Originally published on Quaker Universalist Conversations on on 10/19/2015.

Friend Jim Wilson has a helpful comment on the QuakerQuaker republishing of my post, “Seeing beyond Identities”:

Mike, I wonder if your statement, “identities are figments of human conceptualization, not real boundary markers”, makes sense. It sounds to me like postmodernist sloganeering.

For example, if I am hungry I want to distinguish, that is to say, ‘identify’, a pizza and distinguish it from a rock. Are you saying the boundary between a pizza and a rock is a figment of human conceptualization? That doesn’t make sense to me. A pizza belongs in the concept ‘food’, a rock belongs in the concept ‘non-food’. What is the problem?

In a similar way, I don’t see a problem in identifying different spiritualities. Not all spiritual traditions are the same and it serves a useful purpose to clarify how they differ and where their views overlap.

Thanks again, Jim. I see I still need to say more clearly what I am addressing here.

“Identities are figments of human conceptualization, not real boundary markers” is not meant to be postmodernist sloganeering. If anything, it is premodern Buddhist psychology, confirmed in many ways by modern neurobiology of consciousness research.

Certainly human beings need to be able to “identify” distinctions between different objects (pizza :: rock), different concepts (food :: non-food) and spiritual traditions (Universalist Quakerism :: creedal Christianity). Our use of language depends upon distinguishing and naming categories as helpfully as we can.

I therefore agree with your statement: “I don’t see a problem in identifying different spiritualities. Not all spiritual traditions are the same and it serves a useful purpose to clarify how they differ and where their views overlap.”

In “Seeing beyond Identities” I am using the term “identity” in a somewhat different sense.

If I say “I am a convinced Friend,” that may “identify” something of my history in the first sense. However, “convinced Friend” is not an “identity.”

We are so accustomed to the language which says “I am a Christian,” “I am an American,” “I am a gay man.” Our common habit is to take this as affirming an “identity” between an individual human being and all people in the named category. Obviously, though, no two “Christians” or “Americans” or “gay men” are the same. What we are actually doing when we use those labels is ascribing to ourselves certain very loosely defined characteristics.

The problem is that to assert “gay man” as an “identity” would be to reduce all the vast, complex, constantly changing realities of my 65 plus years of life to a few culturally “identifiable” markers. What “I am a gay man” actually says is “I belong to the widely diverse category of men, each of them unique, who are willing to publicly affirm the homosexual aspects of their lives.”

“Christ of the Desert,” by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM In “Seeing beyond Identities” I wrote: “I usually avoid calling myself a Christian out of respect for those who experience Christianity as a creedal religion with an orthodox theological belief system.”

I am trying to affirm “identity” as a matter of belonging, not as a matter of definition.

I belong to a boundless community of human beings, a community which transcends time and space—and belief systems—all of whom recognize and turn to Jesus as the center of a circle without circumference.

However, most people associate the term “Christian” with a specific, doctrinal set of beliefs—as well as with a horrendous history of violent abuse of power. I cannot say “I am a Christian” if that misleads people into thinking I subscribe to those doctrines. I would rather not say “I am a Christian” if to do so means others cannot see me past their personal anger and resentment and fear regarding “Christian” abuses of power.

Likewise, I do not say “I am a Universalist,” because I do not want to mislead either people who claim that label as naming a belief system or those who reject that belief system and, hence, those who claim the label.

I am not dodging the issue.

I want us to see beyond identities if we are using them as boundaries between those who belong to the wholeness of humanity and those who don’t.


Image SourceChrist of the Desert,” an icon by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM.

Originally published on 10/4/2015 on Quaker Universalist Conversations

In “Seeing beyond the Projections” (9/7/2015), I voiced my concern that modern Friends across the spectrum tend to perceive liberal or universalist Quakerism as representing anything but Christianity. As Wendy Geiger has put it so gracefully in her comment, I wanted to suggest an alternative view, a way “to keep one’s heart-mind supple and expandable and inclusive.”1

To give the discussion historical context, I cited James G. Crossley’s 2015 Jesus and the Chaos of History: Redirecting the Life of the Historical Jesus. Crossley’s scriptural studies and his analysis of social disruption in 1st century Galilee show how the earliest Palestinian tradition of the Jesus movement was led to embrace the power metaphors of “kingdom language.” The tragic irony is that within a few generations such metaphors were being used to rationalize a doctrinaire and authoritarian hierarchy in the early Christian church.

My personal discomfort with institutional Christianity arose during my young adulthood as the response of a self-affirming gay man to that tradition’s condemnation, but also as the response of a first-year seminary student to doctrinaire exclusion of non-Christians and to two millennia of global violence, both done, allegedly, in Jesus’ name.

“Christ of the Desert,” by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM As I explained in a follow-up comment on “Projections”:

I usually avoid calling myself a Christian out of respect for those who experience Christianity as a creedal religion with an orthodox theological belief system.

Nonetheless, Jesus has been my spiritual master since my earliest childhood. He is the human face of God for me, a “perfect type” of what God tells us we can ourselves become as human beings.

I became a convinced Quaker in my adult years because I understood that the first Friends had centered Quaker faith and practice in the witness of Jesus, indwelling as a teacher in our hearts. This primitive focus on the reality of Jesus, rather than on the theology about Jesus, speaks to my condition.

In other words, I became able to lay down the personal hurts I was projecting onto Christianity, able to discern the faith and practice of the historical Jesus, which transcends the abuses done by the human institution of the church. Now I can reembrace “Christian” as my native religion, the faith language my soul was taught from infancy.

In joy or despair, I can again listen to Jesus, I can seek rescue from Mother-Father God, without stumbling over the conceptual constraints of human doctrine or theological debate—and without distancing myself from those who speak other faith languages.


"Two sheep and two goats resting together in a field." Lithograph with gouache by A. Ducote.

That “however” involves complex, interwoven challenges.

One commenter on “Projections” objected that Crossley’s thoughtful textual and socio-political reconstruction of the 1st century Palestinian Jesus movement is merely “a contemporary projection that universalists find congenial.” He alleged that “those who disagree with this interpretation are psychologically analyzed as being in some way deficient.” In modern Quaker communities, he wrote, “Christians often fell marginalized (at best).”

This objection represents well the hurt reaction of some creedal Christian Friends to their exclusion by hurting anti-Christian Universalist Friends. That my soul can embrace a non-creedal, universalist “Christ within” does not mean that I can readily share unity in worship with hurting Christians and hurting Universalists who misperceive and therefore mistrust each other as opponents. How do we all become “supple and expandable and inclusive” enough to receive such unity?

Religion is always bound up with identity. More specifically, it is bound up with collective identity: that is, with belonging.2 This in itself would not be a problem, save that the suffering which human beings perpetuate against themselves and each other is frequently the result of believing that “identity” is something real, rather than (at best) a mere poetic shorthand for a complex of shared characteristics which are forever alive and in flux.

During my “radical years,” I used to reply jokingly, if asked my religion, that I was a “Lutheran-Buddhist-Faggot-Witch.” In other words, there was—and is—no name for the religion I share with others, because that religion is not a thing. What is the reality encompassing all named religions which binds together all beings? That is my “religion.”

When we cling to “identity”—worse, when we imagine that identity entails boundaries between “who is” and “who is not”—worse still, when we trick ourselves into ideological stances over “identity politics”—then we deny each other the unity of being which comes from knowing that we sit together around the one and only reality. We separate ourselves from each other by imagined boundaries, instead of worshiping a common center with boundariless horizons.

In the evangelist Matthew’s parable of “The sheep and the goats” (Matt 25:31-46), there is a rarely noticed paradox. The King does not divide those whom he calls “sheep” from those he calls “goats” according to their identities or their belief systems. He does so according to how they have treated each other. That challenge contains its own paradoxes, yet I am referring here to a more elusive paradox.

If I reject the goats, if I do not welcome and bless them as if each were the King, then I, too, am a goat.

My old radical joke was: “We all get to heaven or nobody does.”

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,


1 I invite readers to visit some of the earlier posts which have explored aspects of the concerns expressed here:

2 Possible etymology of the word “religion”: re-ligare, re- (again) + ligare (to bind, connect) or “to reconnect.”

Image Sources

Christ of the Desert,” an icon by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM.

Two sheep and two goats resting together in a field.” Lithograph with gouache by A. Ducote. [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Originally published on 9/7/2015 on Quaker Universalist Conversations

Some recent conversations with Friends revealed that they considered Quaker Universalism to represent anything but Christianity. This is not surprising either psychologically or historically, yet it misses the core premise of universalism: inclusion.

Psychologically, our pattern-seeking brains prefer boundaries and distinctions, and their cognitive shortcut is to divide things into either/or categories. Historically, if I came to Quakerism from outside of the Christian community, or if I have laid down the belief system of that community, I may see Quaker Universalism as the “welcoming other,” something instead of Christianity.

There’s a trick here.

When I look at Christianity—either from the inside or from the outside—I tend to see it as it is usually presented to me by its human advocates: as a system of beliefs and practices, together with the institutions which advocate and defend them. In other words, I see what those advocates project as being “Christianity.” I also see what I project onto “Christianity,” my conscious and visceral reactions to whatever I have experienced in interaction with “Christian” people and institutions.

I’ve used those quotation marks above to signify my dilemma. I see “Christianity” and self-identified “Christian” people, but am I seeing the Truth that those people and I share and sometimes glimpse beyond our projections?


Jesus and the Chaos of History: Redirecting the Life of the Historical Jesus (2015), by James G. Crossley In his new book, Jesus and the Chaos of History: Redirecting the Life of the Historical Jesus, James G. Crossley speaks to the challenges of this dilemma, even within the scholarly tradition of “historical Jesus” research. Crossley writes:

One of the advantages of working with the general “earliest Palestinian tradition” [of the Jesus movement], rather than trying more precisely to reconstruct the historical Jesus, is that it potentially allows for more evidence to assess the ways in which people were part of the complexities and chaos of historical change….

Besides, we do not necessarily have direct access to the words or even deeds of the historical Jesus and working more generally eases some of those more practical problems” (163)

There was great social disruption in 1st century Galilee and Palestine. Family, household and agrarian village life were turned upside down by the socio-economic demands of Herod Antipas’ new Roman cities of Tiberias and Sepphoris. Whether or not Jesus himself spoke out of a sense of peasant revolutionary distress, enough of that sense is reflected in the earliest tradition to show up in the gospels of Mark and the later evangelists.

In particular, Crossley argues that in this tradition the “sinners” Jesus was criticized for sitting at table with were not the lowly outcasts, the riff-raff, but rather “rich people who are powerful, oppressive, abusing justice, and unjustly successful” (99). The Jesus of this tradition does not deny that such people are sinners, but he communes with them in order to bring them back to righteousness.

For Crossley, the great historical irony is that the remedies looked for in this tradition carried within them the seeds of an abusive historical church:

The earliest Palestinian tradition pitted the kingdom of God against Rome, attacked wealth and privilege, supported the poorest members of society, and saw Jesus as an agent of the kingdom in both present and future.

However, the…tradition simultaneously mimicked power and imperialism. It looked to the kingdom of God coming in power and establishing hierarchical rule on earth with Jesus and his followers playing highly elevated roles, including one of judge. Rich and poor would be reversed but the structure of reward was not radically altered….

This imperial theology was also taken up very early, not least by Paul, and, even if it probably would have horrified some of the people responsible for the earliest Palestinian tradition, imperialist theology is not as far removed from Constantine as is often thought. (162)


So many intermingled layers of projection. How to see beyond them?

My suggestion is that universalism is not a belief system but a faith testimony.

I begin with the testimony that all of us are one kindred, regardless of our traditions, our religions, our politics, our behaviors and beliefs.

If that is the case, I first find situations for fellowship with others: self-identified Christians, same-sex marriage opponents, racists, and so on.

Then I find ways for us to sit together in expectant and compassionate waiting, perhaps sharing a meal, while we make ourselves tender and open to seeing what we all share as Truth.

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,

As Richard Beck wrote in “Kenosis,”

I’m tired. Of myself.
Not sad. Not depressed. Not suicidal. Not dark.
Just tired.
Tired of being an ego. Having an ego.
I’m tired of filtering everything through myself.

Granted, as one of melancholy temperament, it is far too easy for my brain, when it notices the symptoms Beck describes, to seek reasons for sadness, depression, darkness…and to find them.

I wake up in the morning, I sit at my work desk. My brain scans tasks, responsibilities, which I know I should work on. They obligate me but they don’t interest me. I feel as if my “true self” is elsewhere.

Ha! “True selGeology If.” That’s a good one.

Drawing spurious boundaries across the boundless horizon of awareness, and preferring “that over there” to the landscape through which I move at the present moment.

There. There is the illusion of “self.”

That it has boundaries, and that those boundaries can exclude the passages we don’t desire to experience.

Just do it.

Posted on 6.05.2015

I am tired of myself.
And not, let me say,
in any morbid, psychopathological sense.
(And why do we so quickly go there?
I’ve become impatient with the mental health frame and worry.
How everything is shadowed
by diagnoses and the fear
of being mentally ill.
Because really,
who among us is healthy?
Let me be sick for a moment.
If that is what this is.
Which it isn’t.)
As I said. I’m tired. Of myself.
Not sad. Not depressed. Not suicidal. Not dark.
Just tired.
Tired of being an ego. Having an ego.
I’m tired of filtering everything through myself.
What I like. What I agree with.
What I don’t like. What I don’t agree with.
Who put me in charge of sifting the world?
Which goes to my point.
Why is it my unthought assumption that everything is about me?
Like a reflex of mind,
a twitch of the soul.
And this isn’t the expression of a desire
to escape into some other person or life.
This isn’t envy.
The grass isn’t all that greener
on your side of the fence.
This is a weariness
of being at the center of my thoughts and concerns. Weary
that everything, good and bad,
is about this self at the center of it all.
I want to forget myself.
To not see myself reflected
in every thought or flicker of feeling.

I want to see clearly.
The sky,
a bird on the wing.
And you, standing there.
As it seems to me
that this would be freedom
and salvation
and rest.

–an unpublished poem

Stephen Jay Gould

Our mind works largely by metaphor and comparison, not always (or even often) by relentless logic. When we are caught in conceptual traps, the best exit is often a change in metaphor—not because the new guideline will be truer to nature...but because we need a shift to more fruitful perspectives, and metaphor is often the best agent for conceptual transition. (264)

Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History


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