Monday, July 5, 2010

TheAlogy: A Spiritual Method of Inquiry

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?"

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

This way of thinking about theology certainly speaks to me. I agree that "systematic theologies" have been privileged almost to the exclusion of intuition and emotion and that this emphasis has impoverished Christianity and Quakerism at times (and perhaps other religions?) and harmed women, in particular.

At the same time, your statement, "Basically, the point of contact between your reality and mine is through Story. That is where we find Truth together," seems less inclusive than it could be.

Years ago I took a course with a radical Catholic priest who had written a book called "Prayer and Temperament." He was translating the meyers briggs personality stuff to Christian practice. It was rather hokey and yet we all learned a great deal from it. His basic point was that different methods of seeking the divine work for different people. Very simple and seemingly obvious. And yet we all forget it.

Story doesn't speak to everyone. I've known people who only felt the presence of the Divine in listening to music. Kinesthetic types may have trouble listening, but feel deeply connected to God and others when engaging in a Habitat for Humanity project or a Sufi dance. Quakers are often very verbal people, but not always. These other experiences are also shared Truth.

And among verbal people there are many differences. One of the most powerful religious experiences I've ever had was in first reading the famous passage from John's epistle which begins, "Beloved, let us love one another because love is from God." I can't tell you how that statement of mystical faith (doctrine?) changed me. And at that moment when the Word was opened to me (as Friends say) I believe John and I had a "point of contact" that was the Truth. Across the immeasurable distances, he spoke to me in a way I heard very deeply, in just the same way, in fact, that you're describing your reaction to a powerful, simple message in meeting.

Thanks for a very thought-provoking post. I had forgotten how that "God is Love" passage affected me.
Rosemary

Hystery said...

Rosemary, your comment was very well timed. Two of my children were engaged in a conflict which was caused, in part, by the fact that they communicate their love very differently. My son is a very physically emotive person and my daughter is very verbal. Our conversation together just preceded my reading of your response.

I'm a very word-oriented person and wrote this post specifically in response to another Friend's post related to narrative the*logy- but I do see that story by itself is just one point on the spectrum.

Hystery said...

Your comment was well-timed. I read it right after a long discussion with two of my children about how one likes to show love through words and the other likes to show love by hugging people.

My post was directly inspired (started off as a response) to another Friend's blog post regarding narrative theology so that's the reason behind the emphasis on story.

Thanks for your contribution. The point of contact with the world and me is almost always through story (which I understand far beyond the typical definition of conscious narrative), but I'm glad you pointed out that this is not universal.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hello Hystery,

Thanks for the clear analysis of spirituality and our place within.

I suppose your statement--"the point of contact between your reality and mine is through Story"--is why I left the Friends, why I left Evangelical Christianity, etc.

People I knew in these worship communities I cared for, enjoyed being with, and found it intriguing to discuss their very different stories, views of life, but realized to my inner being that their stories were not Truth, indeed some of the characteristics of their stories were to me representative of what is most absurd, abhorrent and reprehensible. For example, some Quakers describing in their story that disease isn't wrong, that there is no Ultimate Reality...

Been called into work, but that is another story:-)...I'll continue my response later.

In the Light,

Daniel

Hystery said...

Daniel, I'm having technical problems and can't seem to publish your post. Until it gets ironed out, I'm posting it in this awkward manner. My apologies.

Hello Hystery,

Thanks for the clear analysis of spirituality and our place within.

I suppose your statement--"the point of contact between your reality and mine is through Story"--is why I left the Friends, why I left Evangelical Christianity, etc.

People I knew in these worship communities I cared for, enjoyed being with, and found it intriguing to discuss their very different stories, views of life, but realized to my inner being that their stories were not Truth, indeed some of the characteristics of their stories were to me representative of what is most absurd, abhorrent and reprehensible. For example, some Quakers describing in their story that disease isn't wrong, that there is no Ultimate Reality...

Been called into work, but that is another story:-)...I'll continue my response later.

In the Light,

Daniel

Daniel Wilcox said...

As I was commenting (before being rudely interrupted by my day job;-)

What drew me to Friends wasn't (what I already said this morning)...nor Barclay's abstract theology, nor the quietistic enclosed Society of the past with its religious rules, etc.,
No,
it was the intense stories--that of George Fox experiencing Christ Jesus when all else including all the organized churches failed; of John Woolman going out to the wilderness to learn of God from the hated, often savage, Indians; of Quakers suffering for Truth with endurance in prison while their children continued to meet in destroyed meeting halls...

Thanks for all your points, especially how the rational isn't contrary to the spiritual/ethical but complementary.

In my own encounters with God, I discovered that the rational and the spiritual are ONE. I certainly wasn't thinking in a secular skeptical way, since I experientially "knew" God, but I was the most rational ever in the midst of my experiences of Ultimate Reality. (The rest of the time, I'm usually legalistic rational or emotionally off-kilter;-).

Hystery, thanks for, again, getting us all to chew the spiritual and rational cud all at once:-)

What a succinct quote you summed it up with, the one by Bochner and Ellis.

Daniel

Diane said...

Hystery,

Your beautifully written post speaks my mind, and I very strongly agree that rationalism, while powerful, is also limiting. We absolutely need to incorporate intuition and emotion into our thinking--and I am discovering--imagination. Not just empathy, but actually imagining ourselves into the skins of another, which is where I find story so important.

I have also found the comments here to very rich--I too was attracted to Quakerism, beyond a "leading," which, since at the time I had never heard the term, I described as a "feeling""--by the stories of such people as Fox and Woolman. And having children myself, I understand that people experience in different ways.

Is your dissertation available to be read?

Hystery said...

Thanks, Diane!

I think you could probably get my dissertation through an academic library search but I think they'd charge you for it. I could also send it to you.

George Amoss Jr. said...

Primitive Quakers quaked, groaned, and wept during worship. If today such behaviors seem beyond the pale, then I fear that we have lost something very important.

Have you experienced "Experiment with Light"? It is a Quaker practice that combines narrative (individual and shared/traditional) with focused attention to feeling states, including bodily feeling. It is based on primitive Quaker narrative as well as on Eugene Gendler's contemporary therapeutic "focusing" practice. I recommend it to you.

Hystery said...

George,
Thank you for the recommendation. Where might I find more information?

George Amoss Jr. said...

Information on Experiment with Light is available at http://www.charlieblackfield.com/light/

In his book Language Process Notes: Using Words to Get Beyond Words, Friend Harbert Rice provides an Experiment with Light "script" that explicitly incorporates elements of Gendlin's focusing. It is available at the Focusing Institute's Website, focusing.org.

Robin M. said...

It is fascinating to me how in the Quaker blogosphere, as in meeting for worship, sometimes these questions arise in multiple places. Another Friend had asked a question about queries, I wrote an answer, posted it on my blog and then found that you too had written something on a similar topic. But yours is on a deeper level than my somewhat superficial explanation. Thank you!

Hystery said...

Robin,
Thank you. I also enjoyed your blog post on this topic. It is really cool how the same theme grows up in different places on the Quaker blogosphere. I really feel that we are a worshiping community.

sta┼Ťa said...

Blessed be...

forrest said...

How about-- This is all founded on actuality?

"That of God" is simply God, as in "Atman is Brahman." We don't get to consciously experience all of it, but it is what we experience 'from', 'with'-- "what imagines itself to be 'just me' in order for God's Creation to be a living creation rather than a dead one."

Trying to be "systematic" about this just makes one's head spin from paradox, but this description is the only way I can "make sense" of what is, from the fact that anything whatsoever actually is!

But it isn't a "story". It's as literal as mathematics (which is also, so far as cognitive scientists can fit it in, a structure of metaphor based on how certain common experiential phenomena work.)

So "the purpose" of "having an inward Christ" would be like 'the purpose of having a heart, brain, mind etc.' You don't get to be human without that stuff-- even if it doesn't always function noticeably.