Spark, September 2009
15 Rutherford Place
New York, NY 10003
|New York Yearly Meeting News|
|The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)||September 2009|
|Editor, Paul Busby; Guest Editor, Adam Segal-Isaacson|
E Pluribus Unum: One Out of Many
This issue of Spark focuses on the variety of beliefs found among Friends. On the surface, the range seems immense. There seems to be such variety that it is hard to see the unity. But that is just on the surface. Looking a little deeper, one is impressed by the vibrant spiritual life on display. One can also see common threads that weave us together as Friends. The sense of purpose, and of an individual and corporate seeking of purpose, shines through many of these essays. A sense of interconnectedness is also apparent. These are among the commonalities that lurk behind the words.
One of the hallmarks of Friends is that when a potential member comes to us, we don’t ask them “Do you believe X, Y and Z?” but discuss with them how their beliefs harmonize with ours. We don’t require identical belief, but beliefs that can work alongside ours, in harmony. But because we often don’t discuss our beliefs at other times, we sometimes lose track of the rich and splendid variety among us.
Some of these essays may have you thinking “I believe that” while to others your reaction may be more “That’s not at all what I think,” while others may make you respond “I never thought of it that way!” Because putting our experience of spirit into words is a difficult exercise, and the words often fail to precisely capture our inchoate experience, we must be very careful not to overinterpret the words. But if we look beyond the words for the spirit itself, we can find the truth. May these essays be part of that journey.
Spinoza: A Philosopher for Quaker Skeptics?
As a young man I took many science courses, questioned biblical miracles, gradually became agnostic, and began a career as a research chemist. During the next 50 years, haltingly and sometimes painfully lacking clarity, I came to a more gradual and integrated understanding, plus greater peace of mind. Last year a crossword puzzle led me to look up the philosopher Spinoza and to learn that he had reached a similar and much clearer understanding over 300 years ago.
Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) was a brilliant Dutch scholar who chose to live simply, happily, and lovingly, in poverty, devoting his life to a rigorous effort to understand and describe the nature of God, humans, and their relationship. To free his efforts from emotion and bias he used an almost mathematical sequence of deductive reasonings. He concluded that God is One, the eternal, intrinsic, interconnected, interdependent total of everything that is: all of nature, including the cosmos and us. As we love ourselves, so must we love God. Harm to our ourselves, to others, or to the Earth is conflict with God. God is not a personality, not a he or a she, but inspires profound awe and reverence. All that is and all that happens must conform to the laws of nature. Thus Spinoza believed that there could be no miracles, no resurrection, and no souls separated from living bodies.
Today, in the relationships of matter and energy, Spinoza would probably consider the fundamental mathematical equations and scientific discoveries of Newton, Einstein, and many others as glimpses into the very mind of God, that is, the laws of nature that govern all that was, all that is, and perhaps all that could be.
It is remarkable that Spinoza came from a background dominated by faith and religious conformity, and reached his conclusions about the oneness of all without knowledge of modern ecology or of the linkage of all life through DNA and evolution.
Of course, Spinoza’s ideas ran into intense religious opposition. He was solemnly excommunicated by his synagogue. A man tried to kill him, and his writings were banned for most of his adult life and beyond by Christian Dutch authorities both religious and secular. He was friendly and sociable and enjoyed pleasures and friendships, including notable visitors from abroad, if they didn’t interfere with his work. He learned seven languages including Hebrew and Greek, and carefully studied both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures in their original languages. He revered much of Jesus’ teaching. Like mystics among Quakers, other Christians, Sufis, Hindus, and Buddhists, he believed we could receive intuitive and transcendental knowledge from within. As George Fox said, “This I know experimentally.”
He was tolerant with others and understood that the miracle stories in religious scriptures have value, especially for multitudes of differently educated people. However, today we also realize that miracle myths of world scriptures may lead to discriminations of race and gender, “witch” burnings, suicide bombings, and, via prophecies of “the Rapture,” to Armageddon and ecocides.
Spinoza does not remove the civilizing influence of hope of heaven and fear of hell if we conclude that heaven and hell are real, here and now, and that our actions build them for ourselves and each other, in ways well described in Scripture, and that we live in them every day.
Spinoza has been widely reviled as an atheist and heretic. However, he has also been said to have been “intoxicated with God.” He lived his philosophy. With Spinoza, religion and science are not in mortal combat, they are one. Though still controversial, he is today one of the philosophers that are most influential and widely known. Fuller coverage that is both scholarly and readable may be found in “Spinoza” in The Story of Civilization, Volume 8, by Will and Ariel Durant.
This synopsis was the introduction for a discussion group of Rockland Meeting. In our discussion group it came out that Spinoza’s core beliefs seem close to two key biblical commandments (Matthew 22:37–40): “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Upon these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
In Friends meetings might any discussion about a possibly impersonal God lead to disillusionment or departure of some Friends? Or could this strengthen reverence and spiritual life and draw new people to Friends, that is, people angry or disillusioned with a personal God that could take away their loved ones or bring on great misery and natural disasters? Similarly, might still others be drawn to a Friends meeting after they had rejected other religions because of disbelief in biblical miracles and supernatural events?
We agreed that Spinoza’s ideas probably have little influence on fundamentalist religions. However, for those skeptical of their earlier faith or even of their atheism or agnosticism, such ideas could bring added understanding and reverence for All That Is, plus a greater affinity for a loving community.
Within the diversity among Quakers, is there room for Spinoza?
Christ came not to change things, but to change the way we change things.
Surrender to Not Knowing
Out of all the swirling confusion of my belief, and the struggle of my faith, five basic elements emerge that shape one another and blend into one another, like separate colors on a spinning pinwheel that blur when it spins and separate again when the spinning has stopped. These are:
I have to say right off the bat that it’s often hard for me to manifest love, and that I have sometimes not felt at home in this ordinary world. The sky, the wind, clouds, woods, sunlight through trees, the owl in our south woods hooting at dusk, neighbors who come with dinner—these things make the world feel like home, fill me with an expansive feeling, and make magnanimous expressions of love a breeze. But then there is an endless succession of dishes in the sink, stress about money, frustration with my lack of vocation, fears, ignorance, injustice, institutionalized exploitation, violence, people who are challenging for me, sleep deprivation—and love suddenly becomes more difficult. Love, it turns out, is really hard work. Especially when there is darkness when I want there to be light. Or when I am afraid of losing those I love, or of what waits for me on the other side of life. Sometimes, it takes as much effort as I am capable of to be kind in the middle of an ordinary day, with routine frustrations and commonplace fears. Many times, Friends, I am not as kind as I want to be, as I wish to be, and all I can do is humbly bow my head, make amends, and start anew.
I came to the Religious Society of Friends through Catholicism and a long period of seeking. I came through many traditions and disciplines, and searched through many states, countries, and crises for a spiritual home. I’m a new member at Poplar Ridge Monthly Meeting, but I have been attending there on and off now for (it’s hard to believe!) four years, and I knew the first time I walked in that I had found a place to rest. The semiprogrammed format speaks to my liturgical roots, the deep commitment to social justice reminds me of what communities can be for, and the silent worship time replenishes me. It is such an honor to worship with the Friends there.
Every evening, I sing and pray with my 15-month-old son at his bedtime. Our prayers meander through a blessing for close friends and loved ones, outward to people in need, to the plants and animals and processes that make our lives possible, back to the beautiful things—my husband’s laugh, the hill we call home, the tomatoes in our garden—that make our lives wonderful. Perhaps the silver backing on the pinwheel of my beliefs is gratitude—the background for everything that spins. Our prayers end with the song “Simple Gifts,” with two verses. The second verse goes like this:
The Earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.
When true liberty is found,
Cyrus is too young to understand these words, but I hope as he grows I can teach him their essence, which, to me, is that there are miraculous mysteries at work here, intricate patterns within which our own lives are cradled, and all things, dark and light, are here because of things far beyond our control and comprehension. In the midst of this vast mystery, we live our beautiful, humble, ordinary lives. It is possible to find peace and freedom here, amid the hubbub and struggle, and, when and if we do, we can transform ourselves, our communities, and our world. This is our work, one ordinary day at a time.
What I Believe
My family moved often during my childhood, and my parents tried out churches of many different Christian denominations. When I was 13, I was sent to a boarding school run by Episcopalian nuns. There I learned a lot about the Christian faith, and I took the teachings quite seriously. Three passages from the Bible mystified me. When Moses encounters God in the burning bush, Moses asks God what is God’s name. And God answers, “I am that I am” (Exodus 3:14). Two passages in the New Testament also mystified me: “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21) and “God is love” (1 John 4:8). For years I kept coming back to these quotes with a feeling of wonder.
During this same period, when I went home from school for holidays, my father invited me to go with him to the Vedanta Society in Chicago. I loved to go there. Swami Vishwananda was an affectionate and delightfully jolly person before and after the service. During the service I was drawn in without fully understanding everything. There was a little “altar” and on the edge of the altar it said: “Truth is one; men call it by various names.” There were Bach music, chanting, and a serious talk during each service. I felt very at home there. I heard about meditation and I wanted to learn it but the training was on a weeknight and I was back at school.
The teachings I was getting from the nuns portrayed God as sort of a man on a throne high up somewhere. I eventually couldn’t make sense of this image and declared myself to be an atheist. I was still very interested in Jesus’ teachings. The nuns were focusing on the miracles that Jesus had done in order to convince everyone that Jesus was God. I wasn’t interested in that. I said to them that it didn’t matter to me if he was God or not; what really mattered to me was that Jesus taught us that love was the important thing. I really felt that Jesus was a human being like us and he was just trying to get us to see that love was the most important thing.
In 1972 someone I knew had learned Transcendental Meditation and I took the training. There were a couple hours' talk of images of the part of self out of which thoughts flow. When I came out of my very first meditation, my first thoughts were, “Now I understand those passages: I am that I am; the kingdom of God is within you, and God is Love.” It is not that I can explain in words that understanding, but, in a Quaker term, “I knew it experientially.” I have continued to meditate almost every day since 1972.
Often when people ask me what I believe I tell them that most of us now accept the idea that the material universe is held together by the force fields of gravity and magnetism. I now believe that love is a force field that holds the spiritual universe together.
Rufus Jones said it beautifully. “If we believe in a real kingdom of God—an organic fellowship of interrelated lives—prayer should be as effective a force in this interrelated social world of ours as gravitation is in the world of matter. Personal spirits experience spiritual gravitation, soul reaches after soul, hearts draw towards one another. We are no longer in the net of blind fate, in the realm of impersonal force—we are in a love system where the aspiration of one member heightens the entire group, and the need of one—even the least—draws upon the resources of the whole—even the Infinite. We are in actual Divine-human fellowship.”
But what is truth, is truth unchanging law? We both have truths, are mine the same as yours?
Fruits of the Spirit
At a recent NYYM Meeting for Discernment, Friends were asked to consider the question “What is rising up in our meetings?” After considering, I had to admit that what is rising up most often at my meeting is me—about once every three or four weeks, to offer thanks to God or to declaim on the joys of a life lived in prayer, faithfulness, and awareness of the limitless love of God.
And there is one well-seasoned Friend of advanced age who, when I do rise up to speak in meeting, begins thumping his heavy wood cane on the floor and making loudly whispered comments to his wife, such as, “Is he preaching again?” A member of Ministry and Counsel recently tried to elder this elderly Friend and was rebuffed, being told that it is un-Quakerly to speak about God or matters of faith, or to quote from Scripture.
Perhaps I might be discouraged were it not for the many Friends who speak to me after meeting and tell me how much they appreciate my messages. Still, I am aware that these Friends, some of whom I know to lead deep and rich spiritual lives, never rise up themselves to speak about their experiences of Spirit. And so I wonder if, perhaps, our cantankerous Friend isn’t right after all about what our Society has become, if, in fact, it is no longer Quakerly to mention God or quote from the Bible as George Fox did. We heard in Meeting for Discernment from Friends whose meetings seem to try to be “all things to all people” so as not to offend Friends of diverse backgrounds and beliefs—and it may be that we have allowed a culture of not speaking of God or faith to replace our testimony of Truth.
Friends, Christ has come to teach His people Himself. Does that offend thee? Well, those are not my words, but George Fox’s. He said and repeated those words often. In fact, that was the central and fundamental message of his ministry. But being myself a Friend of Jewish background, although one who has made an easy peace with being a member of what is, at its foundation, a Protestant church, I would be more than happy to restate that message in more Universalist terms. There is, at the center and foundation of existence and of us, a Spirit and Power that created us, sustains us, and yet speaks to us and seeks to guide us, for our own benefit and the benefit of all. And we cannot do better than to attend to that Spirit and follow it.
Many Friends at Meeting for Discernment gave us accounts of dissension and strife in their meetings, and I could tell you similar things about my meeting. But that is not how I am led today. I am led to write about something that Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians (5:19–23). Paul wrote that we may choose to live under the leading of the Spirit or we may live otherwise, and we can know when we are truly living under the Spirit when we see the fruits of Spirit in our lives, these being joy, peace, love, gentleness, kindness, self-control, and similar things. If we are not living under the leading of the Spirit, we will see what he called the deeds of the flesh, including anger, dissension, violence, and other sins.
And so, Friends, I suggest that if we wish to see the fruits of Spirit in our lives and meetings—joy, peace, love, and gentleness—rather than anger and dissention, then we must learn to live under the leading of the Spirit.
Christ Is Present
As a Friend who identifies himself with the ministry of early Quakers, I embrace the Quakerism articulated by John Wilbur, who strove to maintain simplicity, ideologically speaking. In unity with first generation Friends, Wilbur proclaimed that indeed Christ is present in the midst of His people, relating to us as a living being who differentiates in our hearts right from wrong. In other words, He crushes the power of the evil one within us.
Yes, Christ has come and is here not only to teach His people themselves, but to encourage us to live in God’s righteousness. God loves us so much that He sent His beloved Son to teach us to love each other as God loves His creation, which includes us humans. Small wonder that Christ serves as the everlasting prophet who reveals God’s instructions for us to follow and implement. Early Friends also recognized that this same Jesus functions as our loving Shepherd, who consoles us in His everlasting love, which empowers us to love and forgive even our own hurts.
Yet because Friends recognized that they were a spiritually poor people in desperate need of the Holy Spirit, they knew that they needed to wait on the Lord as a faithful community, not only to accept God’s everlasting Spirit, but also to obey His commands outwardly. Early Friends, as a result, became witnesses in Truth. They inspired their friends to strive for peace and justice in addition to establishing schools for youngsters. But Friends acknowledge their aspiration for the love and power of God. Small wonder they often met in silence.
That is why Wilburites, such as myself, strongly urge other Friends, other humans in fact, to wait on the Lord, recognizing that the Living Christ is active in our hearts, and will continue His activity, so long as we are willing to hear that profound prophetic voice. This enables us to understand that we must not seek quick solutions for the various problems that trouble us. To the contrary, like early proponents of our loving theology, we need to seek God’s intervention consistently with a willingness to reject our intellect and be guided by the Lord.
But God’s message of hope and love is not for us alone; the Lord requires us to spread the Gospel by encouraging our Friends and neighbors to open themselves to Jesus’ enduring peace that is a gift for humankind.
Love is the current coin of all peoples in all periods.
My Faith and Experience
I am honored to be asked by Adam Segal-Isaacson to write about my beliefs. I remember Adam from Rochester Meeting when I was a member there.
I grew up as a Quaker in North Carolina Yearly Meeting. After a year at UNC-Chapel Hill, I went to Guilford College where I graduated with a degree in religion in 1967. From there I went to the Earlham School of Religion (ESR). I left ESR to be associate secretary with Baltimore Yearly Meeting. I married and went back to Richmond, Indiana, where my wife went to ESR. In 1978 I came to New York to serve as field secretary for NYYM, and then was director of Powell House from 1982–1986. (In 1980 I divorced, and was remarried in 1981 to Cheryl.) From Powell House Cheryl and I and our son Danny came to Clintondale, where we have been for the past 23 years—where I have served as pastor of the Clintondale Friends Church.
Our church is no longer affiliated with NYYM or any other Quaker group, even though we are incorporated through the New York Religious Corporation Law as the Clintondale Friends Church of the Religious Society of Friends. We now go by the name of Clintondale Friends Christian Church. We can be found on the Web at www.clintondalefriends.org. On our Web page one can find our statement of faith, with which I am in full agreement.
My faith centers upon Jesus Christ. In 1964 I had an experience of Jesus that forever changed my life. I have not always been faithful to Jesus, but he has always been faithful to me. As I studied about and worked for Friends, I discovered the centrality of Jesus to George Fox and the early Quakers. Early Quakerism is not so much about doctrines about Jesus, but a relationship with him. George Fox said that we are not to argue about God and Christ, but to obey him.
On our Web page I state that I have two nonnegotiables: the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of the Bible. Jesus is the living Word (John 1:14) and the Bible is the written Word. The two will never be in disagreement, although many of us will be in disagreement over our interpretations. However, anyone who seeks to serve Jesus and live by the teachings of the Bible is my brother or sister.
To borrow a term from Lewis Benson, I am a Catholic Quaker. As I read George Fox and early Friends I am aware that they never sought to develop a denomination, but rather to rediscover and live in the Kingdom of God. Fox saw the Religious Society of Friends as primitive Christianity, as the New Testament church. His was a missionary community, ever seeking to expand the scope and influence of Jesus in the world. Fox had an appreciation for others who might not know Jesus, but he knew he could lead them to Jesus through love, the preaching of the Word and the demonstration of the Spirit through healing and spiritual warfare. Our war is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and spirits that lie behind the evil we see in the world. (Ephesians 6:12) People need to be delivered from spiritual darkness and brought into the Light. Jesus is the Light.
My heart breaks as I see much of organized Christianity forsaking Jesus in pursuit of worldly spirituality and political and social action. The world was turned upside down by early Christians and by groups like Quakers not by working through politics or social movements, but through the proclamation of the Gospel. Paul defined the Gospel as follows:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Corinthians 15:1–8 English Standard Version)
There are many issues upon which I am sure that I agree with Friends in NYYM. I watched the video on YouTube about the NYYM statement against torture, and was moved powerfully—both because I recognized many of my friends in the video, and because I agree wholeheartedly with the statement. However, we will never be able to come out from under the spirit of torture until we embrace the Spirit of Jesus. As a nation, we are in deep trouble on many fronts. Until we accept our moral and political and social bankruptcy and turn to Jesus Christ, we will only be flapping our arms in the air.
Certainly I have not done everything well but I know that I have sought for these past 23 years to serve Jesus as best I can with all the grace he has given me. I was fortunate to have been among New York Friends because it was a number of you who helped me achieve sobriety and come back to Jesus in 1985. Through many of you and through A.A., I rediscovered the reality of Jesus in my life. My prayer is that Friends will rediscover the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is Jesus who can speak to our condition. Jesus is alive and able to lead us if we are willing to surrender our lives to him.
God bless you all.
In the mid 1970s, I moved to Monmouth County. I sought the nearest Quaker meeting because I had been attending Quaker meeting in the Boston area. I found Manasquan Meeting, and I met Lewis Benson.
I remain grateful for having known Lewis and for having read much of George Fox’s Journal with Lewis’s guidance. I think it is unfortunate that most Quakers today have little appreciation of Fox’s radical interpretation of Christ. To Fox, Christ is alive and available to teach us. Fox called the Bible “words of God,” for the word is Christ. As described in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, Christ was before the world began, the word which became flesh and dwelt among us, the light that enlightens all people, and the light that darkness cannot overcome. If one accepts the idea that truth is based on the living Christ and that he continues to teach us, then “continuing revelation” is inevitable. Christ continues to update his message for the modern world. Truth remains the same; it is our ability to recognize and apply it that evolves.
George Fox was a virtual fount of biblical knowledge, but I do not know what scriptural substantiation he may have cited for continuing revelation. It seems possible that it was John 14:16–17: “And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter that he may abide with you for ever: even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you and shall be in you.” (King James Version) So, after the earthly story of Christ is finished and written, there will be an abiding Spirit of truth to whom we can turn for guidance.
The fact that this passage is sandwiched between Jesus’ exhortation to keep his commandments (John 14:15, 21) speaks to arguments such as that of Bart Ehrman in his book Lost Christianities. In his discussion of early Montanists, Ehrman asks, “…how can divine teaching be controlled if it is a matter of personal inspiration? What prevents one person, even if well-intentioned and completely orthodox, from claiming a divine revelation that stands completely at odds with someone else’s divine revelation?” (pp. 150–51) Ehrman illuminates a pitfall that is all too real to Quakers. We have all heard messages in meeting for worship that conflict with our basic beliefs. Perhaps this explains why Jesus continually reminded us to keep his commandments. “Love your neighbor,” “Love your enemies,” “Pray for those who persecute you,” and “Feed my sheep.” Those commandments which challenge our capacity to love our fellow human beings are consistent with the belief that we should seek and answer “that of God in everyone.” If we are anchored by such roots, then continuing revelation cannot lead us over a cliff.
The Bible has come under fire recently because of modern scholarship, and the identity of Jesus in now in the crosshairs. The very titles of Bart Erhman’s books summarize some of the hottest issues: Lost Christianities, Lost Scriptures, and Misquoting Jesus. While some Christians cling to the inerrancy of the written word, others are prepared to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” How amazing it is to me that George Fox seems to have anticipated all of this almost four centuries ago. The Bible offers us “words,” insights to truth, but it is not primary. We must look to the comforter, the abiding spirit of truth, which dwells in our hearts. Christ lives in that spirit and in that truth. The living word continues to nourish the text. In every age, Christ’s spirit enlightens all and so endures as the light which darkness cannot overcome.
In every era, God raises up prophets to point the way, and continues to work through human events to give us signs of hope. God offers every one of us…a chance to participate in the nonviolent transformation of our world.
“Do You Believe in God?”
I usually answer “Yes,” but I feel like an impostor unless I elucidate. Not because I don’t “believe in God”; I do, but I have a very different picture of God than is usually implied by the question—and the questioner. Beliefs emerge from many areas of life experiences. The life-affirming and deeply spiritual values that I now call my Quaker values are a direct heritage from my remarkable parents—who called themselves atheists. The way I relate directly to God when I am in deep contemplation is informed by my years as a certified yoga teacher, with Buddhist-like, “nondeist” flavoring. But the greatest influence may come from three decades as a Friend and from the notion of “that of God in everyone.” Years ago the concept was enhanced for me by way of a revelation in meeting: That of God is not just in all people, but in all life, and, in reality, in everything. Gerard Manley Hopkins expressed this reality in his passionate verse, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” When I can tune in deeply, I can perceive divinity in my communication with my cat or a neighbor’s dog, when focusing on squirrels and birds and spiders and ants, on trees and plants, and even on rocks and soil. When we remember and focus, we can be subsumed by a sense of being at one with all.
Some might call this pantheism; personally, I do not mince labels. I have never been able to relate to the idea of God as a separate entity—“all-powerful” or “kind” or directing history—with its implication that God is a separate being from me and from everything around me, to Whom I can make appeals and Who anthropomorphically “responds.” When I communicate with another creature, I am participating in a divine act. It is not only not possible to do so without God, but to me it is God. What else could communication be? God is in the dance of the bees, the spider’s weaving of the web. The successful act of communication with another live being is holy stuff, as are our temple bodies, as are our feelings and drives and beliefs and thoughts. Tom Paine advised that if you seek to worship God, worship His creation. I relate to godliness, or “godness,” more than I relate to God as an Actor or Director.
The song of the robin is an act of God, as is the lion’s taking of the gazelle: it is not necessarily pleasing or comprehensible, but it cannot be denied. Creation itself is not “from” God; in my experience it is the manifestation of God. I claim no theological construct, nor am I a theologian, but I sense deeply that what most Friends would likely agree is wrong or evil behavior in the world is in reality alienation from God or from Godliness. Those who in their own perception are not beings of God—and who therefore act as if alone—distort the sacred oneness of our world, and go down confused and distorted pathways alone, whether with others who are also alone, or by themselves, but without allowing themselves to be a part of the Sacred All.
A friend once commented to me that religion is nothing more than emotionalism. This does not reflect my thinking, but it is sincere food for thought, and may indeed reflect the limit of the experiences of some. In light of this notion, a subject of my recent contemplation has been “What is the nature of spiritual experience, if it is—if it could be—distilled from the human aspects of emotion and reason?”
“Are you a Christian?”
To that, too, I usually answer “Yes,” but again, the question begs definition. I am a Quaker mystic. The heritage of Quakerism is Christian. The majority population has always been Christian; to deny that is an error. The teachings of Jesus were and are holy and transformative. It is almost incomprehensible that they could arise in the social and political context of the era. His teachings transformed humanity and its institutions—despite the churches and their failings. I believe that one can in theory attain one’s higher self—the Christ concept—and that Jesus may indeed have done so. Is that Christianity? It seems to be so to me; who determines the definitions? Was Jesus the son of God? We are all children of God. Jesus was a truly great example; beyond that I cannot know. Those who believe that they are not (of) God isolate themselves. I was once told by a Friend that those who believe that they are not God have an ego problem.
I can only function spiritually as I am led each day. The fundamental Quaker notion of continuing revelation informs the humility of my irresolute beliefs. Friends must always be prepared for our beliefs to change—whenever we sit down in contemplation. In meeting some months ago a simple message passed my lips, that “true spiritual depth may require humility that is incompatible with certitude.”
The great religious traditions advocate humility “before thy God.” A young Friend recently e-mailed me, “I am not sure what I believe.” She is studying religion in the hope of coming to some eventual clearness. Such a humble and open approach is admirable. As difficult as it is to feel uncertain, maybe even untethered, may she always retain that humility and openness. Those who are certain about their beliefs include those who blow themselves and others up or fly airplanes into buildings to rid the world of infidels, or hold crusades to kill off non-Christians, or destroy Palestinian lives and property because they “know” that G-d gave the land to them. You will hear people rise in meeting who “know” the answer, who “have heard God’s voice.” Perhaps they have, but how can I know? My meeting had a Friend who “knew” from her internal voice that it was right that she had set fire to her house. Who is qualified to judge if her mental state is really so different from the given individual who tells us that he “knows” that Christ (or Allah, or Whoever) is the Only Way? A claim of such certitude seems to be the very definition of spiritual hubris. We cannot claim with certainty to know the mind of God and still admit to being human. Yet this is what certainty implies.
Belief is just that: belief. It is not knowing. True spiritual wisdom is infused with the humility that we know very little and are never likely to know much more. And spiritual wisdom is to sit content with that condition at the same time that paradoxically we seek to know more.
Near the end of U.S. President John Adams’s long life, according to David McCullough, in his biography John Adams (pp. 629, 630),
The simplest, most ordinary things, that in other times had seemed incidentals, could lift his heart and set his mind soaring. The philosophy that with sufficient knowledge all could be explained held no appeal. All could not be explained, Adams had come to understand. Mystery was essential. “Admire and adore the Author of the telescopic universe, love and esteem the work, do all in your power to lessen ill, and increase good,” he wrote in the margin of one of his books, “but never assume to comprehend.”
That of God has always been evident to me in the many Friends and others who sit in meeting and who labor on committees and elsewhere in the world. That I can perceive it tells me that that of God which enables me to perceive is also in me, and I stand in awe of the mystery. This is my Quaker mysticism.
I had the great good fortune to be raised by Quaker parents, Carolyn and Glenn Mallison. For years, the belief there is “that of God in everyone” was the organizing principle around which all my Quaker understanding revolved.
Then, in 1992, I received an opening. Human beings need and want so much from life, we may be driven to invent a god or gods who can aid us. Possibly everything we believe about god derives directly from our own fears and desires.
This, of course, does not tell me whether or not god exists. But the opening revealed that most “religion” is about living in a story made up for human convenience. Human beings make sense of life by forming concepts based on experiences. Then the concepts shape new experiences.
I want to keep as far from story and as close to truth as possible. I don’t think I could necessarily know whether or not there is a god, and what is god’s nature. In the absence of clear evidence, I’ve decided the most honest way to proceed is to live as if there is not a god, while remaining open to fresh truth. I usually call my approach nontheism.
Here are the fundamentals of my philosophy so far.
The basis of my understanding is that there is one life, one source, one being, one energy, which manifests physically as the universe. This means I hurt when you hurt; I am uplifted when you are. It means I can hold someone in the Light, by focusing my attention on our innate connection, at a time when the other person may be feeling separate.
I care very much that this one stuff that makes up the universe not be identified as god. The notion of god is so old and freighted, so storified, that it stands in the way of my being present “in the life,” as early Quakers said.
I view meeting for worship as a precious opportunity to become very present to the interconnectedness of all humans, with all existence. I come there to rest in the peace available when I share space and time with people who are not busy talking and doing, and who are collectively, consciously aiming to lift our hearts and minds as high as they’ll go. I bring my concerns, knowing that sometimes, in the warmth and safety of meeting, something intractable will melt. There is a quality of our quiet togetherness that I recognize instantly, whether I am at home, or visiting for the first time in a meeting across the country. In Paris Monthly Meeting, where I spoke the language imperfectly, I still knew that human huddle.
At times, I attempt just to feel the sense of the meeting. What is the exact nature or spirit, right now, of our meeting?
A second principle of life, as I have experienced it, is that there is a direction at work. Again I resist naming this direction the will or purpose of god. I don’t know for certain it isn’t, but I don’t think of it that way. For one thing, it’s too easy to confuse the will of god with what I want or need. I’m not sure the universe cares. It seems more likely the universe is neutral, simply doing what it’s doing; when we are smart, we figure out what the universe is doing (such as noticing that gravity isn’t just a good idea, it’s the law!). When we go along with the universe, things go better for us.
I balk when people say, about some tragedy, that we just don’t understand the purposes of god. This can shield us from appropriately feeling our devastation, and hinder us striving to overcome disaster. Once a neighbor told me, after a pet died, that it was god’s will. I felt the pull to be comforted. Another part of me, though, objected to being robbed of the chance to grieve fully, and also to consider carefully whether I might have handled the pet’s care differently.
Still, it is apparent there is a movement or direction in life, whether on the small scale of shaping this essay, or on grander scales like development of a culture. What is the source of this force or movement? I don’t know! Of course, I wonder and theorize about it, but I return to not knowing. This does not persuade me to adopt a belief in god in order to answer my question. I don’t know why my ball point pen works either; I just keep using it.
Ironically, one of my most powerful experiences of underlying direction was while facilitating a discussion of nontheism with about thirty Quakers. Normally, I rely heavily on agendas and lists to stay on track. However, I hadn’t had a chance to prepare queries or an outline. Nervous, I listened more intently than ever to the initial round of introductions. When we finished, a question rose in my mind. We considered it at some length, and then a new question came to me. Conversation went on in this way for the whole two hours. I felt as if I’d stepped into a river for a swim, and discovered that the current was so gentle yet strong, that I could give up all my plans, and just float along. I saw this as a manifestation of the natural forward motion of living beings, which we experience when we feel safe enough to open up.
A third principle of life is that there is often order built into the movement. Just as every normal human fetus develops through the same steps, the decision to paint the meetinghouse purple arrives through an ordered progression. The purpose of meeting for worship with a concern for business is to do our best to perform the necessary dance. The sense of the meeting arises when everyone has joined in a vision. Not everyone necessarily describes the vision the same way, or shares exactly the same motives or emotions, and there can even be some who have a very different view. They may agree to hold it in dynamic tension with the common vision, by standing aside.
I recognize leadings and callings as the promptings that naturally arise when we do our various dances in life. It seems (look out, this will not be nice!) arrogant, and perhaps even ignorant, to say “a true leading from God.”Of course, this goes back to our Quaker cultural view that there is “that of God” within us, and then there is other stuff. I have been strongly influenced by Siddha Yoga, an ancient Indian philosophy, which declares that “God dwells within you, as you.” This exuberant perception seems to make our Quaker measure of godliness quite miserly. I regard all desires and fears as proceeding from the only source there is, and therefore all true. The trick is to figure out which promptings will best move the dance along.
A fourth principle is what has been popularly phrased “Be here now.” So simple, yet so difficult. Perhaps the greatest power I possess is to be who and where I am.
NOTE: This article is excerpted (and slightly edited) with permission from Godless for God’s Sake: Nontheism in Contemporary Quakerism, ed. David Boulton.
Be Here Now
Put on your shoes and take a walk downtown
Some people say the best things are free
Now we join in a dance called love
It makes a blind man see, it makes an old man walk
All we gotta do is just be here now
Music & lyrics © Rick Jackofsky 2008
Beliefs Are to Reason With, Faith Is to Die For
What one’s faith is—that, verily, is he.
And the Apostles said unto the Lord, Increase our faith.
I am a Christian Friend, with many of the beliefs you might expect a Christian Friend to have. I’m also, by the grace of God, a person of faith. I’m eager to share my beliefs with anyone willing to listen, but that eagerness pales next to my more intense zeal to help kindle others’ faith, a related but altogether distinct thing. Belief is a thing of air. Faith is fire.
Of belief it is written, “Thou believest that there is one God, thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.” (James 2:19) The One God, all-wise and almighty, is at the very center of my belief system, a foundation stone for my sanity in a world where fate seems so capricious, the selfish and ignorant so powerful, and my own understandings so inadequate. But bare belief in God, as the apostle James and his devils knew, is not faith in God. Belief may say with Jacob, “Surely the Lord is in this place,” but only faith says, with Abraham and Samuel, “Here I am, Lord.” Faith stands always ready to show itself through works (James 2:17–18) and to do its works through love. (Galatians 5:6) No love, no works; no works, dead faith. And faith dead, right belief is truth locked in a box whose key is lost.
But faith does need a belief system to support it, as the candle flame needs wax and a wick, and in this lies the value of right belief. And so let me tell you of the beliefs I hold most important
1. God cares what we do and experience, and is willing and able to communicate with us. One day almost 20 years ago, as I was coming home from work, I heard a Great Voice in my mind say, “I give ear.” The majesty of the voice told me that it was the Lord’s, and the language—the English of the King James Bible—was perfectly chosen to sweep away all doubt about Who was speaking. So this belief of mine is grounded in experience.It was perhaps many years before I “got” the second meaning of those words. “He who hath ears to hear, let him hear!” the Jesus of the Gospels would say. I’d been given not only the assurance of God’s concerned attention, but also an “ear” to discern meanings God wished to convey to me. But if God gave such an ear to me, then why not to you also? Are you prepared to ask for such a gift? Are you prepared to clean the vessel that carries it, so that the mouth that declares God’s truth avoids untruth?
2. God wills the salvation of all. But there is no salvation without a radical shift in attitude, contrary to our natural inclinations, for which the traditional term is “repentance.” Unfortunately this term is sometimes confused with mere remorse for misdeeds, or disgust with the way one is, both of which one may live with for years, as I did, without undergoing the radical shift I’m speaking of. I believe that repentance comes only as a gift of grace; the Christians of Judea so spoke of it in Acts 11:18. It may happen dramatically, as with the Apostle Paul, or imperceptibly—and both to people that call themselves Christians and to those that do not.
I believe that there is no salvation outside of Christ, the Word that was in the beginning (John 1:1–2), the Firstborn of all creatures, in Whom all things were created (Colossians 1:15–16), but this does not mean that a Jew, a Muslim, or an agnostic has to throw away a precious existing belief system and accept Christian doctrine. God is the Savior, as Jesus’ mother prophesied so beautifully (Luke 1:47), and there is no god but God; Christ, having no will apart from God’s own, is the Great Being through Whom God saves, into Whom the saved are gathered back into one, to stand, purified, before God. Call Christ what you will, or live in Him without calling Him anything at all, as preverbal infants do; He will still see to your salvation, except for so long as you persist in deliberately choosing evil over good. For God respects individual choice.
Salvation implies that there is something to be saved from. And isn’t this world of impermanence, suffering, and death painful enough to want salvation from? But there is also the kingdom of hell, which lies within us as the kingdom of heaven does, even as we walk this earth. If we cultivate the hellish side of our nature—fear, anger, greed—beware! That’s what we’ll be left with when this outside world falls away at death. But Consciousness Itself is divine, cannot be destroyed in any sort of hell, and must ultimately return to its Source. And he shall wipe away all tears from our eyes. (Revelation 7:17, 21:4)
3. Everything I experience is for my spiritual education (cf. Hebrews 12:10). I’ve begun to see providence at work everywhere, for “all things work together for good to them that love God” (Romans 8:28), a truth more easily evident as one grows in purity (sattva), by which “one sees in all creatures a single, unchanging existence, undivided within its divisions.” (Bhagavad Gita 18:20, Barbara Miller tr.) There’s nothing so small, trivial, or random-seeming that God’s hand cannot be in it. But this applies to things that distress as well as things that please me. “What?” said Job to his wife (Job 2:10), “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and not evil?” Do unfeeling people threaten me? I can say with Jesus: “Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above.” (John 19:11) Remembering this sometimes spares me fear, anger, and discontent. In The Imitation of Christ (3:46, Sherley-Price tr.), Christ tells the Disciple, “It is by My will and permission that events happen, in order that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” Even when others’ hearts remain opaque to me, each event shows something about the thoughts of my own.
4. The impulse to pray is to be trusted; God will not ask us to pray for what God does not intend to grant. This becomes particularly crucial when we doubt our own worthiness to be forgiven our misdeeds and the condition of our heart. But if “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12 ff, Luke 11:4) and “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13) are held up as model prayers, our sense of unworthiness is of no relevance, unless we’re actually blocking the gift by denying others forgiveness and mercy. Jesus would never have said “Go, and sin no more” (John 8:11) if the sinner had been incapable of living without sinning further; neither would He have told us to be perfect, “as our heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), if such a goal were unattainable. God can be counted on to give us whatever we need to achieve what God wants us to do: even “a mouth, and wisdom” in situations of terror (Luke 21:15); even strength to resist any temptation that might be given us (1 Corinthians 10:13). But do we not know what we should be praying for? For this reason God has given us the Holy Spirit to intercede for us with “groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). In particular I know we would never have been given the yearning to know God, or to be united with God, if it were something we could not have.
Such are my key beliefs. But as I said, I’m more zealous to ignite faith than to preach beliefs. If souls whose faith God kindles into fire through my influence happen to have belief systems different from mine, I care more that they cherish the flame of faith than that they think as I do about, say, the Resurrection of Christ or the authority of Christian Scripture. As the flame of faith continues to burn in them, it will bring them into right belief—the belief system that God, knowing their cultural heritage and personal vocabulary of faith, deems right for them at this present stage of their development. It is faith that saves, and not the belief system. It is faith that sooner or later leads all the faithful into repentance of ways with no life in them, and through repentance into the “righteousness, peace, and joy” (Romans 14:17), the sat-chit-ananda, of an eternally wakeful life, infinitely satisfying, in the bosom of God. Of the different beliefs that helped us get there, the Qur’an teaches: Whatever it be wherein ye differ, the decision thereof is with God: Such is God my Lord: in Him I trust, and to Him I turn. (Qur’an 42:10, Yusuf Ali tr.)
O Friends: cherish the flame of faith you’ve been given; sweep away everything in your heart that might dim or quench it; and be thankful to the Giver. Beliefs are to reason with, and are useful helps; but faith is to die for.
If you feel farther from God than you used to, guess who moved.
Seeking the Spirit at College
Entering college is often our first taste of being on our own. Now every decision is truly our own, including where to worship.
As a college freshman in a community that I was already familiar with, I attended a church that I had attended previously. However, after my freshman year, I worshiped with several other denominations either due to the convenience of the service or the desire to understand more about their practices. As you—our Quaker youth—head off to college, you may be doing the same.
As a student, you may be wondering about integrating worship into your new schedule. While you will be tempted to ignore your spiritual life, staying connected to the Spirit will help to keep you grounded. In addition, those that you worship with can provide moral support to you during the academic year. So seek to worship with a community on a regular basis (whatever regular might mean).
The campus chaplain will be able to tell you about worship services on campus, and may be able to tell you about other worship services in the area. In addition, the student and local newspapers will contain information on worship services in the region. The New York Yearly Meeting Web site (www.nyym.org/meetings/) and Friends General Conference site (www.quakerfinder.org) contain information on Quaker meetings. If you would like to attend a service that seems too far from campus, call the worship community to find out if someone can give you a ride or if there is a worship group closer to your location.
Syracuse Friends Meeting holds a monthly potluck meal, and when I first came to Meeting, I was told to be sure to come to potluck for a good meal. With that in mind, do ask what regular or special events the worship community has and keep them in mind. If they have potlucks, remember that a good meal (non-cafeteria food) can be a wonderful thing.
Depending on your major, you may run across an assignment where you will want to use a worship community as the basis for a paper or multimedia essay. Whether or not you have established a rapport with the community, talk to the minister or clerk prior to completing the assignment in order to understand any concerns and to obtain their permission. A great analogy for a worship group’s reaction is that it can be like announcing to your family that your Thanksgiving dinner will be the basis of a play you are writing; every family member’s reaction will be different and need to be considered.
My schedule in college led me to attend Wesleyan, Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, and Catholic services. Each was a different environment with its own way of expressing the Spirit. Each was welcoming in its own way, and each caused me to think about my spiritual life differently. As you explore the religious communities near your school, may you also find welcoming surroundings, supportive people and a connection to the Spirit.
Around Our Yearly Meeting
Elmira: New Path/New Place of Worship
Ithaca: Small Steps toward a Big Move
NYYM Sends Letter to Governor Patterson
Quaker Leadership “in Retreat”
Young Friends Commit to Living Quaker Values
Albany Friends Open Racism Discussion
Purchase Meeting Organizes “Green” Fundraiser for NYYM
For information contact: Fred Feucht, 914-769-1720.
Farmington-Scipio Regional Meeting Fall Gathering will take place September 19, 2009, at the Perry City Meetinghouse, 6324 State Route 227, Perry City, N.Y. The program will be “Advancing Friends: Are we ready to be changed?”
For information contact Donna Beckwith. Donna prefers to be contacted by e-mail at dmbeckwith [at] yahoo.com. Alternately you may call her between the hours of 1 P.M. and 8 P.M. at 607-546-5472.
Singing à la Nightingales, September 25 –27, 2009
Nightingales is a Northern Yearly Meeting a cappella singing group that Mary Jacobs, Melody Johnson, and Christopher Sammond have enjoyed and are sharing with Friends here. Getting together and singing as the Nightingales do is about singing from the heart. It is about being in a community singing with love. If you were told by your kindergarten teacher to “just mouth the words” because “you can’t sing,” you can sing. If you can talk, you can sing. We sing from Rise Up Singing and Worship in Song, and we often bring songs or rounds to teach each other. We go around in a circle, and every person present, even the very youngest, gets to name a song they want sung, and if the person wants, they set the pitch for it too. At times we break into song without books and without structure, our hearts leading us from one song to another, one genre to another, sacred, silly, schmaltzy, rounds, hymns, show tunes—we wander into some amazing bayous of song.
These weekends are also about fellowship and food. We all bring food to share, and have potluck meals that we take turns organizing and cleaning up after. And we tell about our lives. We do that in words, and in the songs we initiate, for there is little more revealing than the song in your heart. Sometimes we sing our way into the truth of who we are, and receive that from the singing.
Those that can camp, do so, or sleep in sleeping bags on the floor. Those who need a bed, due to age or physical need, get the few that are available. We charge a small fee for breakfast staples, but otherwise we do everything ourselves, so the cost is negligible. If this sounds like fun to you, please come, and bring those you love with you.
Shuttle service from Utica Amtrak station is a possibility. Children are most welcome, though those not wanting to participate in the singing are the responsibility of their parents.
Dates: September 25–27, 2009
Place: Mohawk Valley Meeting and Liseli Haines’s house
Suggested fee: $10
For more information: Contact Christopher Sammond, 607-753-0444, c1sammond [at] aol.com.
Registration: Contact NYYM office at 212-673-5750, walter [at] nyym.org. We need to know how many to plan for, who needs a bed, and what food you plan to share.
Letters to the editor are presented when space is available. Letters raise and explore topics of concern to NYYM Friends. As in any Quaker forum, views should be expressed briefly and gently, and may discomfort some Friends. The Communications Committee welcomes unsolicited manuscripts of opinion or reporting and will publish material that seems provocative and timely.
Summer Sessions Minutes
The full text of the Summer Sessions minutes are on the NYYM Web site and will be published in the 2009–2010 Yearbook.
Letter from the Clerk
My name is Heather Cook, and I serve with joy as the new presiding Clerk of our Yearly Meeting. My sons Kennan (16) and Declan (14) and I are members of Chatham-Summit Monthly Meeting, part of All Friends Regional Meeting. A year ago John Cooley of Central Finger Lakes Friends and I were married at Silver Bay, and yes, we still maintain two households, so I worship in the Farmington-Scipio region as well.
I feel very clear that this work is grounded in my monthly meeting, where an anchor committee has been meeting with me faithfully for almost two years, listening, questioning, praying. This service is already showing itself to be a spiritual practice. To paraphrase a former clerk, this role is God’s way of getting me to pay attention, and to get involved.
A very steep learning curve has already started, and I ask for Friends’ prayers and patience. Our being in community is not about being mistake-free; it’s about how we choose to deal with mistakes, our own and others’. Do we treat each other as we want to be treated? Do we lift each other up with a tender hand? Are we clear and patient with each other? Do we practice deep listening? And I encourage us not to be afraid of those broken places, because in my experience that is often where love can flow vigorously.
In this role, one of my main calls is to listen. As I visit meetings and worship groups, gatherings and committee meetings, I hope you will speak to me from your heart about your own journey and your experience in your monthly, regional, and yearly meeting. I invite you to consider how your measure of Light and Truth might be brought to the work of our gathered body as a Yearly Meeting.
And if we don’t get to see each other in person, please contact me at clerk [at] nyym.org with your questions, comments, concerns, suggestions, and joys.
In loving friendship,
Heather M. Cook, Clerk, NYYM
This column is prepared from information about membership received from the local meeting recorders.