green pastures.

There are so many words that, as you indicate, are used by Friends today in ways they were never meant to be used by those who, years and centuries ago, tried use them to describe their experience with God and, sometimes, what that their meaning should mean to everyone else.

Sometimes I agree with what I once read about the Quaker ambiguities allowing us to submerge conflicts about belief and not see (or acknowledge) where it exists.

Since I am not big on beliefs, though, I personally wonder if such masking is altogether bad thing. When I become exasperated with the "professional seeker-ism" and the outright ranter-ism you describe and that I sometimes encounter (especially in the domain of the Society where I have been planted), too, I wonder whether a few words that gloss over, at which all can nod in their own understanding, keeps a peace that is more important than what we might be trying to accomplish by upsetting it in efforts to clarify and distinguish.

My own experience is one of growth, in this regard (and not progress, as I described it in the post). A smile hi-jacked my face when I read something in the Bean papers to the effect about Joel not wanting, himself, to be judged by things he might have said as a less mature Christian.

So, as you point out, with the phrase "continual revelation." That group of "moderate" Friends associated with Jones and the Beans and the Hobbs would be appalled, I think, that their vision of Friends adapting to the times without completely surrendering the eternal to them--as they stood between two seeming contrary visions struggling to define the Society--meant that God was saying that previous revelation was no longer valid, that God "changed" His [sic] mind in the sense that the Nixon Administration famously declared previous statements to be "inoperative" when those statements no longer worked to control political reality.

Continuing revelation: (1) God is telling us new stuff and we can disregard the old (2) God is telling us the same stuff over and over, but we are different people, in different times and places, as we hear it and the relevlation become thus nuanced.

I like your conclusion about sinking deeper when the use of these contemporary buzz-words begins to roil the waters around you. It's good practice.

Thanks, again for commenting.

Oh, as you have realized, I am sure, the general (but hardly universal) rules is that the farther way one gets away from the "need" for shoes as a motivation to buy them the more they will cost. As I think about that, it seems true of more than shoes.