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Two simple metaphors to enrich the meta-conversation about faith and practice across the boundaries of religious language.

In the first, Hystery on Plainly Pagan writes about why she “resists theism”:

For me, what some might call “God” is that which is both intimately real and even commonplace and wholly Other and Ineffable. If I use the word “God”, people think I mean what I do not mean.

The butterfly is pinned and people think I mean wings and legs and antennae when what I meant was flutter and delight and tenderness.

The essence of the butterfly cannot be pinned. The Essence of the Divine also cannot be described. To me, this is the real meaning of idolatry, to settle one’s faith in any given word or concept.

In the second, Siegfried Goodfellow crafts a tale called “Trickster and the Tree” on Heathen Ranter. Here is a piece of that tale:

So Trickster was out and about walking through the world of people as he often did, and he came upon a group of people in a meadow, and he went up to one person and he said, “Would you like to know what kind of tree the world hangs in?” And the man naturally curious wanted to know, and Trickster told him, “It is an ash tree in which the world hangs”. The man was interested, and Trickster then went on to the next man and asked, “Do you know what kind of tree the world hangs in?”. The man asked, “What kind of tree is that?” And Trickster said, “It is the yew tree,” and then went on his way and found a third man, and said, “Do you know what kind of tree the world hangs in?”, and the man asked, “What?”, and Trickster said, “It is a giant ficus tree.”

Then Trickster just laid down on his side in the sun beneath the lazy shady tree and watched the events unfold…

Be sure to read both blog posts in their entirety. They have much to say.

And so it is.

Blessèd be,
Michael

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Note: I deleted an earlier version of this post (see comment on “Apology to Quaker Quaker and its host”).

In recent years I’ve been reading and corresponding with a whole spectrum of individual Quaker bloggers, folks who share, in their own posts and in their comments on each other’s posts, an on-going meta-conversation about Quaker faith and practice across the boundaries of religious language.

These Friends write about their efforts to do something highly peculiar: to self-identify as Evangelical Christians or Universalist Christians or Jews or Pagans or Buddhists or Nontheists, and yet to say, “Clearly we are all Friends sitting in the same Circle.”

Coinciding with this meta-conversation is a growing enthusiasm (I use that word in its original sense, “inspired by god”) among people who have come to identify themselves as “Convergent Friends.”

For a while I mistook the Convergent movement as being identical with the larger meta-conversation. I hope I now have a fairer and more accurate appreciation for Convergent Friends as a movement within Christianity.

I’ve been helped by looking at the Convergent Friends blog hosted by C. Wess Daniels, and, in particular, by reading Daniels’ article, “Convergent Friends: Passing on the Faith in the Postmodern World” (originally published in the July/August 2006 issue of Friends United Meeting’s Quaker Life).

As a child of at least ten generations of German Lutherans on both sides, I have Christianity “in my genes.” It is my “native religion” and my “native religious language.”

I can well remember times of spiritual and emotional excitement with other Christians. I have experienced from the inside that powerful sense of coming home to something new, one’s own religion rediscovered, reinvented and reinvested in as a living faith and practice.

The empty day” speaks from the heart of that homecoming experience.

Given the centrality of Jesus in my life, I appreciate and lift up the experience of Convergent Friends. I welcome what they are giving witness to.

However, as I’ve written elsewhere, by the time I reached Lutheran seminary myself in the early 1970s, the Christ had shown me a larger circle. It is one with him as the center, yet with an infinite circumference.

This circle includes all people of faith—including secular faiths which do not call themselves faiths. What centers us is that Unnameable which confronts us with the kinship of all people, all beings.

When I became convinced as a Friend, I again experienced from the inside that powerful sense of coming home to something new. I found a communion of practical faith and practice, intent upon nurturing kinship above belief.

In the previous post, I shared some gentle guidance from other Friends about transcending the imaginary boundary between “Christians” and “non-Christians.”

What this age needs more than anything is genuine, kinship-centered conversation and communion across that boundary.

I am neither a Christian nor a non-Christian. I am in between.

In between is a comfortable, blessèd place, because God is there. In between is where Jesus lives, both as a historical man and as a son of God. This I know experimentally.

The traditional Christian metaphor is that the Christ reigns from within the walls of the Holy City.

Jesus, however, lives out here in the present, in between, with the dogs and the sorcerers (Revelation 22:15).

And so it is.

Blessèd be,
Michael

Within the past few weeks, I have witnessed too many cases of misunderstanding and hurt feelings over language and the unreadiness to listen beyond language.

Overtly, the struggles are framed as being between “non-Christians” and “Christians,” between “secular” and “religious,” between “liberal” and “orthodox.”

They are framed as being over who has been hurtful, disrespectful, hostile or even exclusionary toward whom.

The sad irony is that all of these people are passionate about lifting up loving kinship as the highest principle for human behavior—whether it is framed in terms of humanistic ethics or of divinely established covenants.

We stumble.

We each have our own private languages for naming to ourselves what we believe.

We gather, when we can, with others who seem to share that same language.

We attempt to extend our kinship boundaries to still others, who share our passion for loving kinship, though they seem to speak a different language.

We stumble again.

Our differing languages get in the way. They get in the way because they are not about the present. They are about where we came from, what we believe blessed us, what we believe hurt us.

We react to languages and labels and categories, instead of to individuals.

Then, even in our attempts to make peace or to confront unthinking hurtfulness, we find that our languages, our labels and our categories interpose themselves between us.

Here are two “spoken ministries” for listening beyond language.

The first is from Hystery, posted recently on her Plainly Pagan blog:

Here are some questions for Christian Friends

1. Is this person a non-Christian? If so, do they have a Christian background or do they come to us from an entirely different spiritual or philosophical background? Do I truly know enough about their background to make judgments about their intentions?

2. If this person is a former Christian, do I know why they now no longer call themselves Christian? Which Christian perspective (out of the multitudes) is in their past and how does that affect their relationship to christ-centered language? Was their experience with their version of Christianity predominantly positive or negative? What care and sensitivity does this individual require to encourage their best gift of love?

Here are some questions for non-Christian Friends

1. When you hear Christian language, are you overlaying your own frustrations with judgmental Christians onto your interpretation of the current speaker’s words? Can you take the time to hear this speaker as a precious individual ? Are you remembering that there are many Christian perspectives or are you making stereotyping judgments?

2. How familiar are you with scriptural language as it is often used by Friends? Can you make better interpretations of their meaning if you delve more deeply into this poetic language as a foundational aspect of historical Friends’ witness or are you confusing this language with the usage of Christian language from other historical traditions?

For all Friends encountering someone whose background differs from your own

1. Can you, like the Native American man who was moved by John Woolman’s ministry, hear where their words come from? Can you discern kindness and good intention in this speaker even when their words offend or confuse? ( William Penn said, “Men are to be judged by their likeness to Christ, rather than their notions of Christ.”)

2. Do you really want to injure or reject this person before you who wants to belong in your society and who has exposed their difference to you in trust?

The second “spoken ministry” is from Wendiferous, who does not blog but sends marvelous, loving emails to practically everyone on the planet:

I confess, I enjoy experimenting with loving my enemies. I plumb my heart for enemies to love.

And, I don’t say (when asked) whether or not I’m Christian. I say: “That’s for you to figure out.”

And so it is.

Blessèd be,
Michael

Part I: The parable of the weeds in the field
Part II: Religion or belief
Part III: Wilderness and cultivation

Religion or belief

In Part I, I laid out a problem—really a faith challenge—presented to me by the parable of the weeds in the wheat field, as told and interpreted in the book of Matthew (13:24-30, 36-43). The significance of this parable for me is that it sets up an irresolvable contrast between the Jesus of Christian theology and Yeshua, the unknown yet world-changing peasant teacher and healer of Roman-occupied first century C.E. Galilee.

It would be easier if I could frame this as an either/or choice and pick between the Christian Jesus and the historical Yeshua. That is not possible. The two are inseparable. Inseparable in part because we know of Yeshua only because of Jesus.

Jesus has been the focus of two thousand years of worship, thought, writing, art, governance and warfare. Our current so-called “culture wars” in America are most commonly understood as forcing the (false) choice between Jesus and Yeshua. We are told that we must accept the “official” Jesus of institutional church belief (but which of the thousands of competing, contentious churches?). Or that we must reject theological notions altogether and consider Yeshua, if we consider him at all, as just a man.

The cognitive and visceral reality of humankind is that we cannot make such choices. Those like myself who were born into Christianity have it as our “native language,” whether or not we still consider ourselves to be Christians. Those not so born have had their lives and cultures influenced by the dominance of Christianity as a political ideology on this planet. And those who style themselves “new atheists” define themselves by rejection of the caricature of Christianity which they use as their straw man.

More basically, what we know of Yeshua is known solely through the sacred stories of first century people, who had seen in what they thought they knew of him a fulfillment of religious and political hopes. Whether we look at the Jesus of Christian sources or the “reconstructed” Yeshua of historical Jesus studies, we do not know—in the modern sense of “know empirically”—who he actually was, what he actually said, or what he actually meant. We can only know how people have understood and described their experience of him.

Time for a confession: that does not concern me.

He is a world-changing mystery. For me he is not, first of all, the Jesus of orthodox doctrine. He is the Yeshua who so profoundly moved, challenged and healed the people who crossed his path. I cannot expunge my native language and do not want to. Yet its boundaries and definitions are too narrow for this man whom I’ve known inwardly since childhood. Uncomfortable with “Christianity,” I nonetheless persist in reaching for Yeshua. Very deep within me I acknowledge the personal authority of this man to teach me how I ought to live my live.

It was in this awkward posture, following Yeshua yet baulking at Christian orthodoxy, that I listened to that lesson and novice Lutheran sermon back in July. As I listened, I already knew both the text from Matthew and the historical context which biblical scholars have reconstructed for it. What I did not yet have was James Carse’s illumination of why I am uncomfortable, and of why it is an essential act of faith to remain attentively within this discomfort.

In The Religious Case Against Belief (2008), Carse analyses the error he sees in most of our arguments over religion. Through compassionate yet incisive examination, he reveals that “what is currently criticized as religion is, in fact, the territory of belief” (book jacket). The distinction, as he defines it, is enlightening.

Belief systems are “comprehensive networks of tenets that reach into every area of thought and action” (32). They claim to define all that needs to be known, they mark the boundary beyond which orthodox thinking must not go, and they name anything and anyone beyond that boundary as enemy.

Religions may produce belief systems, yet “they are not at their core intelligible, and they are saturated with paradox” (36). Unlike the Roman civitas, a society ruled by law and structured by clear lines of authority, a religion is a communitas stretching across time and space, a “spontaneous gathering of persons who identify themselves and one another as members of a unified body.” Unified, Carse writes, by “the desire…to get to the bottom of the very mystery that brings them together” (84).

While belief systems want only unambiguous answers, the very essence of religions is the continued expansion of the “discursive context,” that process by which communitas perpetually revisits its deepest questions and reinterprets its irresolvable mysteries. What is more, being “able to interpret [religions] ‘properly’ does not require us to get at the very essence of each but to succeed in taking our place in the discursive contexts surrounding them” (100-01).

In this light, Carse writes that sacred texts “demand interpretation, but without any indication of what that interpretation should be.” What counts is the sincere expansion of the dialogues among members of the communitas. “Moreover, there is nothing particularly rational in these extended dialogues. They explain nothing. Their power lies chiefly in the interpreter’s skill at provocation” (199).

That term “provocation” wakes me up. Yeshua, as he reinterpreted the scriptures his listeners all knew from hearing them read each week in synagogue, provoked them to reconsider what was the spirit of the text. Matthew did the same for his contemporaries. Rather than declare that the text means “this and this only,” the rabbinic approach of Yeshua and Matthew was to say, “Look beneath and beyond the boundaries of what you think you know about this. Open yourself to hear new meanings.”

Carse points out that while belief systems are characterized by boundaries, religions are characterized by horizons. However much members of communitas may help each other to extend their “common field of vision,” they always acknowledge that there is more to their mystery than they can possible know beyond the horizon. (107)

Furthermore, Carse notes that religious vision does “not restrict itself to a belief system but that belief systems always fall within the scope of poetic horizons. For this reason, horizons and belief systems are not opposites. They occur simultaneously…. Visionaries…do not destroy the walls, but show the openings through them. They do not promise what believers will see, only that the walls do not contain the horizon” (83).

In Part III, I will share some of the alternative approaches to the parable of the weeds which the openings Carse refers to make available to us, first some from contemporary biblical scholars, and then some from my own ponderings.

[To be continued]

Blessèd Be,
Michael

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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