Praxis: Faith and Practice

It is a tradition among Quaker Yearly Meetings to have a sort of constitution. They usually consist of two parts. The first, often in the form of a collection of quotes, describes the uniquely Quaker view of God, man, society, faith. The second portrays the agreements by which the Yearly Meeting conducts business and puts its decsions into actions. This book is called by most Yearly Meetings “Faith and Practice.”

Faith and Practice. Our Quaker tradition has always emphasized the interchange between the two. Our practice is informed by our living faith, the actual experience of being led by the Spirit as we have divined it within our Meetings. That faith is nurtured and developed in its turn by the experience of seeking to live up to it in the world. I say “we” to emphasize the communal basis of this faith and this practice. It is an ancient Quaker discipline to test one’s leadings for clearness among other seasoned Friends, and within the wider Friends fellowship.

The Theology of Liberation as it has grown in Latin America and elsewhere has these same traits, given certain important cultural differences. Practice is informed by faith; faith is informed by practice; theological reflection requires participation in both, and within a community of the faithful. This is called “praxis.” Not an academic exercise, but the give and take of prayer, inspiration, creativity, reflection, repeated within relationships with their brothers and sisters in faith. This circle of activity, from the inner to the outer and back again, is known as praxis.

Theology thus comes out of a living faith — out of the struggle to embody our faith in our choices and actions. This is the only authority for doing theology. Everything else is notional: talk which resembles gossip about theology, not the doing of theology itself.

This undertaking is not easy, and only humility makes possible any measure of success. Simplistic answers, formulaic responses, and self-righteous certainty all display an aggressive, domineering attitude that produces only more oppression. Insistence on the prominence of certain scriptural texts, rather than viewing each in the light of the whole of scripture, for instance, is a sure recipe for the disaster which we see, enacted by our fellow humans every day all over the world. It leads to the failure of love and the imperium of ego. The thrust toward certainty is so appealing, so seductive, so misleading. Faith is not about certainty; at least, not that kind. The certainty of faith lies in knowing that God is with us even when all is dark and confusion reigns. A God whose will is known in every detail is no God at all, but an idol to our own narrow predilections, obsessions, and fears.

Humility tells us,always and everywhere, that it is better to be loved than to be right. Beware of those who tell you it is because they love you that they are telling you what to think or feel, as they put you on the rack.

To find fulfillment, a theology of liberation must address the needs of the middle class as well as the poor. This is not to contradict the “preferential option for the poor” which has been the hallmark of liberation theology since its inception. On the contrary, the middle class must learn to adopt that stance for themselves, within their own lives, in order to have an authentic faith. Not by pretending to be poor, not by a Lady Bountiful approach to charity, but by learning how to stand in solidarity with the poor, the outcast, the despised. the forgotten, the neglected.

The middle class should take joy in their opportunities for health, education, meaningful work, sufficient income, material comfort, relative freedom of choice and of behavior. The poor want these things for themselves, and by right should have them; to discount them would be to discount the reality of the struggles of the poor to achieve them.

From what, then, is the middle class to be liberated? From our complicity in the structures which which maintain oppression and privilege. From the smug self- absorption that supposes that everyone shares our values, preventing us from having real relationships with others. From greed. From our own aggressiveness. From prejudice of all sorts. From anxiety, the fear that no matter how much we have it is never enough. From feeling unloved and alone.

Liberation, though, is not just “freedom from.” It is also “freedom for”: for joy, for contentment, for love, for a sustainable prosperity. And there are the “freedom of’s”, natural to the citizens of a republic: of speech, of assembly, of religion, of the press, of being secure in our person and property. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

To enjoy any of these freedoms, we must work to see them extended to everyone. “An injury to one is an injury to all”, as the IWW preamble puts it.

God and Superstition

In a recent letter, a friend questioned whether belief in God is superstition. After all, one definition of superstition is “any blindly accepted belief or notion.” There is no fact or facts to which one can point, in a scientifically verifiable manner, to demonstrate that God exists. Here is my answer:

This is a great question. But this is too narrow a definition of superstition. Put that way, there are many things, commonly accepted, which would have to be called superstition. For instance, the idea that a human being has inherent dignity and worth cannot be proven on the basis of facts. Given some of the people I’ve known, there is evidence to the contrary. LOL.

And what about the Quaker belief in the Light Within? Do we actually know that there has never been a single person who did not have it? Some poor, soulless person, with less compassion or humanity than a dog or a cat? Again, I’ve known some of those. Yet it doesn’t change my belief in the Light Within, although I cannot prove it with evidence or fact. Nor would we call that a superstition, although some might.

Merriam-Webster gives as its first definition “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation,” and it is in that sense that I use the word. In that sense, there are ideas about God which are definitely superstitious, and others which are not.

This viewpoint changes over time. In the not-so-distant past, the Hindu pantheon was considered by most Westerners to be idolatry of the most superstitious sort. As we have come to comprehend the vast richness of the Hindu cosmology and the sophistication of its philosophy, we recognize that this polytheistic viewpoint is not based on “ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.” Yet, without considerable study of the subject, most people can be forgiven if they are not familiar with that.

So it is, in my experience, with most Westerners who consider themselves atheists or nontheists. Most; not all, let me hasten to add. Most have rejected, rightly enough, claims about the nature of God which are in fact superstitious and even idolatrous. Look at some of what passes for theology, especially among some of our more fundamentalistic churches, and I cringe, too. I read a blog post by a fellow who wanted to push a street corner preacher away from the microphone and tell the crowd “God is not a monster.” Amen to that.

Having rejected such ignorant trash, however, does not therefore establish that there is no God or that all ideas about God are superstition. Again, most can be forgiven for not having been exposed to some of the sublime conceptions of God which are anything but.

In the final analysis, though, faith in God is not about theology. It’s not about what we think or believe. It isn’t about which set of words are more true and which are more false. We do talk about things that matter to us, and so people will talk about God. But faith, properly put, is not the outcome of the words we use. The words are a pale attempt to describe the experience of faith. I might have difficulty describing the experience of eating a watermelon, of falling in love, of being overcome with grief at the loss of a loved one. It doesn’t mean that these experiences are any less valid for that. Addicts and alcoholics are constantly frustrated in their attempts to communicate what addiction is like to “earth people,” and yet just a few simple words in a 12 step meeting will bring about smiles of recognition, as the truth of his or her experience is shared by others who have been through the same thing.

The atheists and nontheists who I respect are those who admit freely that they have not had the experience of having a living relationship with God, and that it would be dishonest to pretend to believe even in the most philosophically defensible conception without such an experience. They do not claim that, on this basis, there can’t be a God, just that they have no way to say that there is. This has integrity.

Similarly, when I read your words “there really isn’t a non-superstitious way of conceiving of the Divinity”, I translate that in my mind to “I have not encountered a non-superstitious way of conceiving of the Divinity.” And I have no problem with that at all.

You know, I am a fan of “NCIS.” I started watching it because I always liked David McCallum, and was glad to see him back in a starring role on TV. I’ve seen Mark Harmon on many TV shows and movies, and always liked him, too. But the ideas I have of what either of those two men are like are totally based on performances they have given. They might be nothing like any of the ideas I have about who they are. They are actors; they portray a role. The actual experience of knowing them, as a friend or relative, might prove to be very different. Similarly, one who has not had the experience of a living relationship with God — and I don’t know you well enough yet to say whether this is true of you or not — will not find any of the words about God to be of much use, especially if they are honest with themselves about it.

When I talk about God, I feel as though I have left prose and moved into poetry, because all I know how to do is attempt to evoke the experience of God which I have. I don’t find I can say anything worthwhile about God in the way that we can describe natural processes such as the nature of light or Newton’s laws of thermodynamics.

There are ways of describing one’s relationship with the Divine which do not invoke a Deity at all. I am very drawn to them. While I am comfortable with the idea of  having a relationship with another living being and calling it God, I find great meaning in the Taoist notion of the Absolute which, while I would consider it to be divine or sacred in the broadest sense of those words, has absolutely nothing to do with any kind of entity. “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.” Yeah, buddy. Truer words were never spoken.

I distinguish between faith and belief. I have many beliefs, like duty, honor, and country, as the old phrase has it. I believe in the Scout Law: A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, reverent. Like Robert Duvall said in “Secondhand Lions”, it doesn’t matter whether these are true. I believe in them because they are the things one ought to believe in.

Faith, on the other hand, is a word with a special meaning for me. Faith is not belief. It runs deeper than that. I could substitute one belief for another, and still be me. Beliefs are ideas. Faith is my deepest response to the world. It is who I am, reaching out to what is, and being touched by it in turn. It doesn’t matter what words I use to express it, or whether I use words at all.

I don’t need proof of the beauty of a sunset, or of the quality of fine silk, or of the way a loved one’s smile can make your day. I don’t need proof that love is more powerful than hate, or that the truth will set you free. I don’t need proof of Bonnie’s love for me, or mine for her (although all those little demonstrations are wonderful.) These things are, because I would not be me if they were not. Faith in God has the same quality. It’s not rational; neither is it irrational, no more than the smell of a magnolia is rational or irrational. A magnolia would not be a magnolia without its fragrance. And I would not be me, at the most profound level, without my faith in God.

The Legitimate Difference of Opinion

If you don’t have the proper tools, you can’t get the job done. You can use a knife for a screwdriver, and get away with it some of the time, but sooner or later you will bugger the head on the screw and then what?
So, from time to time, I will talk about some tools that are needed for proper thinking.

Or, to be really clear, for doing philosophy.

The ancients understood that philosophy is the root of all understanding. What we now think of as “science” was called “natural philosophy” for instance. Yet the change in term, from natural philosophy to science, is revealing. Philosophy is not just about knowledge, it is love of wisdom. There is knowledge of a topic, and then there is wisdom about it. Much of our science has no wisdom at all. Our knowledge of how to do things has in so many cases far outstripped our understanding of whether or not they ought to be done. We can all think of numerous examples of technology gone haywire.

So, everyone does philosophy, whether they know it or not. Most people do applied philosophy — the search for understanding of one particular subject. When you learned to figure out unit prices in the grocery store — 4 quarts of milk costs twice what one gallon costs, although it is the same quantity — you were doing applied philosophy.

And then there is the kind of philosophy we think of when we commonly use that word: Socrates. Hume. Sankara. Nagarjuna. Wittgenstein. I’m not going to try to define it in this short post. No way. I’m just going to mention that and move on to the main point, having set it up.

So, tools for thinking. Tools for effective philosophy. Here’s one that is all too uncommon: the Legitimate Difference of Opinion. If I think a flat tax is the best way to balance the government’s need for money with the people’s ability to live free and prosperous lives, and you think that a progressive tax is a better way, we have an important difference of opinion. But it doesn’t mean that you are an evil usurper of people’s natural property rights, or that I am a greedy SOB who is insensitive to the human needs of my fellow citizens. You might care very much about fundamental rights as an important part of our national happiness, and I might be constantly on the lookout for ways to meet the needs of my neighbors. We just disagree about the way to get there.

All too often, in political debate especially but in most any arena you can think of, people do not recognize the legitimate difference of opinion. If you don’t agree with me, you are wrong, and furthermore bad. I see this all the time, in matters large and small. Among other things, such as displaying a certain kind of insecurity, and probably arrogance to boot, it is also intellectually dishonest.

And you can’t think straight — effectively — if you aren’t honest. Period.

Peacemakers’ Day

As the months passed by, a new life grew and developed in warmth, in darkness, in water. He was aware of sounds and activities from beyond, but these only rarely disturbed his dreams. Sometimes he explored the tiny bounds of his floating world.

Then things started to change. One thing led to another, and all of a sudden the water was gone and he was being compressed. A squeezing motion urged him along, until he emerged into a tumultuous world of light, of sensory stimulation, of new experience. Something happened and he started to breathe for the first time. Nothing ever returned him to that state of bliss, ever. Nursing and sleeping were pretty good, and he became interested in these kaleidoscopic new events, but it would never be quite like that again.

Something like this has a profound influence on a person. Not always traumatic, of course, but definitely not designed to make one think of the world as a place of peace and plenty. Many people, experiencing birth as a deprivation, spend the rest of their lives grasping for every kind of gratification they can, fearful that there will never be enough. Some of us are fortunate enough to have learned to be happy,

I imagine some part of that experience remains; more than a memory, perhaps a kind of primal urge. I imagine some part of us would like to go back there. I imagine …

Imagine gently floating
There’s nothing much to do
Nothing but warmth and darkness
and gentle motion too.

I imagine that many utopias have been built on those ancient, ancient memories. All of our needs met. No conflict.

This is not what peacemaking is about. True peacemaking sees the world as it is, not as some far-off misty dream of what it might be if everything were different from the way it is. True peacemaking makes sense of this wild world we are born into.

I have been fortunate to have known some of the movers and shakers of our times. Dr. Benjamin Spock slept in a room in my house when he campaigned for President on the People’s Party ticket in 1972. Cesar Chavez slept in that same room, a year later. I’ve met and worked with people as disparate as Stokely Carmichael of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine. As I detailed in a sermon a few years ago, I was fortunate that my life was touched by Philip Berrigan on a couple of occasions.

Peacemaking is an approach to situations of conflict. A peacemaker does not presume that, as a result of her activities, there will be no more conflict. Many of Gandhi’s best plans were based on the knowledge that they would be met with harsh conflict. Not to deliberately provoke violence, just the simple knowledge that violence would naturally ensue, and that the immorality of conditions would be thereby revealed for all of good will to see, and respond to.

The American Friends Service Committee was originally founded to provide alternate service for Quaker conscientious objectors during World War I. Seeing the misery and displacement the war had caused, they started to work with refugees. Eventually, as it evolved, its mission became to address the conditions which are the mother and father of war: ignorance, injustice, prejudice, and greed. There are those who have worked in the AFSC who believed that someday such efforts might eliminate war. There are many, many others –  in virtually all cases, those who were its most effective operatives – who believed that it was worth doing because it was worth doing, not because it might usher in some utopia. I have known some of them, too, such as John Looney of the Akron AFSC office in the late 60s and early 70s. John was one of the most peaceful people I’ve ever known, the very model of the modern Quaker. He rarely gave offense, and while he did not meekly accept offense, his approach to it was to resolve rather than to conquer it.

Phil Berrigan was cut from this same cloth. You never sensed that he despised the people who planned the wars or built the bombs. He was deeply afflicted by the tragic cost of violent conflict, but I never saw him cross the line into hatred.

This stood out in stark contrast to many others in the movement. I remember particularly well, at a founding meeting of the US Anti-Imperialism League, a young female communist who said “we are not the lovey-dovey peaceniks of our parents’ generation. We hate the injustice and violence and exploitation we see, and all of our plans are based on hate.” Well, there was more than a little truth in  what she said about the lovey-dovey peaceniks, who were all very nice to know but generally ineffectual in their protests. However, her answer to that is no less effective. Hatred does not replace Pollyannaism, if peacemaking is what you are after. A peacemaker has to know his opponents. He has to know that he has opponents. He has to understand that there is something entirely human which motivates them. He has to comprehend that unless those human needs are addressed, no resolution will be found.

I am so glad to have known men and women like this: real peacemakers, with clear eyes and strong minds and loving hearts, a will to action and a delight in recreation. Peacemakers who knew that they were not ushering in the Millenium, that the dawning of the age of Aquarius did not mean rainbows and unicorns and wandering gently over the meadow with Mao and Stalin or the guy who crunches an old lady’s skull on the sidewalk for her social security check. People who knew conflict, and met it time and again, without abandoning principle or purpose, even knowing that they would meet conflict again. This is bravery of the highest order, when there are no medals or uniforms or flags, no 21 gun salutes over the grave of the fallen or monuments on the courthouse square.

Those of you who know me, know how I respect and honor our military veterans. I often make use of casual contact with a soldier, sailor or Marine to thank them for their service. I mean it from the bottom of my heart. Jack Nicholson may have portrayed an unsavory character in the movie “A Few Good Men,” but he was exactly right when he proclaimed that “deep down in the places you don’t talk about, you want me on that wall.” Yes, I do. I have been to those places. I know the depravity of which the human heart is capable, and I want warriors willing to give their all to protect us from it. I admire them for it.

But there are other dark places in the human heart, too. Dark places which use words like honor, and freedom, and country, to perpetrate horrors which even today’s movie directors would flinch from depicting. And it is the peacemaker, not the warrior, who stands up against those. Not against the people; against the dark places that make people do terrible things. We know those dark places lurk in all people, and under the wrong circumstances, we are all capable of horror. It is for themselves, as much as those others, that the peacemaker does her duty.

I believe, just as surely as there should be days like Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day when we honor those who have served, and in some cases given life and limb, in our nation’s armed forces, there should be a day for the peacemakers, when we honor those who have served in these other ways. Many of them gave no less. We can start with the better-known, like Gandhi and King, who gave the last full measure of their devotion in service of the principles for which they lived. But what of the many unknowns? Unknowns such as my brother, who went into an uncertain and difficult exile rather than fight in a war which he believed to be wrong? Do they deserve no remembrance? When someone asks, did my brother serve in the Vietnam war, I reply, he sure did. He served the cause of humanity, and at such a cost to himself.

There is nothing that says that a member of the armed forces cannot be a peacemaker. Many of our greatest soldiers, sailors and Marines, having seen war first-hand, have been staunch advocates for peace. Likewise, there is nothing to prevent a peacemaker from being a warrior. When someone like the Quaker social worker Jane Addams goes into the most desperate neighborhoods of Chicago to help its residents lift themselves out of poverty, degradation and despair, there is a battle of a different sort being fought, but a battle nonetheless.

The first Mother’s Day, as we know it today, was celebrated in a church in Grafton, WV, in1908. Something similar had been proposed before, but it was on that day that our modern holiday became a reality. News of this occurrence spread across the nation, and by 1914, President Woodrow Wilson declared the 2nd Sunday in May to be a day to remember all mothers, alive or deceased.

Could not the same thing be done for a Peacemaker’s Day? Those brave and hardy souls, men and women alike, who have given so much for the cause of human understanding, deserve a day on which their sacrifices can be honored. Their bravery, sacrifice, and dedication are fully as worthy of recognition, for while our military forces serve to keep us free, our peacemakers serve to keep us human.

“War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.” (John F. Kennedy, Letter to Navy friend)

(The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of New Bern, NC, chose the 3rd Sunday in December to celebrate Peacemakers’ Day. Advent seemed appropriate, because Jesus is the Prince of Peace.)

The Name Becomes Clear

Why should I wish to see God better than this day?

I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass,

I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign'd
    by God's name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe'er I go,
Others will punctually come for ever and ever.

-- Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself", part 48