Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Quakers Taking God Seriously

I have been quiet recently because I am in the end stages of finishing my 100+ page undergraduate thesis on the evolution of insecticide resistance. One 40-50 page review paper on the toxicology of various insecticides, as well as methods for handling pests without insecticides. One 40-50 page review paper about the various ways insects evolve resistance to evolution, the paralells we can draw between this and greater evolutionary theory, and the implications this all has for modern agriculture, which I criticize and suggest replacements for. One 3 page, theoretically publishable, research paper summarizing research I performed over the summer on insect evolution. And, finally, one 30-40 page paper discussing the controversy between creationism and evolution in America. I really can't complain; I designed this entirely myself, from exactly what I would be studying to exactly what papers I would write and how long they would be. I love my college. (The paginations are really just estimates of how it will look when it's done; I'm not held to anything)

I'm just a few weeks from finishing. Obviously this is devouring much of my time, focus, and attention.

I'll get to a point about Quakerism in a moment, I promise!

So in pursuit of writing that perfect final paper, I've been discussing creationism and evolution a fair amount with quite a number of folks. Last week, one of my faculty advisors mentioned to me that he was going to visit a class being taught by two other professors on 'The Search for the Scientific Method.' Apparently they had been discussing the book 'Darwin on Trial' written by Phillip Johnson, a law professor at Berekely and an ardent creationist. Todd was going to show up so that the students could ask a biologist for his perspective (one of the teachers of this course was a philosopher; the other was a physicist).

I asked whether I could tag along. My paper, you know! No one had a problem with this (no one generally does at my college), so I showed up at the class and listened, occasionally chiming in. The discussion was relatively interesting, if not exactly what I was writing about, and I enjoyed myself. During the class I mentioned that I was writing this paper, and after class I found myself caught up in a conversation with Travis and Neil (physics and philosophy professors, respectively) about it. We discussed various aspects of the scientific method, the mindset behind creationism, and my belief that there is no conflict between science and religion.

At one point Neil (a religious man) said something along the lines of (this is far from verbatim, forgive me), "Well, you say that science and religion cover two different topics, but I feel like often saying that is used by science to degrade what religion has to offer. Scientists say, 'Well, they're two different things . . . and science is the ONLY VALID ONE!"

I said, "Neil . . . I'm religious." He looked at me and asked me what sort of religious. I told him I was a Quaker. We then got into another, much briefer discussion about God and the problem of evil (at this point Travis wandered away). We started wandering out of the academic building and down the hill towards the dining hall together, still chatting about God and evil, and then he said something that stopped me in my tracks.

"You know, Sarah," he said, "I'm really surprised to find a Quaker who takes God seriously." My mouth dropped open. "I always thought of the Quakers as a very good, very moral people," he continued, "but I never thought they had much of a deep spirituality."

Well, I didn't quite know what to say for a moment. I wasn't going to say, "Gee, Neil, sometimes I feel like that too, but there are all of these cool bloggers . . . " Instead I started talking about Tom Fox, and the Christian Peacemaker Teams, and the incredibly strength of faith it takes to offer yourself up for your beliefs like that. If Tom Fox isn't an example of a Quaker taking God seriously . . . I don't know who is (heh, right after hearing about the CPT kidnappings my first impulse was to run out and join them . . . but I think God told me that I'm called to finish my thesis FIRST).

I kinda got to thinking. I'd been thinking about Amanda's post trying to define Quakerism, and I'd been thinking about something I'd heard at the very first Meeting I went to at the place that is my Meetinghouse now. And I'd been trying to define Quakerism myself. I hang out with a bunch of evangelical Christians, and I get asked a lot of questions.

What I finally told my confused evangelical friends a week or so back was that Quakerism is Christianity entirely stripped down. We got rid of the structure, we got rid of the preachers, we got rid of the churches, we got rid of most of the theology except for the intense connection betwen I and Thou. We even got rid of a lot of societal complexities- and I used plain speech as an example.

The problem is, I sometimes think our lack of ritual can become a custom in and of itself. If I were summoned to court and asked to take an oath, would my refusal to do so (because I would refuse) be coming from my deepest convictions, or from an irrelevant adherence to an old tenet that has little worth except in its ability to make me Feel Like a Quaker? On the flip side of things, me and my housemates are lighting candles every Sunday for Advent. Quaker custom says that such customs are unnecessary, but my love for the custom draws me to do it anyway. Is such a rejection of the formalism of a Quaker custom more Quakerly, or less Quakerly?

The thing that woman at my first Meeting was this: There are some doughnut Quakers. Quakers who have remembered all the peripherals, like to write their senators against the war and to wear birkenstocks (sometimes I think this is a Quaker advice!) and to volunteer at first day school . . . and have lost the spiritual core.

I wonder how one guards against that, for I could see myself slipping too easily into the comfort of Quaker tradition. I wear drab clothes from the thrift store and don't swear oaths and think the Bible is an open document, so I must be a good Quaker! God spare me.

At the same time, there is certainly a huge amount of value in, say, my Yearly Meeting's Faith and Practice. If there weren't, I wouldn't consider myself a Quaker. If it were just the faith that were important, I'd run off and join the Unitarians, or maybe my evangelical friends, depending on how Jesusy I was feeling that day. I don't want to be a doughnut Quaker, but I don't want to be a Munchkin (that bit of dough from the middle of a doughnut, for all you folks living outside the marketing sphere of Dunkin Donuts), either.

A lot has touched me and struck me about this situation with the CPT hostages in Iraq. I have been moved deeply by it. I think one of the things I'll be carrying away with me long after this is resolved, one way or another, is that Tom Fox is an example of the sort of person who is balancing both.

Anyway. I, like most other folks, am praying for the safety of all four of them.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Back to That Christianity Problem . . .

I came to a rather odd and somewhat painful realization about myself not too long ago.

I think I lack the capacity for belief.

This is the only truly positive belief I have about religion: there is a God. That's about as far as I can go. But I'm the sort of person who needs a structure to their faith. It doesn't work for me to just go around believing in God. I need a faith tradition. I need a practice. More than anything else, Christianity works for me. I have the objectiveness of mind necessary to realize that this is probably only because that's how I was raised. If I were raised Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Pagan, I would feel much the same way. But as it is, Christianity has an incredibly powerful resonance for me that nothing else comes close to matching. I know this experimentally, believe me; I've tried a number of other things. This paradigm is how I can make my life make sense.

But still I don't believe.

I think the Bible is true in what my friend calls "the Tim O'Brian sort of way." I use the Hamlet metaphor a lot. I like Hamlet. I don't think any of the events in it ever occured. But I think it's a true story, in all the ways that count for a story. Same with the Bible. I find it true, and yet . . . Euph. I find the Bible true enough that I am willing to shape my life around its truth. And yet. The actual rising from the dead bit? Euph. I can go so far as to say that I don't know. I can suspend disbelief. But active belief in the virgin birth and the resurrection and the whole nine yards? I don't think I'm capable of it. I'm not capable of it. Part of my problem is, I see the truth in planes. There's a plane of spiritual truth, and of emotional truth, and of material, down-to-earth truth. I believe in the Resurrection on every plane but the last one. This is also why I see no conflict whatsoever between the Bible and science. The Bible is true on one plane. Science is true on another.

(Actually, I have the same problem with/in science, except in science this way of thinking is accepted and has a name. You can be a scientific realist or an instrumentalist. A scientific realist thinks that the world really IS as explained by science. There are electrons, and magnetic fields. They exist. An instrumentalist thinks they may or may not exist, but that they are useful ways to describe the world, and so acts as if they exist. More or less. Guess which one I am. At least I get to be just as good of a scientist either way . . . )

And on some level, it doesn't matter to me. It honestly doesn't matter to me whether God wrote the bible or men wrote the Bible or a three-headed hydra from the planet Ultron wrote the Bible. It's just as true either way. And it equally doesn't matter to me whether Jesus the physical guy was actually the Son of God and actually performed miracles and actually, physically rose from the dead. It's just as true to me either way. Just like electrons are true, whether or not they actually exist. Though, honestly, I find electrons a lot easier to accept than the resurrection of Christ.

But at the same time . . . I wonder if it matters that I don't think it matters. It concerns me that I don't have any emotional or intuitive sense of this thing mattering, when to everyone else I have ever met or talked to on the subject, it matters very much indeed. Is there something wrong with me? Am I crazy? SHOULD it matter to me? Does it make my life a lie, living something I am Just Not Sure about?

It makes me a little uncomfortable to be walking the line like this. I feel like I should make up my mind, one way or another, Christian or Heathen, none of this middle ground. Everyone else seems to have it figured out. Eh. Part of me wants to think that my faith is that much stronger for being willing to follow something that I'm not entirely sure is true. And why is that material-plane part of it so important? It's not important in science . . . I lack understanding. Gah.

Unfortunately, walking the middle ground is more or less a theme of how I live my life. I just can't figure it out. I wish I could think in black and white, but this has always been my greatest gift and my greatest curse: I can always see the other side of the story. No matter how abhorrent a person's views are to me, I can always stand in their shoes and say, "I can see where you're coming from." I can't deny the truth I see in all other religious traditions. Believing in the material, actual Resurrection and etc. seems connected to that somehow. I feel as if, if I make myself believe it somehow, I will have lost something essential in my point of view.

Again: does it even matter?

I am grateful to have a spiritual home here among Friends. Through all my doubts and fears and "dear-God-WHY-do-I-even-bothers," I feel like there's room for me here, in all my imperfections and wafflings. I know of few other faith traditions that are happy to have me express myself in the Christian metaphor, using all the Christ-talk that resonates with me, and yet still let me just inherently not know. This is a relief. If I decided I was going to go Accept Jesus As My Personal Saviour (I hope not- on principle it's a nice idea, but, URGH, the connotations make me want to run away screaming), there would be room for me. If I decided I wasn't sure about God any more (again, I sincerely hope not), there would be room for me.

I hope.

There is, isn't there?

Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Nature of Sin

Well, daylight savings time just ended, which means . . . I suddenly have an extra hour to blog!

The idea of sin has been dancing around and around my head. I recently escaped from a truly horrible relationship. As I was leaving it, I found myself, time and again, doing things which I couldn't stand myself for. Not only that, but I was doing things which didn't seem to be like me, in the slightest. As soon as I was clear enough of this relationship, I looked back and realized that for the whole two and a half years of it, I had been doing this. I had been losing myself. It was only when I was partially free enough to realize it that I saw what I was doing, and was convicted of it.

Now this got me thinking on the nature of sin. Thomas Merton talks a lot about the self, and identity in God. One of his essays is called "Things In Their Identity." He says that (for example) an oak tree is always an oak tree. It is exactly what God intended it to be. It is fully itself, and can never be anything else. In the Islamic tradition, this is called an 'involuntary Muslim'. Muslim means 'submission' (which I find incredibly beautiful, by the way). A tree can not choose, therefore it is an 'involuntary Muslim'. Therefore its existence glorifies God.

Humans, on the other hand, can choose either to be themselves, or not. When we are not ourselves truly, we are not following God. At the same time (and CS Lewis talked about this as well, in the one chapter of Mere Christianity that I LIKED as opposed to the ones that made me want to hurl the book across the room), it is only in God that one can actually find or be oneself. It all ties together. Sin as turning away from God and our true selves.

At the same time, I was thinking on the nature of children, and the particular joy I feel in the last few minutes of meeting as they come in. This week in meeting I felt called to speak, and I mentioned the above, about being an involuntary Muslim . . . or not. And I also realized, and mentioned, that we are called to be child-like in our faith. And the reason for this, I believe, is that children are the best or perhaps the only human example of sinlessness. They cannot yet choose to be other than they are. This is why the children inspire me so, and why we are called to their perfection.

Speaking of being called to perfection, is it not that we are also called to a Christ-like perfection?

I know I am not an orthodox Christian by any means, and when I think of Christ I don't think of Jesus the man, I think of a state of being. We are called to become ourselves in Christ. Perhaps Jesus was the only adult man who walked on earth who ever attained this state of perfection, of being wholly himself. Trees do it and children do it, because they are incapable of not doing it. To be fully ourselves as an adult human . . . this is the nature of the child-like, Christ-like perfection we are called to. And it's not easy.

So this is what I got out of my relationship. I don't think it was specifically my 'fornication' (for instance) that was my sin. It was my turning away from God, in not being fully myself. It was in how the boundaries and deliminations of that relationship turned me into Other than what I should be.

Now, I was brought up Catholic. Being brought up Catholic, one is inclined to think about sin in terms of specific rules that one can infract. You break the rule (sex, for instance), it's a spot on your soul, it needs to be wiped away.

Interestingly, the Eastern Orthodox (and Jewish) tradition doesn't see sin like this. Sin's not about the specific rules at all, although they exist. It's any behavior which 'misses the mark,' meaning: draws the person in question farther away from God ('missing the mark' is how the word 'sin' is translated in the original Greek). It's not then that one needs to wipe the sin away. God already does that, unconditionally, because God loves us when we cannot love or forgive ourselves. It is that one needs to find the path again. Back to one's true self, and back to God.

As a brief coda to this post, these thoughts also led me to thoughts about forgiveness.

There have been few people in my life that I have been truly furious with, and needed to forgive (and by forgive I don't mean 'let the matter slide.' I mean the utter forgiveness in which one lets go of any need for apology or repayment). One of these was a person who brutally hurt my closest friend. I simply could not forgive her, for quite some time. I carried this grudge in my heart and could not let it go. It was only when I came to the full realization of my own sin and my own failing that I was capable of forgiving her. And this made me think that perhaps this realization of our sin is the core of humility, and that humility is entirely necessary for the act of forgiveness, or forgiveness becomes merely self-righteousness. I freely admit that pride is by far my greatest failing. I have so much pride. It is good for me to be reminded in this way to let go of my pride, and forgive.

Now if only I could forgive myself . . .

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Why I Am Not A Christian?

I don't call myself a Christian. In casual conversation, I tell people I am a Quaker, because this at least is true. If pressed, I will say that I am a pluralistic but still Christocentric Hicksite Quaker, and if that's not specific enough we have a long talk coming.

But I'm not sure where the truth in all this lies, or whether I have the right of it. My dearest friend is a Christian, in the Jesus Saves sort of way. I don't mean that badly at all: he lives out his faith with more love than I have ever witnessed before. We have long discussions about faith, and one of the points that it often comes down to is this: he doesn't believe that I am Christian.

Here is what I say about myself: I attempt to center my life around my faith. I don't believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful, Creator-God, but I believe in Something. I believe in a very certain Something. I believe that there are many ways to get at Something (I'm getting a little tired of the 'many roads to the top of the mountain' metaphor, but it gets the point across), but I also believe that spiritual dabbling will not work for me, or just about anyone, likely. I am going to choose one path and stick to it with all my heart.

I was raised Catholic, in that altar-server, I-want-to-be-a-nun sort of way. I've more or less always believed in a God of some sort or another. The metaphors and teachings of Christianity resonate very powerfully with me. I don't believe that they're universally true. I don't believe my atheist friends are going to hell. I don't believe that Jesus the man was the literal son of God. I do believe in Christ. I believe in Christ as the light that illuminates every man's soul. Christ as a state of being. Christ as a metaphor. I read the letters of Paul and am powerfully moved by his exhortations to us to become more, companions in Christ, to circumcise our hearts. I am constantly struggling to circumcise my heart. I am struggling to let go of my own will and be subsumed by God's (unfortunately, I get in the way far too often). If it wasn't so bloody creepy to say, "Christ is the center of my life!" I might do it.

But is this Christian?

My friend argues otherwise. He points out that a Christian is a follower of Christ, and that description does not fit me. I ignore plenty of things that Jesus said, like the bits about no man coming to the Father except through him, and the bits about Scripture being the word of God, and the bits about listen to the people I send (I like Paul's letters, but I throw his misogyny out the window). And I most assuredly do not subscribe to the 'Jesus is my personal Savior' bit. I don't even believe in Jesus as God. Christ, not Jesus. He says this is like kind of obeying the speed limit, or mostly not going over the double yellow lines in the road, or being a little pregnant. Either you are, or you aren't. Only 100% obedience counts.

On the other hand, isn't making oneself a living oblation 100% obedience? And why should it have to be 100% to begin with? And who came up with these rules? And why do I get so upset over it all? I don't even call myself a Christian.

And that brings me to the third hand. Even if the shoe fits, how could I bear to put it on? I want nothing less than to be associated with the sort of bigotry that seems to predominate among public Christians in this country, and maybe everywhere. I more than enthusiastically support the queer community in their struggle for equality. I subscribe to the Hilary Clinton school of thought when it comes to abortion- let's keep it safe, legal, and rare. I am an evolutionary biologist. I think school-sanctioned prayer in public schools is wrong. I am firmly in favor of the separation of church and state. Perhaps, though, this is exactly why I should embrace the label. Religion should be co-opted no more. (Did anyone else read the August Harper's?)

Then again . . . I have nothing but respect for the sort of Christian who practices what they preach. I know a number of rather fundamentalist Christians, and if I called them at two in the morning because my car was broken down fifty miles away, they would come pick me up in a heartbeart. And they have told me very firmly that it is offensive to the Real Christians (capitals mine) for someone like me, a poser, if you will, to call themselves such. And I wish to respect this.

How many hands are we on now? Five? Then again, I don't think they have a handle on the truth.

I've run this track around in my mind too many times to count. What it tends to come down to is this: I know what I believe. I am quite clear about these basic outlines, though the details are constantly being shifted and changed by the Light. Is the name so important? Perhaps I shall let my friends and companions argue over why I am or am not a Christian, and go my quiet way in peace.

I hope that's not a cop-out. I wish the way was clear.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

I'm not entirely sure how to start this blog. I've been waiting more or less endlessly to feel inspired towards some eloquent, Spirit-infused first post, and the longer I wait the more sure I am that I just need to get this underway, and the Spirit will find me eventually.

It's funny: blogging seems to me such an intrinsically self-centered act. Here I am! My life! Look at it! and at the same time, what inspired me to start this blog was my drive to discuss something intrinsically self-negating: my spiritual efforts/journey/obsession with Quakerism. Hmmph. Perhaps the resolution to the paradox is this: on some level I am not trying to say, "Here I am, look at me," but instead am saying, "Here is God." Only on some level, though. I am fully guilty of navel-gazing.

I'm not sure if I have much more to say at the moment. I imagine I shall be able to follow up with a more introductory-type post, and then perhaps with a few witty epistles full of spiritual nuggets. Er, then again, maybe not.

At any rate, I hope this counts as 'making a start.' I'm certainly trying.