Just as there are many “Christianities,” there are many forms of “Christian Universalism.”

I seek to follow the faith and practice of the historical Jesus, regardless of how later belief systems and their enforcers may have reinterpreted his ministry to suit their own theological or political notions.

In addition, I just finished Stephen Finlan’s 2008 book, The Apostle Paul and the Pauline Tradition, which describes how Paul’s ministry was also reinterpreted,1 first by his own disciples, and then by a second generation of church leaders, who borrowed his name to lend authority to their far more conservative agendas.

What follows is a brief meditation on Jesus, Paul and universalism.

[Originally published on Quaker Universalist Conversations, 5/1/2015.]

Jesus

Christ of the Desert, Icon by Br. Robert Lentz, OFMI believe the core of Jesus’ faith and practice can be expressed in this way:

All human beings are born as sinless children of a loving God, one who suffers their hurts and failings like a parent and guides them toward as much maturity as they are willing to embrace.

However, human society does poorly at teaching us how to take conscious ownership of our animal instincts while choosing not to be ruled by them. Human society disguises some instincts as rational, moral justifications for actions and condemns others as irrational or evil. Human society teaches—primarily by osmosis—many distorted approaches to coping with the normal challenges of mortal life.

I believe that Jesus, being intimately in tune with God, did all he could to lift his neighbors above unnecessary personal failings and social constraints, helping them learn to trust this spiritual “inner parent” and to treat each other with unconditional compassion.

Jesus initially applied his version of universalism to those within the Judaic world of his time. He was from Galilee in northern Palestine, child of Aramaic-speaking peasants, not of the “proper” Hebrew-speaking Jews from Judea in the south. His concern was that his own Galilean people not feel excluded from God’s blessing because of their not being part of the Jerusalem-centered Temple cult.

Then he began to include the Samaritans,2 people whose land lay between Galilee and Judea. The Samaritans were mixed-race descendants of those who scattered people who remained in Palestine when the Judean Hebrews were carried into exile in Babylon. They were scorned by Judeans, due both to their mixed heritage and to their revering of Mount Gerizim rather than Jerusalem as God’s chosen worship site.

Eventually Jesus also ministered to the Gentiles across the Sea of Galilee to the east, to a Canaanite woman to the west (Mark 7:24-30), and to a Roman centurion (Luke 7).

Perhaps more to the point, Jesus brought anyone who asked for it into his extended sacred family, regardless of gender, social standing, ethnicity, health or sanity.

Jesus’ universalism is founded in his affirmation that all people, without exception, are welcome members of God’s family—whether or not they recognize this or know how to live as if it were true.

Paul

paul-smallPaul of Tarsus had different challenges.

He was raised in the Pharisaic tradition of Judaism, which taught that Israel’s suffering under Roman occupation was punishment because the people had forgotten God’s Law (Torah), and that the people must revere and follow the Law in order to be freed from pagan occupation.3

Paul persecuted the early Jewish Jesus-followers on the grounds that they rejected the scrupulous legalism of the Pharisees in favor of Jesus’ practice of unconditional love. Eventually, though, Paul himself came became a follower of Jesus and embraced Jesus’ teaching.

Paul’s ministry was twofold: to help his fellow Jews replace the Law with Jesus’ gospel of a loving God, and to help non-Jewish people come into the same blessed fold. This also, of course, meant that he needed to teach Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles) how to practice unconditional compassion toward each other.

Paul mixed together a range of Jewish and Gentile religious metaphors—not to create a system of theological doctrines, but to capture people’s attention with familiar poetic imagery, handholds for grasping the new faith and practice which Jesus offered.

So, for example, Paul did not advocate the doctrine of so-called substitutionary atonement,4 according to which all people are sinners and helpless to save themselves, unless they embrace the notion that Jesus died to “pay for” our sins.

Instead, Paul taught a sort of participatory atonement. He urged believers to participate in the life and death of Jesus in their own lives, to take on the same risks and suffering that Jesus did, for the sake of becoming able to practice that same unbounded embrace of their fellows.

Unfortunately, church leaders in later generations, who struggled to protect their flocks from escalating persecution by the Roman empire, shifted away from the heart of Paul’s teaching and, in effect, reimposed the socially conservative, hierarchical, patriarchal Pharisaism from which Paul had sought to free people.

Whereas Jesus taught that all people were born children of God, Paul’s universalism is founded in his affirmation that believers become adopted children of God. In other words, Paul challenged the traditional Hebrew notion that the Israelites were hereditary children of God’s covenant with Abraham. Instead, Paul argued, Jews and Gentiles alike can become children of God by believing in and following Jesus the Christ.

Vineline

Jesus and Paul were each teaching specific people at specific times in specific cultural situations. Whatever they each may have understood inwardly about the Truth, each used familiar religious and cultural imagery to capture the minds and spirits of his audience.

I believe it is always important to remember that we are using poetic metaphor when we seek to describe our experience of interaction with the Divine, the Real. Metaphors evoke conscious notions and subconscious associations, yet they are not objective descriptions of experience, let alone of that which is experienced.

Whether we borrow Jesus’ Galilean Jewish metaphors or Paul’s Greco-Roman mix of Jewish and Gentile metaphors, or else cast all of these aside and seek new poetry for expression, I believe that the core Truth is the same.

All human beings are born as unformed mortals in a social world which both teaches and misleads them.

Even so, there is a Reality which transcends human awareness, concepts and values, and which is always ready to guide us toward as much maturity as we are willing to embrace.

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,
Michael


Notes

1 Finlan describes the current scholarly consensus as follows:

  • Finlan-PaulPauline letters: 1st and 2nd Thessalonians, 1st and 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, Philippians, Philemon.
  • Deutero-Pauline letters, written by Paul and/or his disciples: Colossians, Ephesians.
  • Pseudo-Pauline letters, written by a second generation of teachers, who claimed Pauline authority to reestablish the social status quo (hierarchical patriarchy): 1st and 2nd Timothy, Titus.
  • Hebrews is not of Pauline origin, but it came to be identified as such by the early church fathers.

2 Teaching examples are found in the stories of the “woman at the well” (John 4) and that of the “man who fell among thieves” (Luke 10:25-37).

3 This description of Pharisaic tradition is borrowed from Mitri Raheb’s excellent 2014 book, Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible through Palestinian Eyes (76-77).

4 See Finlan’s Problems With Atonement: The Origins of, and Controversy about, the Atonement Doctrine (2005).

Image Sources

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

Out of the deserts of the Middle East comes an ancient Christian tradition. Although it has been overshadowed by the Greek and Latin traditions, it is their equal in dignity and theological importance. It is a Semitic tradition, belonging to those churches that use Syriac as their liturgical language. Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ himself.

This icon celebrates the richness of Syriac Christianity. The inscriptions in the upper corners read “Jesus Christ,” and at the bottom, “Christ of the Desert.” The Syriac language has ties to the earth that are deep and rich. It is more inclusive than most European languages. The theological experience of Syriac Christians is different because they have encountered the Gospel in such a language. Theirs is an unhellenized expression — one that is neither Europeanized nor Westernized.

Semitic as it is, the Syriac tradition knows no dichotomy between the mind and heart. The heart is the center of the human person — center of intellect as well as feelings. The body and all of creation longs to be reunited with God.

A constant theme in Syriac literature is homesickness for Paradise, a desire to restore Paradise on earth. Christians pray facing east because Paradise was in the east. This longing was expressed in monastic terms in ancient times, but its implications today reach far beyond monastery walls. With earthy roots, this longing for Paradise involves concrete responses in the realms of politics, ecology, and economics.

Read more about The Syriac Orthodox Church here.

“Apostle Paul (494-495 AD),” ceiling mosaic, Archiepiscopal Chapel of St. Andrew (oratory), Ravenna, Italy (from Artwork Depicting St. Paul the Apostle, collected by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson).


Comments from the Quaker Universalist Conversation blog post:

Friends,

On the Quaker Universalist Fellowship Facebook Group there is a thread of comments about this essay which I want to reproduce here (see https://www.facebook.com/groups/QuakerUniversalists/374513879406).

Q: How are you going to find the historic Jesus, amid all the words that have been written?

A: I hesitated to use the phrase “historical Jesus” for just that reason.

Closer to the truth for me personally is that I am a 1950s Lutheran preacher’s kid, both of whose parents taught and witnessed to the sort of Jesus I describe.

I’ve spent several post-seminary decades reading Jewish and Christian biblical scholarship about Jesus. However, all of that is human speculation.

There is no way for me to express my experience of Jesus in words except to use the traditional Quaker metaphors. Jesus is a real person to me, and the Light within guides me in testing all notions of Jesus against the spiritual truth of Jesus.

Q: Are you looking beyond “The Sermon On the Mount” and those commandments?

A: I am in many ways informed by the sacredness of storytelling. I read the Gospels, as I read other portions of the Bible, as stories told by people close to Jesus—at least in time and culture, if not as personal acquaintances—doing their best to portray for others their own experience of meeting Jesus and his life and teachings.

For me, it is his life, not only his death, which touches us. How did he treat other people? How did he embrace them? How did he seek to free them from their various religious “notions,” so that they could live in the immediacy of God’s presence?

One of the most tragic byproducts of the invention of writing was that humankind shifted from the ever-changing telling of stories to the ossifying process of writing down stories. Once stories are written down, the platform is there for people to argue over “who tells it correctly,” “who interprets it correctly,” “what does it mean (literalistically),” etc.

Jesus was a storyteller who told each story differently to each person, depending upon what spirit led him to know that person needed to be confronted or comforted by.

Jesus’ rendering of the Old Testament commandments into new stories was part of that healing effort.

Blessings,
Mike Shell

Six years ago on the Saturday of Holy Week, I wrote about what I call The Empty Day.

For many Christians, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter are the key days of that week.  For me, as one who is constantly on the boundary between faith and doubt, it is that in-between Saturday which confronts me most vibrantly with the gut reality of Jesus in my life.

Christ of the Desert, Icon by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM

Yesterday, April 4th, I was already by choice shut down mentally and emotionally, merely as a way to recover from the intense week of library staff training I had just completed. However, that shutdown-ness resonated with the spiritual aloneness of the day.

Following the recent deaths of my mother and father, I can much more readily settle back into visceral emptiness of loss, that paradoxical awareness that, though biological death is empirically understandable, the vanishing of a person one knows is inexplicable.

Yesterday I felt that emptiness in relation to Jesus. Though never having met him physically, since my childhood Jesus has been as real to me as any other family member. To remind myself—to regain that visceral awareness of him in my inner life—I let myself feel the loss I felt following the deaths of my parents.

There was nothing particularly spiritual or metaphysical about the exercise. It was simply a form of attentiveness, of silent listening.

When eventually I remembered the sort of “resurrection” I perceive when my mother or father surface in memory, I also recognized that same potential for Jesus in my inner life.

And so it is,
Blessèd be.

Michael


Image:Christ of the Desert,” an icon by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM. Brother Robert writes:

Out of the deserts of the Middle East comes an ancient Christian tradition. Although it has been overshadowed by the Greek and Latin traditions, it is their equal in dignity and theological importance. It is a Semetic tradition, belonging to those churches that use Syriac as their liturgical language. Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ himself.

This icon celebrates the richness of Syriac Christianity. The inscriptions in the upper corners read “Jesus Christ,” and at the bottom, “Christ of the Desert.” The Syriac language has ties to the earth that are deep and rich. It is more inclusive than most European languages. The theological experience of Syriac Christians is different because they have encountered the Gospel in such a language. Theirs is an unhellenized expression — one that is neither Europeanized nor Westernized.

Semitic as it is, the Syriac tradition knows no dichotomy between the mind and heart. The heart is the center of the human person — center of intellect as well as feelings. The body and all of creation longs to be reunited with God.

A constant theme in Syriac literature is homesickness for Paradise, a desire to restore Paradise on earth. Christians pray facing east because Paradise was in the east. This longing was expressed in monastic terms in ancient times, but its implications today reach far beyond monastery walls. With earthy roots, this longing for Paradise involves concrete responses in the realms of politics, ecology, and economics.

Read more about The Syriac Orthodox Church here.

 

Leonard Nimoy sat down with the Wexler Oral History Project last year, his impressive Yiddish skills on full display. In this video, Nimoy describes the origin of his famous Star Trek hand greeting: the Jewish priestly blessing, or duchening.

This article was originally published on Quaker Universalist Conversations, the blog of the Quaker Universalist Fellowship.

A Garden Grows: Quakerism in Nazi Germany by Mary Mills, available as an e-book from Amazon or Smashwords through the QUF Bookstore, translates five essays by Hans Albrecht, Clerk of German Yearly Meeting from 1927 to 1947, along with the illustrated album written by children of the Quaker school in Eerde.

With A Garden Grows: Quakerism in Nazi Germany, her new book of translations from the German, Mary Mills has given us a challenging glimpse into the heart of courageous, faith-driven action during exceedingly dangerous times.

The context for these writings is the reawakening of the German Quaker movement after World War I.  As described in “Quakers in Germany since 1918,”

[When] the Armistice came, members of the Friends Ambulance Unit were amongst the first to enter Germany. They found hunger, malnutrition and hopelessness….  Assistance came from the Friends War Victims Relief Committee (FWVRC) in London and from the newly formed American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Philadelphia….

About a million children were helped to survive the traumas of post-war Germany.  At its peak the Quäkerspeisung scheme was feeding half a million children daily.

In this context German Quakers had come together again, and they reopened the Bad Pyrmont Meeting House [1] in 1926, holding their first yearly meeting there. [2]

Bad Pyrmont Meeting House

Recovering History

In a discourse [3] at Bad Pyrmont in 1938, Yearly Meeting Clerk Hans Albrecht recalled this historical prelude to the struggles of Quakers under Nazism.

Here, in this small borough, a German Quaker community has come into being, which has had a vigorous bond to the larger Quaker communities in England and America….

[There is] a great difference between the formation of Quaker communities from almost 150 years ago in this region and the contemporary Quaker movement in Germany after the war.

While the former…emerged mainly from the missionary efforts of Sarah Grubb from Ireland and have remained limited to a small area, the present Quaker movement has arisen spontaneously from the search for spiritual-religious forces, which came with the surprising arrival of Quakers from England and America as friends after the war. (14-15)

Albrecht then added deeper grounding for the current faith and practice of his listeners.

English Quakerism to a large extent has its roots in pre- and post-Reformation German mysticism, which was pushed back by the ecclesial reformation and then jumped into an England torn by religious strife, where it encountered similar movements….

Then George Fox’s action happened in England.  His action gave speculative and philosophical mysticism a decisive, forward-pointing turn toward activity, which arises from inner religious experience.

He returned all religion to the sublime simplicity of a single teaching: the Inner Light, which allows every individual the freedom to go unburdened the way of his personal religious experience and yet allows all people to become one again in union with God. (16)

A Heroic Relationship with God

Hitler had come to power in January 1933 and ordered a boycott of Jewish stores.  At the 1933 Yearly Meeting, German Friends were compelled to confront this situation.  After much disagreement, The Yearly Meeting settled on a minute which “encouraged each of them to stand firm in their principles without endangering others. It ended by encouraging those who could not support this policy to leave.”

Meister EckhartAlbrecht pointed out in his 1938 discourse that this new German Quakerism was the reawakening of

an old legacy of Central European spiritual life, which returned to us with the message of the Inner Light in action.

It was the same experience that 600 years ago in Köln [Cologne] enabled Meister Eckhart to win over such multitudes…when he spoke about the “fortress of the soul,” “the flicker in us,” and “the birth of God in the soul.” (17)

Albrecht believed that the Germany of the 1930s was caught between the false, materialistic promises of National Socialism and Marxism, on the one side, and the failure of the Protestant Church to offer a living spiritual alternative, on the other.  The Church had lost its grounding in mysticism, in part through its despairing response to World War I, in particular its retreat into “dialectical theology and rational bible study.”

The one-time spiritual leader of the people, adviser for the individual, bearer of charity, morality and justice—all these areas have been taken over by the state, groups of people, movements, and the social feeling of a new time. (20)

Quakerism, by contrast, Albrecht saw as uniting thinking and mysticism.

It does not concern a compromise of religious views but rather the development of an independent, spiritual concept of religion…. That is not intellectualism, but the creation of a spiritual, unsentimental atmosphere, into which God can descend. (22)

For Albrecht,

Quakerism is the mystical creation of a heroic relationship of God to human being and of human beings to each other. “God is not only above us but in us, and we can prevail with him” [4] if we accept him into our will. Thus the human being, who is merely a creature, is himself a creator. (22)

Turning Mysticism into Action

In May of 1956, the year Hans Albrecht died, he returned to this theme of relationship in a discourse entitled “The Essence of Encounters.” [5]

Fox did something huge by making the abstract mysticism of the Middle Ages vigorous and giving it an intuitive turn to action. That takes place again and again in our quiet prayer meeting, where the person is not the addressed object of an acted out storyline but a subject, initiating action on a higher level….

[Here the] highest encounter occurs: the communal encounter with God and at the same time, the inner encounter with my neighbor, who moves me to do the will of God toward him, namely, to recognize him and all people on this higher level as a Friend. (50)

This is core of the Quakerism which Albrecht and his fellow German Quakers practiced: recognizing the neighbor as a Friend and turning that recognition into action.  It enabled many courageous efforts in opposition to the Nazi regime and its broad public support.

As early as 1930, Hans Albrecht gave a “Deposition” on behalf of Expressionist artist George Grosz, when the Weimar government had charged Grosz with blasphemy for his anti-war drawing, Christ with the Gas Mask.  Albrecht’s testimony aided the acquittal of Grosz and his publisher, Wieland Herzfelde. [6]

Quakers in the World describes the German Quaker response when Hitler came to power in January 1933 and ordered a boycott of Jewish stores.  At the 1933 Yearly Meeting, Friends confronted this situation.  After much disagreement, the Yearly Meeting settled on a minute which “encouraged each of them to stand firm in their principles without endangering others. It ended by encouraging those who could not support this policy to leave.”

Some Quakers lost their livelihoods and others suffered harassment. Several spent time in Concentration Camps, although none were actually executed. Some resisted in relatively small brave ways by, for example, not saying “Heil Hitler,” an act reminiscent of early Quakers refusing to raise their hats to their “betters.”  Some went further and befriended Jews and even helped them to leave the country….

From November 1938 until September 1939, when War was declared and the British had to leave, both German and British Quakers were involved in the Kindertransport, which enabled 10,000 Jewish children to be evacuated. [7]

The Little Gardeners’ Album [8]

Mary Mill’s book concludes with the translation of a very mundane yet powerful example of focused Quaker action in the midst of growing danger.  Here is an excerpt from the introduction to the translation.

In 1934 as human rights were being trampled and groups such as Jews and political dissidents became increasingly targeted by the Nazis, the Quaker School at Eerde was founded by Friends from England, Germany, and America, in cooperation with the small, but vigorous Dutch Yearly Meeting…

Many Jews and liberals sent their children to the school. Students and teachers from mixed marriages or families that had converted to Christianity were welcomed into the school community….

Students of Quaker School in Eerde

The “Little Gardeners’ Album” is a journal written by the pupils of Quaker School Eerde, who formed a gardening club and called themselves “Little Gardeners….”

A light-hearted, exuberant joie-de-vivre permeates the children’s description of the activities they undertake in the spirit of gardening. They detail the importance of maintaining garden beds while sponsoring festivals, composing and reciting poetry, writing and performing playlets, and playing musical pieces—all in the name of gardening.

I think “The Little Gardeners’ Album” may be viewed as a practical application of some of the ideas discussed by Albrecht in “The Concept of Community” and “The Essence of Encounters….”

One cannot help but notice the total lack of fear on the part of the Little Gardener pupils as they continue their studies and gardening activities in a country overrun by the Nazi war machine…. Generally, their happiness seems to give them a sense of security even as the world outside their school was falling apart.  (62-63)

Does Spirit-led Action Fail?

The world at large may look upon efforts like the Eerde School as failures.  The German Quakers did not “save” those children, did not “stop” the horrors perpetrated by their fellows throughout Europe. As Mary Mills writes,

Nonetheless, the virulent persecution of Jews invaded the school in September of 1941…. Between September of 1941 and July of 1945, 14 Eerde Jewish pupils were murdered in concentration camps. Most of them perished at Auschwitz. The Little Gardeners [themselves] suffered at least one casualty [who] died on a forced march from Auschwitz. (63)

Yet Albrecht and his fellow Friends were clear about the higher purpose of their actions. During a 1938 retreat at Bad Pyrmont, Albrecht gave a discourse called “The Concept of Community.” [9] He spoke of the false division of the world into “the divine and the temporal.”

We avoid the divine because the burden of our imperfection and inability chokes us and makes us flee into this world, until the moment comes to us again when the icy cold of our own hopelessness and of the inner and outer, familiar and foreign misery cuts to the quick in the wasteland of this life.  These are often horrid hours of loneliness, when we long for other people.

We long for spiritual companions in fate, who stand before God in the same distress that always slumbers within us. True fellowship, even the most personal, is always at the same moment a fellowship of suffering. For life and suffering are indivisible just as love and compassion are indivisible. (36)

It was in order to create that community of “spiritual companions in fate” that Quakers and their allies acted throughout the horrors of World War II.  It is for that same purpose that we act in the present.  Not to “fix” the future, but to stand before God in the present, embracing our neighbors as best we can for the sake of all of our lives with God in the present.

The last entry of “The Little Gardeners’ Album” is dated July 13, 1941—scarcely three months before German troops invaded the school.  The previous year the children seemed aware of the German move into the Netherlands, yet they wanted to continue with their annual Little Gardeners’ Festival “despite upsetting circumstances.” (79)

Now they held what they would not have known was their last festival.   All of the events were created and acted out by the children and their teachers.

There was cocoa, cookies and chocolate. From time to time, there was singing, and also a little play was performed…. While we sang in an atmosphere of warm friendliness, suddenly it started to rain…. In the gym, there was a roller coaster, and in the music kitchen, there was a chamber of horrors….  We rode on a wagon through the dark gym, where the wagon made rather sharp turns. Now and again, the light was turned on and screams could be heard and the riders were squirted with water….

Afterward…the circus was held. Olaf was the first act and appeared as a muscleman…. Wulf, Olaf and Maarten appeared as athletes. After an exciting round of boxing, Schmeling (Olaf) against Louis (Wulf), the “Tilagirls” danced. They were scared away by a dappled horse and a red horse. The horses danced folkdances, neighed, and reared up. During the intermissions, Herman and Richard Neuse appeared as clowns. After the circus, everyone got ice cream and went to bed with a full belly and a happy face. (82-83)

Last entry of "The Little Gardeners' Album"


For more information, see “Hans Albrecht and the Quaker Witness in Nazi Germany” for Mary Mills’ introduction to the efforts of Hans Albrecht and the German Quakers in 1930s, as well as “Recovering History: Hans Albrecht & the Quakers of Nazi Germany” for her story of how she became aware of that witness.

See also What Does Quakerism Mean to Us? by Hans Albrecht (1930).


Notes

1. “The Meeting House at Bad Pyrmont,” by Hans Albrecht, Bulletin of Friends’ Historical Association, Volume 25, Number 2, Autumn 1936, pp. 62-73 (Footnotes)

2. “Quakers in Germany since 1918,” from the Quakers in the World website.

3. “Quakerism’s Encounter with the Spiritual Situation in Germany,” A Garden Grows, pp. 14-30.

4. Albrecht here quotes Friedrich Rittelmeyer, Meditation: Zwölf Briefe über Selbsterziehung (1929), available in translation as “Meditation: Guidance of the Inner Life (translated by M. L. Mitchell, 4th edition, 2012).

5. “The Essence of Encounters,” A Garden Grows, pp. 45-50.  Hans Albrecht held this discourse on May 1, 1956, in the prayer room of the Quaker neighborhood home in Braunschweig on the occasion of the Göttingen-Braunschweig Quarterly Meeting. This is an abridged version.

6. “Deposition,” A Garden Grows, pp. 7-13.  This deposition and a reproduction of Christ in the Gas Mask were previously published by Mary Mills in the April 2003 issue of Friends Journal.

7. “Quakers in Germany since 1918

8.  “The Little Gardener’s Album,” A Garden Grows, pp. 61-83.

9. “The Concept of Community,” A Garden Grows, pp. 31-44.

Image Sources

Pyrmont Meeting House

Portrait of Meister Eckhart from The Crossroad Publishing Company.

Children, many of them German Jewish refugees, relax on the steps of a Quaker boarding school in Eerde. (US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Monica Lake)

From a photocopy of the original German “Little Gardeners’ Album.”  This image shows the beginning of the entry for July 13, 1941, with illustrations by the children of Quaker School at Eerde.

Note: This post was first published on Quaker Universalist Conversations, the blog of the Quaker Universalist Fellowship. It has also been republished on QuakerQuaker, and there is a substantial comments discussion appended to the post there.

During a one-month practice period (dathun) at the Buddhist Gampo Abbey in the spring of 1989, Pema Chödrön gave morning talks to encourage participants “to use the abundant material of daily life as their primary teacher and guide.”

Midway through the month, she spoke about the meditation practice of tonglen, “sending and taking,” which has to do with cultivating fearlessness.

tonglen sayingThe essence of tonglen practice is that on the in-breath you are willing to feel pain: you’re willing to acknowledge the suffering of the world.  From this day onward, you’re going to cultivate your bravery and willingness to feel that part of the human condition.

You breathe in so that you can really understand what the Buddha meant when he said that the first noble truth is that life is suffering.  What does that mean?

With every in-breath, you try to find out by acknowledging the truth of suffering, not as a mistake you made, not as a punishment, but as part of the human condition.  With every in-breath, you explore the discomfort of the human condition, which can be acknowledged and celebrated and not run away from.

Tonglen puts it right on the line. (132-33)

Awaking Loving-Kindness (1996)

The history of the human consciousness has been filled with the struggle to assign meaning to suffering.  No living being welcomes suffering, yet human beings impose immeasurable unnecessary violence upon themselves and others—psychic, emotional, religious, political and physical violence—in order to avoid suffering, or at least to define who does or does not deserve to suffer.

Yet what a simple notion Pema shares: acknowledging the truth of suffering, not as a mistake you made, not as a punishment, but as part of the human condition.

Not that life is nothing but suffering.  Just that fully lived life of necessity includes suffering.

We are now in an age of endless argument between those of us who lean toward a “God” who measures out pleasure and suffering and those who, horrified at the notion of such a “God,” insist there cannot be any “God” worthy of belief.

theist-secularist-suffering circle diagramOne could draw a simplistic diagram to represent this argument, because it is not really about “God” but about “human beings versus suffering.”

The irony is that all of us personify “God,” the theists and the secularists and those who waver in between.  This is because all we human beings know about is interaction with persons.  More to the point, we live with the knowledge, or at least the fear, of being at the mercy of persons with absolute authority over us.

How could we imagine a Wholeness which simply is, in which we know ourselves to be complete and compassionate, even in the midst of our finite, fallible, suffering, mortal existence?

In his 2011 book, Conversation with Christ: Quaker Meditations on the Gospel of John, Douglas Gwyn shares a commentary on John 6:25-34, a passage which follows the sacred story about Jesus feeding five thousand people with five barley loaves and two fish.

The people are puzzled….  Jesus brushes aside their mundane concerns….  He knows they didn’t really see the sign he had performed in feeding them yesterday.  Or more exactly, they didn’t see where the sign was pointing.

If it pointed anywhere for them, it was simply toward more bread today, and tomorrow. These are agrarian peasants, after all.  Many of them live a hand-to-mouth existence….  Jesus gave them bread, but they took it as loaves.  They grasped the commodity, the form, without perceiving the substance….

Apparently, the crowd at least understands that Jesus is the one sent by God….  So they ask, what work will he perform, that they should believe in him?  They remind Jesus that Moses provided their ancestors manna in the wilderness.  That was a daily event.  So yesterday’s miracle is only yesterday’s miracle….  (45)

Jesus…aims to shift their frame of reference…from yesterday’s miracle to the eternally present work of God.  He hopes to refocus their eyes into the eternal, heavenly dimension of their temporal, mundane present.  But again they miss it.  They simply ask Jesus to provide yesterday’s bread every day.  (46)

These people were normal people like us.  It was extremely difficult for them to stretch their imaginations, their expectations, beyond the mortal needs of the day.

And their notion of “God” was our normal one: “God” as a powerful being who can relieve our day to day suffering—if we can only figure out what we need to do to persuade “him” to do it.

The only other alternative we can normally imagine is the existentialist one: there is no “God,” and hence no meaning, no sacredness, to existence.  We just exist.

Bread

Both Jesus the Christ (“the Anointed One”) and Gautama the Buddha (“the Awakened One”) breathed in the suffering of their fellows and breathed out a loving “middle path.”  Not one that removed suffering, but one that led to an adult embrace of all aspects of life.

Jesus, ministering to country folk who were basically good but struggling folk like us, used the “God” language and the scriptures they knew.  Even so, he sought always to breathe in their fear of the stern, capricious gods of their world and their time.  He sought always to breathe out the embrace of a compassionate “Father,” whose sole purpose is to lead “his children” into mature, emotionally self-sufficient adulthood as mortal beings.

The distinction is a simple yet challenging one.

It is not necessary to use “God” language in order to witness to such life, yet it is also possible to use a sort of “God” language which gives voice to such witness.

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,
Michael

Image Sources

Bread loaf: “An afterward to bread-making,” by By Alex Legeros, Staff Columnist, The Gustavian Weekly, November 5, 2010

Tonglen saying: “There is nothing unique about our suffering (Tonglen, a compassion practice),” on Beyond Meds – Alternatives to Psychiatry: interdisciplinary & integral holistic well-being

Note: This Beyond Meds post includes links to tonglen teachings by several different people, including this YouTube talk by Pema Chödrön.

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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On Attribution

I'm a writer and a librarian.

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When I cite books or websites, I link to them. When I use images, I add a pop-up title which gives attribution. Also, the image itself usually links to the source website.

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