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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,

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.]


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 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-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.


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,


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:


On the Quaker Universalist Fellowship Facebook Group there is a thread of comments about this essay which I want to reproduce here (see

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.

Mike Shell

On Quaker Pagan Reflections, my dear F/friend Cat has posted a two-part open letter which poses questions and challenges for those of us who seek to transcend the illusory boundaries between Christian and non-Christian Quakers.

In Part 1 (also republished on Quaker Universalist Conversations, the blog of the Quaker Universalist Fellowship), Cat writes about becoming a convinced Friend while remaining “loyal to and part of the Pagan community that formed for me a soul capable of hearing a spiritual call….”

Cat invites Christian and non-Christian Friends alike to trust that “the Spirit is a magnificent translator. To those of us who are…staying low and open, also being courageous and present, She will grant the ability to ‘listen in tongues‘.”

What is required is to stay low to the Truth, not to hide it or apologize for it…. Do not share one syllable more of your Scriptures than the “Spirit that gave them forth” is speaking in you—but equally, do not share one syllable less.

When speaking from Spirit, use whatever language That Spirit lends you—and if that involves quoting from the Bible, speaking of your experiences of Christ, or sharing any other words that may be uncomfortable, for me or for you, do it! Do not be “nice” to anyone: be bold!

But do not speak beyond what is given you to say: be low.  Only be faithful in your speaking.

It’s not enough to speak your truth, as you experienced it once, years ago.  You must speak from love, in the present moment, and from Spirit, also in the present moment.

In Part 2 (also republished on Quaker Universalist Conversations), Cat voices a different challenge, one which calls for greater self-awareness on the part of all Friends who wish to be advocates for others.

I am beginning to suspect that we Quakers have a disturbing tendency to objectify, through our pity or our zeal, those we want to feel ourselves to be “helping.” I think I’ve seen us do it to our youth; I think I’ve seen us do it around race; I think I’ve seen us do it around social class, educational background, and mental health.

Somehow, deep down, many of us with privilege begin to think of ourselves as saviors, and to see those with less privilege as Others, as objects, as charity cases….

[While] it is indeed good to speak out against injustice, we need to do so with some humility.  Listen before you speak on the concerns of others.  Is it Spirit’s yearning for justice that’s driving you to your feet, or your ego’s yearning for importance?

If it’s the first, rise up!  If the second… hang back.  Wait and see if there’s a better leading about to break in.

Be bold but low; it turns out to be a theme.


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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