Sunday, November 20, 2011
Despite these concerns, I think it raises some interesting points that I would like to see us discuss. I saved my own copy so that I could link it above. It is entirely public and anyone may comment (either there or here) but not edit, so as to preserve the original sentiment.
Cross-posted to Quaker-Quaker here.
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
I just finished my first read of Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy.
There was a lot in there, and a lot I haven't digested or that I disagree with on first blush. The last of the five books discusses the endless debate over free will versus Divine foreknowledge. The orthodox position is to believe in both: free will and foreknowledge, and the almost equally orthodox struggle is trying to figure out how the two of them can possibly be compatible (especially as foreknowledge, in some positions (such as Calvin's, I believe) is equated with predestination).
Boethius (in the voice of Lady Philosophy) gives a very interesting and frankly compelling argument as to why Divine foreknowledge is not the same as predestination. He points out that our earthly knowledge or foreknowledge of an event doesn't mean that it is inevitable. He asks us to consider a person watching a man walking as the sun rises. Because we see both things, we know that they are happening, but the sun rising is inevitable while the man walking is not. Since God comprehends everything in the Eternal Present (Boethius argues), his foreknowledge of our actions no more compels us to act than our present knowledge of the man walking compels him to act.
I enjoyed this analogy (even if I'm not sure I agree, I still like it very much) and considered another one:
I know my best friend as well as I know anyone. I can reliably predict whether or not he'll like a book, what will make him laugh, and where he'll sit around a restaurant table. He can predict the same things about me (actually, he's rather better at it). No one on the outside looking in, however, would suggest that when we're around each other we lose our free will, no matter how good we get at predicting each other. Almost the reverse: being around someone who knows you and cares for you deeply can be remarkably freeing. I am given more choices because I trust that no matter what I do or say I will still be loved.
All respects to my best friend, the God of my faith loves and knows me infinitely more, and is also infinitely more wise. Is it too much of a stretch to conjecture that He has that much more foreknowledge of my actions, and that I am simultaneously even more freed?
Monday, May 23, 2011
I finished reading Moby Dick recently, and among other things it got me musing about faith in God, revelations of the Divine, and the natural world.
In the novel, the obsessed Ahab sees the white whale who took off his leg (the titular Moby Dick) as a living representation of something diabolical:
"All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who's over me? Truth hath no confines."
I have religious friends to whom every little event --- a traffic light turning green at just the right time, or a sunny day for their vacation, or their cold getting better after a prayer --- every little event is a Sign or Work of God. God is the "unknown but still reasoning thing" that "puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the [pasteboard] mask."
It's awfully tempting. I do have faith (most of the time!) in a personal God who cares about my doings and has power in the world we see around us. Like Ahab, I feel as if I am straining to see "the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask" of this world. Sometimes I think I've found those features, too --- perhaps not in the traffic lights, but maybe in other events: a chance meeting, a shooting star, an unexpected phone call. And this is not particularly unorthodox.
But Ahab, as his mate Starbuck points out, is mad:
"Vengeance on a dumb brute!" cried Starbuck, "that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous."
Starbuck is right --- it is crazy to impute all of this "inscrutable malice" to a whale, a part of nature, and the book is fairly clear that Ahab sees this malice only because of his peculiar monomania about it. A whale is a whale and pursues his own whale nature. We might as well strike the sun for shining. So why is seeing malice in the world so crazy when seeing God in the world is so orthodox?
But in Melville's world past (and present) where many people thought (and still think!) about God as I have outlined above, it was (and still is) a narrow leap to make. Honestly, the fact that I (and many others) find that leap so illogical- and immediately start arguing against it- "Ahab, stop- there is naught behind the wall"- is the argument that most compels me towards atheism. Because if I refuse to see malice- devils- demons- behind the wall, why should I see the Divine?
Nevertheless, I do see it- the Divine grace. Every day I see it. And while I believe in evil in the human heart, I don't believe in a reasoning evil, a demonic evil, striking through the mask and thrusting through the wall. This might be either because of my theological naivete or again because of my ultimate optimism about the goodness of the universe.
I'll have to mull it over and take my pick- and wonder, what's the orthodox Quaker take on this?
Thursday, January 06, 2011
I have been asked by my Meeting to present at a new institution for us: the Spiritual Breakfast. A member is to come and speak about their spiritual path, over breakfast and coffee provided by Ministry and Counsel. Mine is the second of these events, and I did not make it to the first, so I have no idea what is expected of me. I have, however, been given a list of questions to respond to. At first I thought they were frustratingly vague, but after putting them away for a while and then returning, I have found them more fruitful.
I have an hour and fifteen minutes, including questions. In order to fill it in, I have been working through the questions provided. My first thought was to create merely a rough outline of what I might say. I seem, however, to think in conversational essays. Which are the stuff blogs are made of.
Here are the questions:
When did you first identify that your life was/is a spiritual journey?
What are the important elements of your spiritual process now?
At this point in your spiritual journey can you identify some patterns/ways in which the Spirit is leading you?
Do you have a favorite(s) passage, reading, poem, hymn or image that is meaningful to you to share with the group?
Who has been a spiritual role model or mentor? How and in what ways?
This is a rather formidable list, especially as I took the first question as an opportunity to describe my journey thus far. I also found that my answer to it encompassed my answer to the fifth question. Here is what I have written thus far, edited for a blog audience.
Conversational Essay #1: When did you first identify that your life was/is a spiritual journey? and Who has been a spiritual role model or mentor? How and in what ways?
I've always believed that life was a spiritual experience. I was born Catholic. However, I didn't see it so much as a journey. It seemed like a home, the final destination. I don't remember a moment when doubt first began, but I do remember a moment on the school bus when I said, 'All right, God, I think you don't exist, but if you do, you should give me some big sign, like a bolt of lightning, so I'll know.' And He didn't. Faith then seemed very black and white to me: God was or He wasn't, and there was no room for doubt. So that was that.
Years went by. I never lost my sense that there was Something Bigger, be that the Goddess or Ethics or humanity's accomplishments, and by turns I tried neo-paganism and atheism and Unitarian Universalism. I believe I even attended a Quaker Meeting once or twice. Nothing stuck.
I feel as if I talk about my conversion experience all the time, so I apologize if you've heard this before. However, this story remains central to the narrative of my faith today so I'm going to tell it anyway. A version of this story was published in the on-line edition of Friends Journal this summer: Christ Stopped Me on the Highway.
In college I dated an abusive man, whose main technique for keeping me in the relationship was convincing me that if I left him I would be a horrible person, that my only personal value was in dating him, and nothing that I wanted to accomplish independently in life amounted to much, etc. Understandably, I was miserable.
A little bit of advice for those who may know folk in similar situations- be very careful about slamming the abuser in front of the abused, because unless the victim is quite ready to admit that she is a victim- and most aren't, right away- you will shut out her confidences. This is what happened to me. I felt that I could not confide in my friends because they would only say bad things about my boyfriend, and I was not ready to face those truths. Since my boyfriend was simultaneously trying to keep me from spending time with my friends, whom he called 'a bad influence,' I felt increasingly isolated.
During all of this, and almost out of the blue (or at least that's how it seems in retrospect), I came to rely on one friend in particular. He was one of approximately three conservative Christians on my very liberal college campus. He didn't approve of sex before marriage, and I was sleeping with my boyfriend. I was studying evolutionary biology, and he didn't really believe in evolution. I hadn't known him very well prior to my crisis.
Nevertheless, the first time I turned to him in a moment of lonely desperation, he was there for me. He would stay up until dawn listening to me if I needed an ear, once drove two or three miles through a blizzard to come hold my hand in the middle of the night, and eventually, when my boyfriend grew physically aggressive, stepped between the two of us to protect me.
I would ask him all sorts of question about his religion. For instance, I was concerned that he might think less of me for having sex before marriage, although I never felt judged in his company. I can't remember this conversation exactly, but I seem to recall that he looked at me like I had two heads and said something along the lines of, 'Just because what you do wrong is public doesn't make you a worse person than I am, when I make mistakes all the time in private,' or words to that effect.
I also asked him how and why he had done all of that for someone he barely knew at the time. He told me, “I don't have the strength to do this. It's not I who is doing this for you, but Christ through me.”
This was the single most important moment in my conversion, although it didn't end there- in fact it barely began there.
I had thought religion was a matter of intellectual belief. You either thought that Jesus was raised from the dead or you didn't, much the same way you thought that a^2 + b^2 = c^2, or you didn't. And if you couldn't believe in a set of religious propositions the way you believed in a set of mathematic or historical or scientific propositions, then there was nothing traditional religion could do for you.
This one moment changed everything for me, because it was my first glimpse of transformative religion, a religion not about accepting propositions but about letting oneself be utterly changed and made new by the love and grace of God. I think, also, this was my first taste of what I would later come to call redemption. Although I felt worthless in my terrible relationship, the love of Christ redeemed me, gave me worth again. In His eyes, as I could see them through the eyes of my friend, I knew I was worthy of love.
Sister Helen Prejean said to the men she was ministering to on Death Row, “No one should die without seeing a loving face. I will be the face of Christ to you.”
I decided that whether or not I could accept propositions (deciding I could accept them would come later), I wanted to be that face of Christ for someone in need, and therefore I wanted to be a Christian.
The question was, what sort of Christian would I be?
That summer I had an internship in a biology lab in South Carolina. All of us interns shared housing in nearby apartments. My room-mate, and indeed most of the other participants in the program, were conservative Christians. Several of them attended the same church and Bible study, and I was invited to attend as well, but I felt too uncomfortable to accept. My friend from home had (and still has) a remarkable capacity for showing the same love to a person no matter how deeply he disagrees with their actions or beliefs. The people here, while pleasant, did not have that gift, and I felt like an outsider.
So I was lonely twice a week when my room-mate left for Bible study and church. I called my mother to complain, who wisely suggested, “Try looking up the Quakers.”
I grew up about 20 minutes from Old Chatham Monthly Meeting of New York Yearly Meeting. You might know it- it's held at Powell House, which is also NYYM's retreat center. Anyway, I had been there a time or two (as mentioned way back in paragraph two), it was lovely, and my mother's suggestion fell on fertile ground.
There is a strong unprogrammed Quaker presence in South Carolina, including a meeting in Columbia, where I was living. Although all the attenders knew I was only there for the summer, I was taken in warmly. I went to Meeting, Worship-sharing, a lunch or two out at an Indian restaurant, and a long march against nuclear weapons with a pair of Buddhist monks and attenders of this meeting.
The silence of that Meeting held me. Not only were the attenders gracious, but the worship was deep, some of the deepest I've known. That summer, I felt as if every Meeting for Worship was the pulse of my heart, propelling me through the days to return, each week, back to Meeting.
One couple in particular stood out. They had been called to prison ministry, and exchanged letters with a mentally ill and imprisoned man. I gathered that he had been imprisoned for crimes related, more or less, to being mentally ill and homeless. When he was released, they took him in, arranged for his housing, and drove him to and fro, including to Meeting where he seemed to be welcomed by all. As my friend had, they seemed to take their good works for granted- an integral part of their faith and life, not something extra that they deserved praise for.
And that, I believe, is when I decided that of all kinds of Christian, I would be a Quaker.