Monday, July 12, 2010

Responding to a Comment

A Friend posted a comment to my last blog post and, in responding to it, (here’s a shock) I wrote much more than fits into the comment box.  I am putting it up as a new post.  For context see the comment.

Dear Friend

Thanks for taking the time to leave your comment.  I need all the help I can get looking at all sides of this thing going on with me.

First, let me say again that the primary thing to me is moral outcomes--being transformed so as to re-produce in me the characteristics that have been identified with Quakers (and some others) for centuries.  These are the result of actions I take, not things I believe or think.   I need guidance about what to do, not about what to think.   Christ gives me plenty of the former, directly, but not about the latter.  "Faith" and "belief," to me, mean having the confidence to do what I am told, as hard or frightening as that might be.  It doesn't mean accepting unknowable intellectual propositions about the nature, character and plans of God.

Second, let me say again that I don’t claim that people who find theology an edifying spiritual discipline, something that improves their condition and contributes to their conversion of manners, are deficient in anything.  I know what being considered “deficient” feels like.  I have heard it said about me plenty of times by people who cite chapter and verse about such things as war, sexual orientation, the state and the place of my daughters in the church (and in the world). Ouch.

You have struck the nail’s head true:  my view of spiritual authority is anti-intellectual, which is just another way of saying that it is not based on reason.  To say it is not based on reason, however, is not to say it’s not empirical (because it is).  It is also not another way to say that this experience and its outcomes are not predictably reproduce-able (because it has been in both method and consistent outcomes, within the Society and outside it, for centuries).  It is also not to say it’s irrational.  It’s non-rational. I am sure you understand the distinction.

It is true that the “rational” Protestant establishment—which has gained far more than a toe-hold in the Society of Friends since the “great walking back” that saved the second generation of Quakers from being persecuted out of existence--has certainly used that term as an effective epithet to refute—to the satisfaction, at least, of children of the Enlightenment—any spirituality that doesn’t fit in with the notions that form the ideological base of its orthodoxy.  This orthodoxy is the set of speculations about the character, nature and plans of God from which it reasons its theologies.  At its least common, but most “pure,” such rationalistic religion is what people today—mistakenly—are most apt to call “fundamentalist,” where scripture is a closed data base and only arguments that come from and are consistent with it are “valid.” 

I can say that the intellect, reasoning, has proven at best, for me, to be beside the point in matters spiritual.  At worst it has been a hindrance to me in re-producing the kinds of outcomes that make my life better for both me and for those who have to live with and around me.  It has also proven the quickest way for me to get on the wrong side of Christ in  regard to basic morality and ethics. 

You are correct that reading Barclay is “experience” and  I have a hard time, from my life’s outcomes, with the idea that an intellectual or an emotional experience—such as reading a book or hearing music—is a spiritual experience.  First, because one is engaged with a work of art (or letters) and not with Christ (however one conceives of the Transcendent Reality that moves in our lives).  In the second place, and most telling, these are intellectual experiences, or emotional experiences, that have not proven, for me, capable of creating the lasting transformation of my character, the set of outcomes we call Quaker testimonies (old or new).

As I have often said, if the transformation that is at the root of the Quaker experience were reproduced in me as the fruit of intellectual or emotional experiences that’s what I would be doing.  It hasn’t, for me.  I have written at length about how that has worked in my life. 

For example, I can’t figure how I could possibly say that “God is love,” with intellectual integrity.  It’s beyond my knowing.  There are things I can know and those I can’t know.  I can very clearly know that God is forever on my case to be loving toward other people.  If I don’t do that, in some actual situation in my life, I hear about it and hear about it until I shape up. 

But to get from “God tells me to be loving” to “God is love” is a leap.  If I wrote that on a paper in a class on logic I’d get a big red check mark.  My Dad used to tell me to be all kinds of ways that he wasn’t, and I recognize a little of the Elmer Gantry in a lot of people who go on and on about love in regard to things spiritual.  If telling me to be loving makes one "love" or even "loving" then why aren’t my Dad and Elmer Gantry “love?”  These are the kinds of problems I see the intellect giving me in such matters of theology.

Leaping to belief that “God is love,” and proclaiming that to the world—which is completely unnecessary to get done what I am told to do—creates problems because almost always someone says something like “what about childhood cancer?”  Consider the mental gymnastics I have to go through to square a loving God with that.  No one has ever come up with a satisfactory answer for the question of how an omnipotent and loving God can allow evil to exist in the world—and they never will. 

How many people remain "turned off" to Christ because they cannot buy the speculative notions about the nature, character and plans of God that are totally beside the point in living in, as it is written, the Kingdom? People need not "believe in" atonement, the trinity or a lake of fire to have Christ transform them such that their lives reproduce the fruits of the spirit.  That not only squares with our observations about people through history but it also lived in Quaker "theology" at least through Penn's writings.

I don’t know if God is omnipotent or loving—none of us does, notwithstanding the fierce belief among us that “He” is—because I can’t know those things.  Those are notions—speculations.  Those things don’t square with the evidence at hand--although that does not disprove them.  It is a good thing I don’t need them to know what I am supposed to do and to get those things done—and in that process becoming the kind of person doing them is turning me into, in that process have the outcomes associated with Quakerism reproduced in me.

What matters is that I am loving.  I know that because I've been told by Christ who keeps the heat on me if I get out of line on that score.   I don’t “know” it in the sense that I figured it out or it “made sense” to me.  I have relied, in my life, on a lot of things that “made sense” or that I figured out but that, it turned out, were not true.  Bad berries for me and, too often, for other people. 

I trust my capability to reason for a lot of purposes.  I am not anti-intellectual, in general.  The first thing I do when facing a novel problem is to find a book (or, anymore, something Google finds for me) for guidance.

Back to Barclay, I would never say that reading The Apology was of no use or value to me.  I read from it frequently, although not as frequently as I do from the Bible.  It’s about discernment, though, and that doesn’t mean, to me, “thinking things through” (except, perhaps for comparing things to my own outcomes).

My experience, for example, with Christ made me wonder what Barclay meant when he talked about “the day of visitation.”  It is a time limited offer for salvation, as he explained it.  That did not fit with my experience of Christ who, over a lot of years put up with a lot of being ignored by me and never went away, was always trying to get my attention and develop my condition—even when I loudly trumpeted that I was an “atheist.” 

At one time I wrote down all the scripture that Barclay quoted to “prove” that the day of visitation was not an open-ended offer of salvation and, after studying them I concluded that they did not actually “prove” his point, not in the sense that I once was required to decide if some lawyer proved that his client was entitled to prevail in a legal case.  That is, all the verses Barclay strung together did not add up to his notion of the day of visitation, logically.  I shared that with Friends, by the way, and none thought Barclay “carried the day,” either, when they read his “proof,” rather than accepting it on the basis of his reputation.

Does that mean he was wrong?  I don’t really know because I can’t know that, one way or the other (and neither could he—or you—or anyone).  But I do know that, intellectually, rationally, Friend Barclay did not, as he set out to do and as he claimed he had done, prove that one should take up the offer of salvation now because it would be too late, later.

Maybe Christ told Barclay that it was time-limited but Christ never tells me stuff like that.  If Christ told that to Barclay that's fine with me.  I'm thinking, however, that he parsed it out of scripture as a means to bolster Quaker evangelism.  Doesn't matter, though.  

To be fair, Barclay finishes his argument much as the public health people do, today, about the dangers of smoking.  As it is possible that the effects of smoking won’t catch up to you before you die, it is also possible, Barclay says, that your “day” of visitation may last until you die.  To also be fair, however, that does not “save” Barclay’s argument rationally, intellectually.  It only saves mine; whether there is a day of visitation is a question we can never really answer, for sure.  Either way we answer it is speculative:  it’s a notion and it’s not important.  Reproducing the Quaker transformation in our lives is what is important.

Thank you for providing me the occasion to, first, restate that I am not advocating that all throw theology over the side like so much ballast in a storm.  If it is a spiritual discipline that contributes to reproducing the set of outcomes called "Quakerism" it’s fine with me.  

If people, however, are “into” theology but are arrogant, prideful, argumentative people seeking to dominate others with an orthodoxy and divides their meeting, creating factions and strife, then they might consider whether intellectual theology is doing their condition—or the condition of the Society--any good.  I have been there, myself, and found it very uncomfortable.  I see it in the history of the Society and I mourn its outcomes, here.  Righteousness, not "right thinking," makes a person a Quaker--a Christian--saved from being bonded to the world.

Thanks, again.

Off to Annual Session!


Jim714 said...

Good Friend Tim:

It is always a pleasure to read your posts; even when I don't see eye to eye (perhaps especially when) I find I can learn something that adds depth to my Quaker commitment. I doubt that we will come to agreement on the central point here; and I am comfortable with that. I can only say that my own experience has differed, that I have found theology to be uplifting, clarifying, and helpful. It is not a matter, for me, of agreeing or disagreeing with a particular proposition. Rather it is a matter of deepening my engagement with the Lord, and I find scripture and commentary the means with which I can do that. I think of these written sources as good friends (Friends?) and like good friends we sometimes agree and sometimes diverge in our views. Yet the friendship transcends any specific discussion or conclusion.

Thanks again,


Tmothy Travis said...

And thank you, Jim.

There is nothing you wrote in this comment in which I am not in unity.

Daniel R. Murphy said...


I enjoy your posts - only problem is that there are not enough of them!

I have to agree that reason or rational thinking may be beside the point in spiritual matters. For me that makes things difficult since I am by nature a rational thinker, or would like to think I am.

Keep thinking and musing.

Wishing you well,