My belief, as a Friend, is that the definition of theology as the study of a body of doctrines seems particularly incongruous with my belief in "that of God" in everyone. There seems little point in there being "that of God" in any of us if "The Answer" is simply provided in texts inspired by God. I also cannot accept that a faith founded on Love would content itself with a merely rational approach to understanding the Divine. Since when have the most profound Truths been wholly rational? I can only assume that there is a reason for us to have an Inward Christ and that this purpose might be that we may know "experimentally", if you will, by direct interaction with That Which is Sacred. Perhaps the reason for our communion as a worshiping people is to share these experiences with each other so that we may strengthen one another in our powers of love, generosity, and faithfulness to this Light. If that is the case, then I think we need to dispense with any reliance on systematic theologies as they have been historically defined.
At the time I was deciding to become a Friend, I was also writing my dissertation in the field of Women's Studies in Religion. This meant that I was very deeply engaged in research methodology and inquiry into the nature of spirituality from the feminist perspective, and more specifically, from a radical spiritual eco-feminist perspective. In short, I was looking into how an individual's experience with the Divine could be defined through the hermeneutics of embodiment, through culturally feminine metaphors and through direct experiences. I am interested in the approach to and method of inquiry far more than I am in any particular answers one might find. In the end, it was Story, or narrative that most seized my attention. It is in story that we wed our experience and imaginative interplay with potential with our ability to organize and convey that information. Basically, the point of contact between your reality and mine is through Story. That is where we find Truth together. Whether it is the story of one's faith or the story of one's day, we begin to know ourselves as creatures both embodied and spiritual through the stories we tell.
It was the embodied metaphor and the personal narrative that was most interesting to me. In addition, I found that act of questioning fascinated me as both evidence of the tenderness and humility needed to acquire knowledge for oneself and the willingness to be open to the witness offered by "the other." One thing that attracted me to Friends was a focus on the experiential and their use of queries rather than texts. The queries, I think, are a good example of how one facilitates a narrative-based faith of continuing revelation.
I noted in my Meeting that the queries were never answered in any formulaic way but were presented as a means of deepening the atmosphere in which we drew together in silence. Out of that deepening came ministry that was clearly both in response to collective inquiry and a manifestation of the speaker's unique experience. Had the queries had specific answers we were all to know by rote or by predetermined and standard methods of inquiry, we would have been shut off from that rich, embodied, and unique ministry, from those experiences and narratives of the Divine's work in our lives. We may joke of "daffodil ministry" but I have found profound revelation in seemingly banal statements received as spoken ministry in meeting for worship. Again and again I am moved to tears and find myself trembling in the knowledge that I am actually in the presence of Something (don't ask me to define it) that I could never come to through intellect alone. There is no good rational way to explain this. It is just so.
I also frequently find the spiritual practice of narrative, first-hand witness in Friends' blogs. These narratives do not define the nature of God for other worshipers, but rather invite other worshipers to participate in equally authentic experience with the Divine. And so as a blogger in the community of bloggers, I have found myself responding to (deepening to) queries and engaged in the telling and hearing of stories. I wander about my "real life" as one affected by these stories I read online. Fear, grief, pain, mourning, loss, renewal, urgency, faith, love, patience, awe- all of it echoes in me and calls forth from me an authentic response. They are all singing love songs to the Divine and I find that as I have developed relationships with them and with their stories, I cannot stop myself from joining them in the song.
My academic curiosity kicks in and I also cannot help but see how this relates to my study of feminist thealogical inquiry. What I find is that it all fits in rather nicely with standpoint theory and other feminist methodological positions variously called "autography" or "autoethnography" in which the act of writing self-reflective and emotionally engaged pieces becomes a form of exploration. Blogging, I would say, is a typical form of autography which we distinguish from autobiography because it is more concerned with detailing the contours of the emotional/spiritual life than with cataloging the events of a life. Friends' blogging, therefore, was immediately interesting to me in the context of my research because it provided me with such fascinating examples of autography and autoethnography. Of course these are secular terms, but when applied to the spiritual life, the result is a kind of narrative-based process in which the goals of objectivity are de-centered in favor of methods of inquiry long considered questionable, marginal, and irrational.
Let me be very clear that I do not advocate a reversal in which we discount rational inquiry. I'm rather a fan of rationalism actually as I hope has been made clear in other blog posts. I do think that rationalism does not, by itself, provide us with all of the answers that humanity seeks. We are also emotional and intuitive creatures (both qualities long associated with the feminine- a cultural trick that I should probably address in another post.) Any theo/alogical perspective that does not incorporate the intuitive and experiential nature of the human brain can never give us all that we seek. When we dismiss that which we "know experimentally" as irrational, emotionally-driven, "merely anecdotal" and therefore unworthy of being called true knowledge, I believe we are turning our back on the Light. So many of us, myself included, are so mired in our training to ignore any source that does not prove its rational qualifications. But the Light is too powerful for us and will find us anyway. We will feel its warmth even if we are too afraid to turn and face it. We would do better to move toward it, to participate with it, but we are wary. We explain it away. "Perhaps it was just a feeling," we say to ourselves. "It will pass." Sentiment and intuition make us uncomfortable. We scramble for hard definitions and comfortable systematic, formulaic, intellectual definitions of "God" or "Science" or "Philosophy" or "Culture". We want to know. We want to be in control. We do not wish to be swept away in a rush of feeling. So when I sit there in meeting and hear a Friends' gentle, simple ministry, I am furious with myself for the tears that run down my face, for the trembling in my limbs, and for the sense that I have been plunged far more deeply in the human experience than I truly care to venture. This thing that Friends do together- this defies all the old rules. Any outsider might laugh at us. "So a few words were spoken in the silence. So what? You know nothing more than you did before and yet you fall apart in tears as though you have no control!" But as standpoint theorists Bochner and Ellis ask, "Why should caring and empathy be secondary to controlling and knowing?"