Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Part 2 of TheAlogy: A Spiritual Method of Inquiry: Stories as Vehicles of Truth

First off, I apologize for the fact that this blog post was written just as it poured out of my head. Very fast. The grammar and punctuation is a mess. Let's call this "an organic piece."

I think it is clear that people's stories themselves are very rarely representative of truth. In fact, so often, our stories are anything but. One thing I work hard at is showing my history students how our narratives and witness are always biased and distorted according to our cultural filters, our gender, our lived experience, age, sexuality, etc. If "fact" is so hard to determine through the vehicle of the human mind and words, then imagine how much harder it is for human beings to convey a perfect "Truth" with their words.

But that's not really what I meant by the use of narrative as a vehicle. I didn't mean that our words themselves convey the message but that the message is conveyed in the act of the telling, in the will itself to tell, and in the will to listen.

Clear as mud! LOL

The phrase that comes to mind (probably inappropriately) is "ears to hear." I used to listen to my father reading the gospels and would hear the words "whoever has ears to hear..." and I knew that this was when what Jesus was saying was really deeply important but was not immediately clear in a mundane sense.

I want to address two important components of my sense of narrative as a vehicle of spiritual inquiry. The first thing I want to address is empathy and compassion. When I'm listening to others in a normal context, I'm often upset by how absurd and imperfect they are. However,when I listen with my spiritual ears, I find that my sense of them shifts.

Understand there is *no* way I can explain how I do this. It is not rational in any way I can determine. When I listen to people in this way, I can often know things about them, a truth beneath their words. People are always telling us about their lives if we are listening. I listen to the way they pause or how their voices catch. I watch their faces.

As a child, people often told me things that they probably ought not to have disclosed to me. But I was the preacher's kid, so they weren't always clear about boundaries. I did learn how to sit with someone and hear them without showing anger or disgust. Once as a teenager, I said something about the uselessness of Vietnam. My uncle, who was trained as a medic but never went to war, exploded in anger at me. It was a curious moment. I never heard him raise his voice before and I have never heard it since. I listened to him rant some ridiculous conservative war-mongering stuff, but what I heard was his sense of profound guilt that he was safe when so many others he cared for died and his sadness and fear for his younger brother who did go and who still suffers today for it. It was an extraordinary experience for me. He was telling me a story but I might have just mistaken it for stupid anger if I hadn't been listening.

Another example from my family is when we asked my grandfather what happened to his sister who died in the '20s. "She burned up," was all he would say. That was all he needed to say. The memory of that shortest of stories, the loss and the horror and the pain of it, makes me cry even today.

Very often, people have disclosed information to me that they had kept hidden and I find that I already knew it. The only way I can think to explain this is that the words themselves, the desire for one human being to be known and loved by another human being opens a conduit between them.

I also find that one can listen deeply to written narratives. I like to practice this with primary sources. My students and I practice a creative analysis. Beneath lies and misdirection, banality, politics and pedantry, I often find this exquisite...what is it? Truth? No. Let's just call it a Song. It is a human song of desire and fear...so much like the cry of an infant.

And this is the thing that calls me to answer that of God in others, even when I find them cruel, or ridiculous, or stupid. I hear their imperfection and need as one hears a baby's cry and I find I cannot hate them. It is their need for each other and for the Divine that is "the Clue", "the Message in a Bottle" that directs me back toward the Sacred every time. We *need* each other- not just to stay alive in our bodies but to stay alive in our souls. The worst injuries any of us can receive is to have our ability to connect to others injured or severed. Those who are thus soul-injured are those who are most likely to bring hell upon the earth.

I also find that people will tell the most amazing stories of survival and love and justice. These are good stories to hear and this tells me that the human soul is resilient and just as well as injured and searching.

The next thing I want to share is the idea of metaphor. Here in the west, we have used vision-oriented metaphors. Feminist theory and methodology suggests that we need to also use metaphors of listening. Visual metaphors have focused on light and dark. What we see is the object of our sight. We consume it with our eyes. We measure, assess, and judge it.

The sight metaphors have de-emphasized interactions with the objects of our observation. The words themselves limit the suggestion of reciprocity between the viewer and the viewed. In essence, we create "I" and "it" Subject and object.

Now with a hearing metaphor, we begin to have an I and a thou. Both the listener and the listened-to are subjects.

So when two people are telling their stories, where is God? Is the sacred in my story or in yours? It is in neither place. It is not in the stories (both are only relative expressions of experience), but it is in the telling and the sharing of the story where the Divine exists. When I listen to you deeply and my desire is to love you at the level of your soul, then I am following Christ's commandment that I love other human beings. Not what you think or do or believe or say, but who you are. That part of you that is immortal and beloved. And this love leads us to the Love of the Source my friend, Daniel so often speak of with such stirring eloquence.

Btw: Madeline L'Engle does the most amazing job expressing this ability to listen beyond the words in her book A Wind at the Door. She calls it "kything."

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?"

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Discipline of Listening as Tool for Christian and Pagan Friends in Conflict

Oftentimes I have read Christian Friends' comments regarding the frustration of Meetings and online conversations that are, if not openly hostile to the Christ-centered Friend, at least not supportive of him/her. This is a serious concern and a hard thing for me to hear. It is especially hard when Christ-centered Friends suggest or even openly advocate that Friends be limited to Christians only. My perspective is often the opposite and so I want to argue and bluster when I read such things. To hear these things makes me feel unwelcome and defensive.

On the other hand, I have sympathy with the desire to worship only with Christians although it makes me sad. There are times when I want to only be around women (I went to an all women's college not because I disliked men but because I knew I'd grow better without their presence in the classroom). Sometimes I only want to be around my immediate family who knows me so deeply I do not have to fuss with defining and redefining terms. If I were a Christian Friend, wouldn't I want a place where I wouldn't have to be careful about speaking openly of my devotion to Christ? Wouldn't I weary of having to use terms that made others comfortable but missed the core and spirit of my meaning?

What I hear from some Christocentric Friends is that I am welcome in the greater community and I am a part of the family but that there are times when they wish to exclusively use a scripturally based, Christ-centered faith and practice and that having to include other faith traditions becomes a burden. Christian Friends should not have to always pretend they are OK with my Pagan language any more than I should have to pretend I am always OK with their Christian language.

But I still think we need to find a way to be Friends together in a way that not only transcends those differences but is honest about them. You don't transcend anything by ignoring it.

I am troubled when folks skim over differences and pretend that everything is fine. Respecting differences does NOT mean pretending they don't exist. It doesn't mean insisting on some kind of bland language that will cause no offense. "Great Spirit who is all things to all people or who may not exist at all...and that's cool because it's all cool..." There is no true peace possible when we will only hear those stories that make us feel good and that agree with our own experience. We must also have the strength to hear ugly things, discordant things, outrageous things.

There are many, many times when we listen faithfully and do NOT come to a place of agreement. We aren't clones and we aren't all right. If we could immediately find Truth without discipline and discernment there wouldn't be much point to any of this. This is work as well as blessing. The fact that I keep colliding against the hard edges of other people's truths keeps me from getting soft.

So I'm not suggesting that the point of listening deeply to others' stories is to develop an "it's all okay" attitude. Far from it. When I am listening to someone's spiritual statement, whether that person is New Age or Christian or Pagan or Buddhist, or a freethinker or whatever, I ask myself the following questions:

What led them to this statement? Do they make it in a disciplined and thoughtful way or are they feeling cornered and frightened into it? What are their experiences? Am I having trouble understanding because of language, ethnic, cultural, gender, differences?

Most importantly, I ask, "What are the fruits of their belief system?" Although I may find them "goofy" or "conformist" or ""jaded" if the fruits of their spiritual journey are full of the kind of love I still call "Christ-like" then I can be content with the differences in our personal approaches. If on the other hand, they talk a good game but I see that their spirituality is unethical, mean-spirited, contemptuous and lazy...well then I have another choice. I can labor with that person. Perhaps I have misunderstood. Perhaps they were feeling cornered or were in a state of awkward transition. Perhaps I was. Maybe I was the one being undisciplined, mean-spirited, contemptuous and lazy. (It happens.)

And sadly, maybe the answer is that I can't always share community with every soul I meet.

My very first Quaker experience was a conference led by a Friend. He called it "Spirituality and Silence." In attendance was an African immigrant Christian who was once a Muslim, two Buddhists, a Benedictine nun, an Eastern Orthodox priest, another Friend, a Christian, and me, a Goddess-woman from a strong liberal Protestant tradition. Actually, it was almost good enough to be a joke..."A priest, a nun, two Buddhists and a pagan walk into a conference..."

Before we arrived, we had each written an essay about the topic "Spirituality and Silence." We had no other guidelines. Throughout the conference, we were given readings on methodology and theory and asked to periodically read our essays out loud. We engaged in the "Quaker process" (a new one for me at the time) of waiting in silence after each person spoke.

We did not agree with one another. Not even close. But it was one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life. Silence bracketed hard words, grieving words, thrilling words. At first our desire was to overlap each other, to jump down each others' throats, to seek to gloss over differences or to dismiss one another. Then as we grew used to the practice of silence, we began to actually hear each other. And then we actually began to hear ourselves. The discipline of deep listening removed us from the lazy practice of just blurting out belief statements. We weren't so careless about our own messages. We were more honest as we became more interested in being authentic and allowing others space to be authentic than we were in "getting along." Our questions were more intelligent, our challenges more helpful, our entire process more disciplined.

More importantly, our process grew increasingly more loving. There was a greater integrity at work in that room of diverse believers as the goal of winning the argument fell away and was replaced by the desire to speak clearly and listen carefully.

So this is my message to all my dear Christian f/Friends. I do NOT want to change you. I'm so glad you are who you are. I do not need you to think as I do. I do not always have to understand you and I do not always have to be understood for our relationship to have value. Your faith in Christ brings strength and illumination into my life. I want to listen to you more carefully. I want to know you better so that I might glimpse the Divine shining through you. And I hope, very much, that you might also see it in me, for all my difference.

Country Girl in a City Meeting

I missed Meeting again this week. My husband only has every fourth Sunday off so we have limited opportunity. This week we thought we'd go to the urban meeting because my youngest has wanted to go to "his school". We don't have a First Day School at our Meeting so the kids like to visit the city where there are so many other kids. On their website they indicated that their summer hours are different than their ordinary hours. Since it is not summer yet, I thought we'd arrive there quite a bit early. We were twenty minutes late. I have a personal policy that I do NOT walk into any meeting for worship or church service late. Oh well, it was probably for the best. I don't really belong there.

The Meeting is a liberal Meeting in an urban setting about an hour's drive from our house. Although we've attended on and off for two or three years, I can't seem to get comfortable. In fact, I feel like a foreigner in their midst (much as I do amongst other bloggers). When they speak, they speak of events and assumptions with which I cannot identify. Their metaphors and illustrations are all about large crowds of people, about pavement, tall buildings and busy schedules. They are urbane and I am provincial. They speak of organic food co-ops and of flowers struggling through cracks in the sidewalk. I live a short walk from the nearest farm amidst a riot of flowers, grasses, and trees against which our sidewalks struggle to survive. Theirs is a world of street traffic and fancy restaurants, of parks and shops and traffic- and mine is a world of vineyards and orchards, of greasy spoons and tractors.

The meeting is full of professional women and men who speak casually of things that I know cost more money than I earn in a year. Most significantly to me, they do not seem to realize that their meetings, their retreats, their conferences, and their vacations are not accessible for most people on earth. Why should they know? We're as mysterious to them as they are to us. Their city is a very isolated urban area in the midst of vast stretches of rural landscape. While there is much reason for those of us in the country to travel to the city, there is little reason for them to venture far afield. No one comes to my village. They pass through it. "You live where? Oh, yes, I think I drove through there once!"

Funny that there should be so much difference between their home and mine. Travel for any more than half an hour in any direction from the city, and you're in the countryside where we don't have therapists, gurus, yoga instructors, and chemical sensitivities. We have family doctors, schoolteachers, exercise videos, and headaches. Life moves at a different pace. Don't get me wrong. We are just as busy but the business has a different flavor. There's no rush hour traffic where I live and we don't have quite so many sirens. We have a noon whistle and the church bells play hymns for the entire village to hear.

You'd think that such differences wouldn't matter. It isn't as though I'm a complete hick. I have lived in cities and I have plenty of friendships with folks from all walks of life. So why do I feel so insecure and off when I attend that urban Meeting? After Meeting for Worship, my husband and children go off to enjoy the hospitality hour. I wander off on my own and look at the brochures and booklets. Sometimes I make a show of speaking happily to my children or husband so that people can see that I am not completely sour and unsociable. I make an art of moving between my family, the front hall and the cloak room in a manner calculated to appear to look purposeful although its only true purpose is avoiding conversation with anyone.

I'm terrible at small talk. Awful. I have no interest in discussing nothing in particular--but one can't launch into deep conversations with strangers unless one knows the rules. "Hello. Nice day isn't it? I wonder if Mary Magdalene and Jesus had a sexual relationship?" or "Thank you for your message in meeting today. What do you think about process philosophy? Postmodernism? Semiotics? Star Trek?" Right. People who are good at talking to other people about the everyday things of life and who know how to laugh and share a few words over coffee cake don't realize what a gift that is. I might as well be walking around with a name tag that reads, "Tedious Insufferable Nerd."

I can hear that the city folks share so many of my values, my politics, and my beliefs but for some reason when I am amongst them, I find myself craving home and the people who live there. I think part of the problem is that I don't know the rules of city small talk. (You city folk may not think you have rules but you do!) I overhear the conversations and am just baffled. What are they talking about? I may as well be in a foreign land. They mention streets and projects and committees and events with which I am completely unfamiliar. And I just feel lost.

I think of Dad's country churches peopled by elderly ladies with snowy heads of tight curls and big red-faced, jovial men who clap each other on the shoulder with work-roughened hand. "Well, how the hell have you been!" I think of green bean casseroles eaten in slightly musty church basements with folks who wear "slacks" and sit on "davenports" and whose families have lived in those villages for "pritti-near ta two hunnert years." I know how to behave with these people. I know to speak fondly of my grandparents and assure folks that they are doing well. I know to laugh with the ladies about how loud the little boys are and how there is always laundry. I know to mention the weather and how beautiful it is but shouldn't we have a bit more rain? And yes the kids are growing fast and no, it doesn't seem as if we need another traffic light in town. I know to talk about the festivals and the road work and the colors of the leaves this fall and whether or not I think the snow is any deeper this year or if the raspberries ripened early.

One would think I'd feel more at home talking to people who share my beliefs, politics, and educational background as so many people in the city do. Don't get me wrong, I have enjoyed great conversations both online and in person with "city folks." The deep conversations, the academic, intellectual, and passionate conversations are almost always with you folks from more urbane settings and/or with folks like me who are country-bred but university-influenced. And I do get lonesome here in the country. No one wants to hear me talk about process philosophy and feminism here in the country any more than they do in the city. In fact, I'm pretty much a puzzle to the folks around here. They are kind to me, but they laugh at me too. That's OK. At least here I'm home. I'd rather be an ugly duckling here in the country than a swan anywhere else.