Saturday, June 05, 2010

Response to a Facebook Friend

You sent me a message on Face Book that was relevant to my last few posts. My attempt to respond there generated a missive  beyond the space limits imposed by that vehicle.   Therefore, I am posting it here.


We are in the "agree to abide and disagree place."  I'll explain where I am coming from about ideo/theological discussions and spiritual authority but please do not consider this an attempt to convince you of anything. 

I do not agree with you that we should continue to discuss the issues that divide us, as Friends.  I do not think, as you suggest, that continuing to do this will lead us to unity. 

Most of the the issues that divided our Society are questions  that  could be discussed for years, even in the best of faith, and the facts at issue would never amount to truth.  The nature of those issues, however, seems to me to rule out such "best of faith" discussion.  At least, the history of talking about such issues has shown the fruit to be bitter  and divisive.  

The saddest part of it is that even if we could "know" the right answers, someday, through hashing it all out, those answers would be no more essential or even material to our salvation than they are as they elude us, today. 

Re-consider the questions Iowa Yearly sent to Friends in San Jose, and the spirit/power at work in the sending.  Consider, too, the outcome of that exercise.

All of those questions were notional (in the sense that they were/are abstract ideas about the origin, nature, character and plan of God--things we can believe about but not know)  and all completely unnecessary to being in that transformational relationship with Christ that has been Quakerism from the beginning.  One must go beyond charity into lack of integrity to deny that the lives of many--very many--who know all kinds of answers to all kinds of such ideo/theological questions show a meager measure of the fruits of the spirit.  Coming back into the realm of integrity, one must mourn the number of such people whose lives testify far more to the works of the flesh.

I don't know what you mean by "summaries of the Bible's message" about the doctrine of atonement, but I do agree--with great sadness for the irony of it--that something so unimportant as what atonement "means" was pivotal in the rift between Hicks and the Orthodox--getting it "right"--it being something no one can really know--was more important than the unity of f/Friends and families.  All the deep wounds inflicted on each other--the degraded condition of the Society, itself--was "worth it" to make sure that no one who wasn't "sound" was allowed on the "sound" side(s) of the hedge. 

I don't know what you mean, either, by saying that this summary was "given" by the Holy Spirit.   Do you mean that the Spirit took some Friends aside in worship and prayer (as the Christ communicates to me about my behavior toward others that is in need of change) "Such-and-such is the way that atonement works?"  Or do you mean, along with my mother-in-law the Presbyterian, that the office of the Holy Spirit being to help us read and interpret the Bible "correctly"  that many Friends in one part of the Society got it right and many in another part didn't? (And that the Holy Spirit was far more successful among Friends in one geographical part of the country than the other?)  Does this mean that  when we do "get it right" the conclusions we reach are "revelation" on par with God, as it is written, calling out to young Samuel (as we have both experienced such direct callings frequently, in our time)?  Is this reading and reasoning through which we are led by the Holy Spirit "revelation" in the sense that some consider the conclusions they draw about the character of God from meditating on (or in) and oak tree to be revelations from God?

Sadly, I once said to my mother in law, in jest (and I got firmly "held in the Light" for doing so), the Holy Spirit is not able to get us in the place where we can all read the Bible "correctly," and the only thing that is working for re-unification of divided Protestants is that the doctrines over which they were willing to cause suffering for one another are less important to people than once they were.   My own mother, I am sure you have seen me write, moved us from a Congregational to a Presbyterian church in my youth because she didn't like the new pastor and didn't want to build a new church.   Imagine what it would have been for a member of  a Congregational church to slip into the Presbyterian church back in the day over such issues.

Do we really suppose that God told the Presbyterians that "top down and back up" is the gospel order that is correct and that the Congregationalists just didn't get the memo?  Or vice versa?   Or do we suppose that the founders of both movements figured out what they thought was best, and (quite sincerely) believed that in all this figuring was revelation from God?  Or do we suppose God told each group something different for some reason?

God has never spoken to me about doctrine, although I used to spend a lot of time thinking about it and trying to figure it out.   God has never let me know in any way that any doctrine is "correct" or "incorrect."  (The only thing I know about doctrine from my personal experience with God that is that, if leads me wrong, that's no defense.)   God only deals with me about my behavior and how I should treat others.   God has never revealed to me anything about God's origin, nature, character or plans.   I may speculate about such things (and I have, at great cost to me and those around me), based on what the Light shows me I must do, how I am led to live (on the pain of having no peace, whatsoever), but anything I "believe" about atonement or the trinity is my speculation--my notion--not "revelation."   

Just because the consistent message I get from God is to treat people with love and charity doesn't even justify the conclusion on my part that God is loving and charitable.   That's just speculation--"common sense"--stands to reason.,,Helpful?  No.  Harmless?   Hardly.   As soon as I say God is a loving God someone brings up childhood cancer and then off I go into the high weeds of notions to try to square that with a loving God.  Yeah, I know, "mysterious ways" and something about not being around when the alligators were made.  Really, though, why do we do that?  Does "believing" God to be a loving God--or not--make any difference in how I live?  Isn't what matters that I live as I am guided to live?

I hear people say that theology improves people I have to shake my head and wonder upon what they base that.  Theology has supported every great crime of history, and has led many to...well, bad ends.  

And as you may have read in my blog, it's not true that the Bible is the more "stable" guide.   One can go as far off the rails with Biblical support as one can with the Light--if one is deluded or guileful in the way one uses either.   One can lie using either as authority.  Only the outcome will reveal the falsehood (intentional or delusional).

As, it is written, it was revealed of those who cried "Lord, Lord," only to discover they never knew him.

Notwithstanding "the Bible's summary" of atonement (and truly, I don't know what that is) there are many atonement doctrines, and they are all notions.   They are unprovable intellectual constructs, abstractions, "rational" conclusions that people have come to in attempts to account for what it says about atonement (or seems to say) in the Bible.

The summary of which you speak as "the Bible's" may have been "given" by the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit may have taken someone aside at some point and explained how it works and told him or her to pass it along to the rest of us.   If that happened the message was garbled in the retelling and it still amounts to "hearsay" and "second hand" religion as far as I am concerned and--thank goodness--whether I believe it or not (or heard the right version or not, or having heard more than one chose the right one) is not important to the project upon which all of Christ's work with me is centered--my spiritual and moral maturity.

 None of the many "takes" on atonement has ever "prevailed" over the others (although religious establishments have certainly enforced conformity of belief to the limits of their power to do so) because. like all such ideas, they naturally give rise to counter ideas.  Unlike the scientific process, where there is a means of establishing which of two or more ideas accounts for the data and which does not, arguments over such things as atonement are attempts only to determine which point of view best accounts for the limited  "data" that's in the Bible--and that data is of a nature and an amount will never be settled.

Religious "doctrine" is a collection of theories within a limited and closed universe of data, at least in rational, enlightenment (as opposed to Light based) religion.

Yes, one can hold both rational and spiritual--but the rational theology has, thus far, managed to subsume the living Word and relegate it to the back benches.   After all, if the leading of the Spirit takes you somewhere that the orthodox reading of the Bible won't then you can't go there--because the Spirit will never contradict scripture.

We hold all our doctrinal notions dear because, after all, we rely on our ideas about things we can never know, for sure, to fix our place in the universe, and we even reason from those notions for guidance about how to live our lives.  To defend these speculations and abstract constructs when they are challenged,  we can only speak more and more loudly in our attempts to "prove" them, go to further extremes in our attempts to prevail...and we go so far that we work ourselves into conditions in which it is impossible to say that we abiding with one another in entreaty.  We are undeniably, rather, pushing one another around through contention.

And for what?  

Do any Friends "believe" that one cannot work out one's salvation through the presence of the Light/Christ in our lives, through grace, if one does not believe in one or the other of these notions about what the death of Jesus "meant?"

I also agree that you have a point when you say that Hicks did not take "the Bible's word" for things that were not otherwise revealed to him.  Two points about that:

First, much of what people say "the Bible says" actually comes down to doctrines that, as I say above, are actually ideo/theological constructs they have created from what is in the Bible.   Rejecting those constructs is not rejecting what the Bible says, in such cases.   It is, rather, rejecting what the some people say the Bible says.   Atonement is an example, as I explained.  

(Who can help but be simultaneously sad and amused at Barclay's denunciation of human reason as a governor as he merrily uses human reason--from the Biblical data base--to establish his propositions in the Apology.  You may recall an analysis I posted to a newsgroup a few years ago about his doctrine of the day of visitation in which I showed that the verses he cited as authority for that notion did not, in fact, logically prove his case.  Reason failed him as if fails us all--for a lot of reasons.   For many purposes reason is a wonderful guide.   For moral guidance or trying to figure out the nature, character and purposes of God...not so much.)

Second, I don't think that the one quote you provided from Fox re the Spirit not contradicting scripture "settles the argument."  For one thing, it does not account for the way that Fox sometimes used the word "scripture" as being something we could "have," by the grace of the Light, rather than something we could hold in our hands and read.   Also, you know, as do I,  that there are times when he says things that don't equate the two, as the quote you provided does, and you are also aware, as am I, of the editing that went on during the beginning of the period of Quaker appeasement of (the "Great Walking Back" as I have called it) and coming to a modus vivendi with the Protestant/Anglican establishment.

 Fox, of  course, participated willing in this effort, consenting that his earlier writings (dangerous stuff!) be edited and "toned down." Barclay's position that the Light would never, legitimately, contradict scripture was one of the first steps in this Great Walking Back, and it amounted to a conflation of one of Fox's earlier statements.    Fox said and wrote that many things were opened to him during his "re-education" in the Light and that afterward he found those things in scripture and although he had seen them before he had not understood them, as he did, afterward. 

I don't think that saying that he found everything learned in the Light validated by scripture means that the Light will, in turn, validate everything that is in scripture--although that is where the idea was taken.   My experience is that many things I have learned from this constant "hectoring" I experience in the Light are found in scripture.   But there are a whole lot of things in scripture that are not confirmed by my experience in the Light.   If I treated people (I should say, when I have treated people) in some of the ways scripture exhorts the reader to treat them I would be constantly in the Holy wood shed.

I don't really think that the Bible is clear on things and I don't think it is perfect, written by human hands guided into infallibility by God or the Holy Spirit or one or another angel standing there to make sure there were no errors.  

My experience matches that expressed in some Friends literature that one can be saved, in the Light, by obedience to Christ, without ever seeing a Bible, let alone without "believing" whatever meanings someone can parse out of it.  One need even know who or what it is that is guiding them.  The point is to obey and be changed.

(see Sum and Substance quote, above, in the masthead of this blog)

You know, already, that it is my view that once Friends realized that they were living in the "mean time," rather than the "end time," they began to accommodate themselves to the world as dominated by "orthodox" Christianity.   Seeing that the world was not passing away in the sense they thought it would they had to come to terms with it. 

It's been a long pull into conformity with the rational, enlightenment form of Protestantism that prevailed and prevails--and it was (and remains) complicated among us by the fact that we do, to some degree, still look to the Light for guidance.   It confuses us at times, looking to these two masters, and the rational authority doesn't always prevail over the Spirit.  The Light will never be completely "comprehended" even among those who, unlike us, may not have a spiritual tradition whose experience has shown that.

It is true, of course, that many in the Quaker movement came by their Protestantism honestly in the sense that it was where they came from and what they brought with them.   Much as those gathered to Iowa Yearly and drove out the Beans (and many others) brought in their concept of what religion looked like--the Protestantism that (even if they were not raised in it) they grew up with--so many "first Friends" brought their notion how religion worked into "Quakerism" when they came, notwithstanding Barclay's earlier (than the Apology)  statement that it was not a theology that gathered Quakers together but an experience of transformation. 

Gradually, in my view, that "built in" Protestantism (epitomized, perhaps by George Keith) and the exterior pressure to conform to Protestant norms--both official and unofficial) took Quakers--us--far too far into "rational religion," and, as I said, although it seems to me far too dominant, it has not totally eclipsed the Light.

I'll stop there, I've written about this in my blog over the past few days.

I do not intend or hope to persuade you that I am correct in all of this.   I am just explaining where I am coming from in saying that the ideo/theological notions that separate us are not essential to Quakerism--that what is essential is the experience of transformation and that the validity of that experience is not "proved" by doctrinal soundness but by changes done in us, manifest by our moral and ethical behavior--summed up in the Fruit of the Spirit and the Quaker testimonies.  Not only are these notions/doctrines not essential to this process of transformation, the issues they interpose among us are destructive of that process in and among us.

No, you know I don't think the Bible is useless.  I read from it every day and it is of great value.   But a very common way the Bible is used, in this age of rational religion, is as a  "data" base from which one can draw to justify just about anything one wants to.   It's a lot like that pouch David carried, it is written, into battle with Goliath.   As he could reach in for the right stone to kill an enemy so the Bible can be used as a magazine where, among those who believe "it's all in there"-- the right "proof" can be found to win an argument. 

That orthodox rational/notional, Protestant establishment that could take the property and even the lives of those who would not bend to its will no longer has the power to bind us in the chains of its theologies and doctrines and orthodoxies.  The door is open, and we are free to walk out of the prison of our ideo/theologies and into the liberty of being guided to the green pastures, the still waters.   We can trust living by grace, by the guidance we receive from Christ, what, it is written, is written in our hearts, rather than that we can divine in our own spirit and our own strength and our own understanding from second hand, hearsay religion.  The proof of our guidance is not in our orthodoxy--it is in our outcomes.  (See Matthew 5-7, et seq, not for authority but for illustration.)

If it is outcomes that count (the way we live), outcomes that we demand from ourselves, then we can all be together, working out our salvation in support of one another.   If we continue to talk to one another about our own takes on orthodoxy and make agreement there the bar we must clear for fellowship, then, well, we can see the future by what is, today, in our hands.

In Love



Anonymous said...

Timothy, I responded to your previous post, but perhaps you didn't notice. It was a short response. I am new to reading blogs and I haven't met you, but I belong to a liberal Friends meeting in Virginia.

I hear two things in these blog posts you've been writing. One is an inspiring prophetic voice. You're saying the same thing that Moses, Jesus, Fox and many other prophets have said. "Drop your self-righteousness and tedious hair-splitting. Live the way I ask you to live." I'm grateful for this message.

The other thing you seem to be saying is that no one in the RSOF in the past or present has really done this, and the evidence of that is that we are divided, not terribly influential, etc. But I see abundant evidence in history that many Friends have lived faithful lives. And many non-Quakers have lived faithful lives, too. What Maimonides said would tend to support both your prophetic message and my universalist one:

“To understand the thoughts of the Creator of the world is not possible to man, because our ways are not His ways and our thoughts are not His thoughts (Is 55,8); nevertheless, all the words of Jesus of Nazareth and of the son of Ishmael [Mohammed] who came after him are aimed at paving the way to the King-Messiah and at preparing the whole world to serve God together, as it is written: ‘because I shall then transform the language of the peoples into a pure language, so that all shall invoke the Name of the Lord shall serve him in a sole unit [all together, in harmony]’ (Sof. 3,9)”. This quote comes from here:

I think if Maimonides could accept the two religions that persecuted and oppressed the Jews so viciously as nevertheless having resulted from God's benevolence, I can accept that all the divisions within Christianity also came about in order to bring people to God who otherwise would not have come. And similarly I believe that people who practice Eastern religions and earth-based religions and seek the Tao or Nirvana or universal compassion are also seeking God under another name. You never know where the mustard seed will grow.

Tmothy Travis said...

Hi, Rosemary

I apologize for not responding to your earlier comment...

You have me right--except that I do not say that no one has been faithful to the prophetic voice that you so effectively summarize as saying "stop splitting hairs and live as I tell you to live."

I do think that the splitting of hairs, the actual existence of which we cannot know, predominates among us (and all other human beings).

But I do believe that there have been and are now Friends (and people outside of the Society, people in all spiritual traditions and even in no spiritual tradition, at all) who have lived and are now living faithfully to the direct teaching of Christ (even if they know the teacher by some other name or no name, at all) and that all of us do, to some extent.

But not nearly enough--and ideo/theological "discussion" doesn't help move us in the right direction.

I entreat us all to enlarge the scope of our obedience to the direct influence of the Spirit, and diminish that of rationalizing, notional religion we have been taught, that religion that is in the service of "the world," the "powers" and empire.

My lament is that the mixture of rational notional theology into which the Society has been drawn for hundreds of years and the direct guidance that is the source of our moral and ethical authority causes us confusion when its two components send us in different directions. So many of us say that the ideo/theological orthodoxy ("the Bible"} "bats last" (so to speak).

Our rationalizing mind comes up with so many convincing reasons (some of which are so useful we make them into "doctrines") why, even though we know that what we choose to do is not that which we know is right, it is lamentable that it would be "crazy" to do anything other than what appears to us to be "practical" and consistent with "common sense" and with the "realities on the ground."

Our history as a Society shows how the rationalizing mind, when faced with our shortcomings as revealed by the Light, has a remarkable ability to justify those shortcomings, "given the situation" (most often meaning "what they did to me, first).

When we need to say "There is no excuse for what I have done and I need to do differently in the future" our notional religion comes up with things like the "just war doctrine" or the "reassurance" of "original sin: it's OK to do unrighteous things because we are powerless, on this side of the grave, to be in any condition other than that wretched condition in which we were born.

The notional issues that have divided Friends (indeed all humans) from one another are not only unresolvable they are unimportant and unnecessary to the working out of our salvation.

So, please know that I do not think that no one has actually lived in the Spirit. We all do to one degree or another and there are giants of this type today as there have been throughout (and since before the founding of) the Quaker movement.

My hope is that more and more each day, when faced with conviction in the Light, I can turn away from the rationalizations of my mind and it's "rational" religion and just do as I am told.

Difficult it is because it takes me counter to the grain and the flow of our culture (into the service of which our rationalizing religion is pressed) and of this precious "self" I have developed (or have been sold at a precious price).

But I do know that many have gone against that grain, that flow, in the past and many do now. My hope is to be among those who are becoming ever more able to overcome the rationalizations that "justify" me in my own eyes so that I can submit, even when I cannot see how things could possibly work out if I do, to the clear guidance I am given.

Thanks, again, for your comment.

Jeremy Mott said...

A comment from Roanoke, Virginia,
in America. Pastor Samuel, I
don't know how you got on this
blog site, but I'm glad you did.
Now I can do better at informing American Quakers about Quakers in
eastern Congo. I know that your situation was very hard a few years ago; I hope it is better
for you now. Jeremy Mott