Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Some Questions

I saw the writing of someone trying to sort out a number of things about "universalism" and it led me to wondering what the importance of such sorting was, what it meant to the writer to be working through it.

I also became curious about the writer's take on the nature and purpose of spirituality.

I wondered if the writer sees spirituality as being about developing/adopting a set of propositional beliefs, the acceptance or rejection of which gets a person something, or shows a person something about themselves or other people.

I wondered whether the writer saw these propositions/axioms about universalism, the nature of the divine/profane--about how the divine/profane works or doesn't work-- as the basis for reasoning about how to act toward others and live one's life.

Is spirituality about developing one's personal condition along some pre-determined path that is in some way inherent in the nature of things, of God?

Does such development, such transformation, turn us into the image of Christ/Buddha/Spirit/Light/the Big Kahuna?

If it is neither about developing a set of propositional beliefs, or developing a spiritual condition, what is it about?

If so, or not, do we think we need to know why or how that takes place or does not?

Is our spirituality a source of understanding about "how things are," what the nature of God (or no god) is, what God/no god's purpose is or is not?

If so, what is the value of that understanding? What do we do with it?

Does it make a difference if Jesus walked out of the tomb and a video camera would have captured his image in the process? If so, why?

Does it make any difference whether or not Mara tempted the Buddha?

Does it make a difference in how we live whether or not there is an afterlife?

What difference does it make in the way we live our lives if, as one universalist "take" has it, everyone is going home to God, in the end, or, as another has it, God gives everyone (regardless of their "religion") the chance to know and accept Christ (although not necessarily by that name), or as another has it, all religions are like a sacred GUI interface sitting on top of a divine DOS--that all religions are really "takes" on a common spirituality, the proverbial paths to the top of the same mountain? If one or the other of these, or none of them, is true, so what?

How do (or do not) (or should) the answers to any of these questions affect who we are, what we do, day to day, in living our lives, in relating to other people?

Can the answers to these questions be known?

If so, so what?

If not, so what?


Anonymous said...

Dear Timothy:

I have wrestled with exactly these questions for a long time. I have a strong tendency towards analysis and enjoy that kind of discourse, so it has been difficult for me to acknowledge its limitations.

I use an analogy to help me with these kinds of inquiries. Suppose there are two neighbors, Tom and Stan. They are both good gardeners and over the years they have admired each others’ gardens. Tom is a Christian and Stan is a Buddhist, but they hardly ever talk about this. Then one day Tom says, looking at his garden, that his garden reflects the beauty of the Creator and resembles a prayer of praise. Stan, being a good Buddhist, responds that there is no Creator, that all is simply causes and conditions and that actually the garden is a teaching on dependent origination. Now Stan and Tom start arguing. They start writing theses about the nature of gardening and what gardening really means. Spending so much time on these treatises, they neglect their gardens which go to seed and turn to dust.

Religions which insist on adherence to a set of beliefs, from this point of view, substitute the cultivation of the garden of the mind and heart for a list of ideas. But ideas are just tools to assist us with the cultivation of the mind and heart. It is the cultivation that is central.

That’s how I see it at this time.

Best wishes,


Tmothy Travis said...

It is how I see it, too.

I once heard a dharma talk in which the teacher said "...then this thought bubbled up out of my psyche..."

And I thought "Nothing bubbled up out of anywhere--your heard God talking to you."

Then I heard God talking to me. The message was "Shut up and listen."

If I had become caught up in the vocabulary I would have missed what was said or I would have devalued it because of the means it was delivered to me.

Thanks for your comment.

Nate said...

The other side of the coin is that we are all subject to outside influences which may direct us in ways that are desirable or not, and we need to have a perception of what we see as the basics and basis for "desirability." Why grow a garden at all?

Tmothy Travis said...

I think growing a garden, here, is a metaphor for developing one's spiritual condition.

As for outside influences, there are many different voices that speak to us and we must learn to discern that which is the guide and those that are trying to distract and mislead us.

I am not sure what you mean by "a perception of what we see as the basics or the basis for 'desirability.'"

The basics, as I think of it, is the day to day direct guidance I receive about living my life. It seems that, from the results of following that guidance, the basis for desirability are lists like the Fruits of the Spirit, the Quaker testimonies and the Eight Fold Path.

I don't think that knowing the lists, though, or even affirming their validity, gets me where I need to be.

My experience is that the spiritual condition described by those (and other) lists is both the product of faithfulness to the guidance and a benchmark for discernment, in general.

Again, this didn't come to me through a teaching or through the reasoning process, although I'll not deny that such teachings abound and that this is all, as Mr. Spock's witnesses, "rational."

But I neither spend much time, anymore, or adhere to, teachings or to reason in such matters.

I just try to keep my garden weeded and do as I am told.

Thank you for the comment.

Please let me know what you did mean by "the basics or the basis for 'desirability.'" I probably did not do you justice by assuming you meant what I took from your words and then riffing on and on about it. I apologize if I "straw manned" you and look forward, if that is the case, to your setting me straight.

Thank you.

Os said...

Take, for example, Quakers. Travis, for many years you and I have watched Quakers in conflict with each other. It seems to me this situation could improve if we start with the question near the end of your message: "How do...the answers to any of these questions affect who we are, what we do, day to day, in living our lives, in relating to other people?"

We all know people and have heard of people who lead good lives, and Quaker lives, accompanied by different experiences, beliefs, propositions, conditions, and so on. Quaker behavior is universally available.

When it comes to relations with other Friends, let's focus on learning to function well together as members of the same meeting and of our Society, in worshiping and otherwise practicing together as Quakers, in loving each other - and in doing this even as we differ in how we speak about all this. Let's speak to each other with our lives.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Timothy,

Thanks for the blog post. Some intriguing first-step questions!

>>If it is neither about developing a set of propositional beliefs, or developing a spiritual condition, what is it about?

For me spiritual faith is about relationship--about experiencing God and living in God, and giving out God's infinite love to others.

God comes to us. He came to me first through the "window-image" of Jesus--a Jewish man who, according to the text, even forgave his executioners. For me here was a "love" beyond the often ethnocentric, self-focused love of humankind. He spoke of God loving everyone, even prodigal sons and traitors.

This was a message unlike any other which transformed my life.

In the Light,
Daniel Wilcox

Tmothy Travis said...

I think you say this well.

When I look at the divided situation in which Friends find themselves, today, and the accounts of how we got here, I have to shake my head and wonder who thought--in the midst of all that strife--that they were standing in the Light?

It's easy to look back and be critical, especially if one can ignore the often veiled but too often out-and-out hostility and hurtful speech that is sometimes used when Friends "talk across the divides."

I have certainly stood so convicted so many times. Perhaps seeing the "bad behavior" of Friends as the Society fragmented all those years ago has helped me hear the guidance to knock such behavior off, myself.

Among the hot-button topics today are homosexuality and non-theism, but the discourse is often not different in tone (or volume) than when, during the "Protestant-ization" of the Society in the 19th Century. It comes down to the same thing, under the issues hanging on it: people simply refuse to abide with "the Other."

The spirit of contention and division is the same as the spirit of dominance.

What peace testimony?

There is plenty of advice from the first generation of Friends about how to deal with disagreements among ourselves and the current condition of our Society testifies to the failure to follow it.

Actually, anymore, this advice is not very well known among us. How can that which we do not know guide us?

It can because we do not need to depend on "sage advice" from by-gone days. Christ (in my patois) is present and speaking to all of us today. The fact that the message of love is not acted upon is result of our fears turning us from that guidance. In regard to some things we have been guided by these fears for so long that our hearts are hardened such that we cannot hear that still, small voice of love and redemption.

The fact that we don't hear it doesn't mean it isn't there.

But we fearfully hide inside our ideologies and theologies--holding them up like a garland of garlic to ward off those we think would suck our spiritual life from us.

How could anyone fail to see how some of the nasty language we sometimes hear among us is really a form of the redemptive violence we all claim to eschew?

Isn't the name-calling all around just an attempt to hurt and humiliate others until they either stop doing what displeases us or they go away?

Peace testimony, indeed.

There is some good work being done "across the divides," today and it should be held up. I am pleased to see so many young Friends from the different domains who are interacting with one another and creating loving and caring connections.

Friends World Committee for Consultation is another step in the right direction, along with some less well known, local efforts like the Multwood "project" and the Quaker Women's Theology Conference in my neck of the woods.

It's not easy, it's not fast. But it is--and it is becoming.

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Hi, Timothy!

I think it might be helpful to note that “spirituality” is not a word, or a concept, that appears either in the Bible or in the writings of early Friends. For the Biblical writers, and for early (and traditional) Friends, the issue is not one of “being spiritual”; it is one of being faithful to God and righteous (i.e., good) toward one’s fellow creatures. Christ treated “spirituality”, when he saw it (and he saw it both in the Pharisees, and also in his own disciples) as a fatal vanity.

In Buddhism, there is not even a concept of “the Spirit” as something to be followed. If there is a Spirit, it is something that decays, falls apart, in the end, just as everything does, even God (“gate gate pâragate pârasa.mgate”, as the Heart Sûtra has it), and therefore the Spirit is not to be relied on.

All this seems to me to suggest that the concept of “spirituality” is a relatively new construct, and not necessarily helpful in understanding either Christianity, or Buddhism, or Quakerism.

Indeed, I’d go further, and say that while a “universalist” who declares that Christianity, Buddhism, and Quakerism are all equally spiritual, is technically correct — since none of them are actually about “spirituality” at all! — nonetheless, the fact that the “universalist” uses such language suggests that he doesn’t really know any of those religions well enough to judge them.

I do believe each religion needs to be taken on its own terms. It does make a difference for Christianity that the tomb was empty and the risen Christ Jesus palpably manifested to his followers, for Christianity (unlike Buddhism) is all about the possibility of escaping death through affiliation with the One who stands outside the realm of death, and the ultimate proof that this One actually stands outside the realm of death stands in the fact that Christ physically rose again.

It does make a difference for Buddhism that the Buddha Gautama had to deal with temptation and attained enlightenment only after rejecting the temptations he was offered; for Buddhism is all about detachment, “liberation”, the attainment of a state of being and consciousness in which the falling apart of things ceases to be an issue (“Bodhi, svâhâ!” as the aforementioned sûtra has it), and the fact that the Buddha Gautama himself had to overcome temptations first is an ultimate proof that yielding to temptations is not the way to the goal.

And it does make a difference that neither of these religions operated in terms of “spirituality”, something which would in fact be a distraction from the attainment of either religion’s express goal.

Just my two cents’ worth, old friend —

Tmothy Travis said...

Hi, Marshall.

It's a two cents always worth far more than two cents. And it's always welcome.

We disagree about whether spirituality has anything to do with Christianity, Buddhism or Quakerism.

You are right, though. I do use this word to describe something that is much older than the word itself.

I use it to describe one's own relationship to that which is Divine (or ultimate).

This is how I come to think that spirituality is central to all three of these spiritual traditions.

Thanks for prompting me to clarify what I have been saying and to explain it: "living out one's relationship to God in the manner of Friends"

Anonymous said...

Dear Timothy:

I'd like to comment on the picture I sometimes see put forth of Quakers as contentious and not living up to their own ideals. I think this is exaggerated on all sides. If one compares the history of Quaker disagreements with the history of Protestant schisms, and the sometimes horrific consequences of such schisms, then the behavior of Quakers, even at their most extreme, is relatively admirable. (Incidentally, Buddhist history is not exempt from these kinds of bitter sectarian displays.) If Quakers have not always lived up to their ideals in an absolute sense, if they have not always behaved perfectly, still from a relative perspective Quakers look pretty good. There have been been examples of estranged Quaker groups reuniting.

In the long run I am optimistic; it may take a century or two (or 3 or 4). But patience is a virtue.

Best wishes,


Nate said...

"As for outside influences, there are many different voices that speak to us and we must learn to discern that which is the guide and those that are trying to distract and mislead us."

Precisely. And my point is that you, and all of us had/have to go through a process to get to a point where we can listen with discrimination. Sometimes that process involves examining all those things we have been taught by those who were our early mentors and learning to say, "I don't think that's right. This makes more sense to me." Some of what makes more sense will come from outside and be recognized and some will come through our own realization of that inner voice "telling it like it is." Eventually, hopefully we will find that it is not the propositions as we have been taught, but that essential willingness to be guided by what we see to be good in all our actions that is important to "right" living. And we grow a garden because it is far more satisfactory than buying groceries at Safeway

Tmothy Travis said...

I don't think we disagree about anything, Nate, although the way I picked up on the use of the metaphor of growing a garden it produces changes in oneself that cannot be purchased at Safeway or anywhere else.

In actuality, that tomato I picked this afternoon satisfied me far more than any I ever got at Safeway.