Letters from the Street

Philosophy, theology, and whatever else crosses my mind.

Category: God

Growth and the Society of Friends

[Something along these lines was given me to share at Meeting for Worship on Saturday, April 27 at the Representative Body gathering of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative.) Often, when I have shared, I can sit down with the feeling that I have discharged the burden. This isn’t one of those times. The message would not leave me alone, and I found that I needed to  develop it further. So here it is, after another week’s work in thought, meditation, prayer, research, note-taking, etc.]

The subject of growth and decline is a common one among Quakers. I have heard Friends moan for as long as I have been a member about declining numbers, meetings being laid down, and so forth.

Most of the time, I find these statements to be sincere but misguided.

Let’s begin with the Society of Friends itself, and the nature of our testimony and mission in the world. (I’m not foolish enough to try to define “nature of our testimony and mission in the world” in one short blog post. I’m going to assume some familiarity with that among my readers, or at least a willingness to Google it and read an article or two on the Net.) What we represent, and especially our foundational declaration of that Light which enlightens all humanity, may have universal applicability, but does not have universal appeal. We may believe that there is that of God in everyone, but not everyone rejoices to hear this.

There are those who could care less about religion or spirituality. A lot of them. I won’t venture to propose a percentage, but if we were slicing a pie, it would be a big slice. So set that number off to the side.

Then there are people who are satisfied to remain in the faith in which they grew up. They don’t have questions. They aren’t seeking something else. I don’t blame them. Most of us make many decisions this way, without reflecting that we are doing so. The places we like to live, the clothes we like to wear, the people we like to hang out with, all of these choices are influenced one way or another by the experiences we had as youngsters. Quakerism has always been most successful among Seekers. Most people are not Seekers. Set aside another large slice of pie.

Then there are those who want an authority to tell them what to do, think, feel. That authority could be a priest, it could be a dogma, it could be a ritual, it could be a tradition. Whatever it is, it provides a kind of security that a whole lot of people find sorely lacking in their lives. If they can find it in religion, they grab it and don’t let go. Security is the second of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I have no argument with those who find it in this way. My heart goes out to them. I’m genuinely glad for them. Another large slice of pie, off to the side.

That pie is looking mighty small by now.

Then there are those who are willing to reconsider the faith of their youth, want to find a faith that speaks to them deeply, are willing to risk all to find it, whose particular combination of abilities, character, personality, preference, etc. leads them to find what they are seeking in a branch of the Christian community other than among Friends. I consider Dorothy Day, for instance, as a fellow traveller, but she found what she was seeking in Catholicism. Martin Luther King, Jr., found it in the Baptist church. The Wesleys, Alexander Campbell, and others had to establish their own communions. Emerson and Thoreau, who would have been highly influential Quakers had they chosen that route, found it outside of any organized body. Whitman, who grew up among Friends and remarked to Hamlin Garland in 1888 that “I am a good deal of a Quaker,” found it in poetry.

Even less of the pie is left. From where are we to draw thousands of new Friends, as some seem to want to do?

Moving from that strictly quantitative approach, I would like to ask if we are so arrogant as to believe that bunches of folks, already members of churches from Catholicism and the mainstream Protestants, to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter Day Saints, and all the little one-horse churches dotting the landscape with names like “God’s House of Prayer,” will suddenly abandon their former affiliations because, by golly, they’ve been wrong all along and suddenly realize that they must be Quakers?

To end our consideration of quantity, let me say this: It is odd that such a worldly yardstick should be used to measure a spiritual body. Ad men, Nielsen raters, sports promoters, and the like may well use such a criterion. It is important to the success of their trade. But we are not tradesmen. The profit we seek is not money, fame, prestige or power.

Growth doesn’t have to be in numbers. Growth can be in depth, richness, seasoning. Growth can mean that we are more thoroughly following the leading of that Light we proclaim. As the Bhagavad Gita says, “Do your duty to the best of your ability, thinking always of the Lord, abandoning worry and selfish attachment to the results, and remaining calm in both success and failure.”

The story of Gideon is instructive. In the 6th chapter of the book of Judges, we learn that God had a task for Gideon to do, to deliver Israel from oppresion. “Pardon me, my Lord,” Gideon replied, “but how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” The Lord answered, “I will be with you.” Gideon was the least of his clan, which was the weakest. It was not his strength or numbers that God wanted, but his faithfulness. God doesn’t explain how things will work out, he just says “I will be with you.” Trust me. Do what I ask, without attachment to the results. Let me handle the rest.

In Judges 7, Gideon shows up with 32,000 men to fight the Midianites. He figures this is how it is done. It’s what the Midianites themselves would do. God tells him it is too many men. He pares the army down to 10,000 men by letting all who are afraid go home. But this is still too many. God doesn’t want the Israelites to think they have won the victory by their own strength. And they would have. Most of us would, too. Pride wants to take credit for every success and avoid responsibility for every failure, today as much as in Gideon’s time. God trims the army down even further, to 300 men. 300! Less than one percent of the 32,000 who first showed up! The author of Judges doesn’t tell us how many Midianites there are, just that their camels numbered more than the sands on the seashore. Taking on an army of that size with 300 men is an act of radical faith. This is definitely a case of “abandoning worry and selfish attachment to the results.”

In Alcoholics Anonymous, the 11th Tradition states that AA is a program of attraction, rather than promotion. What about the program would make it attractive? It is this: people who work the 12 steps have their lives transformed, from the powerlessness, despair and wreckage of alcoholism to a vital spiritual life which is reflected in selfless service to others as well as personal metamorphosis. AA groups in which few members are living the 12 steps in their daily lives tend to be lifeless. Groups in which most people are working the steps are radiant. Anyone who has been around AA long enough can attest to the truth of this.

Some other germane verses from the Bible:

‘This is what the LORD says: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?” declares the LORD. “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” — Isaiah 66: 1-2

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.” John 15:1-7

A friend of mine who pastors a  vigorous, spirited church which has grown from a small group to several hundred in a few short years agrees with what I am saying here. It is the health of the vine that counts. If the vine has exuberant good health, it will produce good fruit. In some cases, that may mean numbers. The impact on lives will be seen in how many lives are touched. His church is living proof of that. In other cases, the fruit may be few in number but have an impact which is farther-reaching than might be expected. We have many evidences of that in Quaker history, from Mary Fisher who walked from Greece to Adrianople to meet with the Sultan of Turkey, to the physicist Arthur Stanley Eddington, among whose other accomplishments are included the experimental measurement of the bending of light near the Sun during a solar eclipse which furnished the first real proof  of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

I won’t say it doesn’t matter what the outcome is; it matters very much. I wouldn’t want to be interpreted as saying that a little lethargy couldn’t hurt. What I am saying is that if we are true to the Light as it is given to each of us, we can safely leave the outcome in the hands of the Great Architect of the Universe.

Faustus Socinus and the Roots of Modern Christianity

[As I have said in earlier posts, it is not necessary to believe in superstition or medieval concepts in order to be a Christian. Here is the story of one man who, many centuries ago, made remarkable sacrifices to help formulate the Christian faith in such a way that a modern person could adhere to it without betraying reason or knowledge.]

Fausto Sozzini, or in Latin form Faustus Socinus as he is usually known, was born in 1539 to a wealthy Italian family. The Reformation was in full flower as he grew up and the ideas of Luther and others were fermenting all over Europe. Luther himself was interested mainly in establishing the authority of the Bible, as opposed to that of the church hierarchy, and of cleaning up the corruption in the church. Many of his contemporaries went further. Some of them, such as Michael Servetus and Thomas Munzer, preached against the idea of the Trinity and the practice of infant baptism. Socinus’ uncle Laelio Sozzini was involved in this movement, which we call the Radical Reformation, and influenced Faustus immeasurably. Laelio learned Greek and Hebrew so he could read the Bible in the original, and found that much of the church’s doctrine was directly contradictory to Scripture. Laelio had a fascinating life, living in various cities in Italy and Switzerland, and knew many of the Reformation’s outstanding figures.

At the age of 21 Socinus went to Lyon, France, and was probably engaged in a mercantile business. A year later he shows up in Geneva, Switzerland, but there is no evidence that he ever came under the sway of John Calvin. Letters from this time show that he was already formulating a more radical Protestant theology, asserting that Jesus was not essentially divine — in other words, that he was not born both God and Man. He returned to Italy and lived as a member of the court of Grand Duke Cosimo Medici in Florence for many years. During this time he had many literary pursuits — he loved to write poetry — but was not remarkably fertile as a theologian.

When Duke Cosimo died in 1574, Socinus traveled back to Switzerland and never returned to Italy. In the safer theological atmosphere of Basel he once again began to publish theological works. From Basel, Socinus traveled to Transylvania. There were many there who had rejected the idea of the Trinity. The interchange between Socinus and the Transylvanian anti-trinitarians is one of the principal threads in the development of modern-day Unitarianism. Socinus left Transylvania for Poland in May of 1579, where there were many others of like mind. He remained in Poland until his death in 1604. He was a major influence on the development of the Polish Brethren, a dissenting church which forms another thread in the development of a non-supernatural way of participating in the Christian faith.

What were his principal beliefs? I’ve already alluded to his rejection of the Trinity, the idea that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are somehow separate yet one and the same. He says that Jesus was not born the Son of God. He suggests that, when the gospel of John says “In the beginning there was the Word,” this means in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, not the beginning of the Creation. Jesus was the Son of God because he became like God. The Holy Spirit is not a separate being from God, either, but simply the activity of God’s power and presence among us.

Socinus also disagreed with the idea that Jesus died on the cross for the remission of sins. Stephen David Snobelen tells us that “Fausto Socinus rejected the orthodox satisfaction theory of the atonement, a theory that held that God’s wrath was appeased or satisfied through Christ’s death on the cross, a sacrifice that involved a sort of legal transaction in which Christ died as a substitute for humans. Socinus held that the view that held that God was a wrathful deity who demanded the satisfaction of a legal transaction prior to granting atonement for the sin’s of men and women was inconsistent with an understanding of God’s grace. Instead, Socinus argued that God has the right to grant atonement and eternal life freely, without any transaction. Socinus believes it unjust for God to ask men and women to forgive each other freely, if he does not do so himself. There is in Socinus’ model of the atonement a greater stress placed on Christ’s crucifixion as exemplary of an ethic of self-sacrifice to which humans should aspire.”

Socinus did not believe in original sin, thus there was no need for justification. Socinus considered it absurd that some would be saved and others predestined to be damned to hell, as Calvin taught.

Socinus believed that the rewards of the Christian life were not to be won simply in saying that you believe in what Jesus taught, but by doing what Jesus taught. He took the demands of the Sermon on the Mount as binding on all Christians, and was a pacifist.

He denied that God’s omniscience means that God knows everything that is going to happen. Free will prevents this. Since people can make their own choices, no one including God can know everything that will take place. If there is no free will, then God must be the cause of sin. This, Faustus said, was absurd. Therefore there must be free will, and if there is, then foreknowledge cannot be said to exist.

Finally, while Socinus and his followers believed in miracles such as the virgin birth, they also said that religion should not contradict natural reason, or what we would today call scientific understanding. The rise of such beliefs in Europe, of which Socinus was an early pioneer, led to what we call the Enlightenment, or the philosophy of thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke, and Hume. The spirit of the Enlightenment played a large part in the formation of the American experiment in self-government, believing as they did in the rule of reason and law, and the separation of church and state.

After Socinus’ death, the Polish government was taken over for a time by counter-reformers, zealots for Catholicism and the more conservative branches of the Protestant movement. The doctrines of churches such as the Polish Brethren were outlawed, and members had three years to either convert to an accepted church or to leave. Many of the Polish Brethren fled to the Netherlands, where religious toleration was still practiced.

Socinus’ ideas had considerable influence over Isaac Newton. Newton was found to have had many Socinian books in his library upon his death, and they all gave evidence of having been studied. Four of them were written by Socinus himself. By contrast, there were only two books by Martin Luther and one by John Calvin. In addition, Newton had correspondence with several Socinians, and appears to have helped fund the publication of one of their works.

While not a Socinian as such, Newton did not believe in the Trinity. His attitude towards the Atonement was similar to Socinus, in that he did not believe that Jesus’ death on the cross was a payment for our sins. Like Socinus, he studied the early history of the Christian church and found that such doctrines as the Trinity and the Atonement were either absent or were only one among many, quite distinct from the position of orthodoxy those precepts later obtained.

In England at one time, the term Socinian was used to denote any of the more radical forms of the Protestant church. My own Society of Friends was often labeled Socinian, although strictly speaking they were not. There are some parallels, such as the pacifism and the use of empirical reasoning in matters of faith.

I had heard of the “Socinian heresy” many times in my own studies. In those brief descriptions I saw something that seemed interesting and which resonates with my own views. Running across his name in a book again quite recently, I thought I would like to find out more who this Socinus guy was. As I learned more about him, I discovered how much his view of religion parallels my own. It’s almost like doing some genealogy and finding an interesting ancestor in your family tree.

Quaker Plain III: A Plain Spirit

In 1973, I had the good fortune to meet the noted anthropologist, Indologist, and Hindu monk Swami Agehananda Bharati. At the time he was a professor at Syracuse University. I had read his superb autobiography, The Ochre Robe, earlier that year. His love for India, its philosophy and culture, was evident. Even more important was his approach: not blind passion but a clear and seasoned and realistic mind went hand in hand with the love. It’s an unusual and heady mix.

For this great man of letters to spend a few hours with a budding philosopher, and treat him to supper at a nice restaurant, was more extraordinary than I was able to appreciate at the time. I don’t remember much of what we talked about, but I do remember that his spirit was the same in person as it had been in his book: lively, energetic, clarity of thought, and a no-nonsense approach that is uncommon among spiritual people.

One thing I do remember that he told me was that the Tibetan lama, Chogyam Trungpa, whose writings I had been introduced to in the same class in which we read The Ochre Robe, was starting a college in Boulder, Colorado which would offer a high quality, classical Buddhist education. It was to be called “The Naropa Institute”, and would open for a summer session in 1974. He told me that Trungpa’s reputation was such that top scholars and practitioners from all over the world were vying for spots on the faculty, and that someone who was really serious about learning this stuff, as opposed to someone who likes to think of themselves as the kind of person who knows about this kind of stuff, would be well-advised to be there.

Well, I could not go in 1974, although my brother Jeff did. I went in 1975. It was every bit as good as Agehananda had said it would be. He himself was not on the faculty, but came to give a lecture one night. I had a chance to renew our acquaintance with him after the lecture. He remembered me, and was pleased that I had taken his advice.

I took part in a seminar called “Intensive Buddhist Studies.” For the entire session, a small group of about 20 of us lived together, studied together, ate together, meditated together, played together. It was a fascinating group of people of both genders, all ages from teens through seniors, and many different backgrounds. We took several core courses together, such as Buddhist history, Buddhist philosophy, and Buddhist meditation practice. We meditated together two hours every morning and again every evening, all day on Saturday, half days on Sunday.

I could go on and on about all the transformations that either happened or were initiated during this time. It was a remarkable experience, one for which I will always be grateful. For my present purpose, I want to focus on just one aspect, which was the influence of Chogyam Trungpa’s lectures and his book, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.

When I first read this book, I realized why he and Agehananda Bharati had such a respect and fondness for each other. They both had the same kind of uncompromising, cut-through-the-malarkey approach. If you were to read only one book about Buddhism in your entire life, I would recommend this one without hesitation. In it, Trungpa talks about the development of Buddhism over the centuries, not just in its historical aspect, but how each phase of its development reflects psychological states which we ourselves encounter in real life all the time. And, most importantly, through it all he wove his message of cutting through spiritual materialism.

Which is the heart of the present essay. If part of being a plain Quaker is to eliminate as much as possible the effect of materialism in our lives, how much more important is it to recognize and eliminate spiritual materialism.

What is spiritual materialism? Glad you asked.

In the opening chapter of the book, Trungpa says “We have come here to learn about spirituality. I trust the genuine quality of this search but we must question its nature. The problem is that the ego can convert anything to its own use, even spirituality … This rationalization of the spiritual path and one’s actions must be cut through if true spirituality is to be realized. However, such rationalizing is not easy to deal with because everything is seen through the filter of the ego’s philosophy and logic, making all appear neat, precise, and very logical … And our effort is so serious and solemn, so straightforward and sincere, that it is difficult to be suspicious of it … It does not matter what we use to achieve self-justification: the wisdom of sacred books, diagrams or charts, mathematical calculations, esoteric formulae, fundamentalist religion, depth psychology, or any other mechanism … we may eventually find ourselves possessed of a huge collection of spiritual paths. We may feel these spiritual collections to be very precious. We have studied so much. We may have studied Western philosophy or Oriental philosophy, practiced yoga, or perhaps have studied under dozens of great masters. We have achieved and we have learned. We believe that we have accumulated a hoard of knowledge … Our vast collections of knowledge and experience are just part of ego’s display, part of the grandiose quality of ego. We display them to the world and, in so doing, reassure ourselves that we exist, safe and secure, as ‘spiritual’ people.”

Now, he was talking to a group of people who were interested in Buddhism. It is very easy to see how someone might feel themselves to be special, a really open-minded and outstanding person, because here they are in a Western country and here they are, studying this exotic religion. Wow!

If we are not able to see how this applies to people who are not following such an exotic path, who were perhaps raised Christian and/or Quaker and for whom this seems very ordinary, very common, then we are not able to see how the ego can use any spiritual path or practice to strengthen its own position.

Let’s say you were looking around for a spiritual home and you found the Religious Society of Friends. There was something so deeply moving about the unprogrammed form of worship, in which a direct experience of God could and often did happen. At first this experience is so profound, so direct, and in its own way so simple. It just is, and you didn’t find any need to analyze it or even talk much about it. But then you went to Meeting for Worship and it was kind of dry and nothing much happened. Where was all that God experience? And you felt a loss, and started trying to reclaim it. In fact, you tried to possess it. You wanted it at your beck and call. And you were in the grips of spiritual materialism.

Or maybe you were touched by the Quaker peace testimony and found yourself taking part in various activities to reduce conflict and support reconciliation. Sometimes difficult, sometimes frustrating, sometimes impossible, but always the pull of your own heart and your awakened spirit kept you going. And then one day you find yourself talking to someone of a militaristic and you find yourself proudly and contentiously declaring “But I am a pacifist.” And you are in the grip of spiritual materialism.

Or perhaps you are attracted to the richness of Quaker history and tradition. You enjoy reading the early history of our Society and find the journals and letters of early Friends to be full of the most wonderful experience and wisdom. You can really connect with how the things they went through relate to things that happen today, and you benefit a lot by learning from their successes and failures. And then one day you find yourself mimicking early Friends’ patterns of speech or dress, not because you are led to do so ineluctably by the Inner Light, but because you want others to know that you feel this deep kinship with our Quaker forebears. And you are in the grip of spiritual materialism.

In each of these examples, something wonderful, rich, powerful and direct has been subtly turned into an object of desire, something to grasp and possess, something with which to feed the ego’s desire to be special, to be noticed, to be admired. Even though the spiritual impact of these things is beyond question, they have been misappropriated or co-opted by the ego for its own purposes. This does not erase any genuine value that these things have had or still have for you. It just means that you will get no further spiritual benefit from them so long as they are objectified in this way for you. It may also mean that your spiritual growth in every area will become stunted or stagnant, depending on how powerful the ego-possession has become.

Jesus was aware of this. He said, for instance, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:5-8) In other words, don’t make a show of it; keep it real, an honest relationship between you and God without public display for the sake of public recognition.

For that matter, Jesus himself felt the temptations of spiritual materialism. In the famous passage in which Jesus is tempted to command stones to become bread, to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple to show that the angels would bear him up, and to possess all the kingdoms of the world in all their splendor, each of these is designed to gratify the ego and lead away from God. Look! I can do magic! Look! I am specially loved by God! Look! I am powerful over all! In each instance, Jesus’ answer shows that he would not use his spiritual stature for self-gratification. He is focused on God, not his own pride.

In Quaker Plain I, I noted that for me plainness has more to do with being humble than it does with being good. The problem of spiritual materialism is a good example of why. Being good can very easily lead to self-righteousness, one of the most unlovely forms of spiritual materialism. Humility never does. You have to stop practicing humility in order to fall into spiritual materialism. There is no greater safeguard against it.

“Even the Devil quotes Scripture.” There is nothing which may be of a genuine spiritual nature which cannot be turned to the ego’s gratification — except humility. If we make humility the hallmark of our practice, we will be much less likely to fool ourselves into believing that we are such fine religious fellows after all, worthy of personal and public adulation.

Some day, when I learn more about it, I will try to say more about humility. Yeah, sure, LOL and all that, but I am still learning and can’t really say much more. Perhaps I say this much, in order to remind myself of how important it is.

[You may not be interested in Buddhism at all. But if you want to know more about spiritual materialism, or to have an encounter with an authentic and heartfelt spiritual tradition, by all means take the time to read Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. I have read it once or twice every decade since 1975, and still get something new every time. It is the best of Trungpa’s books, and destined to be a spiritual classic of the same stature as, for instance, St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul.]

Quaker Plain II: Plain Dress

When I wrote “Quaker Plain I,” I had no idea it would be the most-read essay yet on “Letters From The Street.” Nor the most-commented. Yet so it was.

Now, I hope it was clear in context that plainness encompasses a wider scope than clothing. So I was a bit surprised that dress took up so much of the reaction. Probably shouldn’t have been. Reading around on various blogs concerned with plainness, it’s a frequent topic.

I didn’t plan to address the concern this soon, but I’m going to. If it is that present in so many minds, then it deserves consideration. While my main concern is to learn what plainness means in our contemporary context, looking at specific examples may well help to draw that out.

OK. I hope we all know there’s no standard for plain dress among 21st century Friends. We are, to a great extent, on our own. We can’t tell each other what to do, but we can learn from each other.

So, in the absence of clear direction, I want to talk about some guidelines that have been helpful for me.

First, dressing plain is a spiritual discipline. Like any important feature of our lives, it has overtones in other areas, such as the political, economic, or cultural realms. I’m not saying we shouldn’t address those; we just might. But primarily, we do it because it depends upon and enriches our relationship with God.

How does this happen? As Quakers, we try to follow the Spirit in all of our lives, and to make each moment sacramental. There are many ways to do this; one of them is by being conscious of our clothing choices and allow God to guide us, even in this mundane way.

A commenter on the last essay said, “God doesn’t care how we dress.” Yes, and No. I don’t think it is terribly important to God whether I wear khakis or Quaker grey. I doubt if He cares whether I wear a broadbrim or a ball cap. I’m sure He couldn’t care less about the number of pleats in a woman’s bonnet, or whether she prefers a bonnet to a scarf. In that sense, our friend is quite right. Our Lord has bigger fish to fry.

And, Yes He does. He cares about the most mundane items of our lives, down to the number of hairs on our heads. How can both of these statements be true? Because He doesn’t care about khakis as khakis; He won’t strike me down or lift me up for wearing one thing or another. He cares about how the choices I make reflect our relationship. Every last choice, not just clothes or whether I tithe or whether our babies have water sprinkled on their foreheads or whether we eat fish on Friday. When I let Him into every aspect of my life, I have to be prepared to be led in ways that may seem peculiar, especially in our materialistic, indulgent, and individualistic society (which, for brevity’s sake, I am going to call “the world” from now on.) And if that means that I feel led to dress a certain way in order to hold faith with God, so be it. Your opinion of that is none of my business.

In former times, Friends used to talk a great deal about “the hedge.” This was a reference to how our distinctive testimonies and practices separated us from “the world”. I’m going to digress for a bit here, and then get back to the point.

In Alcoholics Anonymous, the newcomer often feels grateful for the anonymity part of the program. He thinks it protects him from having other people know that he is coming to meetings, that he is an alcoholic, that his social status will not be sullied.

Ha. Little does he know, although he usually finds out when he gets to the “making amends” phase of the program (Steps 8 and 9), that most people already have no doubt whatsoever about his drinking. Whatever damage may have been caused to his social status has already been caused by his own behavior. Joining Alcoholics Anonymous and working the Steps, far from besmirching his image, inclines most people he knows to think better of him. But if thinking that anonymity protects him from the scorn of others helps to soothe those anxious, timid newcomer feelings, so be it. Whatever it takes to get someone in the door and get them active, right?

What he finds out as he progresses is that anonymity is not meant as a protection for him. It is an expression of a spiritual principle that lies at the heart of the program: humility. Humility, as practiced in AA, has to do with unpretentiousness. The alcoholic has already suffered from an ego that has made him feel both better than and worse than he really is. Humility makes him “right-sized.” Neither better nor worse, just him as he really is, a garden-variety drunk trudging the road to happy destiny. He is anonymous because he doesn’t go around making a big deal of his involvement with AA, not because he is afraid for people to know. His ego, always a problem while drinking, is both in check and at peace.

And, given the nature of drunks in general, anonymity also protects the Fellowship of AA. It ensures that one person, or group of people, will not try to hog the spotlight and give an impression of AA that is inadequate, limited, or just plain wrong. It ensures that, if some highly visible person such as an actor or sports figure should join AA and then get drunk again, the lapse will not be laid at AA’s feet.

Now, let’s think about the hedge. For some, the hedge may have been a guarantor of their sanctity. If they talked, dressed, and acted as Quakers were supposed to, then they would not be as likely to fall away from the faith they had found. Less likely to sin, less likely to offend. Yes, the hedge functioned that way, to protect the individual from himself. But that was not the most important function of the hedge.

As Lloyd Lee Wilson explains in his book of essays on Gospel Order, becoming a Quaker meant assimilating a point of view in which God’s creation is known as perfect, and in which one thinks and feels and behaves in such a way as to live within that perfection. The hedge was not there so much to protect us from “the world”, as to remind us that we are not part of it, that we are part of the order of creation as God intended. It reminds us to live, not “as though” the Sermon on the Mount is our present reality, but because the Sermon on the Mount is our present reality. In most churches, the Kingdom is something in the future, or perhaps after death. Not so for Friends. The Kingdom is now.

The hedge could be abused, and was abused, as an instrument of control by the Quaker establishment. It gradually ceased to perform the function that it was intended to serve. And so, during a period of time around a century ago, the various bits and pieces of the hedge were relinquished. In some ways this is good. Peculiarity for the sake of peculiarity is sterile. As a good physician may sometimes discontinue all medications in order to start fresh with a clear picture of what is needed, perhaps the Society of Friends needed to clear its own decks of the accretions of centuries and look at itself anew.

The problem with that is that the true purpose for the hedge, that of facilitating our assimilation into the Present Kingdom, was allowed to vaporize as well. Friends became more and more assimilated to “the world.” Materialism and individualism have made gross inroads into our thoughts, our feelings, our mores, our activities. In the immortal words of the cartoon figure Cartman, from the TV show “South Park”, “Whatevah … I do what I want.”

Back to AA for a moment. The AA member who makes the most of the program soon learns that it is wonderful not to be on his own any more. Not only does he have a Higher Power to rely upon for guidance, he has a sponsor and the rest of the fellowship. A word that is often heard in the rooms of AA is “transparent.” The committed member tries to live a life that is transparent to other members. He doesn’t hide from them. His life is an open book. He seeks feedback on choices he has to make. He welcomes — perhaps after some struggle, for the ego is tamed but not absent — warnings from others when he is unaware of making bad choices. He knows that there are some things he cannot do on his own, and many that it is better not to do on his own even if he could.

Nearly the sole remnant of this kind of thinking in the Society of Friends is the Clearness Committee, and this is a rarity. Eldering and oversight have very limited scope. Despite the lessons learned early and harshly by such as James Naylor, who found in the most painful of ways that anointing his own leadings above all others could lead to perverse consequences, we have to a large extent returned to that same state. How many people seek to test their leadings by laying them before the Meeting? How many humbly submit to its collective leading in response?

We much prefer to follow the example of John Woolman, who maintained his testimonies even in the face of opposition. Or so we think. If we read Woolman’s Journal carefully, we find that he had a more submissive attitude than many modern Friends think. For instance, when he went to England at the end of his life to carry his message about slavery, and was told by London Yearly Meeting that they considered his mission complete before he even started, he shed tears of sadness that he could not share the message as he had thought he would. He did not go ahead and preach anti-slavery sermons in defiance of their stricture. He wept, and he submitted. Seen much of that lately?

And so, plainness is a part of the hedge, and I believe that we need to re-create this hedge in a way that is meaningful for us, now. Clothing certainly is a part of this, because it is something we do every day. We need to think about what we wear, just as we think about what we eat. I remember the boycotts of iceberg lettuce in the early 70s, in support of the United Farmworkers’ campaign to humanize the treatment of agricultural laborers. It didn’t take much to give up iceberg lettuce, but it got many of us thinking about how such seemingly small choices can have such over-arching meanings.

As one who at one time wore broadcloth pants and a broadbrim hat, I honor those whose leading takes them in this direction. It is not relevant to ask whether they are “right” or “wrong”, as some seem to approach the subject. The question is, are they truly led, and have they measured their leading against those who are most suited to serve as guides in these matters? I hope that they seek out the community of others who are re-discovering plainness, because (as in AA) there are some things which are truly best done among others. For one thing, it is so easy for ego to masquerade as the inmost self, and confuse the issue of what one’s true leading is. For another, when setting out on a course which is so foreign to the direction we receive every day from “the world,” there is comfort as well as guidance in the community of others of like mind. Thank God for this Internet which can bring us together from all geographical quarters, who might otherwise never have met.

For the rest of us, who wish to be plain but who do not adopt the older style of dress, what do we do? There were some wonderful comments on the last post which addressed this issue. I think it is likely that most of us would agree, for instance, that displaying brand names prominently is not plain (although at this very moment I have on a t-shirt that says “Campmor” on it.) Putting “Hollister” or “Aeropostale” on the chest or sleeve of my garment does not make it warmer, last longer, shed dirt better, or any such function. It is strictly and solely to appeal to the status-seeking impulse which is so much at the heart of “the world.”

Next, we might think about price. This is a little trickier. It is not always true that the less expensive an item is, the more plain it is. This is often not the case. Many years ago, when I had very little money, I used an amount that was kind of painful to buy a Woolrich woolen shirt. That shirt became a cool-weather jacket and a light-rain jacket as well as a warm shirt for cold weather. It wore like iron. I got many, many years of use out of it. A less expensive shirt would not have served all of those functions, nor lasted as long. A friend of mine calls the kind of “economy” which buys the cheap item in disregard of suitability as “jumping over dollars to pick up pennies.” Well said.

That being said, it is still a valid principle to spend less rather than more, if plain is what you are after. Won’t a Chevy get you around as well as a Benz? Will a good used car do just as well as a new one? In some cases, the answer might be “No.” This is where discernment is necessary, and having others to help make the decision will lead to a better outcome.

Solids rather than patterns? Muted rather than bright, conspicuous colors? Probably, most of the time. Let’s not divest ourselves of all beauty, though.

Manufacture: like my woolen shirt, clothes that are durable are more suitable than those that have to be replaced every time you turn around. In the long run, they use less of the world’s resources.

Style: clothes with classic lines, that will not look silly as soon as the fad passes, are pretty much de rigueur for plain folks. Trying to follow fashion is very much a “worldly” preoccupation. I don’t see any wiggle room on this one. A much older friend, who had attended Olney Friends School in the 1940s, told me once of a Quaker woman who was elderly at that time. She had continued to wear the old-style Quaker plain dress which she had grown up with. She said to him “I’ve been at the height of fashion three times in my life.” This story always brings a smile to my face. That’s a gal I want to emulate.

I haven’t said anything yet about origins: place of manufacture, sweat shops, child labor, etc. I know those things are important. I also know they are more complex than they appear on the surface. For instance, of course I am against the exploitation of children for economic gain. And yet, in that country and under those circumstances, that child’s labor may be what is keeping her younger siblings from literally starving to death. And so, a boycott of such goods would be a selfish exercise of my own ideological purity at the expense of a gruesome tragedy from which I am insulated. I’m open to suggestions on this one. I don’t see any way to go besides a case-by-case decision. Who said living plain was going to be easy?

And that feels like it is as far as I can go with the issue of plain clothing. There were some fine comments last time, and I hope that this essay will spark even more. If it doesn’t help you, I know it will help me.


A few months ago, I presented a post on why I call myself a Christian. I hoped to add my voice to those who seek to make Christianity relevant to the 21st century and to further a dialog in which that faith can stand as one spiritual testimony among others; not the best, or the only, but a valuable option among many options.

At that time, I presented the same text as a sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of New Bern, NC. While I am a Quaker and not a UU, I have a long-standing friendship with UUFNB and have preached there many times.

In presenting that message at UUFNB, I knew that there would be criticism. Not so much of me, personally, nor even specifically of the message I brought, but of the Christian faith itself. And, as it happened, some of those criticisms were raised. At that time, wanting to stay focused on the content of that particular message, I did not engage them in any depth.

Yet, they are valid. They deserve more dialog. I knew that then, but I didn’t know what form the dialog might take.

A week or two later, the December issue of Friends Journal arrived in the mail. The main theme of the month explored some of these same issues, and how Quakers are addressing, and failing to address, them.

One article in particular spoke to me. It was precisely the other side of the coin, which I wanted to acknowledge.

Rather than summarize or paraphrase, I simply read these powerful words to the congregation. Written by Eden Grace, a member of Beacon Hill Friends Meeting in New England, and Field Officer in the Friends United Meeting office for ministry in Kisumu, Kenya, the article is entitled, “I Beg Your Forgiveness.”

“About two weeks ago I was at Indiana Yearly Meeting, where the main speaker was Jan Wood, who is well known among Friends. Maybe some of you have had the opportunity to hear her speak. She’s from Northwest Yearly Meeting, and wherever she goes, she has a very powerful witness and message that she brings about the importance of confession and repentance, and how healing it can be to confess not only our personal sins but the sins of our people. This is something I’ve experienced in Rwanda, and I’ve seen how transformative it can be. From her ministry at Indiana Yearly Meeting I felt that my message to you this morning came clear to me, and it’s a message of confession.

“I think many people here carry deep wounds from damaging religious experience in our past. I know I do. Those wounds may be closed over, but for many of us I think there’s still some shrapnel trapped inside. Sometimes when we talk to each other as a community and we seek God’s will together, those wounds become activated. That shrapnel causes a new sharp pain. An old wound can become a new pain or a reminder of pain. I know that happens for me, and I believe that many of us have experienced religious trauma in our past that becomes a factor, an obstacle, or just something that we bring into this room together.

“Taking the challenge that Jan Wood presented, and that I felt God calling me to embrace, I want to confess to you the sins of my people. Who are my people? I identify as a born-again Christian standing in the evangelical theological tradition, and I want to speak to you today as a Christian and on behalf of my Christian people. Whether I agree with them or not, whether I have done any of these things personally or not, doesn’t matter, because these are my people and if I choose to stand in the river of faith and identify with it, then I bear the sins of my people as a personal responsibility.

“On behalf of myself and my people, I confess that we have denied the full humanity and spiritual gifts of those who are different.

“Therefore, on behalf of myself and my people, I confess that we have done terrible damage in the name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. On behalf of myself and my people, I confess that we have denied the full humanity and spiritual gifts of those who are different, that we have used the loving and liberating word of God as a weapon. On behalf of myself and my people, I confess that we have claimed that some people are not worthy to be used by God in faithful service. I confess that we have behaved as if some sins are graver than others and some biblical texts are more rigidly applied, bringing hypocrisy and inconsistency to our own biblical scholarship.

“On behalf of myself and my people, I confess that we have hijacked the symbols and texts of Christian faith and drastically narrowed their meaning. I confess that we have used violence in the name of the Prince of Peace. We have accused those who read the Bible differently than we do of not being loyal and obedient believers, or of not loving the Bible as much as we do. I confess on behalf of myself and my people that we have cared more for spiritual and otherworldly salvation than for justice and suffering and liberation from oppression. We have been consumed by our fear of how we might be contaminated by our fellowship with you. We have arrogantly believed that we have a full and complete understanding of the will of God and the proper application of the Bible in every context.

“We have been judgmental, uncompromising, harsh, and uncharitable. I confess that we have desecrated the name of Jesus by acting in ways of which He would be ashamed. I’m so sorry. I humbly repent and beg your forgiveness. In these and so many other ways, Christians, people who love Jesus, have presented a counter-witness. We have pushed people away from God, from the love and the liberation of God, instead of drawing them closer.

“On behalf of myself and my people, I beg your forgiveness.”

Text of  “I Beg Your Forgiveness” ©2011 Friends Publishing Corporation. Reprinted with permission. To subscribe: www.friendsjournal.org

Introductory paragraphs ©2012 Bruce R. Arnold, New Bern, NC

Why I Call Myself a Christian

Bonnie asked me this summer if I consider myself a Christian. I do, and yet that simple answer is hardly enough. That could mean a lot of things I don’t intend it to mean. I thought I would like to write something to tease out the various elements of what that means to me. Each of these points could receive a lengthy treatment on its own; this is meant more as a summary than as a full explanation. Some day I may flesh these out more.

First, the fact is that I was raised in a Christian home in a largely Christian country, in the Western culture that was formed largely within a Christian context. That alone predisposes me, whether I wish it or not, to certain ways of perceiving, feeling and thinking that are characteristic of the Christian faith. Even people who do not consider themselves Christian, who grew up in this cultural milieu, have many of those same outlooks and perceptions.

Second, I find that the life of Jesus is a watershed in human history. I hardly think that the most objective observer from any background would deny this. The nature of the Christian religion, and its spread in its various forms all over the globe, has had an enormous impact on people everywhere, Christian or not. I have no doubt that Buddhists would see the life of Gautama in the same way; or Muslims, the life of Mohammed. I have no quarrel with that; in the same objective way, I would have to agree. I don’t see any of them as the watershed in human history; they are all tremendously significant. Given my personal history and cultural heritage, I have to honestly state that, as much as I love or respect other faiths, the life of Jesus is more pertinent to my life than the others. See #1.

Third, I have long felt that, no matter what you think of Jesus, for such a simple man to have had such an enormous impact on history, there had to have been something extraordinary about him. People like this just don’t live in every generation, every century, every millenium. In religious matters, you’ve got Confucius, you’ve got Buddha, you’ve got Moses, you’ve got Jesus, and you’ve got Mohammed. Outside of those five, who else?

Fourth, I find that most people’s views of God and Jesus, whether believers or not, are essentially those that gained dominance during the medieval period. There are large admixtures of superstition, magical thinking, and the uncritical acceptance of legendary elements in those viewpoints. Many people who consider themselves atheists have in fact rejected superstition, yet do not know that there are non-superstitious ways of conceiving of the Divinity. Many people who consider themselves staunch Christians still maintain those old viewpoints. If educated, they have adjusted them somewhat to the post-Renaissance world view, but not much. Perhaps, for instance, they do not have an anthropomorphic idea of God, but beyond that, it’s pretty vague. Of the recognition that there is equal value in the teachings and practices of other religions, there is mostly lip service, if at all. As a post-Renaissance person, I find that the Christian religion still has great meaning, although I do not think of it within those medieval boundaries. I don’t think that the sun goes around the earth, that you can fall off the edge of the ocean, or that kings rule by divine right, either.

Fifth, I don’t believe in some of the old Christian stories, such as the virgin birth or the resurrection; at least, not as historical fact. Agreeable with Carl Jung, I acknowledge that the archetypal value of those stories transcends the question of historicity. Yet the same myths are found in other cultures; Christianity does not lay exclusive claim to virgin birth or the resurrected God. The parallels between Jesus and Mithras, whose religion was as prominent as Christianity in the Roman empire until the time of Constantine, are astounding. They celebrated the feast of Natalis Sol Invicti (The Birth of the Unconquerable Sun) on December 25, for instance. Candidates for initiation were bathed, similar to full-immersion baptism. There was a meal associated with the worship, not unlike Communion. Descent into and return from the Underworld is characteristic of other sects, such as that of Orpheus. This, to me, does not discredit Christianity; it highlights the power of those archetypal elements. While I don’t find the Genesis account of the Creation to be literally true — the fossil record is pretty convincing in that regard — there is no denying the narrative power of the story, and this is significant in its own right. I am not going to elaborate on the importance of archetype here; it is too complex for a brief exposition. Let me just say that, since the pioneering work of Jung, followed up by such brilliant scholars as Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell, calling something a “myth” does not mean that it is any less profound or powerful.

Sixth, I do believe that Jesus is an exemplar of the way God can act in people’s lives. He is wholly divine and wholly human, because his surrender to God was complete and without reservation. Yet, unlike those in the mainstream of Christianity, I consider Jesus to be the Great Example, and not the Great Exception. He is not the only Son of God; he shows us the way to a birthright which we all share. If, through Jesus, the Word became flesh, so too can any of us be that Word that God utters in this moment. The more we surrender to that, the more Christ-like we become.

Seventh, I do not believe that Jesus’ death on the cross and the myth of the resurrection have anything to do with remission of sins. Even as a child, I could not imagine a God who would condemn to hell all the people who had never even heard of Jesus and thus could not accept him as their savior. For that matter, I have never believed in heaven or hell. I don’t believe in a punishing God, nor in original sin. People — all people — have a capacity for great goodness and great wickedness. That’s the way it is. We can be more one than the other, partly by our own choice and partly by accepting the guidance of the Spirit which is in all of us. Jesus set a uniquely revealing example of what it means to live a spirit-filled life to the fullest. God didn’t drop a dime on Jesus to set him up to be tortured and killed so his blood could somehow magically wipe my slate clean. I’m responsible for my own transgressions. Better get on with making my amends.

Eighth, there is that Spirit in all of us, what Quakers call the Light Within. It is a rule and guide, a comforter, a source of inspiration, a healer, and many other functions. In Hindu philosophy, the Atman is the individual expression of (not separate from but identical to) the Brahman, the undifferentiated Source of all existence. This is my experience also, as close as it can be put in words. If we remove all ideas, feelings, illusions, etc. that separate us from full immersion in that inner Light, then we find ourselves as we most truly are, nothing other than that Light, which is none other than That One which is beyond all name and all description. Thus each of us is an incarnation of the Divine, whether we know it or not, experience it or not. Jesus shows us what it is like to be fully That, and invites us to follow. This is more clear in the Gospel of Thomas than in the four canonical Gospels, which contain significant alterations for the benefit of the powerful elite. For instance, in Thomas, Jesus says, “… the Kingdom of God is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living Father.”

Ninth, I don’t believe in Jesus as “a good man,” a “great philosopher”, a “prophet.” I believe he was in fact a fully-realized Son of God. It’s just that I don’t think that possibility is his and his alone. While his death on the cross has tremendous significance for me, as evidence that God is not above or removed from our sufferings but shares them with us, I don’t see it as the central event in the life of Jesus. I’m not sure I want to pick a central event.

Tenth, being Christian is not the same thing as being Christ-centered, although I find that some people use these terms interchangeably. I am more Spirit-centered than Christ-centered, myself.

Eleventh, to have a dialog on this subject, both sides must acknowledge that there are is a wide diversity of beliefs which all call themselves “Christian.” No one gets to decide for you whether you are Christian or not, based on their own beliefs. There is a tendency within the Christian tradition to define in-groups and out-groups, and then to persecute the out-groups. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the witch-trials, etc. This goes on today, sometimes obviously and sometimes subtly. I don’t think Jesus saw things in this way. His life and ministry was inclusive, not exclusive. All those who would follow his way were welcome, even the Pharisee Nicodemus or the Roman captain.

Twelfth, as a modern Christian, I don’t find myself limited to the ideas or practices of my native culture. I have found spiritual nourishment in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. I find their outlooks more highly developed in many ways than those of the West. The Buddhist idea of how the world comes into manifestation, for instance, resonates with me on a profound level, deeper than the Genesis story. Then too, the practice of Yoga has led me into the most intimate association with the One Source of All. The sage advice of the Tao Te Ching and I Ching is as penetrating a guide to action as any that exists. I don’t think everyone ought to feel this way; I have a penchant for philosophical exploration. I don’t see why it can’t be acknowledged as a vital option by any Christian. It isn’t, by many if not most, but it could be.

Thirteenth, the theology of liberation gives me a way to reconcile my lifelong concern for peace and justice with my spiritual life. This gives outward meaning, depth, and relatedness to what, for me, would otherwise be primarily mystical, inward, personal. It also gives a context for that concern which is more loving and humane than the political ideologies I have been associated with before.

I feel I need to add this: These are not propositions I thought out in philosophical form. Each of them is an attempt at expressing the experience I have received of the Spirit, or the Light Within. I find it repugnant, in spiritual matters, to think up ideas (George Fox called them “notions”) first, and then try to prove them by experience. Inevitably, two things happen in the latter method. One is that parts of experience which do not accord with the previously adopted ideas are ignored. The second is that people tend to think they are right, and when people think they are right, they often want to enforce their ideas on others. Sometimes in vicious or brutal ways.

Saying that these expressions arise from my experience does not make them right for you. It does not give them greater authority. I have found that, when people are moved by the Spirit, differences in how they perceive or express that can often be reconciled. Not always, and to our sorrow, but often. Whatever the case, when experience precedes philosophizing, the process tends to be more genuine, authentic, or honest. Maybe even more humble; not so sure about that. These are tendencies, not absolutes.


We are warned in the Ten Commandments about having false idols. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” How seriously do we take this? Sure, very few of us are worshippers of Baal or Ashtaroth or any of those other parochial Middle Eastern deities, which so often proved very attractive to the fickle Hebrews. Should we stop there, satisfied that we have met the requirements of the First Commandment?


The Second Commandment goes on to talk about not making carved or graven images, and to not bow down or serve them. If all the Commandments were talking about were idols such as the Golden Calf, then there would not be two commandments. The First Commandment is separate from the Second. The Second is not a continuation or explanation of what was meant by the first. It stands on its own. So what is the First Commandment talking about?

Well, there are a lot of things that we make into false gods. Let’s start with money, or material possessions in general. We may not think we worship that new vehicle we just brought home from the dealership, but if we spend more time thinking about it, washing it, driving it, talking about it, than we do tending to our spiritual lives, that’s a pretty good clue that we have lifted it up to a greater status than it deserves. No, we may not invest it with divine properties such as omnipotence. Nonetheless, if we think that new SUV is going to make us happy, we have invested it with a power it does not have.

Let’s consider fetishes and totems. By fetish I am not referring to the psycho-sexual neurosis first explained by Sigmund Freud, where a non-sexual object (such as a shoe) becomes necessary for a person to achieve sexual satisfaction. There is a larger sense in which the fetish is any object which is imbued with some form of power it is not usually recognized as having. So, if we think that a cross has the ability to keep vampires away, we have fetishized it. A totem may have the sort of powers attributed to a fetish, but their primary purpose is to identify a group. So, if you were in the Turtle clan of the Iroquois tribe, you would know not to marry another Turtle, and turtles (both real and artistic depictions) would be held in special reverence by your clan — but not by members of the Wolf clan.

So it is easy to understand how money can be a fetish for many, a false god. It does have some power — you can buy things with it — but many think that it has the power to make them happy or secure, and it does not. But a material idol doesn’t have to be expensive. A peace sign hung around my neck may have the power of a totem to unite me with other like-minded people — and this may not be a bad thing — unless I think that I therefore have the power to know God’s will in all circumstances, because I have the power of Peace.

If you have spent any time around the peace movement at all, you must have seen examples of this kind of arrogance. I’ve been pretty arrogant myself.

I’m not trying to pick on “peaceniks” here, so I will give another example. Take, for instance, the Constitution of the United States. Now, let me say up front that I have the greatest respect for this document. I think it is the greatest instrument of governance yet designed. I think that the men who wrote were, in some part, divinely inspired. But the document itself is man-made. I have respect for it, not reverence. There are many for whom it has the power of a talisman to ward off evil. This is a form of fetish.

Enough of materialistic things. Let’s turn to some other idols.

Watch as the presidential campaign ramps up over the next year. Fetishes,totems, graven images and idols of all sorts will emerge. Watch your own attitudes. Are you looking for the person who will create some kind of golden age? Do you invest politicians or the political process with power to make you happy, secure, or prosperous that they do not have?

What about doctors and medicine? Do we expect them to cure all our ills? Do we think that pills, so often called the Magic Bullet, actually have superpowers? Do we treat physicians like gods?

And then there are even more intangibles. Cannot love itself be an idol? When we sing “All You Need Is Love”, does that cast an enchantment that is, in fact, not true? As important as love is, and as important it is for our fulfillment as human beings, there are people who love each other who commit acts of disrespect, degradation, or outright violence against each other every day.

OR Power. We think that the more power we have over a situation, the more security we have within it. This is wrong. No human brains have the ability to collect and comprehend all the necessary information in any given situation, just for starters.

And then there is God. That sounds pretty funny doesn’t it? How could God be a false idol? Of course He isn’t. But our ideas about God sure can be. We may be so certain about who God is, what He wants, where He’s leading … all of these lead us away from the real relationship with Him which is what the First and Second Commandments are all about. Let’s face it — all those people who are so certain about God’s will can’t all be right. But they all think they are right. Somehow, they have made an idol of their certainties.

I don’t know what to tell you to do. I’m still working through my own idolizations. I want my faith where it belongs, not in magical thinking.

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.

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