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In a recent post on Quaker Pagan Reflections, the blog he shares with his helpmate Cat, Peter Bishop of Mt. Toby (MA) Friends Meeting has given me a phrase which I believe speaks to the heart of Quaker faith and practice.
Peter writes about “how difficult it is to express in words what worshiping in silence means to us,” even across the perceived barriers within Quakerism itself:
I see [some] Friends…using Christian language and Biblical reference points to anchor themselves in the deep, spiritual dimensions of their practice. It works for them—works so well, in fact, that if they were asked to give up the particularity of Christian myth, they would feel robbed of their voice, unable to speak about their religious experience at all.
That same Christian language is deeply alienating to [other] Friends, who often come to Quakerism as refugees from Christian churches of the kind Jesus was talking about when he said,
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” (Matthew 23:13 NIV)
Talking to one another across this kind of theological divide is hard. It is hard enough that many liberal Friends shy away from talking at all about what happens in worship, afraid of giving offense or of being offended, afraid of being shut down or told to shut up. We worship together in the deep intimacy of silence, but…often we rely on mind-reading when really we need to be talking.
Peter continues by describing the situation in New England Yearly Meeting.
As part of both Friends General Conference and Friends United Meeting, NEYM includes a wide spectrum from the very liberal to the evangelical. In past years, I used to describe us as “teetering on the brink of schism,” but this past year we seemed to push through to a place of greater unity.
The phrase that came out of the 2011 Sessions was “listening in tongues,” and it describes the way liberals and evangelicals can try to hear into one another’s language, metaphors, and mythology, getting down to the root experience of worship that we all share.
There is the key phrase: listening in tongues.
Peter describes clearly the dilemma of all people of benevolent faith in this pluralistic modern world. The first Friends all “spoke Christian”—though in bold and idiosyncratic ways—because all the Europeans of their day shared the common Christian mythos. Now, knowing that people across the world express such faith in many religious and non-religious languages, we long to affirm and embrace them all, yet we often do not know how to hear or to be heard across the boundaries of our differing belief systems.
I experience this dilemma in my own meeting, as well as in the larger non-Quaker world. The predominant mode of public expression both in meeting and among my many friends and colleagues is liberal humanism. Even if individual faith and practice arise for some from private religious experience, these dear folks do as Peter describes so well. They never speak publicly in religious language. They rarely describe whatever faith sustains them in private.
I share this shyness, yet increasingly it leaves me uncomfortable. My discomfort has to do with the disconnect between the way I experience my faith and practice personally and the carefully non-religious language of my meeting and my friends. I am universalist in my beliefs, yet I am also one of those Peter describes as “using Christian language and Biblical reference points to anchor themselves in the deep, spiritual dimensions of their practice.”
My father was a Lutheran minister, my mother, the daughter of a Lutheran minister. They were both 1950s liberals. In their parenting they witnessed to a welcoming God who knows no boundaries between people, not a jealous God who imposes orthodoxies. It was therefore easy and natural for Christianity to become my “native language” of faith and practice.
By the time I reached seminary in 1972, though, I was wrestling with Peter’s dilemma. Along with my teachers and fellow students, I was seeing more deeply into the personal and communal realities to which Christian theology and practice at its best can point. Even so, I stumbled over this religion’s perceived exclusion of the non-Christian people whom I had come to know and affirm in college.
More immediately crucial for me, inner truth was finally compelling me to come out as a homosexual man. At that time the Lutheran church did not yet welcome such people into the ministry. After one term I left seminary, found a gay-friendly community in which to live and work, and gradually learned to integrate this essential dimension of myself into my personal and public life. Without intending to, though, in the process of coming out of the gay closet I hid Christianity away in a closet of its own. My faith in God went with me, but for several decades I could not in good conscience use the religious language of my birth.
What brought me back to that language, some years after my becoming a convinced Friend, was the leading to reclaim the religious awareness of my childhood. Not the belief system, but the experience. Doing so revealed to me that the Jesus of my childhood—Jeshua, the historical man of Galilee—is still my master and teacher.
I know privately what such religious metaphors represent for me. I do not mean “master and teacher” in the doctrinally defined Christian sense, nor do I mean it in the mundane sense of a historical “wise man” whose teachings I follow. In the way my brain uses its imaginative powers to symbolize and personify transformative inner experience, it is as if I know Jesus as a person who is still present, teaching me.
Here is Peter’s dilemma on the most intimate level. How do I speak with either orthodox Christians or refugees from Christendom or non-Christians or non-religious people, without their learned associations with “Christian language and Biblical reference points” getting in the way of hearing what I actually long to share with them? How do I hear them past my own assumptions about the deeper meaning of their various languages?
Some years ago on this blog I wrote:
I have come to understand that no religious language, whether in scripture, in doctrine, in written or spoken ministry, or in personal testimony, describes the ultimate Reality in any objective way. Rather, at its best such language can only describe the human experience of interaction with that Reality.
This is not because the Real is unknowable, but because human language is limited. Even at its most articulate, the human brain is not able to abstract its intimate experience into concepts and symbols which are at once fully nuanced and also wholly unambiguous to others.
How can we share with each other our common experience of this one Reality, and yet allow that our individual relationships with it are idiosyncratic and, in their inmost core, inexpressible?
This challenge remains at the heart of my efforts to live my faith with others and to help them give voice to their own faiths. How do we teach each other—how do we allow ourselves to be taught—the blessed talent of “listening in tongues”?
and that not merely perhaps, because of the tendency in His children to word-worship, false logic, and corruption of truth,
but because He would not have them oppressed by words,
seeing that words, being human, therefore but partially capable, could not absolutely contain or express what the Lord meant,
and that even He must depend for being understood upon the spirit of His disciple.
Seeing it could not give life, the letter should not be throned with power to kill.
George MacDonald: an anthology,
edited by C.S. Lewis (entry 178)
I want to introduce my readers to an interesting and useful blog called God Didn’t Say That: Bible Translations and Mistranslations, by Joel M. Hoffman.
This is a resource which I’m just beginning to explore, yet it clearly addresses a core concern of mine: the complications for faith and practice created by incorrect or careless or ideological or overly simplistic translations of sacred texts.
Here’s the opening of the latest post:
I think John 3:17 (like John 3:16) shows us three things: potential traps in translation, typical patterns of some of the common Bible translations, and the importance of paying attention to detail.
The point of John 3:17 is pretty simple (even if the theology is deep): God didn’t send Jesus into the world in order to condemn it, but rather in order for the world to be saved through him.
To me, the line contrasts two possibilities: (1) God sent Jesus to condemn the world; and (2) God sent Jesus for the world to be saved through him. John 3:17 explains that it’s the second one.
And the line presents two aspects of the second possibility: the world will be saved — we can call this (2a) — and, furthermore, the world will be saved through Jesus (2b).
Yet I haven’t found any translation that conveys (1) versus (2a) and (2b) accurately.
I encourage readers to take a look at this blog.
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.
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.