Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Teach Your Children Well

Riffing off a post on another blog, again!

Chuck Fager (always a source of inspiration) got me wound up over what we tell our young people about the faith and practice of Friends.

(That's OK, I am trying to get around to a blog post that I know will wind him up.)

This was a hot topic around this old house last year when RR went to Guilford, enrolled in The Quaker Leadership Scholars Program and found herself face to face with all of which Chuck wrote, and more. That meant, of course I came face to face with it, too., because she was able to say that she was a Beanite Friend (she'd heard me and others in our yearly meeting call ourselves that) but she was kind of short on what could be said about that. I never tried to "teach" her much about it, before, because she didn't really want to know, before. And I couldn't have "taught" her, anyway. As Fox said, one can only lead others to Christ and leave them there--to be "taught" by the source.

Christ has come, George Fox said, to teach his people, himself. Christ did not leave a representative (or representatives) on earth to do that. Christ did not leave a book on earth to do that: everyone would be taught by the source--even if led to it by secondary authorities.

It's hard to run empires that way, of course, but Jesus wasn't about running empires. Some years later others would see the value--and they continue to see the value--in using a movement based, at least originally, on following Jesus as a pillar of supporting and running empires.

Quakers, originally, wanted to go back to that pre-Constantinian religion.

The core of the faith and practice of Friends--even since before they were called that--has always been the experience of transformation we undergo through our obedience to Christ/(The) (Holy) S/pirit, the transcendent reality, Goddess, the Great Kahuna or whatever. We are transformed--conformed--to a certain predictable condition.

The core didn't used to be so much, as it is in many Quaker corners, now, about where this transformation came from, why it happened or what it was about in the long run. Unknowable such things are and thus these are the source of great contention if emphasized.

The Light shows us what needs to change and we change--or we don't.

We all attach meanings about where that transformation comes from, how it happens and what it means for us and the world in the long run--but those are our own insignificant meanings and, it should come as no surprise, others have different meanings they have attached to this process. What with the fact that no one really knows (or can know) what it means, contention springing from such disagreements can interfere with the process, itself.

Much better to leave all with their own notions about that and live with them in the transformation--supporting and encouraging (edifying) one another as we live out our spirituality (our relationship with the divine).

That Light is available to every person, everywhere.

Don't look for it too high up or too far away. It's right here, right now: always.

Theology (unprovable notions about the source, nature and purpose of God--useful notions for getting tithes and taxes paid) is not an essential part of the faith and practice of most Friends in the my liberal neck of the woods, as it was of secondary importance originally (which is why George Keith became an Episcopalian). Such notions moved to the center of the Quaker mind later and, as the result we have been left with a torn up and divided fellowship in which to worship.

Even the demons knew who Jesus was, and believed he was just that (so it is written) and yet their sincere belief in those propositions about him could not save them.

Have our (myriad) cherished notions about creedal theology "saved" our Society? That's what worrying about "belief" gets you. Beliefs don't lead to change: obedience does.

Quakers became so concerned and so certain about who Jesus was (where he came from and what he was up to) in the 19th Century that they divided and diminished the Society disagreeing over the possibilities. Friend Hamm's book, "The Transformation of American Quakerism," explains it succinctly--from peculiar to pretty much identical to evangelical protestantism in about 100 years.

Whatever place there may have been for Quakers in the religious world, then, almost all decided to go somewhere else.

"Christian First, Quaker Second"--a sign of those (and our) times.

I believe all kinds of notional things but I try to keep my hand on the plow. I don't make decisions based on my notions. My morality is guided by God, not by my notions--or anyone else's notions-- about God.

So I let people believe whatever they want and support them in keeping their hand on the plow, too.

No one knows what being "saved" is, or whether "atonement" is any one of the many things we parse it to be in our imaginings, in our speculations. Lake of fire? Maybe, I dunno. And neither does anyone else.

All we can really know is our experience of The Light and the transformation it brings about in our lives.

None of us knows whether it's really going to be pre or post or any other kind of millenium and even if we did know/believe it wouldn't do us any good. All that will do us any good--in either or none of those cases--is that which we are becoming, not which we believe(d).

All we can really know is what we used to be and what we are being transformed into. All we can really know is Christ--by whatever name we know him/her/it.

The Sermon on the Mount is not about what I should believe--it's about what I should do or not do with my life.

Our protestant brothers and sisters have made one or another of the Bible(s) handed down to us by this or that editorial committee the ultimate source of truth for themselves and have placed a very high premium on conforming to "right belief" as they define it.

Our Catholic friends put such authority in a person who is the contemporary holder of place in a long line of a different kind of political succession/process and have placed a very high premium on "right action" as the current human being in control of that succession/process defines it.

Friends used to get in a lot of trouble for eschewing both of those points of view (along with the thrones and aspiring thrones they are so apt to support)--orienting themselves, instead, to the source of whatever artifacts of inspiration may be passed along by either of those "authorities," in such condition as they are passed along, with the spin of today put on the spin that was put on those same artifacts yesterday.

Now people wonder whether there wasn't just some kind of big misunderstanding 350 some years ago that got Mary Dyer hanged--because Quakers today are not so different from protestants and even Catholics, anymore. The peace testimony is optional in some domains of the Society, I hear. Even "Quakerism" can apparently support empire (powers, thrones...).

Go with what you know (and not with hearsay religion no matter how "sincerely" or "certainly" someone else knows it). That is, I believe, the essence of the faith and practice of Friends (you can look that up--it's back there with wearing it for as long as you can). So I'll go with my experience in The Light and the transformation toward the fruits of the spirit (which the testimonies paraphrase) that it has brought about in me. It's not been easy, or gentle, or comfortable at times but I hurt myself and others a whole lot less, now, than I did when I was sure about what the Bible said God was and what He (and it was a He) wanted.

Is it still enough for people to follow Christ even if they have never heard that word, or are not so concerned about the historical accuracy of this or that account of the recurring truths of human existence that are described in the Bible?

Is there still a place for this kind of faith and practice in the world, today?

Is there a place for this focusing on improving one's moral condition as part of a similarly inclined corporate body under the direct guidance of an empirically benevolent transcendent guide (albeit not one we can say a lot about except to express our wonder and gratitude) who has been changing people (who let themselves be changed) in the very same way for (probably) ever?

There is room for this kind of religion.

There has to be room for this kind of religion in a world dominated by religion that too often comes out of the the pit of human fear, out of our insecurity at being in fellowship with those against whom we cannot prevail in arguments about things none of us can ever know. There has to be room for this instead of "believing" in "religions" that we must lay down so we can fall back on our true faith in redemptive violence and in the necessity to coerce others into giving us what we imagine will meet our needs.

That's more or less what I told my 18 year old daughter a year or so, ago. It's what I could say.

I can see, once in while, that it's still rolling around inside her head and that, along with other things, appears to be leading her to Christ. I don't have much else, at least on this subject, to say to her.


Gil S said...

I haven't been doing much blog reading over the holiday and am just catching up. This is not an apology but an explanation of why I have taken so long to say - you speak my mind Friend!

Thank you so much for putting into words from your perspective what I feel as a 'liberal' 'Britain YM' Friend - not that those labels get me very far over here either!

Paul L said...

Well done, Friend.

Micah Bales said...

Hi Friend,

I appreciate your emphasis on not taking anything for granted and trusting Christ in your immediate, personal experience of Him. Christianity as a whole would benefit from a greater emphasis on the inward reality of Christ, above and beyond any human statement about Him.

I am a little concerned, however, about your use of the words "notion" and "theology." You seem to be using both terms to mean roughly the same thing; and I understand the meaning which you assign to these words to be, as you put it, "unprovable [opinions] about the source, nature and purpose of God..."

I do not believe that this is the traditional Friends understanding of the word "notion." The early Friends had quite a developed theological system, full of beliefs that they defended against the beliefs of other Christians (Barclay's Apology is an enduring example of this). The difference was this: Friends based their theology on their own experience of Christ's inward light. All of Friends theology was based on the inwardly experienced power of God that Friends had been transformed by. Friends could make a case for their beliefs by demonstrating the fruits of Christ's power in their changed lives.

The early Friends understood the word "notion" to be a theological idea that was not grounded in the transformative experience of Christ's inward light. Often, a notion was described as something that had no basis in Scripture. For example, while early Friends all professed belief in God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, many did not claim belief in the Trinity, as such, because that word does not appear in the Scriptures.

In short, a "notion," in the early Friends' sense of the word, was an invention of the human mind, not based in the living power of God. This is a far narrower definition than the one that I see put forth in this post. Right or wrong, the early Friends believed that some ideas about God were in fact correct, and other ideas were mistaken.

Thank you for sharing about your own journey in discovering the transformative power of Christ in your life. This gives encouragement to many who are seeking after Truth and do not know where to find it. I believe that you and I can unite in our experience that no human teacher can ultimately reveal the Truth to us, and it is only the inward light of Christ that can bring us into wholeness.

Your friend in Truth,

Micah Bales

Anonymous said...

You have a way of affirming and articulating a view that means a lot to me. I always find myself refreshed after coming here.



Tmothy Travis said...

Thank you, Friend Micah, for your thoughtful comment.

I am in complete unity with your last sentence and affirm the validity of your description of how the term "notions" has been used in Friends' literature. It did mean, to early Friends, generally, something of human invention and it also meant something that lacked scriptural basis.

I do not affirm that second use, however, in that much in scripture is of human invention. Wherever I find human invention in matters spiritual I am wary. Useful it can sometimes be, deadly it can sometimes be.

Barclay set that up for us in saying that Christ was the ultimate authority for us but that Christ would never reveal anything contrary to scripture--which means that scripture controlled Christ. The faith and practice of Friends, then, was transitioned out of "primitive Christianity regained" into the Protestant spiritual framework.

That's how we get, today, after all those years (actually for a hundred years or so, now) to the place where the young people Friend Fager describes (my daughter among them) get confronted with all this notional stuff from those Friends who are pre-occupied with investigating whether other Friends "believe" that "Christ died for your sins" (whatever that means) so they can know whether to embrace or reject fellowship with them based on the answer they hear.

One cannot blame Barclay, necessarily. He and Penn and others were faced with the passing of "end times" to "mean time" and finding accommodation with the wider world in which Friends would have to live (you can't spend your whole life going to the dungeon and breaking up church services).

But I think it's helpful for us to acknowledge what took place, and where the Protestant reformation of the Society of Friends has taken so many of us.

Maybe we can live in this "mean time" without buying into a bunch of notions that have not served us well in being taken so seriously.

"Christian first, Quaker second."

If proof texting from the Bible takes me somewhere that I have been repeatedly been told not to go in relating to my fellow human beings then I'm going Quaker first, and Christian theology second.

So we are also in unity, Friend Micah, when you say that so many of us could benefit from more fellowship with the Spirit as the basis for working out our salvation, for living out our spirituality.

Thanks, again.

Chuck Fager said...

Well, keep winding, Dude.