Quaker Worship and Love

Well, and here is the crux of the matter: an excellent explanation for why non-theists can worship with Quaker theists.  The bit that stands out is this:

Before letting George Fox speak to us about silent waiting, I want to help nontheists as well as theists to hear him — and to hear each other. Because, as 1 John 4 asserts, God is love and love is God, and because, as Paul asserts, Christ is “the image [in whom we are made; see Gen. 1:27] of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), we can define worship in a way that speaks to theists and nontheists by simply substituting the word “love” for “God” and “Christ” in the source texts. That substitution has been made (except when the meaning would not be clear, or when mythological agency is attributed) in the following passages from Fox.*

And this is to all that would learn silent waiting upon [love] and silent meeting; for none shall ever come to [love] … but as they do come to that of [love] in them, the light which [love] hath enlightened them withal; and that is it which must guide everyone’s mind up to [love], and to wait upon [love] to receive the spirit from [love], and the spirit leads to wait upon [love] in silence, and to receive from [love].

Other than waiting patiently and trustingly for the working of love in our hearts, then, we perform no action in Quaker worship. Our worship is essentially passive. Therefore there is no object toward which our worship is directed, toward which we proffer reverence. We’re simply waiting to feel the motions of love directing our lives. Thus do we avoid the error of attempting to objectify, to reify, God. And thus do we, if we are theists, avoid the error of secretly thinking that we are pleasing God by the work of worship.

Now that makes perfect sense to me. God/Goddess/Spirit is Love.  No scriptures required. No action. Just receive and live. Period.  End of story. Refreshing.

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Religious Ambivalence

So what’s new, right? I’ve been the queen of religious ambivalence as long as I can remember since coming out of my christian fundamentalist daze. Some evangelicals label my kind of religiosity “non-committed” or they call us “church shoppers,” when really it comes down to disagreeing more with personal issues than that; namely dogma. I came across this article this morning and it explains exactly how I feel about religion. Some people feel it’s not possible to be of two religions. But I don’t see what difference it makes. Especially when institutional religion, for me, is more about style of worship than personal conviction. Since no one dogma/doctrine of institutional religion defines me and I can never wholly ascribe to a particular one, then why sign on to a brand of Christianity? One should just go to the church that fulfills one’s worship needs; silence, liturgy, music, etc. What has been your experience?

Extreme Faith in a Small Town

It’s days like today that make me realize how much of a small town woman I really am. Today was “Miracle Sunday” at the Baptist Church I’ve attended off and on for over 4 years. It’s the same church I had problems with and it’s the same church with which I gladly resolved my problems recently. Today was the culmination of a campaign to raise funds to replenish a building endowment established by a long-time and now deceased member of the church. The fund was intended for renovating the Sunday School space, but had to be used for operating expenses. The woman in whose name the fund was established is legend here and the finance committee dreamed up Miracle Sunday to honor her memory by keeping the fund flush. Like me, the pastor was somewhat lacking in faith and a pessimist because when we discussed it, we both thought the event would be great spiritually. We were sure that the congregation would never be able to raise the $25,000 needed to bring the endowment up to speed.

Today’s sermon text however seemed to hit a nerve in all of us:

Mark 9: 14When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. 15As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him.

16“What are you arguing with them about?” he asked.

17A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. 18Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”

19“O unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”

20So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.

21Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”

“From childhood,” he answered. 22“It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

23” ‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for him who believes.”

24Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

Well, like all people of little faith and like the boy’s father, I was suspicious of a “miracle.” I was wrong. Today I attended Sunday school with loving folks who genuinely care about each other. They encourage me and show me what faith really means in a world that thrives on criticism and insults and how much dirt can be gotten about this or that political candidate. Today I was blessed beyond measure by hymn singing, prayers, a special collection received, and then a luncheon following worship. At the end of it, amid tears and prayers, and good food and company, it was announced that $25,570 had been raised! O me of little faith. It was an overwhelmingly generous gesture by folks, some of whom came especially for this event. We saw people that hadn’t been there in years. The overall atmosphere was so full of love, I couldn’t really wrap my mind around it.

Sundays like these are why I believe in small town America. Despite being despised by large city dwellers; despite being patronized by political candidates; despite all the bad press and stereotypes wrought by those who know nothing about what really goes on in these small town churches, people still go to church, love, laugh, eat together, and form communities that work. It’s not only possible, it’s done everywhere there are people of faith. I was proud. I drove home full of joy and humbled beyond measure. It restored my faith in what I had allowed myself to become jaded against the most. Blessings.

Church and God’s Comfort During Suffering

Almost everyone I know asks where God is when we suffer. Today, I was asked this very question. I don’t know the answer, but I think this woman has an outlook that I think comes closest to what I’ve come to believe over the years. She writes of the guilt she doesn’t feel over her son’s chronic illness and how she is supposed to reconcile that with Psalm 91:

I am left with this: This experience belongs to everyone it touches: The illness itself is my son’s path to walk, his burden to bear. Our family’s path lies in learning new ways of living with each other through sorrow and concern and changed expectations. Our path lies in developing bonds that strengthen our relationships, finding ways to accommodate the emotions and reactions that come when a beloved members lives with chronic illness. I don’t know where God is in all that, but I am confident that there is a God, and that God is really, really big. Bigger than the bible, bigger than the church, bigger than Christianity. Big enough and good enough to provide meaning for our existence, even if it’s not in Psalm 91.

This has been on my mind lately and especially so this morning as I trotted off to church with my bible.Yep, I bit the bullet and went to church. Taking the stance that church is just ONE aspect of my faith and not the be-all and end-all of faith has helped me deal with the disappointment that I have had in other Christians (as I’m sure they have with me as well). I realized that new believers are set up to rely way too much on other Christians in the church. The real never lives up to the ideal in my opinion. But I’ve noticed that the farther away I get from the institution, the more my spiritual vision clears and I can accept them for what they are and for what I am; completely imperfect, but completely accepted by God anyway. Taking it a step further (something other Christians should do, but don’t), I realize that I am just as untrustworthy as any other Christian in the church. I have failed to keep my commitments, but I also refuse to beat myself up over it any more.

Friday afternoon, I had lunch with the pastor I’ve mentioned in my blog previously. It was a very nice lunch and I think we put our relationship back on friends status. I’m glad. I’m sure she’s glad. I saw her today and honestly I feel no more animosity. I wonder where the bitterness came from before, but maybe it’s always necessary to step away from the situation to see it properly. A trial separation in relationships is always good. Obviously, some churches are very abusive and we should flee from those. But, this situation was as much my doing as theirs. So can you say “heaps of burning coals?” I came to Sunday school this morning and the love and warmth I received from the people there was overwhelming. Remember I had resigned my membership and am no longer on the rolls. It didn’t matter. I hugged and was hugged. I worshiped. I studied. We laughed and exchanged prayer requests. It felt mighty darn good. Am I setting myself up for a fall? Perhaps. Do I think all my problems will be over? Nope. I’m sure there will be disagreements and other run-ins, but I feel so at home there. It was such a relief to be back. I’m strong enough now to hold to my beliefs and convictions. This church honestly does not try to change your opinion, they just have strong ones of their own and aren’t ashamed to speak them out loud. But that’s the risk we take in forming and maintaining relationships. I think now, wiser and mentally healthier, I’m ready to take on that responsibility. Like the post quoted above says:

I don’t know where God is in all that, but I am confident that there is a God, and that God is really, really big. Bigger than the bible, bigger than the church, bigger than Christianity. Big enough and good enough to provide meaning for our existence…

Blessings to You,

Natural vs. Supernatural Religion

I’ve been thinking a lot about faith recently. I have also been thinking about the ways that churches and fundamentalist try to erect barriers between people and God. We have priests and sacraments and statements that are thrown in our path to keep us away from a personal experience of the Divine. We have so many barriers that it’s easy to miss the DOOR to God: Jesus Christ. The main reason I wanted to dispense with the barrier of church is to perhaps see Jesus again. He was the main reason I came to God, but he’s gotten lost in the blabber about God and religion that so characterizes the news and the Internet today. I wanted peace and quiet to search for that Pearl of Great Price again. It seems close, real close…

But, yet I read. I came across an article at the Unitarian/Universalist web site this weekend by William R. Murry, in which he talks about religious humanism and what that means for the future of religion in the world. He defines the difference between natural and supernatural religion and what natural religion means for human beings who are not too comfortable with the transcendent quality of the supernatural. Religious humanists believe in the sacredness of the natural world. They do not believe that we should necessarily go beyond the natural world to find our sense of mystery or to find “God.” For religious humanists and/or naturalists, God is a process of nature, not a transcendent controlling Being beyond nature.

To be viable in the future, Murry discusses five characteristics of humanist religion that he believes must be emphasized for religion to not only survive but meet the needs of ever-evolving cultures;

First is the affirmation that human beings are an integral part of nature. We are not separate and distinct from the rest of the natural world; we are part and parcel of it. We are related to every living creature, both plant and animal. The elements of which we are composed—carbon, calcium, iron—are the same elements of which the rest of the universe is made.

The second characteristic follows from the first: We are not dominant over nature, as we once believed; we are its stewards and trustees. A religion of the future will affirm humankind’s responsibility to preserve and sustain the natural world. The future of life on this planet and indeed of the planet itself depends on it.

Third, any viable future religion must take seriously the implications for religion of the remarkable discoveries of the modern natural and human sciences. The world of modern science is a different world from that of our ordinary perceptions and that of the ancient peoples who gave birth to Western religions. The religion of the future should be a religion that learns from science and adapts its teachings accordingly. And since every religion needs a story, the story of the religion of the future will be a scientific story with mythic significance.

Fourth, such a religion will recognize the importance of both reason and reverence. The human ability to think critically and constructively has made possible our many artistic achievements and medical and technological advances, but it is only reverence, understood as feelings of respect and awe, that can save us from the hubris that would destroy all the good we have accomplished. As Paul Woodruff writes in his elegant little book, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, “Reverence begins in a deep understanding of human limitations.” He goes on to note that reverence keeps human beings from acting like gods. It is thus essential to our true humanity. I also think a strong case can be made that lack of reverence is a major cause of all forms of human violence throughout history and in family and community life as well as with respect to the natural environment. And while reverence is not only a religious quality, a religion without a profound sense of reverence is no religion at all.

I see no problem with a progressive Christianity that espouses these views, but Murry goes further and says that this is all that is necessary for religion to prosper.

Jesus

Obviously, this view poses problems for even the most progressive Christian, because an essential is missing. Jesus Christ. To be a Christian one must adhere to one thing and one thing only: Jesus Christ. If you do not believe in the necessity of salvation through Jesus Christ as God’s incarnate Son, then you cannot call yourself a Christian. It does not matter how you define God as a Christian. Your salvation does not depend on that. It does not matter how you define scripture or even that you believe it has magical, supernatural qualities as fundamentalists do. Your salvation does not depend on that. It does not matter how you pray or where you worship. Your salvation does not depend on that. As a Christian, what your salvation does depend on is your belief or unbelief in Jesus Christ.

Rom 10:9 because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Now religious naturalism as described above by Murry makes no provision for the necessity of Jesus Christ. In fact, I would bet that there is no place for “salvation” of any kind in its worldview either. Or, for original sin. What’s there to be saved from if we are all part of the process that is nature? All is as it should be when we take the view of evolution. Does even Jesus matter in the 21st century then? This question is obviously answered by believers.

Now I believe in evolution, but I also believe in a Creator. While I believe there is a place for humanism and the development of human potential and the relieving of needless human suffering, I can also see that there is most definitely a kernel of evil in people that is not easily overcome just because we educate ourselves or better ourselves. That evil is still there and can come to the surface at any moment. It is a stain on humanity that we cannot, of our own doing, wipe away. While I see no benefit in suffering or redemptive qualities in it, I can see that eliminating suffering would make us lesser people, less empathetic, and lessened in character. We have not wrestled and overcome this bent toward evil. Although, we learn in spite of suffering, not because of it, we have not yet learned to live with it.

Now, I also cannot bring myself to say finally that Jesus is not necessary to the world. I’m not so jaded with religion and faith to come to that point. Something in me tells me that to give up that is to give up some vital, necessary part of my need for faith. To believe that God chose a human being to rescue fallen human nature, to redeem that stain of sin, appeals on some deep level that goes beyond mystery. Murry would say this is too anthropomorphic of humans; to insist that we are more important than animals or rocks or trees. Why should a creator care more for us? He would say that one tribe’s view of God does not forever prescribe the world’s creator. But doesn’t humanism also take a dim view of humanity precisely because it says we are no different than animals, rocks, or trees? Why shouldn’t God create us for a special purpose? Isn’t that what living is about? To find out this purpose and try to fulfill it?
In my never-ending search for the source of religious authority, I questioned why we must assume that the Jewish God is the true God? Why not the Native American Great Spirit or the Norse Gods? The simple answer is that IF Jesus is the necessary part of religion, the one who makes Christians unique, the One who saves us from our sins, then God indeed must have chosen the Jews as the bearer of this Messiah and there can be no compromise with that. Jews would not agree that Jesus is their Messiah, but as Christians understand their faith, they are inexplicably tied up with Jewish history precisely because Jesus IS the Messiah. There’s no getting around it. The Christian church is the new Israel of God (of course some denominations don’t believe this, but this is a doctrinal argument not addressed here). Unitarians and Universalists cannot lay claim to the Christian faith without this belief in Jesus as Messiah. Neither can other religions that dispense with Jesus. And this is what people of faith find most worrisome.
Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, of the Episcopal church had this to say about Jesus:

In the interview, Jefferts Schori also said she can “affirm” Jesus’ statement: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” But she does so with caveats.

“I certainly don’t disagree with that statement that Jesus is the way and the truth and the life. But the way it’s used is as a truth serum, or a touchstone: If you cannot repeat this statement, then you’re not a faithful Christian or person of faith. I think Jesus as way – that’s certainly what it means to be on a spiritual journey. It means to be in search of relationship with God. We understand Jesus as truth in the sense of beingcross the wholeness of human expression. What does it mean to be wholly and fully and completely a human being? Jesus as life, again, an example of abundant life. We understand him as bringer of abundant life but also as exemplar. What does it mean to be both fully human and fully divine? Here we have the evidence in human form. So I’m impatient with the narrow understanding, but certainly welcoming of the broader understanding.”

Asked about the rest of Christ’s declaration: “No man cometh unto to the father but by me,” Jefferts Schori continued.

“Again in its narrow construction, it tends to eliminate other possibilities. In its broader construction, yes, human beings come to relationship with God largely through their experience of holiness in other human beings. Through seeing God at work in other people’s lives. In that sense, yes, I will affirm that statement. But not in the narrow sense, that people can only come to relationship with God through consciously believing in Jesus,” she said.

What other possibilities does this declaration of Jesus as the only way to the Father eliminate? Natural religion? Why be Christian at all if there are other pathways to God besides the central figure of Jesus? Christianity must inherently be supernatural to place the divine stamp on the natural in us.

To espouse a natural religion, we are once again taking giant leaps back, returning to simpler beings of old who saw spirits in all things. We are once again appeasing the spirits of rain or of thunder when we are afraid. We become organisms that are merely evolving and existing, for nothing more mystical than our own chemically enhanced dreams and experiences. We are temporary conglogmerations of elements and carbons, looking to mix our seed with other carbon elements, watching our lives interact with others of like composition and then decomposing, eventually returning to the earth out of which we crawled millions of years ago. Why should we care about other humans if survival is the only goal? Why should we attempt to locate the holy in other human beings as Murry suggests? Who or what are we to reverence but ourselves and our processes? Where is the humility in that? To espouse natural religion, the stories and myths we have told ourselves so elaborately over the centuries become no more important to our evolution than ghost stories and have been a huge waste of time. And because of that, we are as far away from God as we can ever be.