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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.

However….

"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.

Vine
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,
Michael


Notes

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?

Vine

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)

Vine

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,
Michael

Praying at Gethsemane, by He Qi

32And they go to a place the name of which was Gethsemane, and he says to his disciples, “Sit down here while I pray.” 33And he takes Peter and James and John along with him, and he grew apprehensive and full of anguish. 34He says to them, “I’m so sad I could die. You stay here and be alert!”

—Mark 14:32-34 (The Complete Gospels, 3rd ed. )

Today I added a new post on the Bad Quaker Bible Blog.

Blèssed Be,
Michael

Nothing convicts me in my heart more than the contemplation of Jesus as a historical person.

All my decades of wrestling with spiritual paths and theologies are self-indulgence, compared with the blessèdness and horror of that man’s life. Every day’s news is full of the brutality and painful neediness of humankind. That Jesus walked compassionately into the midst of it all is reason enough to follow him—and to be dismayed whenever I fall short of doing so.

Last Sunday I wrote about the painful discrepancy we experience between our outwardly celebrative expectations, as we wave our branches on the road into Jerusalem, and our inwardly destructive disappointments, resentments, fears and betrayals.

We imagine that divine intervention, or at least some authoritative spiritual teacher or political leader, will “fix everything” in our day-to-day lives. Yet those lives continue into one “unfixed” moment after another.

More distressing, occasionally we manage to hear what Jesus actually says: “Here’s what to do. Here’s how to do it. Let me show you.”

I say distressing, because we normally are so far from feeling able to do as he did in any moment of the life our stories tell us about. Not only so far from feeling able to walk knowingly into brutal torture and crucifixion. So far from risking or surrendering material security to live with society’s outcasts. So far from reaching out to sooth the secret wounds which cause others to hurt us.

In my “Palm Sunday” post, I owned these failings, these ways in which I fall short of what Jesus shows me a human being can do. Yet I also owned something else: my rejection of the Augustinian doctrine of The Fall, caused by original sin and perpetuated through every generation of the human race.

“None of our failure is ‘fallenness’,” I wrote. “It is merely part of normal, finite, fallible, hardwired primate survival behavior. God knows.”

All those human traits which are bound up in the metaphor of fallenness are natural survival traits of social animals. As self-serving, hurtful and sometimes deadly as they may be, they all arise from innate biological responses to perceived threat to oneself or one’s kin. It seems pointless to me to claim that these traits represent fallenness from some primordially better state of being.

Even so, the metaphor does speak to something deep in human experience. Last Monday, a friend sent this in response to my post:

To me, our fallen-ness is separation from God and being less than what we can be when we are in close communion with God, as was Jesus. The importance of the gospel stories, to me, is in what they can teach us about our true nature and our relationship to God.

These words sing welcome counterpoint to mine.

The New Testament Greek word hamartia is usually translated as “sin.” However, it “is rooted in the notion of missing the mark (hamartanein),” falling short of the target, the ideal, the moral (or divine) expectation.

So, instead of fallenness in the Augustinian sense, perhaps our challenge is fallen short-ness. Our natural survival responses usually block or distract us from the grace-filled life we sometimes glimpse. It is a life we sometimes even manage to live for a moment or so at a time. We long for it, strive for it…yet most of the time we fall short.

When we are momentarily successful at such living, we experience the unexpected grace of “our true nature and our relationship to God.” When we notice that we have fallen short once again, we feel as if we are separated from “our relationship with God.”

I do not believe that fallenness is separation from God. It is, rather, the illusory feeling of separation, the loss of conscious awareness, the denial, even, of our unending kinship with God.

Some years ago I discovered that, for me, the most important day in the Christian calendar is one not even traditionally noted, that strange, empty day between Good Friday and Easter.

Although I did not do so yesterday, some years I go out into the wilderness by myself and sit, watching and waiting. I have never physically seen or heard Jesus. In the material realm, all I have of him is the stories I have been told. Yet when I sit alone on the empty day, he is no less with me than on any other day.

It isn’t my reaching toward him, privately in meditation or longing, or publicly in Lutheran liturgical worship or Quaker waiting worship, that brings him into realness for me. And my fallenness, my fallen short-ness, doesn’t keep him from me.

He is just there. A historical person, demonstrating in the flesh, through the stories about him, all that a human being is capable of doing when in full relationship with God.

What, then, was so powerful for Jesus’ disciples—after their flight and betrayal and denial of him—that they could know him to be alive for them again?

Image by Carol BaileyIt was the simple, bone-deep realization that they still experienced the kinship with God which Jesus had enabled them to know before his death.

That kinship was not broken, cannot be broken.

As I wrote last Sunday:

“Jesus knows, God knows. Just wake up and follow him again. That’s all we can do.”

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,
Michael

I’ve been pondering the significance of the “Palm Sunday” story, and it was in my thoughts during Quaker meeting for worship this morning.

The earliest surviving version of the story is in the Gospel of Mark, written around 66-70 C.E., possibly in Syria, and excerpted here from The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 1994, pp. 39-40):

When they get close to Jerusalem, near Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, he sends off two of his disciples with these instructions:

“Go into the village across the way, and right after you enter it, you’ll find a colt tied up, one that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone questions you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ tell them, ‘Its master has need of it and he will send it back here right away’.”…

So they bring the colt to Jesus, and they throw their cloaks over it; then he got on it. And many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut leafy branches from the fields.

Those leading the way and those following kept shouting,

“Hosanna! Blessed is the one
who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!
“Hosanna” in the highest!

(Mark 11: 1-3, 7-10)

[Note from the translators: The disciples shout words from Psalm 118:25-26. Hosanna is a Greek transliteration of Hebrew words meaning “Save, we pray!”]

Those of us from Christian backgrounds, and others who are familiar with Christianity, tend to hear this story in the context of how we know the gospel “comes out” and of what we’ve learned the story is “supposed to mean” theologically.

This morning, though, I was simply considering the story in terms of the people around Jesus that day, and I wondered what that might say to us now.

They were people living under the joint rulership of a foreign invader and a local priesthood. They could be punished either for disobedience or for heresy…or merely for stepping out of their prescribed social classes and roles.

Some of them knew this man Jesus because he had brought them into his intimate circle. Others felt they knew him because they followed him around or heard gossip about him.

He both inspired and disturbed them all.

They wanted him to fill the role of their mythic heroes, to rescue them from the human beings in power over them…or at least to rescue them from their own failures.

“Hosanna. Save, we pray!”

Jesus, meanwhile, knew that he would likely be caught, tortured and killed by some combination of civil and religious intervention, once he entered Jerusalem. He wasn’t there to rescue anybody but simply to speak truth to power.

Those who spread their cloaks and waved branches, on the chance that Jesus might be their rescuer, later fled his captors in the garden, or jeered him on the road to Golgatha (“You failed to save us, imposter!”), or denied him fearfully in the high priest’s courtyard.

Today, those of us who long to stay true to the courageous, compassionate path Jesus shows us often stall in despair at our repeated failures to do so. It’s as if we flee or blame him or deny him, we are so disappointed in ourselves.

Yet I have gradually come to an unorthodox understanding of dynamics here. None of our failure is “fallenness.” It is merely part of normal, finite, fallible, hardwired primate survival behavior. God knows.

Or, rather, it is only “fallenness” in that we fall short of our better expectations of ourselves.

That means, then, that the forgiveness we need is not forgiveness from God. It is forgiveness from ourselves, forgiveness from those whom we hurt and betray and, perhaps, abandon when we fail.

Being human, Jesus knew the people around him—even those who loved him most dearly—were likely to fail in human ways. He asked them to watch and stay awake with him as he prayed in the garden before his capture (Mark 14: 31-42). He scolded them for sleeping. Yet he still loved them.

Today I thought of the Palm Sunday story in terms of my own failures. My anger at rude drivers on the road. My fear and avoidance of transients on the street. My struggle to center down—or even just to stay awake—in meeting for worship.

But I also thought:

Jesus knows, God knows.

Just wake up and follow him again. That’s all we can do.

And so it is.

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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