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.