Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Spiritual Non-Theist?

I write this in response to a challenge to my use of the term "non-theistic" to describe myself. Here is clarification. Words are brittle prickly things poorly suited to a thing so tender as our spirits! Perhaps the following will make it all worse. Speaking of spirit is like trying to force butterflies to march in time.

Why call myself non-theistic if I am a spiritual person? Well, I do so because I don't like the other choices. I don't like the word agnostic because it always strikes me as a kind of noncommittal sort of word. To call myself an agnostic would be a strong distortion of the centrality of Spirit to my experience.

I don't use the word atheist because it indicates a lack of belief not merely in "God" but in divinity and spirit. I do not think that spirituality is delusional. I think it has been and is central to the human experience even if it is merely "a byproduct of brain function."

I choose the term "non-theist" because I am not theistic. That is I do not emphasize "God" or "gods" as central in my spirituality. I see these as metaphors and when we grow too comfortable and set in them to the point at which we honor our definition of "God" above the Ineffable itself, we are idolatrous.

I don't feel a relationship to "God" as defined by monotheistic traditions. My experience of the Divine is in the plural and diffuse sense. I experience the Divine not as a singular Being with whom I have a personal relationship but as a network, a process, a pattern, an inundation, a multiplicity, an immanence. I don't like the singular term because I experience the Divine almost as an effervescence of spirits surrounding me, enveloping me, welling up inside me.

I feel not only the Oneness of all things but the distinctions within the Oneness that allow for a million stories to be told. I don't reject the Christian message but I reject the notion that it stands alone or as the best. For me the Universe is electric with these messages. Do you ever look for fractals in nature? Once you start looking, they're everywhere! The Divine Message is like that too.

I don't feel a connection to an organized "theistic" Being but perhaps to a series of elevated, familial and familiar spirits as well as an almost heartbreaking and tangible throb of spirit in everything around me. When I say the Universe is ensouled, I mean the individual atoms, the dance of light and dark, of life and death, mourning and exultation, creation and destruction. I mean a paradox of Reason and Chaos, Consciousness and Blind Impulse all working together in patterns too exquisite for my brain to survive the knowledge. I am a child and only given tiny sips.

I am also thankful for your experience and for your ability to share it with me. I am infinitely richer for it. I believe we are given to each other, we humans, to share our stories. There is a light only I can bear. I believe that we are each uniquely beloved, each a messenger of a light only we can bear. When we gather together, each with our own particular beauty, we multiply our appreciation for the Divine a thousand fold. It doesn't make sense to me that two different souls would have exactly the same experience of the Divine anymore than I would expect my children, who share the same mother, to have the same experience of me. Nor am I the Singular Source of their existence. Each of us is the product of the yearning of Life for Itself, of millions of lovers seeking one another. We are the children not merely of our parents but of the Joy without which the Universe is nothing more than Nothingness. We are a product of the Unfolding Process that is as distant as the origins of Time and as immediate as our Love for each other. And that is "God" to me.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Questions for Christian Friends

I am interested in the various answers I am reading from Friends about the place of Jesus of Nazareth and/or Christ in their faith. I have always been interested in christology and am probably the most Christ-centered Pagan you will ever meet. I love to study the Bible and my home is full of bibles, concordances, commentaries...and I actually read them! :-) But I read other texts and find divinity in other sources including "secular" sources which speak deeply to me. I do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was specially divine because I find his teaching (which I adore) in so many other places across great time and distance. He is one of my special teachers because Christianity is a part of my cultural background. Its language forms the foundation of my spiritual heritage and my personal experiences as a Christian child were beautiful and life-affirming. One of the reasons I wish to be among Friends is that I am unwilling to abandon the beauty I personally find in the Christian tradition but I cannot pretend that I buy into the idea of the canon nor can I affirm a faith in the special inspiration of those texts since I have fallen in love with so many other inspired writings and teachings. Thus concludes my paragraph of self-disclosure!

I think I can clearly understand the position taken by non-Christian and non-theistic Friends in various conversations about the centrality of Christ among Quakers. Not surprisingly, their arguments have resonated with me as a Neo-Pagan woman. However, I have perhaps a unique perspective in that unlike many other non-Friends who were never Christian or who were Christian but feel injured and alienated from that tradition, I am neither new to Christian language nor alienated from it. I am clearly too universalist to be called a "Christian" but I am still clearly centered in the teaching, study, and nurture of the Christian faith. So what do you do with me? I am neither fish nor fowl but perhaps I can be a bridge.

I love to have conversations with other non-Christians, post-Christians and non-theists but in this moment, I am more interested in Christian Friends' various contributions to the conversations of the centrality of Christ and note widely divergent Christologies that seem to fall into certain historical patterns (which is actually pretty cool) Now reading the letters between Paul (a Presbyterian minister accusing Friends of being non-Christians) and Amicus (who later joined with other liberal Friends in the Hicksite schism), I see a gulf opening between orthodox/evangelical Christological perspectives and universalist/Hicksite christololgical perspectives which then opened even further with the Congregational and Progressive Friends some twenty years after the initial schism.

In the nineteenth century, they were unable to hear each other without rage and hurt. Families were split apart over nuances of theology and soteriology. Even if a brother and sister agreed about peace and love and justice and compassion, and even if they sat together year after year, bathed in the peace and power of silent worship, a vague theological difference that perhaps neither of them fully understood could pull them apart.

I do not think we will do that to each other although in heated debate, I have read and heard some pretty angry words and exclusive language. Our differences make us uncomfortable and they lead to discord. We are wise to tread lightly here. However, I do not think it will do us any good to go on pretending that deep and abiding historically persistent differences do not exist between Friends to this day. I wonder if it is possible for us to have a conversation in which we express our musings, meanderings, and even our disciplined doctrines in a quiet manner appropriate for those who know that not one of us is given perfect insight. Can we engage in exchange, dialog and discourse rather than engaging in battles? If the tenderness shown me already by some who profoundly disagree with me is any indication, I have great hope that we can.

I ask these questions not because I want to know the true, acceptable or correct answers but because I am genuinely interested. I am confident that even those whose answers would clearly separate me from the body of Friends do not truly mean me harm and I need not worry because there are so many meetings where people like me have long been welcomed. So basically, it ain't no big thing. Ruffled feathers are soon smoothed.

Here are my questions:

Do you differentiate between the Christ and the historical Jesus of Nazareth? Can we equate the Holy Spirit with the concept of the Christ, the Presence of the Divine within us and which is available to all humans regardless of their knowledge of the story of Jesus? What is your take on the Trinity?

Can one follow Jesus without believing that he was resurrected? Can one be full of the living Christ (or Light, Love, Truth, Holy Wisdom) without believing that this Energy was especially embodied in the person of Jesus of Nazareth?

When my father was in seminary, the first thing they told him was that there was very little evidence that he even existed or that if he did exist, there is little evidence that he truly did or said the things attributed to him. Why would they say this? Would you still have faith if someone could prove that he was not resurrected? did not preach the things you believed he preached? did not exist? Would you still have your faith? Would you rename it?

Are the Scriptures divinely inspired? infallible? specially inspired? Do you take the entire canon as holy or are there parts that you consider more holy than others? Were they the best and most complete synopsis of the will of God? Are some of them so mired in cultural context that they are no longer relevant? What does continuing revelation mean to you?

It is amazing how hearing something that completely contradicts my own beliefs can deepen my thinking. The exchange of honest conversation leavened with curiosity and humility has changed me on more occasions than I can count. Therefore, I ask these questions of you not in the spirit of competition but as one greedy for spiritual communion.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Quaker Readings in the Waiting Room of Life

Perhaps I will not keep this post up for very long. It may not be of any great interest to anyone else but since I have not contributed anything at all in some time, I thought I could at least contribute this.

I am between classes. Later this month I will begin to teach again (more's the pity) and I will have less time for frivolity (if you call endless laundry frivolity). I also am not engaged in any writing or in any preparations for conferences or presentations. Truth be told, I'm not at all sure what to do with myself although I'm sure there are a few people on Quaker Quaker blogs and forums who would dearly love to tell me!

It is increasingly clear to me that I am in a period of germination and only hope that I have fallen on good soil. Following a very clear path throughout my life from childhood until my recent completion of my terminal degree (which feels as ominous as that sounds), I find that I no longer truly know what I want to be when I grow up. It reminds me of our dog who was so chagrined when he actually caught the cat and discovered that it had claws.

On the plus side of my own growing meandering pointlessness as a human being, I have been able to spend some time with some readings that would otherwise be left neglected. I pick them up much as someone might in a waiting room. While I exercise, I read the Friends Journal dedicated to marriage and relationships from cover to cover including a good portion of the advertisements (many of which indicated to me that the Friends seriously need to reevaluate what they mean when they speak of simplicity and equality!) When I completed that journal, I brought in my copy of Woolman's Journal and am working through that. Within the same volume following Woolman's Journal is Penn's. Losing weight with weighty Friends! You can keep your yoga.

This week I completed a biography of Lucretia Mott and reviewed some of my earlier notes on her ministry. I began reading the college library's copy of the biography on Martha Coffin Wright and ordered my own copy (something I ought to have done much earlier given the biographers' and their subject's close connections to my own community and research).

Last night and early this morning I made it 100 pages into the Journal of Elias Hicks (who writes, as C.S. Lewis might say, "in the grand style of the Calormenes" and was therefore simultaneously dull beyond belief and hilarious) and then setting that aside, I began reading the letters of Paul and Amicus just predating the Hicksite schism. I'm 145 pages into that volume which infuriates and fascinates in turn. Did you know the darn thing is over 500 pages long?!!! Sheesh.

I launched into Barclay a long time hence but did not make it much past the introduction. Perhaps I am not ready for it. I have also noticed that I have a shelf full of John Fiske's work (1899) including comments on the Friends. Perhaps I'll check that out too now that I've noticed it. Still, I have multiple articles saved from academic journals to my computer that I have yet to read. There is no shortage of material.

There is very little organization in my reading program. In fact, it isn't programmatic at all. I read what I have on hand. I like to reread favorite volumes and intersperse my old favorites with new materials. I'm also reading other things too and will certainly be adding biblical studies, ancient history, feminist theory, art history, and African American history to my piles of books in progress as the semester picks up again. One never knows what marvelous connections will be made by not having a plan. I like to think of it as a process of grafting or hybrid-breeding. Or serendipity.

I do like to know what other people are reading and about what they are thinking so if you have a mind to, let me know. I'm pretty much just lurching and lurking about these days and hunger for connections. A casual comment can ignite a passion. One never knows when that will happen.

So anyway, here I am. Doing my thing, whatever that is. I am not writing. I am not teaching. I am just reading. And waiting.

Rosemary

Dear Rosemary,

I’ve been planning to write to you for some time but was a bit shy about it given the nature of our leave-taking. I know you were disappointed in my choice of doctoral program and I thought you were also disappointed in me. Perhaps you were just trying to protect me from the repercussions of an unorthodox decision. I don’t know. I guess I’ll never know, but I wanted to tell you that it has turned out pretty well, all things considered. I’m teaching at a community college. It isn’t as nice as Wells with its ivy-covered buildings and its wonderful old traditions. It’s just adjunct work, but it is pretty steady and I know others who graduated from more prestigious and conventional universities who can’t get work at all. I guess one never knows what decision will work out best. I remember you telling me to go to Harvard. “Why?” I asked. “Will I like it?” You were honest with me then. “No. You’ll hate it.” But you knew that a degree from Harvard would have helped secure a job, success, a reputation. I chose to be happy instead and lost you in the process.

You wanted me to take the politics of academics seriously. I chose to be cavalier and dismissive. You scolded me when I refused to go to my graduation ceremony. I thought it was all a joke. You reminded me that though it was easy for me, it was hard work for others. “Those other young women worked hard for this moment. If you don’t attend, you are insulting them.” Not only did I refuse to attend, I stomped around campus in a WWI army helmet, combat boots and a circuit rider’s clerical robe with my shaved head with a shock of unnaturally dyed hair in the front. I literally and figuratively gave the finger to the college experience, but you knew I'd be back. You knew it was my life and I should pay it the proper respect.

I first shaved my head and dyed my hair right after you secured my position at the Undergraduate Research Conference. You called me into your office and told me to watch my temper and not to be too emotional. I could see you were afraid I would sabotage myself. “I had to go to bat for you…” you warned me. You needn’t have worried. I behaved myself and even found that speaking in front of large groups was something I’m pretty good at. Do you remember that paper? “The Usurpation of Goddess Power”…jeez, what a goofy title! But I was proud of it and I know you were proud of it too. It was my first venture into the field of feminist religious history, a field that would become the heart of my life as a scholar.

Do you remember that book, the one that got me started? I was in the library that day looking for study materials for my classes when I found it; The Serpent and the Goddess. God, I wanted to read that book! I picked it up and read the back of it, looked inside it, almost took it with me but I set it back on the shelf. I knew there would be no time for me to indulge my private desire to study such topics- not at Wells where we were typically required to write several papers, give multiple formal and informal oral reports, and to read a stack of books. No. With all my history, art history, and religion studies courses, there would probably be no time to read a book on the Goddess until after I was done with my formal education.

Hours later that same day, I entered your class and sat down in one of those solid, old wooden chairs around that solid, old wooden table. In the middle of the table was a pile of books and in that pile of books was that same library copy of The Serpent and the Goddess I had held longingly just hours before. I damn near began salivating when I saw it. Then you told us all to choose a book to use as the basis of our semester paper. “Pick whichever book you want,” you said to the class, “but not this one. This one is for Mindy.” And then you handed The Serpent and the Goddess to me.

You knew. You knew before I knew what kind of scholar I would be. You knew from everything I said and everything I wrote and everything I believed. You, like the best kind of teacher, read beyond my papers and tests, beyond my answers and my questions to the heart of my passion. You put the book in my hand and you pushed me out the door. You did that again and again and again throughout the three years you taught me art history and women's studies at Wells and then the five years you worked with me on my graduate program in women's spirituality.

I’ve always wondered if you knew just how much I loved you, how much I looked forward to our long talks in your office, hours and hours together talking about medievalism, and postmodernism, about feminist theory, and theology, art history, eco-feminism, scholarship and motherhood. I brought you my first papers, my first speeches, and after I was married, my first children. I loved you for the smallness and the femininity of you, for the sparkling-eyed Irish-ness of you, for the over-the-top, grandiose, intellectual drama of you. I always said that all you needed to complete your act in the classroom was a pink feather boa. You were magnificent and ridiculous and brilliant and I adored you.

One day I overheard you speaking to another student who was commenting on my performance in class (it had been a particularly good day and I had been particularly clever.) “I taught her that!” I heard you boast. “Oh no, she didn’t!” I thought to myself. “I taught myself! I’m nobody’s show dog.” But in a more tender and secret place in my heart, I’ve always treasured that moment. You were proud of me. That meant the world.

Another time, when we were discussing postmodernism and The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, you said that he was my intellectual great-grandfather because you learned postmodernism from a teacher who learned it from Umberto Eco himself- a kind of academic Kevin Bacon game, but it meant more to me. If Umberto Eco was my great-grandfather, then you were my mother. And you were. You were the mother of my intellectual life and I was secretly pleased as well as distressed when you confided that your own daughter was a little jealous of me and the time you spent with me.

At the end, when you told me that you could not support me if I chose to make the unorthodox decision to study an unorthodox field in an unorthodox university, I grieved. I had to do what you and my other teachers, my parents and grandparents, prepared me to do. Whether it leads to failure or success by any traditional definitions, I am a scholar because it is the only way I know to keep the flame burning in my heart. I could no more choose to take a more traditional approach to scholarship than I could have failed to fall in love with you.

So I followed my heart and I lost you.

I think of you often, Rosemary. I can see you expounding on one of the finer points of some obscure theory with that mischievous glint in those dark eyes. (You made postmodernist feminist theory seem simultaneously naughty and divine). I can see the rosiness of your cheeks as you told us how deliciously fat you got when you were pregnant. “I was just ROUND!” you said throwing your arms out dramatically. I can feel your arms around me when I told you I was pregnant for my first child. I can hear the pride in your voice when you boasted about my work and my research.
I’m not sure what I could say to your family. I know their loss of you is keener than mine. May they find strength in each other and may their stories of you give them comfort. I know how very proud you were of your children. So many times you told me stories of their childhoods, and of your great pride in your daughter’s intelligence and grit, of your son’s uncommon gentleness. If your daughter was ever truly jealous of me, I am sorry. You belonged to her and to your son heart and soul and I always knew that. I was a bit jealous of them because I knew that I had you as long as I was your student and they would have you for the rest of your life. I did not know, could not know, how little time you had left.

I tried to find you on Facebook to reconnect with you. After all these years of feeling I had failed you somehow, I thought it was time to mend our relationship, to tell you how much you mean to me. That’s when I found your memorial page. You’d already been gone for four months. You died just after my daughter’s tenth birthday. Do you remember her? You were so pleased with her name, a name that means, “Goddess.” She saw me weeping and sat down with me, reaching out her slender little hand to comfort me. I told her that I was okay but that someone very important to me had died. “Don’t wait to tell the people you care about how you feel,” I told her.

My mother says that you knew I loved you. How could you not? I hope that is true. I was going to write something on your Facebook memorial page but I couldn’t do it. I didn’t think it would fit. I didn’t think it would be right. I couldn’t figure out where I would fit on the stage of your life. I have no right to grieve for you as a member of your family. I cannot count myself among your colleagues. I don’t even know if you would have called me a friend since our relationship was not one of equals-- and yet, I cannot bring myself to speak of you as if you were just my teacher. What were you to me? What was I to you? I don’t know. I don’t know. I write this here because I don't know where else to tell this story, with whom to share my grief. I have no categories for this loss, nowhere to settle my tears.

I guess it comes down to this: You pushed and embraced me in turn. You shaped my thinking and championed my work. You set my standards, kicked my ass and exulted in my successes. If I was less than you hoped I would become, I am sorry. I have tried to stand tall. I have tried to bold as you taught me to be. “Don’t you ever apologize for what you know!” was one of the first and most important lessons you taught me. I may not be, may never be, as successful as you hoped I would become but I keep my chin up when I champion the unpopular and politically dangerous subjects you taught me to love. When I am engaged in debate with someone who doesn’t know enough to take me seriously, I daresay that there is as much sparkle in my eyes as there was in yours.

I have tried to be to my students the kind of teacher I found in you. This is the second time I have lost you and in the intervening years, I have grown stronger, and fiercer, and more headstrong than I was when I was the eighteen year old who first tip-toed nervously into your office. The wheel has turned and now I am “Doctor” and “Professor” with eighteen-year-olds to come tip-toeing nervously into my office. I dare them to take on tougher topics, bolder fields of research. I give them books and recommend radical subjects if I think they have the stuffing to handle it. Then we have long talks about postmodernism and art history, and feminist theory, and I tell them how proud I am of their work and their passion…

I love each one of them in memory of you.