Saturday, June 03, 2006


When my friend stands next to me and says, “I’ll pray for you,” I do not know what to think. I have a slight head cold. I am on the last day of my cold, the day where you feel more or less better but your voice is gravelly and you’re blowing your nose at every opportunity. I do not think I need to be prayed for, not for this. “I’m mostly better,” I say. “I’ll pray for you anyway,” he says.

I believe in prayer. I am not sure when this happened. I used to look at headlines in magazines that said things like “Prayer Study Shows No Effect on Health,” and feel slightly smug. Four years later, I look at those same headlines and feel exasperated. Clearly, I think, someone is missing the point.

I believe in prayer, but when B. stands next to me and says “I’ll pray for you,” for the moment all I can feel is a desire that he’d pray for someone else, or at least over some other part of my life. It’s not that I don’t want to be prayed for. When I’m breaking up with my boyfriend, when my grandfather is in the hospital, when I’ve just lost my job, when I am furious with God and can’t pray myself, at these times I want to be prayed for. In the middle of the night, when a loved one was frighteningly late returning from a journey, I have called this same friend and begged him to pray.

Prayer is not a panacea as far as I am concerned, and perhaps this why I do not wish B. to pray over my cold. This is also why I roll my eyes at those newspaper headlines. Whether prayer is statistically significant is simply not a factor I find worth considering.

I know a little child who was molested. The day I found out, I came home almost in tears and furious. I couldn’t decide what to be angry at: the human who did the molesting, or the society that could breed such an evil, the bureaucracy that prevented me from doing much of anything besides report it and hope someone somewhere would do their job, myself for being helpless, or God for bloody everything. I settled on a blend among all of these things, but mostly I was angry at God. This was a child whom I cared for, whom I loved, even- whom I had prayed for.

More or less, I manage to not be furious at God for hurricanes and cancer and earthquakes and AIDS. I believe in the will of God, but I do not believe that the will of God involves a perfect fairyland with no death. I believe in the will of God as a great Pattern of which death is an inextricable part. That death is necessary for life is something that any neo-pagan or oncologist can tell you. I can accept death as part of the will of God. But I rage because while I believe death to be part of the will of God, evil never is. I can accept lightning strikes, but not child molesters.

Why? Because I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God has jurisdiction in the providences of the human heart, and very much I want her to step in and say, “Whoa now, Adolf, maybe you better be thinking less about scapegoats and more about good economic incentives to get the German economy up and running . . .”

At the same time, I recognize (however sulkily) that we must invite God into our hearts, because if she could interfere in our choices without our permission, life would be pretty much meaningless.

I live right next door to the hospital, and I hear the sirens go by at all hours. The sirens are my muezzin; they call me always to prayer. I pray that the medics are strong and do their job well, and can sleep that night without regrets. I pray that their patient feels safe and cared for and loved. I pray that the patient’s family is loved, and that if their loved one dies, that everyone else will bring casseroles. I pray for all of these things because I believe that any act of pure love is an expression of the will of God. If God wills a person to die, she also wills them to die while being cared for and loved.

I do not know if God will always act to save a person’s life, but my faith tells me that she will always act to surround them with love. Even as I believe God cannot enter us without our permission, I also believe that no matter how tightly locked the gates, she can stand outside of them and whisper. I imagine her whispering to the medics, whispering to the terrified patient, whispering to the grieving family, and whispering to all their friends so they bring lots of casseroles. And if one chooses to let her in, she can do much more than whisper.

Love is the essence of God, and this, in the end, is how I explain my prayer to my more skeptical friends, the ones who don’t offer to pray for me when I have a cold. If God is real, then my prayer, an act of love, invokes God, the greatest love of all. But even if God doesn’t exist or doesn’t care, my prayer is still an act of love. And an act of love never goes amiss. Even if no ears hear it, even if no God responds, I have exercised my soul to love just a little better. Love, I find, takes practice; it is not simply an emotion one has. Prayer stretches my capacity to love. When I pray regularly, I find it that much easier to forgive, to hold my sharp tongue, to take the time to make casserole.

I believe any act of love to be an act of prayer. Children teach this to me best. “She hit me!” says one small child. “I know,” I say. “But it was an accident, and she said she was sorry, and look, she’s almost crying. She really is sorry. When someone hurts you, and then is truly sorry, it is your turn to forgive them.” The small child says, “My mother says- sorry isn’t enough!” I look at them and say, “Sometimes when you’re sorry for something, you also need to do a little of work to make it right, like if you spill milk you need to help clean it up. But really and truly, if your friend hurts you and then is sorry, it must be enough. It is enough.”

Maybe this is lying, because I know that there will be times in these children’s lives when sorry isn’t enough, times when they will beg forgiveness and not receive it. But my reassurance to them is a prayer- that they will be lucky, that they will be forgiven.

And here I am back next to my friend, who has offered to pray for my cold, even though I didn’t want him to pray over it. I didn’t want it because I don’t see my cold as against the will of God, but also because I cannot bear to believe that B.’s prayer would cause God to cure my cold, or that my prayer will cure the person in the ambulance. If I believed that, I would have to ask myself why God is not busy curing more important things: like child molestation. Like hurricanes. Like cancer. I do not have enough faith to do this. Perhaps B. does, and I am envious.

I am standing here because B. showed up at my door and said he didn’t have a way to get home and I said “I’ll drive you,” before he had the chance to ask. That act was my prayer for him, and he accepted it for what it was. So now here I am in his driveway, and with thanks I accept his prayer for me and my cold, because no matter my opinions about the will of God for the rhinovirus, his prayer for me is an act of love and, therefore, an expression of the will of God.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Bible Squee

Translations and commentaries are important to me no matter what I'm reading, and I'm oh-so-picky.

Odyssy and Iliad: Robert Fagles.
Shakespeare: The Arden editions, period, and Harold Bloom commentary. (Harold Bloom commentary makes anything worth reading. It's like marinara sauce. Add it, and I'll eat anything).
Tao Te Ching: Witter Bynner or Stephen Mitchell (I also like Stephen Mitchell's Rumi)
Sherlock Holmes: I have the nine-volume hardcover annotated Oxford edition.
Darwin: still torn between the Wilson and Watson commentaries.

I get very excited about nifty editions of the Bible. Today I dug up a 1966 Jerusalem Bible at my parents' house, which they let me keep.

The Jerusalem Bible was translated by Dominican monks in the first half of the 20th century. They tried to be relatively literal, yet write in 'modern' English, yet stay true to the flavor of each book. Thus the Psalms read like songs, the Epistles read like letters, etc. It's a single-column Bible, which I prefer, and it's not a red-letter Bible (I hate red-letter Bibles). It's a Catholic Bible, which also pleases me, and the books of the Apocrypha are in their proper places, not squished between the Old and New Testaments. There's a fairly substantial essay of commentary before each book, as well as extensive discursive footnotes at the bottom of each right-hand page. The verse numbers are in the inside margins, not in the text, which makes everything flow better. Plus, just as the corners of a page in a dictionary reference the first and last words found therein, the chapter and verse are referenced here.

I'm most excited about the outside margins. They contain what is essentially a running concordance- alongside each line of text are the citations for verses which allude to/refer back to/are parallel to the verse in question. This is wonderful. When a verse is directly quoting another verse, it's placed in italics. Even better.

The language of this translation is spare and elegant. Yes, it's a modern translation, and the Psalms sound nothing like the KJV, but it's not flat and ugly like so many of the 'contemporary' Bibles out there. Yay.

And the icing on the cake? Well, I have an affection for the KJV because so many writers of the time came together to complete it, and it's suspected Shakespeare was among them. You know who was a major contributor to the Jerusalem Bible?

J.R.R. Tolkien.

Oh, yes. Oh yes indeed.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Leavened bread

Pondering the Resurrection this Easter, I find joy in the fact that it no longer throws me into agonies about my belief or lack thereof.

I guess I'm learning that belief is different from faith. I have faith in the people I love. When I am separated from them, I still have faith in their love for me, and mine for them, regardless of their absence. I don't need to believe that they are present in order to have faith in them.

What I found myself meditating on today during Meeting were the parables Jesus used to teach about the Kingdom of Heaven- the mustard seed, and the leavened bread.

I read a parable spoken by a desert father. His student asked him about the meaning of the Resurrection. In response, he took a lump of salt and dropped it in a vessel of water, then walked away. The next day, the father and the student came back. Can you see the salt? the father asked. No, replied the student. Taste the water, said the father. The student did; it was salty. And that, said the father, was the meaning of the Resurrection. The body dissolved, but now in every drop of water.

So with the bread and the yeast and the Kingdom of Heaven; the yeast vanishes into the bread and yet imparts its leaven upon the whole. This parable is all the more dear to me because it speaks of something so mundane. The Jews Jesus was speaking to would have viewed leavened bread as profane; it was unleavened bread that was sacred. The Resurrection and, thus, the Kingdom of Heaven seep into our mundane lives to transform them.

I might not be able to believe that Christ rose from the dead, but I have faith in it, just as I have faith that I am loved, that spring will come again, that bread will rise.

Monday, April 10, 2006

John 14:6

There is no verse in the Bible I struggle with so much as this one.

I am about to plot out my struggle for all of you. I'm not sure if this struggle is a particularly Quaker struggle. I feel like I should be able to either happily ignore all the verses in the Bible I don't like, because it's an error-filled historical document, or ignore my problems with various verses, because the Bible is the Inerrant Word of God, Amen, period. But neither of those approaches satisfies me either intellectually or spiritually.

After many years, I came back to Christianity because of Christ's gospel of love. Love for everyone, including the sinners and Samaritans and people we don't like. The God I worship is a God of inclusive love. A Christian friend perhaps a year ago, just about the time I was truly coming back to my faith, spent some time trying to convince me that I could not call myself a Christian and believe that there were other paths, and she cited this verse- 'no man comes to the Father except through me.' If she had convinced me that this was a true dichotomy, I would never have come back.

There are layers and layers of feeling I have about this verse. Part of the time I just say, "Argh, I can't deal with that verse. It sums up everything I hate about Christianity. Ugh." Part of the time I say, "Surely that was not in the original. Surely that was a later interpolation," and honestly, most of the scholarship I've read suggests that this is likely (the Gospel of John diverges widely from the other three, synoptic Gospels, and is widely regarded as the least accurate in regards to the specifics of Christ's life).

Part of me, though- maybe the faithful part, and maybe the dishonest part- wants to find a way to reconcile my beliefs to this verse, or this verse to my beliefs. And this calls into violent tumult all my views about the Bible. I do believe that the Bible is Divinely inspired, just as I believe that most messages in Meeting are Divinely inspired. But I surely don't think that messages in Meeting are inerrant, and nor do I think the Bible is. Nevertheless, I learn a lot from my fundamentalist friends, and as they keep reminding me when I bring up my struggle with this verse or that (how can they NOT struggle?!), I am not meant to lean on my own understanding.

Well. I think I am meant to lean on my own understanding, in part. As I seem to mention at least once a post, I am a scientist, and I think our minds are meant my God to be used. If men didn't lean on their own understanding some, we'd still be praying for miraculous cures instead of using antibiotics. And as the death rates among religious communities which forswear medicine in exchange for prayer can attest, sometimes antibiotics are just what a body needs.

But if I leant on my own understanding entirely, I'd still be floating in a vague New-Age spirituality, on no real path. I chose to walk this road because I want that structure and guidance, and I am looking for a bit of a roadmap to the Divine will. My faith tradition says that's the Bible- fine. But I am looking for a consistent way to view the Bible. I believe it's inspired, I believe it's a historical document, I believe it's truthful, I believe it needs to be viewed in context, I don't believe it's inerrant, I do believe that it's holy, I don't believe that it's perfect, I do believe that it's God-breathed, I don't believe that it's meant literally . . .

But where does this get me? When I'm staring a difficult verse in the face, what do I do with it? I don't mean a 'difficult verse' like the silly ones about the mustard seed being the smallest seed (it isn't) or rabbits being unclean because they chew the cud (they don't). Because I don't think the Bible is inerrant and these are such minor errors, it doesn't take much shrugging to not be bothered by this. But what about John 14:6?

I am the way, and the truth, and the life, and no man comes to the Father except through me.

If there is one deep, religious insight I feel like I've ever gained in my life it is this: There is only one Truth, but no one has any bloody clue what it is. The job of religions is to get us as close to it as we possibly can, but only God knows the whole of it. I'm inclined to think that Truth is just plain unknowable by humans- after all, God is truth, and God is unknowable. And while this belief in the unknowability of Truth and God is a belief as deepset in me as beliefs come, my entire life is pretty much dedicated to getting as near to the unknowable as I can, and living in accordance with it as much as I can. And the Bible tells me a fair amount both about how to get there (love your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and love thy neighbor as thyself), and how to sniff it out in other folks (by their fruits you shall know them).

I don't buy that the main message of the Gospels is "believe in Jesus and be saved." When someone actually asked Jesus about the most important thing, he quoted the verses I just did, about love. So that's what my Christianity is about- love. Not about my salvation, because that'd be a bit selfish of me. Love.

When I read that verse from John, I do reconcile it in my head. Here's how I do it:

Christ is, in fact, the way, the truth, and the life, and Christ is love. I truly don't think anyone can get to God except through love. I don't think that verse is commanding that we worship Jesus as Savior- I think it's commanding that we partake of the love of Christ. And as far as I can understand, there are a lots of ways to do that besides worshipping Jesus (and lots of people who worship Jesus that aren't following Christ at all . . . )

So that's my gloss for you. I even think it's a good gloss.

What I start to wonder is if I should be glossing at all. Not like everyone else isn't doing it. But in a way, when I use the Bible to justify a belief of mine, I'm being dishonest, because while the Bible informs many of beliefs and kicks me in the pants and reminds me to be honest and good and true, at the end of the day the Bible doesn't tell me what to believe; the still small voice does that. So I, and every bible-thumper in the country, can use the Bible to justify whatever beliefs I bloody well please, and I can make it sound all very nice and religious- 'of course I'm a good Christian! I believe in the Bible and everything!' when really I'm not sure if that's what the Bible is actually saying. I guess that's part of my lack of a handle on Truth.

And even then, I don't want to get caught in the trap of feeling that my beliefs must only come from the Bible . . . they don't, they never will, and I don't think they should. I'm a Quaker, blast it. Divine revelation is continually unfolding. What I want is a consistent view of the aggravating volume- some way to look at it that makes sense and helps me figure out when to gloss and when to not gloss and when to just ignore it. I have some nigglings in that direction, but nothing well fleshed-out.

And, argh, this is all part of the continual culture war inside of my head. The Quaker community here is wonderful and supportive and, like me, they view the Bible as inspired but not literal . . . but I often feel like I'm the only one agonizing over these things, because the other half of my faith community, in the form of my my dearly loved evangelical lowercase friends, do view the Bible as authoritative and I can't shrug off their influence . . . nor, I think, do I entirely want to. So here I am, groping towards a respectfully consistent view of the Bible. A Quaker view of the Bible, even. But I'm not there yet.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Intelligent Design

Several months ago, Martin K. offered up a query. As Friends who believe Christ has come to teach us Himself, who believe in the direct intervention of the Spirit in everyday life, how should we approach the issue of Intelligent Design?

This question is of great personal import to me. I am an evolutionary biologist; I recently completed my Bachelor of Science at Marlboro College. My degree is in Biology with a focus on Biochemistry and Evolutionary Biology. Included in my Plan of Concentration (my undergraduate thesis) was a thirty page paper exploring the conflict between Creationism and Evolution (I posted the text of this paper on my other blog, if anyone wishes to read it). Immediately after completion of my Plan I needed to lay this issue down for a spell, but it's now been three weeks since completion and one week since a successful oral defense, and I'm eager to pick it up again- this time, not from my stance as an Evolutionary Biologist, but from my point of view as a Friend.

The phrase 'Intelligent Design' is often broadly used in religious circles to describe anyone who believes a deity had (or has) some role in the creation (and/or ongoing evolution) of life in the world. I rather suspect that the people who named their movement 'Intelligent Design' were trying to capitalize on this casual and inclusive usage, but I may be too hasty to judge.

At any rate, Intelligent Design in capital letters is more properly the name of the movement begun by Michael Behe. Behe argues, in essence, that there are some aspects of biochemical structure (the bacterial flagellum is one of his favorite examples) that are 'irreducably complex'; because their structure is so exquisitely interconnected, their evolution is impossible, and there must have been a designer. His specific arguments have been very thoroughly debunked by Kenneth Miller (as linked above; no need to go into detail here), but the basic structure of his argument is identical to the famous 18th century 'argument from design' promoted by William Paley; Paley analogized the complexity of life to walking across a moor and coming across a pocket watch. Just as the design of a watch implies a watchmaker, so does the design of life.

Both proponents of Intelligent Design and of more traditional seven-day creationism (and everyone on the middle) will very vehemently claim that their beliefs are nothing like each other. When I examine, however, this entire range of belief- from someone who believes the world was created in six days 6,000 years ago to someone who believes that the use of the word 'day' in Genesis could refer to millions of years but that God still created to someone adhering to Behe's Intelligent Design, I find common patterns of thought that lead me to lump all of these beliefs into one whole.

1.) A supernatural entity is necessary for their view of the creation of the earth and the development of life on earth to make coherent sense,
2.) Their beliefs are in direct contradiction to standard scientific thought regarding evolution.

As a scientist, I cannot embrace any view falling into this category (explaining exactly why this is so would involve a detail discussion of the philosophy of science which I am not going to post here; it can be found in my linked paper).

At the same time, another pattern of thought that links all forms of creationism, from ID to six-day literalism, is the fact that all of these beliefs spring from a form of 'natural theology.'

The idea that religion and science should be in conflict at all is, to me, a rather bizarre idea. To many medieval thinkers, including St. Augustine (read The Literal Meaning of Genesis- it's wonderful), the Bible was inerrant but the teachings of science were also true, even if the two seemed on the surface to conflict; conflicts of that nature were products of our imperfect human understanding.

It was Thomas Aquinas who popularized Natural Theology- the attempt to give reasons or proofs of faith through science. Aquinas was arguing mainly for the literal nature of the transubstantiation; he thought that it could be proven somehow that wine DID change to blood. He lost that argument, but his school of thought still thrives.

I reject natural theology outright.

To me, faith should never be proven or disproven; that's what makes it faith. I've said this before, but even if it was proven to me that a three-headed hydra from the planet Ultron wrote the Bible, that wouldn't change a whit the truth I see in it.

I don't believe in Intelligent Design and its ilk because I DO see the proof of evolution all around me; I've spent four years and earned a degree examining just that. And science should be proven; that's what makes it science.

I believe that God had a hand in the creation of the world as a matter of faith. I believe in God illogically, unscientifically, and with all of my heart. God is God, and God can meddle in the affairs of this material world in any way that God wishes to. My God-given reason tells me that evolution has occured, and because I believe that using that reason to its fullest extent glorifies God, I accept it.

I cannot be a good scientist and argue that God was necessary to evolution; that is not what my reason says. However, how weak would my faith be if I couldn't see the hand of God even in the middle of something so apparently atheistic as evolution? My faith calls me to love my enemies, to see That of God in those I would ordinarily despise. It calls me to have enough faith to see God in even the most desperate situations- mudslides in Indonesia, hurricanes in Louisiana, slaughter in the middle east. I certainly don't despise evolution, but if we as people of faith can have the faith to love our enemies, and trust God in the middle of disaster, certainly we can have the faith to see God working mysteriously and elegantly through the midst of evolution- and I do.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


I had imagined my next post would be about Intelligent Design and my faith, but eh. This one has been bubbling around for a while.

For a long while- I really can't trace it back to its beginnings- I have felt nudged towards a plainness and simplicity of outward appearance. It's not always been religiously motivated, although at this point in my life it is. But I'm still not entirely sure what I want from it, or what it demands of me.

I initially accepted the nudge at the beginning of this summer. I started getting rid of all the clothing I owned that I almost never wore. Then I got rid of a few more things that I wore, but they were ostentatious. I got rid of all shirts with logos or designs or slogans, even political ones that I agreed with, or pretty designs that I was fond of (I had a tank top I loved with a red Welsh dragon on it . . . ). I got rid of all bright colors. Then I started getting rid of patterns except for subtle stripes and plaid. I got rid of six (SIX!) pairs of shoes and replaced them with one pair of well-built ones that will last. I took off all my jewelry (not much to begin with), put it in its box and put it away. By this time it wasn't summer, and I stopped wearing or got rid of my more revealing clothing.

I've kind of settled into a set of rules about what I'll wear. Nothing ostentatious, no bright colors or patterns, no jewelry, no makeup, no clothing that's above the knee or more than a handspan below the collarbone or very formfitting. As little bought new as possible; almost everything from secondhand stores. At this moment, I'm wearing a pair of Carhartts, a collarless cotton shirt, and a wool plaid overshirt, all in subdued earth tones and all procured secondhand for under $5.

Why am I doing it? Well, I feel led. I think our modern consumer culture is pretty awful, I think the exploitation of others to support America's consumer culture is pretty awful, I think the way women are put on display is pretty awful, and I want no part in it. I want no part in it, in some visible way that says, "Hey. I'm not playing these games." I've always had these convictions, even before my convincement, but my religious conviction is now the heartbeat that supports these beliefs.

The why of my plain practice generally bothers me less than another question- 'what am I looking to get out of this?' because the answer to that question is much more complex.

Honestly, in some part of me I long for a common Plain uniform. I'm sure I make some sort of statement as a woman with no makeup or jewelry in simple understated modest clothing all in drab colors and slightly outmoded styles. But in rural Vermont, it's honestly not that distinctive. Some part of me would love to be able to walk down the street and have people know, 'Oh, she's a plain-dressing Quaker.' A bigger part of me would like to be able to walk down the street and be able to recognize other plain-dressing Quakers, and have them recognize me.

I realize there's probably a simple answer to this. We could all (or I could) take up the dressing habits of the Mennonites, for instance, or the Amish. I could cover my head and give up pants, men could grow beards and wear lots of black. Or maybe I could do the Christian Modest Dress thing and wear lots of floral prints and jumpers. With a little veil.

So much of me recoils at this. First of all, I have no interest whatsoever in extreme anachronism. Even before my formal Plainness, I liked dressing in such a way that I wouldn't be out of place in almost any decade of this century (er, last century). A 1940's look is perfectly fine with me. A 1700's look strikes me as ostentatious in its own right, and outside of a very formal religious community, I'm just not interested. Historically, many Quakers have either 'plained' modern fashions or been a few years out of date. Somehow it seems that 'a few years out of date' hasn't kept up with the years among folks who want to dress Plain. And that just doesn't jive with the 'practical,' the 'simple,' and (above all) the inexpensive aspects of my Plainness.

Then there's my feminism, and my queer-positive beliefs. Heck, I go to workshops on gender diversity. I don't believe in a binary sexuality, I don't believe in binary gender, and I myself have just a streak of gender-queer in me. I figure, if God hadn't wanted me to be a tomboy, well, God wouldn't have made me one.

The strict gender roles that seem to go with so much 'modest dress' these days just terrify me. Some of the websites selling 'plain' clothing literally give me frissions of horror up my spine. I hate being referred to as a 'lady.' I am not interested in expressing my 'femininity,' or in 'learning how to lead a more feminine life,' or even 'expressing my femininity for the glory of God.' I'm interested in learning express my humanity for the glory of God. I'm going to medical school, not charm school. I would like to get married and have children some day, but that's a preference, not my life's calling. If I do get married, it will be a partnership of equals.

I'm not sure where to go from here. I'm looking for something a little more distinctive, but not intensely gendered or terribly anachronistic. And I'd like to keep my motives pure.