Letters from the Street

Philosophy, theology, and whatever else crosses my mind.

Category: Theology

Gringo Liberation Theology: A Course Correction

A slight but important course correction to the series formerly called North American Liberation Theology:

It struck me the other day that, although I’ve addressed the issue of diversity a couple of times in these posts, the title was misleading. “North Americans” are a broad mixture of race and ethnicity. North Americans can be Afro-American, Native American, Asian, Hispanic, Creole, Middle Eastern, etc.

I wanted to create a dialog specifically for members of the dominant culture in North America. I want us to realize that, despite our privilege, we have a very real stake in being part of a movement for justice and freedom across lines such as race, class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or creed. I wanted those of us who are people of faith to have our participation in this movement firmly grounded in that faith.

Using the term “North American” may have made sense in some way. That way would be looking outwards, from within the dominant culture. To do this well, I have to recognize when I’m doing that and try to change. I want to be one with my brothers and sisters across all those lines. I want out of these barriers. That’s one of the reasons we in the dominant culture need to adopt a liberation mentality, to free ourselves from those gilded cages while allying with others who are liberating themselves from the chains the dominant culture has imposed.

So as a step in this direction, and with tongue in cheek, I’ve renamed North American Liberation Theology “Gringo Liberation Theology.” Makes it a little more clear who I’m trying to reach. I went back and changed parts of the earlier essays. Tell me what you think.

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Gringo Liberation Theology: Race and Gender

I have struggled for the whole time I’ve been working on these Liberation Theology essays to make statements about race and gender. These are essential to an understanding of what Liberation Theology means, not just in North America, but anywhere. I  can’t do my subject justice without addressing them.  But there are real problems as far as me,  personally, trying to do so.

I have a couple of co-workers who are Afro American men. They asked me one day not to use the term “boys.” For a bit of context, it’s fairly common in my social circle for men to refer to each other as boys. For instance, the adult leaders in my Scout troop often use the word with each other. “Okay, boys, time to get supper cooking.” “Any of you boys heard a weather report?” It’s an integrated troop, so we’re not just talking about white men here. So I didn’t think anything of it, until these two co-workers asked me not to. They said “We know you don’t mean anything by it, but we don’t like it.”

The operative sentence there? “I didn’t think anything of it.”  Exactly. It didn’t occur to me how this could have a very different meaning to black men. I wonder now what else I’m doing or saying, without intending disrespect, that is equally wrong.

(Yes, I stopped using the phrase. I would not wish to convey anything but respect or affection for these two, or by extension, to people of color in general. Nice of them to acknowledge that I meant no harm, but in the end, what good are good intentions? Road to hell, right?)

That story goes to highlight the difficulty I have had with addressing this issue. I can’t pretend to be an expert, when I don’t even see my own faults.

I’m a white male. Being white, it’s none of my business to tell people of color how to view their own liberation. Being male, it’s none of my business to tell women how to view their liberation. It’s none of my business to tell either how to progress in that direction.

But the situation isn’t a complete stalemate. White people can have an impact on racism, and men can have an impact on sexism.

There was a time in 1964 when hundreds of brave white college students, both male and female, went to Mississippi for the Freedom Summer. Side by side with black activists, they spread over the state to promote voter registration. Three of these activists – one black, two white – paid the ultimate price. Many more were subjected to various assaults and indignities.

What could be done then can be done now. Whites can stand with blacks, Hispanics, or people of color in general. It may not be as obvious now as it was in 1964 what to do. Many of the most pressing goals of the civil rights movement of that day have now been realized. But racial equality has not arrived. There is much to be done.

It would make a vast difference in how white people relate to racism if they would realize two things.

First, a lot of whites don’t understand the reality of white privilege. They look at their own lives, and see that they aren’t part of the One Percent, so where’s all this privilege people are talking about?

A fish doesn’t know it’s wet, and most whites have no idea how much privilege they have. Just one example: Joe Whiteguy is walking down the street with a couple of friends, and he’s never had the experience of people reacting to him and his pals with automatic fear or suspicion. He’s just minding his own business and not even thinking about it. But if you and your buddies are all black, people react differently. Since Joe’s never been in their shoes, he doesn’t know what a privilege it is to be unnoticed.

As Chris Boeskel said, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

Second, white folks should know that equality for all benefits everyone. It’s not just that the surgeon who saves your life might be a highly skilled black woman or man; that’s almost too easy, although it’s true. The real impact of this is in daily life. If black children get good educations, everyone gets a good education. If black families have affordable housing, everyone has affordable housing. If black people are valued at the workplace, everyone is valued at the workplace. If black people don’t have to be afraid of being shot in cold blood by the police, no one has to be afraid of being shot in cold blood by the police. And so on.

Likewise, while women have advanced since The Feminist Mystique was published (also in 1964), there is still inequality in pay and opportunity. There is still sexual harassment and assault. There are still struggles over maternity leave, child care, and reproductive rights.

I don’t think that one guy, alone, writing an essay like this, can say definitively what all whites or all men should do. Each of us has to find that place where we take our stand in solidarity with the struggles of others.

About all I can say is that whites need to be allies with people of color in overcoming racism, and men need to be allies with women against sexism. Generally speaking, we need to follow their lead. This doesn’t mean that we must be puppets and there is no room for our own conscience or our own will.  It isn’t liberation if anyone has to give up their own personhood for another.  But, equally truly, it isn’t theology if we don’t make sacrifices for each other’s liberation.

In addition to standing with people of color and with women, we need to confront men and white people when they speak or act in sexist or racist ways. Our witness against these forms of oppression means nothing if we don’t fight against them. Further, we are in a better position to know how the racist and sexist mind works, because we know what we had to overcome in our own hearts to take this stand. Plus, there is the power of example. If a black person resists racism, it can be seen by white bigots as self-serving.

This is not just sociologically or politically motivated. The preferential option for the poor is not because they have less money but because they are exploited and oppressed. The same goes for people of color and for women. If God loves mercy and justice, he wants it for all.

Beyond that, I would like for whites and men to see what people of color and women have said about liberation.  James ConeCornel West, and, yes, Malcolm X are good starting points for black liberation theology. Rosemary Radford Reuther and Serene Jones are good starting points for feminist theology. So much better to hear what these men and women have said for themselves than for me to try to summarize or translate it.

Somewhere, I think it needs to be said that what unites us all, what is fundamental to the struggles of all people regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc., is class. Problems of race and gender will not, cannot be solved without economic justice. The powers that be manipulate these distinctions to divide us, to take our attention off the ways in which they exploit us and make us afraid of each other.

I’m not saying that racism and sexism are less important than classism. I am saying that class is the shared factor that bonds men with women; it bonds black, white, Hispanic, Asian, and aboriginal with each other. Class doesn’t transcend these distinctions, it’s the common link. I will have more to say about class in another post in this series.

Gringo Liberation Theology II: Doing Liberation Theology in North America

Quite a few people made comments on the last post (Why Do We Need a Gringo Liberation Theology? ). Some of those comments were here, some came to me via email, some were  posted elsewhere on the Web. There were some common themes. One of them was along the lines of “Consumerism isn’t much of a motivation to get people to change.” Others were along the lines of “Here’s what liberation theologians in South America are doing.”

I’m fine with both of those responses. I’m fine with most any response that shows that people are thinking. And they made me think, too.

So, while I’m working on the next post in the series, I want to address process rather than content.

First, this is a series. Each of these posts should stand alone in some sense, carrying at least one morsel worth chewing over. Yet none of them is sufficient. If there’s something that you think hasn’t been covered but ought to be, you have a couple of options. One is to wait and see if it is dealt with later in the series. There’s a lot to say and it can’t be said all at once. The other is to say what you think is missing, as I may have missed it. Or else you think about it differently than I do, and that will somehow inform and modify what I intended to say.

The second thing, as alluded to in the title of this post, Liberation Theology is what you do as much as what you say. Our Latin American brothers and sisters talk about praxis, that intersection between thinking and doing, a sort of OODA LOOP of applied spirituality. I realize that I’m trying to express something in words, just as Gutierrez and Bonino and others have done in Latin America, or James Cone and Cornel West have done among Afro-Americans in the USA, or as Mary Daly and Rosemary Radford Ruether have done among feminists. Trying to communicate sensibly in words is worthwhile, though difficult. However, Liberation Theology is a way of acting or being in the world. I’ve tried to convey some sense of what I’ve done in the context of my community in various places throughout this blog. Those clues which point to what I’ve done are a necessary part of understanding what I’m trying to say. Some who have asked questions may find answers in other posts which don’t have a Liberation Theology label on them.

Third, Gringo Liberation Theology isn’t going to look like Latin American Liberation Theology, or Black Liberation Theology, or Feminist Liberation Theology. Those of us for whom these posts are intended will have to work out for ourselves what community in the context of the liberating Gospel means for us, to give one instance. Blindly imitating other forms is inauthentic. I don’t mind stumbling around in the dark, while we try to find our way. It’s instructive and worthwhile to look at our sisters’ and brothers’ successes and mistakes. We will still have to make our own mistakes and celebrate our own successes.

Why Do We Need a Gringo Liberation Theology?

[I realized, as I struggled to come to grips with a post on North American Liberation Theology that I started working on in January, that I was trying to say too much at one time. Some bloggers write really long posts. One fellow I read sometimes calls them “uber-posts.” I don’t think lengthy posts fit the blogging format; at least, for me they don’t. And so I’m breaking the long post down into several pieces.

By the way, I was just looking over the list of old posts, and noticed that this blog saw first light on Sept. 3, 2011. I didn’t realize it had been three years. Thanks to the many who have read these essays over that time.]

There is something odd about the notion of North American Liberation Theology.

Let’s start with the obvious. Mexico is part of North America. Am I trying to say anything about Mexico? No; for this purpose, I’m considering Mexico as part of Latin America, along with Central and South America. I don’t know exactly where the lines are drawn, but I think of Mexico as Third World.

I want to  address the First World, particularly the USA and Canada, which are marked by advanced industrialism, an extreme concentration of wealth, an imperialistic outlook, and an amazing standard of living.

In short, we seem to have it all. Why would we need a liberation theology? From what do we need to be liberated?

Please consider the fact that our standard of living is such that all but the most desperately poor live as well as, or better than, the middle class of Asia, Africa, and South America. (Yes, really. We live in a society in which 95% of the people  have a roof over their heads, sanitary drinking water at the turn of a tap, electricity, air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter that you don’t have to walk miles to gather firewood to enjoy, a steady supply of food at affordable prices, ready access to medical care even if it’s only the nearest ER, a car or reliable public transportation, good clothing at cheap prices and the ability to buy $100 tennis shoes, and one or more color TVs in each home. That’s doing pretty darn well.)

All true. All important. All things that most people everywhere want. What’s the problem?

This pretty picture takes no notice of the deep divisions of class, race and gender that engulf us, all of us, all the time, no matter how well off we are materially, and on no matter which side of any of those divisions you personally may fall.

And then there’s consumerism. Let’s talk about that first.

Consumerism, as Wikipedia defines it so well, is a social and economic order and ideology that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-greater amounts. Of itself, this need not be so bad. We all need some things, and we all want some things. This is universal, excepting monks and other ascetics. However, consumerism has been driven to a feverish state by the knowing application of methods which amount to mass hypnosis. The use of music, color, motion, and sex in advertising, for instance, is consciously designed to get people to lust after things they don’t need, and don’t really want all that much. I’m neither kidding nor exaggerating when I refer to hypnosis. As a master hypnotist, I assure you that the techniques are identical and I wish, as a therapist, that I was that good.

Consumerism, to put it in another way, is the ideology that takes materialism to its logical extent. It assures us that if we just have the right things then we will be happy, loved, powerful, laid. Most of us know, at some level, that this is a lie. There are all those sayings that float around that indicate that consumerism has not totally won our hearts and minds. “You have nothing if you don’t have your health.” “The best things in life are free.” “Nothing is more important than family.” “What a terrible accident. At least no one was hurt. Things can be replaced.”

Yes, we all know those things. Until the doors open on Black Friday and people are crushed by the throng trying to get to the goods. To give only one example. In many small ways, I find myself loving things more than they should be, and having to actively work against this tendency. If you are honest, the same is probably true of you, too.

Consumerism is alienating, and yes, I know Marx introduced us to this concept. (As I’ve said for years, his descriptions are pretty accurate; it’s his prescriptions that go so dreadfully awry.) Our ability as human beings to be, to feel, and to do need not be mediated by the presence of things. Beyond the bare necessities, it’s all gravy. Nothing wrong with a little gravy, of course. But just as the drug addict’s body reacts to the absence of dope as though it’s survival is threatened, in the consumerist society our emotions are re-calibrated to the same distortion: “I’ll simply die if I can’t have ….” Take a cell phone away from a teenager and watch the fireworks. Or an adult for that matter.  A few weeks ago I left the house without my cellphone and actually felt uneasy, until I processed the feeling and came to grips with the fact that, for most of my life, I did just fine without a cell phone in my pocket.

This alienation runs so deep and has become so commonplace that it almost seems petty to point it out. What’s all this nonsense about cell  phones? Sure, they’re convenient and we are used to having them, but what does that have to do with alienation? Just one symptom of the disease, that’s what. Here’s another, to my mind much more profoundly disturbing: In the not-so-distant past, enjoying music meant being in the presence of the musicians. For most people, this meant that people they actually knew who had learned an instrument would play for the enjoyment of family and friends. For some, in cities, it also meant orchestras and the like, but still in their presence. Since Edison made recording practical, that has changed. In many ways, this is a good thing. We can all enjoy the music of the finest musicians of the age, at any time, in any place. Tragically, for many of us this has replaced sitting on the front porch with Uncle Jed on the fiddle and mama on the guitar. Real human beings, interacting in a real human way, as humans have done since time out of mind. The same thing can be said of art, and architecture, and many other things.

Ivan Illich goes into great detail about this process of alienation in his books, such as “Deschooling Society” and “Medical Nemesis.” In these books, he points out that activities like learning and healing, formerly engaged in by people in general, had been professionalized in a process he calls radical monopoly. When only people with an education license can teach, and only people with a medical license can heal, you have a radical monopoly. Functions which were the province of everyone, and which deepened human interrelatedness, were put off-limits to most of us. Jessica Mitford pointed out how the same thing happened to the unfathomably human process of death and dying, in “The American Way of Death.”

Illich presents, as a counterpoint, the idea of conviviality. He defines tools as something you use to get things done, whether it is an implement you hold in your hand or an institution you attend. A convivial tool brings people together rather than separating them, and it allows them to express their own creativity instead of making them the slave of the machine or the institution.

As you can see, this runs counter to the trend in modern society, in which even someone who paints your nails has to have a license.

Call it a First World problem and I won’t disagree. But we need to be liberated from consumerism and the alienation it fosters. Even though it’s a problem of Plenty rather than Scarcity, which seems like a good problem to have, understanding how consumerism operates indicates that it is a mind-numbing, soul-sucking problem. And we are in its clutches.

The system of production on which the world currently depends, demands that we be consumers. This is why so much effort goes into creating these artificial “needs.” If we don’t spend money on all the seductive glitter, profits are lost, jobs are lost, the stock market plummets, and all that follows. To avoid this, the economic system gives us choices between commodities while doing everything in its power to eliminate the choice of whether to be a consumer or not. Bird in a gilded cage? Yes. It’s still a cage.

There are other ways in which we are also alienated and I’ll address those in future posts. As mentioned above: race, gender, class.

And imperialism. Don’t forget imperialism.

This is going to be a long series. No wonder I couldn’t get started, thinking it all had to go in one post.

Confessions

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

Idols

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?

No.

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.

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.

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