Sunday, July 03, 2011

Protestant First, Quaker Second (a simple desultory screed re "heresy")

A Quaker blogger wrote a piece about whether a current theology of Christian universalism is heresy or not.

Moving in fear of spreading division and strife (as if I had the capacity to do that), I want to clarify that for some Friends the Protestant orthodoxy that is implicitly the reference point in this piece for what  "Christianity" is, does not cover the waterfront. This Protestant orthodoxy seems, to some of us, like a heresy, itself.

As the few who give notice or pay attention to this blog know, Christianity is not, for some, a set of rationalistic, propositional beliefs about the nature, character and plans of God.  Christianity is, rather, about finding Christ in one's every day experience, developing a quotidian spiritual practice that sharpens and tests such imminent discernment, and acting in the present on the discerned leadings.

Christ is the only authority.  And that means Christ, the living presence, and not Christ, a set of ideas (approved or not) from which people try to reason what Christ wants done.   The problem with Protestantism is that it denies the word of God and substitutes words about God as the supreme authority.  Hence the chaos in Christianity--human minds working with human ideas to figure out what God wants us to do.  Individuals with the bounded rationality inherent in the human condition, using one version of the Bible or another as a more or less closed data base, parsing its words to "work out their salvation."  (the verb is "work" not "think")  Protestantism, like any religion based on  manipulation of propositional beliefs, is as much a faith in human rationality--and as little a faith in an actual God in any sense of the word--as is the atheism of a Dawkins or Hitchens;  Doctor Tweedle-dee Dawkins, meet Doctor Tweedle-dum Dobson.

No one knows whether or not all will eventually be saved (or even what "saved" means) except in their own reasonings, hopes and imaginations.  And, except in such places, no one ever can.  One can believe but one cannot know.  Notions, notions, notions.  A blunt, square blade makes a spade and problems arise in using such a tool as a shovel.

But we do know how we are supposed to be living our lives--a knowledge that anyone  can (and does) come to fairly easily.  We're not very good at living that way, but it's been clearly revealed many times in many places (including our own individual hearts) for a good long time.  It's a part of all spiritual traditions--it's just stuck in the middle of a lot of theology and, as it is written, in for a dime, in for a dollar.  You can't take the word of the living Christ (or even the written one, sometimes) if it's contradicted (in fact or by "reason") by some other part of the theology in which it has become imbedded.  What is revealed in our hearts is denied by our brain--and our cultures have created marvelous thought structures to ensure this denial sticks in favor of "common sense."

That's how we got the "just war" doctrine.  Just one more way to reason/rationalize our way away from clearly defined leadings and openings we all have about killing other people.

So, this is why, by the way, the revelation of early Friends so easily turned away from the teaching of the universal access of all humans to direct guidance from God and the necessity of one to obey that guidance.  Given that they were led out of the bondage of Protestant rationalism by reality of an indwelling Christ it was easy for them to return there while claiming to be carrying that Christ back with them.   Then came the reconciling of their direct experience of God to all that theology (so familiar to them from their upbringing) that they were led so recently to deny.  So, bit by bit, the Judaic books of law and practice and historical "lessons learned" (along with all the theology that has developed to "explain" all that stuff) pushed the living Christ further and further out of Quakerism.  There can apparently be no co-existence between the ideas about God and word from God.  The Bible may reflect some Christian experience, along with a lot other things antithetical to it--but it does not define it and is certainly not the place to learn about it.  All of those doctrines presented and parsed out of the Bible apparently inevitably overwhelm and subsume reliance on discernment and obedience God--perhaps because it's hard to hear that still small voice with all those Bible verses buzzing around in our ears.

That is why the 19th Century was so turbulent, fractious, backbiting, faction ridden (and so Un-Quakerly in so many ways) for Friends.  That was the outcome of Protestantism becoming completely ascendent  over the indwelling Christ, the Christ who was completely drown in the rising tide of what some would call Biblical worship.   It took that kind of discord and even hatred and violence to turn the Quaker movement just another "denomination" of Protestantism, with a few quaint oddities that did not allow it to retain its peculiarity.    And so it was revealed to Bible parsing Friends that Christ was only available to those who were sanctified as described by the Protestant ideology and not, as it appears to say in John something born in the heart of all people entering the world.  Yes, the indwelling Christ was declared .... wait for it ... a heresy by Protestant Quakers. 

The problem is that theologies, Protestantism among them,  consist largely of a mapping out of strategies of escape from living as we know we are supposed to live (and therefore from the difficulties entailed in living that way).  This substitution blunts our urgency to obey God (making it "safe" for us to live in our cultures) and facilitates our living by the book, or, rather, by what we can convince ourselves, or the keepers of our orthodoxy can convince us, the book really says.  Our Christ comes to us with a David chaser, so to speak, and David and Jesus don't mix, no matter what is written to the contrary.  (Jesus may or may not have descended, as it is written, from the house of David --we will never really know--but can you picture him at the dinner table there?)

So that makes me a heretic because what I am saying definitely undermines the Protestantism that so many identify as being Christianity.  

If heresy is that which, in the name of Christ leads people from Christ, that puts me the position to ask what really is the heresy, here?

It's fine with me if one says "I believe that a rationalistic ideology about the nature, character and plans of God is the supreme authority of my life--and should be the supreme authority of everyone's life-- because that rationalistic ideology tells me it is the supreme authority and that stands to reason."  I hope it's just as fine with them if I say I believe something else because, notwithstanding it "standing to their/our bounded reason," the outcomes don't indicate that their ideology leads people to those green pastures and still waters described in its brochures.

And I am convinced that it is those green pastures and still waters--and our transformation into beings fit and able to live there--that is the point of our spirituality.  That is, of course, a belief that got Friends in big trouble way back in the founding generation because they spoke out against Protestantism's teachings that there could be no improvement in human spiritual condition "this side of the grave."  That notion, that denial of the possibility of human transformation in this life, so integral to Protestantism, allows us to shrug at all evil--in ourselves and in the world--and go upon our merry way as people whose first allegiance is to the world and whose hope for kingdom is reserved for the great by and by.

And yet, it is written, the kingdom is and is becoming...who's the heretic, here?

A contemporary prophet wrote, "You can't talk your way out of something you acted your way into.  You have to act your way out."  He might well have written, for the context of discussing the Protestant heresy, that one cannot "think" or "believe" one's way out--one must hear and act (obey) one's way out.


broschultz said...

I think you do a good job of summing up the quandary that those of us who want to be disciples of Jesus Christ find ourselves in. The scripture is pretty clear when it says we will have no need for someone to teach us and it's also pretty clear we are to love one another. Doing it as part of a living organic community rather than an organization is the trick. I don't think it matters what denomination that community is called. We just have to find one that we can grow closer to God in.

forrest said...

Truly, truly, this is how it is!

I have had to wonder about the role of doctrines in human religion: I don't think we develop much understanding of God without them! Without a doctrine or two to kick around, we're left in the position of Adam, who evidently didn't Get It at the time... But as you say, people so readily fall into debating the doctrines as if they weren't about a living Being, quite capable of speaking for Itself...

Cherie said...

I just discovered your blog and enjoyed reading this post. I just returned from the Wild Goose Festival last weekend and one of the speakers talked about how we have turned the Bible into a "paper pope." And we now depend on so-called experts to tell us how their interpretations reveal God and Jesus. I now try to reflect on the character of Jesus and his example for my life rather than the doctrines, etc. of a church. If that is heretical, so be it.

forrest said...

One more thing... about "No need for someone to teach us." Learning takes more than a teacher; a student needs to actively take hold of the subject!

What I found at Pendle Hill, and at Torah study at a synagogue nearby... was that God teaches through people studying together. A "teacher" sharing what he's learned can be helpful, but what made me feel that God was present and teaching were the insights that I and other members of the class were finding.

Pat said...

Penington addresses this problem in "Concerning The Persuasions of Reason and Faith in Matters of Religion." [Works, vol.2,329-331] Here are a few excerpts:

"Now the lowest persuasion of faith is higher, and of a more noble nature, than the highest persuasion of reason; because faith is of a higher principle, and of a deeper nature and ground, than man's reason is. ...(the wisdom of man)is [it]suffered to lift up itself in its conceitedness against...the pure wisdom of God ...that it might fall, and be broken...and its day deservedly come to an end...But what ear of man can hear this! surely none that is whole in the line of man's wisdom, reason, and understanding; but that alone that is bruised broken, and in some measure dashed in pieces, by the inroads of a diviner life and nature. This, in the leadings of that life which hath broken it...may be enabled to take up the cross to the natural part, and to die that death with Christ, which preserves from the second death, with the misery thereof....Happy is he, who knows and hearkens to the persuasions of God's Spirit...and taught to wait upon him and worship him in Spirit, who receives his religion from the light of faith, into the renewed nature and mind, and not from the reason of man into the natural understanding, which is easily corrupted, and cannot be kept pure, but alone by the indwelling of the principle of eternal life in it."

It is by "the inroads of the diviner life and nature" that the pride of reason is "bruised and broken," thus enabling one "to take up the cross to the natural part." This can happen only if one's conscience is operating, thereby allowing one to see and to admit that Reason has failed.

Anonymous said...

"The problem with Protestantism is that it denies the word of God and substitutes words about God as the supreme authority."

I love this. As a classmate of mine once said, "I love the Bible. But the Bible is not the word. The Bible is ABOUT the word."


Anonymous said...

Good post. I've read some of your others also. I like that you bring a different perspective to a lot of the topics you write about.

You might find a post of mine interesting. It's called "Why I Call Myself a Christian", and can be found on my blog "Letters From The Street" at