Sunday, May 11, 2008

A Response to A Plain Life by Scott Savage and to Those Friends Who Wish I Would Go Away.

I recently finished reading A Plain Life by Scott Savage and found it to be a deeply satisfying read that challenged me to continue on the path I have chosen toward simplicity and spiritual integrity. I found his writing stirred me toward deeper contemplation of my commitments to family, community, planet and the Divine and made me feel more deeply that my spiritual home is among the Friends.

Then I read his opinion about universalist and Pagan Quakers on Robin M.'s blog

and was a little shaken. In fact, for a few moments, I was not sure I wanted to finish reading the book. Then I realized that his opinion about people like me had no bearing on the beautiful and powerful message of his book. I would not rob myself of the blessing of his words. I finished the book and now include it as among those that have been most personally powerful for me in recent years. His story of choosing a life of simplicity and integrity resonated with me as I too move toward plain dress, toward deeper engagement with my family, community and environment, and as I more mindfully address the issues of commercialism, technology, and materialism in my life. I take heart from the story of his journey. It serves as a beacon in my own journey.

I cannot say that I do not have sad feelings about his opinion of non-Christian Quakers. I certainly don't expect everyone to be delighted about my heterodox spiritual positions. I think that my sadness came more from my sense of surprise. It is early in the game for me and I did not yet know that it was possible for a Friend to reject me as unqualified. Naive, I know but although I fully understood that many Friends are Christ-centered, I did not know that there are some who consider those of us who are not as unqualified to share in community with them.

I came to spend time with Friends because I wanted a spiritual home where my spiritual vision would be honored even when not shared. I love being around those who can speak the truth in many spiritual languages and who can delight in each other's difference because they know that at the deepest level, we are all of us brothers and sisters. I love being among Friends because they honor the path, the process, and the conversation more than the "answers". It is this that provides form and support to what might otherwise be a spiritual free-for-all. They are a listening people who temper the desire to act, think, and speak brashly within the discipline of Silence. Therefore, I can join them as I too seek to live a more disciplined life and as I continue to listen to the Voice that guides me. What I believe makes sense within a Quaker context. That's exciting for me because I have been without a spiritual community for a long, long time.

When reading A Plain Life, I could see my deeply held values in the personal discipline he described. I seek to honor my spirituality in my everyday activities, to resist being swept away by consumerism, convention, greed, apathy, and self-indulgence, to bring my growing rage and radicalism to the heart of the community where it can be channeled into loving action rather than angry reaction. So while reading A Plain Life, I felt more Quaker. Funny isn't it? A man who said a lack of faith in Christ was "a deal-breaker" made me feel more Quaker. Was my feeling of welcome a misunderstanding? Should I pay more attention to his clearly stated position regarding non-Christians in Robin's blog or was his true spirit calling me to join him through his beautiful book, even while his conscious desire was to dismiss folks like me?

That is so often the way it works. I like to think that sometimes light shines through us despite our stubborn obedience to "truth." When we take it upon ourselves to define the boundaries of "truth" then we are on dangerous ground, strutting about playing at being little gods. When we are defensive, we lash out. When we lash out, we are likely to injure those we were called to love. But when we tell our own sincere stories with passion, faith, and love, we make space for others to grow as human beings especially when we show our eagerness to hear their stories in return. A story honestly told honors and upholds a community. It invites and caresses the "other." On the other hand, when we define the limitations of our tolerance, the boundaries of our faith statements, we exclude those we are called to love. The message that we belong together within the body of the Divine is a message I was taught as a Christian child. It is a message that was reaffirmed by my pagan beliefs. All life has kinship within the Body of the Great Goddess. There are no exceptions. Jesus said "love your neighbor..." He did not list restrictions. So that is how I choose to live even when I am hurt. There are no "deal-breakers" for me. I am called to listen even if others do not want to hear me.

And there have been so many, many times when others have not want to hear me. There was the time I watched a group of fellow students engaged in a theatrical therapy demonstration stomp Goddess worship into the ground while I tried not to cry. There was the time when members of the interfaith group I joined said they didn't think our community could handle community courses that included Neo-Paganism. So wouldn't you think I would stop being surprised when others turn from me even as I eagerly seek them? It certainly is not a new experience. One other incident springs to mind as being particularly painful because it was so personal.

When I was beginning my doctoral work, I met a fellow student at our entry colloquium. He was an older man, a retired minister. I liked being with him since my own father was a minister and I could really identify with him. We sat next to each other and chatted amiably between sessions. When he told us that he had decided to drop out of the program, we shared a tearful hug. In a short time, I had made a good friend. Later I wrote to him telling him how much his presence at that colloquium had enriched the experience for me. He wrote back to me saying that one of the reasons he left the graduate college was because he was disturbed by my desire to obtain a religion studies degree focused on Neo-Paganism and feminist spirituality. He said he did not want to graduate from an institution that would accept me as a student.

Such things happen. And when they do, we are charged with a decision. Do we bitterly reject the human being who excludes us, or do we continue to love them and in so doing, continue to appreciate the blessings only they can contribute? I am beginning to learn that there are far deeper antagonisms among Friends than I imagined. As I immerse myself in published and online literature, I am often taken aback by the negativity, ill-will, and anxiety that whirls dangerously between Christian and universalist Quakers.

No matter. Though my reactive mind stomps and grumbles, "I know when I'm not wanted," my deeper mind tells me to be still and hear what there is to hear. Scott Savage wrote a book that brought grace to my life. His story welcomed me, maybe not the pagan me or the universalist me, but the essence of me that no labels can ever touch. His work helped me look to others with deeper love as my brothers and sisters. And though he may call my non-Christianity, "a deal-breaker," I cannot believe that that which illuminates my heart is any different than that which illuminates his. If he draws a circle that shuts me out, I will merely draw a larger circle that draws him in.


Lone Star Ma said...

I think it's very mature of you to be able to take the good while leaving the bad...not always an easy thing for me.

I think you'll find that the unfortunate split among Quakers isn't really between Christian and universalist Quakers, but more between programmed Friends (who are Christian and tend to feel that Christianity is a requirement) and the FGC, unprogrammed Friends, who are still mostly Christian, but who also welcome the universalists, etc. I am personally pretty comfortable with looking at my spirituality through both Christian and universalist lenses and, clearly, am an unprogrammed, liberal sort.

Anyway, the way I see it, there is plenty of room for everyone in the heart of the Divine. I really appreciate your insights.

cath said...

You said: It is early in the game for me and I did not yet know that it was possible for a Friend to reject me as unqualified. Naive, I know but although I fully understood that many Friends are Christ-centered, I did not know that there are some who consider those of us who are not as unqualified to share in community with them.

Friends are like everyone else in this area. There will always be those who feel they set the norm and the rest of us should get with the program. I hope you won't let those folks put a shadow on your Light.

And I so very much appreciated your ability to separate where you are being led by the book and the opinions of the book's author stated elsewhere.


cath said...

Lone star Ma, you said:

I think you'll find that the unfortunate split among Quakers isn't really between Christian and universalist Quakers, but more between programmed Friends (who are Christian and tend to feel that Christianity is a requirement) and the FGC, unprogrammed Friends, who are still mostly Christian, but who also welcome the universalists, etc. I am personally pretty comfortable with looking at my spirituality through both Christian and universalist lenses and, clearly, am an unprogrammed, liberal sort.

There are plenty of Christians who are universalists (i.e., who believe that everyone will be reconciled with God eventually--either in earthly life or afterwards). That is the traditional theological definition of the term "universalist." I'm not sure why, but Friends seem to have taken that word and changed its meaning, and this confuses the theological issue.

Gil S said...

As they say over here in UK - 'That Friend speaks my mind'. We need to be open to hear one another's stories and to tell our own without fear, but it's a difficult task and can only be done one step at a time.

Anonymous said...

lone wrote: "I think you'll find that the unfortunate split among Quakers isn't really between Christian and universalist Quakers, but more between programmed Friends.."

Not quite accurate. There are still several Conservative Yearly Meetings, including the one to which I belong, NCYM-C, which are unprogrammed and Christian.

We have several friends who are pagan and I see nothing wrong in the path they have chosen. I choose the Quaker path, a Path I believe is centered on Jesus Christ. We can be accepting and affirming of other religions without merging traditions.

Somehow it seems that many people who have issues with those of us who maintain that Quakerism is a particularly Christian path also think that we are intolerant of other faiths. That is inaccurate at least for the Quakers I know. What we do want is to identify Quakerism as a faith that is rooted in the teachings of Jesus.

Does that mean that we souldn't welcome Pagans, Buddhists, etc. in Meeting for Worship? I think not.

Yet, I would challange anyone who has not explored the rich and rewarding historic Quaker understandings to open themselves to that experience. "There is One...that can speak to thy condition."

In Peace,

Hystery said...

As a pagan with very strong Christian roots (roots from which I certainly have not and will not sever myself as they are the source of my growth and strength), I often find there are deep misunderstandings of the term "pagan." Is it a tradition, a belief system, a theology? There are few who do not stop to ask these difficult questions before jumping to conclusions about the value of pagan spirituality. There is no specifically pagan worldview. To judge the "fit" of any pagan philosophy within any given Quaker framework requires that people be taken one at a time. Are we taking the time to hear what this or that particular Pagan Friend has to say about the Light or do we make judgments based on inaccurate stereotypes?

Another note regarding the merging of traditions and worship patterns. I also firmly believe that even Pagan Friends must recall that the Friends began within a deep Christian context and if one is to join, one must accept and honor that tradition. Language and ideas can change and challenge but to reject Christ-centered language as a knee jerk reaction is to reject the waters from a deep spiritual well. Not wise.

Recently I had a conversation with one of my friends who is a UU minister very close to retirement. He is very supportive of including Pagans in the UU community he serves but has been struggling with a group of Pagans who are intolerant of other perspectives. If I were in his place, I would find such people as trying as those Christians who insist that others do not partake of right relationship with the Divine.

We are all given Voice so that we may tell our stories so that those who have ears may hear.

Robert Kirchner said...

Merry meet, Friend. We should talk. I too am a neo-pagan (Alexandrian first-degree initiate, in fact) who has newly, enthusiastically (re)discovered Quakerism, also in academia. I came across your blog from a link on another Quaker blog, and I'm eager to learn what you can tell me about paganism among Quakers. I'd welcome an email, which you can find through my URL.

Anonymous said...

Your last comment really looks at the root of problems: we so often don't listen to each other because we think we already know what the other will say or believes. In doing so, we short-circuit Quaker processes and deny the possibility of light fromw whichever perception we don't share. Thank you for that lucid exposition.

In His Love,
Nate Swift

Hystery said...

I thank all who have commented for their supportive words.

Lone star Ma calls me "mature." Well, sometimes, I suppose! LOL. So often my reaction involves lots of sulking. I have a temper that gets the better of me that I have to keep working on.

Cath, Craig and Lone Star Ma talk about differing perspectives regarding attitudes re: Pagans. Is this an issue among Christocentric Friends, or programmed Friends, or just evangelical Friends, or what? Maybe these broad categories are just that- broad categories. Where you land seems to matter. Perhaps it matters as much as the "type" of Quaker community one joins. So hard to predict people. People are wild, aren't they? :-D Just when you think you've got them pegged...

I'm still learning about differences and similarities among Friends- Christ-centered, not-so-much-Christ-centered, programmed, unprogrammed. I appreciate all perspectives on these tensions. I see tensions as fertile fields. It is in the liminal areas that magic(k) happens. How's that for a Pagan response? LOL Anyway, I find your thoughts helpful. I'll keep paying attention to the differences I find as good evidence that there is still much to learn. When I'm an "expert" then I'll know I've taken a wrong turn somewhere.

Gil and Nate, thank you for commenting on the listening theme. Funny how someone else can hear one's words and reflect their essence back magnifying and honoring the speaker's intention. I write from the gut and you bring my own words to my head.

And Robert, I would love to talk to you about being a Pagan among Friends. Among other things, my dissertation explored heterodoxy among Hicksite Friends in the mid-nineteenth century in relationship to the advent of gynocentric spirituality in the United States. (Except I said it better in my dissertation, LOL) I felt so brilliant while writing on that topic last year. Now my brain is floppy and wilted. That's how it goes, I guess, but I'd still love to chat with you about the topic.

Lone Star Ma said...

Now I want to read your dissertation!

And I agree with what you said - I would be very uncomfortable with friends who were disrespectful of Christ-centered Friends, even though I don't believe that all Friends need to be Christ-centered. Sometimes I am and sometimes I am not - I think that God is too Big to put into our human categories - I need lots of stories and aspects to experience that Greatness.

Tmothy Travis said...

My understanding is that the traditional "Christian" meaning of "universalist" is that God speaks to all people regardless of when or where they are or were and reveals the same message of love. That is what John Woolman and George Fox both found with Indians--that their hearts were shaped by the same Holy Spirit that shaped theirs. The universally saved definition of universalist came later.

Nonetheless, within the Religious Society of Friends there are several domains. Some are not inclusive, some are more inclusive and some are radically inclusive.

Joel Bean seems to me to have believed that hanging together, regardless of differences of opinion, was the highest value. And we know where that got him and got Hannah. Still, their experience moved the Society along. What was radically inclusive 120+ years ago is rigidly divisive today--that the spirit of radical inclusiveness has moved on, grown on.

It's not what you believe, it's what you're becoming. What you believe won't save you--what you are conformed to will.

Timothy Travis

Johan said...

There's another way to understand the reality you described in these words: "... although I fully understood that many Friends are Christ-centered, I did not know that there are some who consider those of us who are not as unqualified to share in community with them."

It's not that we consider some "unqualified." We may in fact truly enjoy community with people who are not 100% where we are theologically. There may be deep ties of love and care in this community. Many times during the ten years I traveled for Friends World Committee, for example, I found myself ministered to among Quakers who did not all share my understanding of Friends faith and practice.

One vivid instance: when I attended the sessions of Southeastern Yearly Meeting and honestly asked for advice concerning whether I should be available for a second term as general secretary of Friends United Meeting.

However, at the most intimate circle of spiritual community, I want to be among people who have self-selected as being called by Jesus into Friends. I don't have the strength or motivation for those wider circles of community unless, when I worship, I'm in a truly and unreservedly Christian body.

I know that there are (at least) two attitudes among Friends concerning our relationship to Christianity: one says that we are a relativization of Christianity, or in other words, that Christianity is an important ingredient of a faith community that's not limited by its Gospel roots. That can be a fertile basis for community, judging by the wonderful people I've met in that stream. But the stream I belong to says that Friends were an intensification of Christianity, not a relativization. Our commitment to Jesus and to a radical biblical discipleship meant rejecting hierarchy, social status, violence, wealth, and power as tools of the church--but never in a million years did we see it as introducing allegiances and practices that were not biblical.

There's a lot of counterfeit piety among evangelical Friends, so I can't claim that we've always honored this elemental impulse behind Quaker origins. But the yearning for this Gospel integrity remains, and it's the glue that binds many of us small-e evangelical Friends together, including those in Friends United Meeting. For many of us, this doesn't inhibit our eagerness for wider contacts among Friends--in my case, it has only whetted my appetite to learn more from anyone who can strengthen our discipleship, especially in terms of nonviolence and simplicity. But it may help explain why we have limited energy for universalism at the level of the worship and fellowship that keeps us going from week to week. It's not that we see you (plural) as unqualified. It's more that we offer a more specific commitment, which you are free to accept or reject. (Or for that matter, to visit, whether or not you decide ultimately that it's right for you.)

Hystery said...

Lone Star Ma, thank you! You are certainly welcome to read my dissertation although it is only a dissertation and perhaps not a very good read. I wrote it about the personal intellectual and spiritual process of writing a dissertation about Matilda Joslyn Gage's personal intellectual and spiritual process of becoming one of America's first Goddess feminists in the late nineteenth-century.

Matilda Joslyn Gage lived and I live in Upstate NY where the women's right movement began in earnest back in 1848 and where the evangelism and religious experimentation of the Burned Over District led to a radicalization of local Friends. Elizabeth Cady Stanton attended a Friend's MM here and Lucretia Mott was a frequent visitor. She would come to visit her sister and speak at the racially inclusive abolitionist Wesleyan Church my relatives helped found and which housed the first women's rights convention in the United States. Most of those women were Friends.

Where I live and what I've studied, what I've pondered and dreamed and where I've journeyed cannot be separated from where I've landed. I'm very interested in perspective and place as integral components of spiritual experience.

Timothy, thank you for your respectful and kind perspective. You write, "It's not what you believe, it's what you're becoming. What you believe won't save you--what you are conformed to will." I'll have to sit with your words for a bit.

I find that I am not so interested in belief as I am in process. (Part of my academic work is in process thealogy). As a historian, I am naturally attracted to the study of change over time. Of myself and others, I am always asking "What brings you here? Tell me about your journey. Tell me about your homecoming."

Johan you write of important fellowship among Friends who do not share your commitment to Christ and say,"However, at the most intimate circle of spiritual community, I want to be among people who have self-selected as being called by Jesus into Friends. I don't have the strength or motivation for those wider circles of community unless, when I worship, I'm in a truly and unreservedly Christian body."

I think I can understand that. It would exhaust me to have to negotiate the differences all the time. Actually, come to think of it, it does exhaust me to negotiate these differences! However, I feel this is part of my calling and so I don't mind so very much. It is one of the reasons why I attended seminary before moving on to explore the more heterodox elements of my spiritual path. I don't belong in Pagan circles and neither do I belong in Christian ones although I can sing both songs.

I could easily move into an entirely Christian group and speak only in my Christian tongue and I don't think anyone would be the wiser. And it would be authentic-- but only to a point. I would feel the pain of suppressing my other stories.

I cannot speak with great authority on what it means for others to be Pagan. My own paganism is so consistent with my Christianity that I have a difficult time understanding the reason for the tension I find among others regarding it. But it doesn't matter if I understand it or not. I respect it.

quakerboy said...

I would love to read your dissertation as well. Sounds interesting. And I hope that you'll mail a copy to the Quaker Archives at Guilford College.

Nate writes: "we so often don't listen to each other because we think we already know what the other will say or believes"

But what if we DO listen to each other and don't come to unity on the meaning and level of inclusiveness that our faith allows? I wrestle with that as I'm not so sure of the answer.

What I do know is that the Truths of the Gathered Community is reflected in our individual "Faith and Practice." In my understanding of Quakerism, individual experience is key, yet Truth is determined not individually but corporatly as a body of seekers (and finders). This understanding guards against the "anything goes" mentality of some of some folks.

Also, unlike many Friends, I don't think our institutional divisions are all that bad. FGC Friends can determine the degree of spiritual and ideological divergence within their Meetings. Conservative YM's can wrestle with what they believe as Truth, FUM and Evangelical Friends can do the same. We don't all have to believe the same to love each other.

Like Johan, I feel the need to be in community with people who speak the same spiritual language as I do. It is virtually impossible for me to relate to the deeper things of God without a common tongue.

Does that mean that there should not be a place for those whom Christian language does not "speak to their condition"? No. There SHOULD be a place and perhaps you have found it.

What we all need to be united on, I think, is that "we see through a glass dimly". We must ever be open to new leadings of the Spirit. But those Truths must be tested within the confines of our faith community.

Thanks so much for opening up this conversation. We Friends tend to stay away from any controversy. Sometimes that is good. Other times it hinders the working of the Spirit among us and can undermine our faithfulness to plain speaking with integrity.

In peace,

Hystery said...


I am staying with your words for a little while before commenting more fully because I think there is a message there for me that needs deeper consideration.

I think there is something to the idea that there are times when it makes sense to spend time with others with whom we do not have to waste time perpetually defining terms. I also see that there is a kind of weakness in a MM that has lost its ability to speak clearly because it is afraid of offending and is not very sure about just what it believes as a group. While I resist conformity, I also find that "We're all just ducky" is not an effective spiritual message.

I wonder if others can speak about strategies radically inclusive Meetings use to support meaningful communion?

kevin roberts said...

You know, if I had a dollar for all the interesting conversations I've listened to that started out with "Scott Savage" in the first sentence, I'd be able to afford indoor plumbing for my house after all.

Scott's the reason I came to Quakerism, but even though I'm another Christian, unprogrammed, Conservative, I walk a somewhat different path than he does. The "intensification of Christianity" that Johan wrote of is the path that I follow--I describe Quakerism as the "culmination of Christianity" to people who ask me what it is. I think it's important to remember that Quakerism started out as a universalist faith-not by saying that all roads led to the same mountaintop, but by saying that there was only one mountain, after all, in the end, with a single Guide calling to all of us from the top.

Some roads led up the mountain, some roads led away from it, and some went round and round and never went either way. But if you were attentive, and followed the Guide, he could help you along the journey up the mountain, no matter what road you started out on, unless you resolutely chose a road that led away from him, and followed it instead.

As I see it, Quakerism is the cleanest, straightest journey up the mountain. And because I see the top of the mountain as occupied by Jesus Christ, I see Christian Quakerism as the straightest path that you can take on that journey.

But I don't think that everybody else is completely wrong, either.I can see elements of Christian Quakerism in bhakti yoga, and in orthodox Hinduism. I can see it in Judaism, in Islam, and in various pagan faiths. But I can also see it clearly opposed in thuggee, in Mayan human sacrifice, in Chickasaw warfare, in Kikuyu Mau Mau rituals, in Dayak head-hunting, and in the Celts burning baskets full of men. Not all paths lead to the same Guide, on the same mountain, although they may be clear paths, and easy to follow.
I associate with people of many faiths, and my own Conservative Meeting contains a range of belief that would probably make Hicks himself blanche a bit. We have Bible-thumpers, and we have crystal-twiddlers, too. But if we're getting closer to the same Guide, and both of us recognize that it is indeed the same Guide that we're approaching, then I don't have a problem with a lot of the decoration.

I normally don't see this topic brought up among universalist Friends in a tone as thoughtful as yours. Thank you for being that way.

Hystery said...

Kevin, your comment means so much to me. I sincerely appreciate that you differentiated between traditions that lead to the top of the mountain and those that do not. I agree with you on this because while I believe that we must hear each other, we are not obligated to agree with what we hear. Certainly, there are paths that go nowhere and paths that go away from the Divine. Some of those false paths are "Christian" and some of those false paths are pagan.

I think I may be in a somewhat unusual position as a Neo-Pagan because while there are many Neo-Pagans who were once Christian, there are probably not as many who are still so deeply attached to it and attracted to the study of it. I am alarmed by the dismissive and simplistic tone many other Neo-Pagans use when discussing Christianity. I am also dismayed when people dismiss Neo-Paganism as either a Satanic path or as some New Age nonsense. Certainly, the Neo-Paganism that I practice is neither of those.

I have found that for me at least a focus on a deep and soulful ethics- on the establishment of right relationship, is a commonality between the liberal Christian faith of my childhood and the nature-centered spirituality I practice today. I use a greater diversity of metaphors for the Divine Light today but the Light is the same.

Robert Kirchner said...

Dear HW:
I'd prefer to carry this discussion on by email, but I don't have your address, so I hope it's ok to post this as a comment.

I initiated as an
Alexandrian witch 12 years ago, but I've been solitary for the last 10 years,
due to relocation to a city without the right sort of coven. I rediscovered
Quakerism just this past year, while on sabbatical in England, and I find that
I resonate with it very strongly -- except ... I still love Wiccan ritual, and
I miss it. My sabbatical is nearly over now, and I'm getting ready to go back
to Canada soon, eager to start a new chapter of my life as a convinced Friend,
active in my local meeting.

I attach a piece I wrote for a Quaker Quest presentation, which outlines some of
my spiritual background, my recent convincement process, and where I've arrived now:

Quaker Quest presentation on worship
Robert Kirchner

I have sporadically attended Quaker meetings at various places I have lived,
over the past twenty years, mostly dragged along by my wife and children, but
also because I admired the testimonies of Quakerism: simplicity, peace,
integrity, community, and equality. These all sounded like fine values, which
I believed in, and I didn't really grasp that there was anything to Quakerism
beyond the espousal of those values, and their expression in political
activism. What I experienced in a Quaker meeting for worship was the outward
ritual of it: long intervals of silence, occasional vocal ministries, which I
might agree with or not, and handshakes at the end. But what happens inwardly
during Quaker worship? Back then, I would have said that each worshipper is
off in his/her own mental space, thinking about God or whatever. I didn't
object to the silence, if that was how Quakers did it, but I didn't really see
the point of it either. There are traditional Quaker phrases about what's
supposed to be going on inwardly -- turning our minds to the Light, gathered
stillness, expectancy of the presence of God, etc. -- but I wasn't sure I
bought into the Quaker conception of God; the language sounded quaint,
antiquated, and too Christian for me; and I didn't particularly want my mind to
be invaded by an alien presence, "the Spirit".

A bit of background. I had no religious upbringing as a child. In my
adolescence, I got involved in an evangelical Christian youth group, which then
merged with a Charismatic church, which became increasingly cultish and
authoritarian as time went on. I was an enthusiastic, active member in this
congregation until levels of guilt became unmanageable for me. Looking back, I
am chagrined by the gullibility, the dogmatism, the hateful political views,
and the acquiescence to manipulation, that I displayed in those years. On the
other hand, I see that I was sincerely looking for some form of spiritual
community, and that search has been a recurring theme throughout my adult life.

Since then, through exploration of neo-paganism, personal growth work in a men's
organisation, and yoga, I have gradually arrived at a kind of spirituality that
makes sense and feels right to me. Firstly, I believe and feel that the divine
is immanent in the universe. It is not separate and outside of us, far off in
some other "spiritual" world, but present in every atom of our bodies and every
impulse of our minds. Or viewed the other way round, it is the me that is not
just me, that connects me to you, and to the rest of the universe. In Hindu
thought, which I've come to have warm regard for, this position is called
advaita (non-dualism). And lo and behold, I have discovered in my most recent
encounter with Friends, that this is the very core of Quaker belief and
practice: a personal experience of the Light within. "There is that of God in
everyone." I had heard this Quaker phrase many times before, but until I
arrived at my own experience of it, I didn't really understand what it meant.
This experience I'm speaking of, by the way, was not a sudden flash of
revelation, but a gradual shift in viewpoint, in response to reading,
meditation, and discussion with others. It seems that just as I opened my mind
to this non-dualist perspective, and began reaching out to the divine for
guidance, I was brought once again into fellowship with Quakers, where I found
validation and confirmation of my spiritual path. I found the spiritual
community I had been searching for. It was there all along, right under my
nose. And I now consider myself a convinced Friend.

However, as a survivor of an abusive relationship, so to speak, with the
Judeo-Christian God, I have felt the need for a different personal language and
symbolism for worship. The enabling assumption here is that any religious
imagery, approached in a sincere spirit of reaching out, will lead to an
experience of the divine. Because I cannot reach out to the divine except
through the prism of human personality, I choose to imagine and invoke the
divine as Goddess and God, mother and father -- in Hindu terms, Shakti and
Shiva. Being male, and heterosexual, I tend to identify with the male
polarity, and to invoke the divine as Goddess; and the universe I see as
continually being born from their ecstatic union. This symbolism is important
to me because it takes the powerful human experience of sexual love and, rather
than treating it as an embarrassing afterthought (the “naughty bits”), makes it
the central metaphor for the manifestation of Goddess in the universe, and for
my worshipful relationship with Her. Of course, one of Quakers' favourite
passages of the Bible is from the first Epistle of John: "Beloved, let us love
one another, because love is of God, and everyone who loves is born of God and
knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is Love." I say,
Goddess is Love, and She has orgasms.

So, for me, at this point in my spiritual journey, I understand and experience
Quaker worship as communing with Goddess, turning my awareness towards Her,
sharing my thoughts and feelings with Her, and being open to Her communing and
sharing Herself with me. Sometimes I feel the earth move, as it were;
sometimes I just feel a gentle sense of connection to Her; and sometimes I feel
nothing in particular. Those responses are all, I believe, OK.

So far, this all sounds rather mystical, contemplative, bordering perhaps on
sentimental pietism. There's another crucial strand of my experience, which
perhaps counterbalances this lovey-dovey stuff. It has to do with speaking my

* * *
If Goddess is immanent in the universe, then there is nothing real in the
universe that is not Goddess: in other words, She is reality, She is Truth.
When I speak my truth, when I am honest with myself, with those around me, with
Goddess, about my feelings and judgements, and when I listen to others who
speak their truth to me, who speak from their heart, who share their authentic
selves with me, I have a profound sense of being in the presence of the sacred.

This, I judge, is what Quaker vocal ministry is about. I've only started to get
a sense of the communal dimension to Quaker worship, but I think the reason
Friends regard vocal ministry as an integral part of our worship, is precisely
because sacred truth-telling can bring our minds into collective awareness of
the presence of Goddess.

As I said, when I've attended Quaker meetings in the past, I had problems with
the notion of the Spirit of God speaking through me. I did not want my mind to
be taken over by the Spirit of God, whatever that might be. At the same time, I
was worried about getting it “wrong,” if I did vocally minister --saying
something that other Friends would detect came not from the Spirit of God but
from my own ego. But I have found that giving vocal ministry in Quaker worship
is not like being taken over by some outside supernatural force, like Charlton
Heston descending Mt. Sinai, with windswept hair and robes. On the contrary: it
is a profoundly human experience. Nor, I now believe, is there any clear,
objective “right” or “wrong” to it. It is more like a jazz jam session,
deciding to launch into a spontaneous improvised solo. It is a choice I make,
a risk I take, to give voice to a deeply felt truth, that I *want* to share
with the meeting.

I used to divide vocal ministries into two categories: those that I agreed with,
and those that I disagreed with. Now I would say that whether I agree or not
is beside the point. The point is being open to the capital T Truth that
underlies the small T personal truth of the one ministering. Sometimes I
manage to find that Truth, sometimes I don't.

To summarise:
When I was a Christian, if I was feeling angry or depressed, I would begin
prayer or worship with a plea to God to forgive me for my feelings, and to
replace them with the feeling that I was supposed to have: joy. And if my mood
didn't lift, which it usually didn't, I had a sense of failure and guilt, of
continuing alienation from God. What I now do in worship is I inwardly speak
my truth to Goddess.
I'm feeling angry at my daughters,
I'm feeling depressed about my lack of progress at work,
I'd rather be playing computer games right now than sitting here in this meeting

... and I tell Her so, knowing that She wants me to share my real self with Her,
all of myself, the good, the bad and the ugly.

I close with a verse from the hymn Ananda Lahari by Adi Sankaracharya:
O Divine Mother,
May all my speech and idle chatter be mantra;
May every action of my hands be mudra [ritual gesture];
May every step be a circumambulation of thine image;
May all eating and drinking be the offering of oblations unto thee;
May all lying down be prostrations before thee;
May all pleasures be as dedicating my entire self unto thee;
May everything I do be taken as thy worship.

Hystery said...

Robert, so very, very lovely. Thank you so much.

cath said...

Most dictionaries list two definitions for "universalism." The first is "the doctrine of universal salvation" The second is "widely known or wide in scope.

I hate to be pedantic, but if we refer to people as universalist in opposition to Christ-centered, we have no category for those Christians who have a universalist Phil Gulley and Jim Mulholland, for example.

"If Grace Be True" is their book which speaks to this, followed by "If God is Love." Both good reading and might help to break down the either/or-ness of these particular Quaker labels.

What I appreciate is that within the Quaker faith is the idea that no particular way is going to be the same for each of us, no particular concept is going to be the same. Our relationship with the Spirit (however we each define that) will inform us about specifics that each of us need for our highest spiritual potential.

For me, this seems to be simultaneously a relief and a responsibility.

I like Kevin's idea of the journey up the mountain. On my own journey, being a Quaker has never been the quickest and cleanest way up--but it's been extremely profound.


Hystery said...

Cath, I appreciate your careful attention to the words. You point out a deficiency in my post that is well-noted.

I simply use the terms used most frequently in the discourse on this topic. It must be pointed out that my immersion in this discourse is incomplete and new. Perhaps I apply the terms "universalist" and "Christ-centered" sloppily.

So what do I mean by Christ-centered? I see that something is going on here with my language. A kindness? A dishonesty? A differentiation?

I note that I used the term "Christ-centered" and not "christocentric". Of course, you all can't see what is going on in my brain when I make this barely conscious decision. Perhaps you don't even care, but as I am deeply interested in process, I care. It affects meaning.

I use the term christocentric the same way I use the term phallocentric--negatively. I use Christ-centered as a neutral to positive term.
A christocentric person is one whose emphasis on the Abrahamic, specifically Christian tradition prohibits their acceptance of non-Christians as potential equals. Or to put it another way, though they may see beauty and worth in other traditions, they favor the Christian experience as either superior or perhaps as first among equals. Christocentrism is an "ism" with all the difficulties associated with isms.

A Christ-centered person may be christocentric but may not be (and I remind my readers that I am explaining these terms according to my own usage only). One who is Christ-centered may not even be Christian according to the most popular definitions. However, they will find that the metaphors and lessons, the ethics and motivations most closely associated with their personal understanding of the Christ-narrative are most poignant and powerful to them. They do not assume that this poignancy and power is a universal sensation nor do they even assume that their association with the Christ-narrative will be equally as poignant throughout their lives.

Right now for instance, I'm pretty Christ-centered though I am not a Christian. That's where the fields are most fertile for me these days. That's where the Light shines but I do not mistake the fertile fields for the Sun itself. When Hel calls my name again, I will answer. That's what makes me a Pagan.

Or perhaps I am Christ-centered because even in my most paganish ways, I conform to the same message imprinted on my soul when I was a christian child. When Hel calls, I will accept her voice as true only if what she says conforms to the central message of Love I learned from Jesus. On the other hand, I will tolerate no Christian message that denies my Pagan morality. Anything that denies the incarnate, evolving, passionate process of Divine revelation or that sets up a false humility of body and sexuality I also reject as a betrayal of that which I know and have experienced as a Pagan.

So I am not at all more tolerant for being a universalist. If anything, I am much fussier. So am I a univeralist?

I am aware of various interpretations of universalism. I have not used it until moving among Friends. If someone were to ask me if were universalist I would hesitate because I think the word itself is christocentric assuming as it does that there is something from which we need saving, in many cases a very Abrahamic assumption. I use the term "univeralism" among Friends because it is a term they use and it is safer than saying "Pagan."

Which brings us to safety, an issue I feel must be addressed in this discussion of dualism, word choice, and the Pagans among us (oh my!) Many of us involved in this discussion are dealing with safety issues as well as with identity issues. I think people should know that many Pagans do not feel safe in this discussion or in this society in general. We are, as we sometimes say, in the broom closet. There are penalties for being Pagan. It can (and has) be used against us to deny us our jobs, our housing, our children, our physical safety.

I have been mostly lucky in this regard although I know not to push my luck and I know that I am far safer praising Jesus than the Goddess. The prejudices I have faced have been minimal. Still, I struggle with the notion of a hypothetical Christ-centered Friend who encountering me for the first time must accept or reject me. In my mind's eye, I ask each Christ-centered Friend whether or not they will take me as their sister and I wait for an answer. Do not think that I am strong enough not to shrink just a little bit at the thought of rejection.

Their answer is their own and does nothing to change my beliefs. I know where I belong. But you know, when you are a member of a disparaged group, as maligned, misunderstood and belittled as Pagans are by the media and the academy, when one is used to defending oneself, of explaining oneself and even hiding oneself, one cannot help but be at least curious if not apprehensive about the reaction one will receive from those one chooses to love.

I ask myself what all the ruckus is about. Are the Quakers going Pagan? It seems a pretty foolish question to me from where I sit but it sure did cause a stir. There's just something a bit racy about Pagans. We make for a good story, a good boogey man in the Quaker closet. Pagans are scary. I get that.

And for those of us who are Pagans, how do we discuss our Christian brothers and sisters without admitting our own prejudices? Not well, I'm afraid. There is injury here, my friends, deep injury. My own experience with Christians is generally very good and even I deal with the injuries that linger from my leavetaking from the faith (and those received after I left the Church's protective fold). Imagine how other, more deeply injured Pagans must feel and imagine how much courage it must take for them to choose to come back into a predominantly Christian community. That is significant. Ourlove and sense of kinship in the midst of our uncertainty is significant.

I am willing to be among Christ-centered folks and to use Christ-centered language because I knew that when I came back, I was coming back to a group of people who are Christ-centered. That's the deal, you see. I get that too. No amount of univeralism erases the Friends' history. Indeed, I would not want that history erased. It is the history that draws me.

Since the nineteenth-century, there has been a proliferation of spiritual perspectives among Americans. So this is not a new discussion among Friends. Lucretia Mott and Martha Coffin Wright had it. Amy and Isaac Post had it. It was the Friends who first embraced, and popularized one of the largest and most successful non-Abrahamic challenges to the Christian perspective. The first Spiritualists were Friends. And many Spiritualists strongly challenged the centrality of Christ and were eager to embrace the Hindu and Buddhist teachings filtered through the Theosophical tradition that followed. And the Theosophists gave rise to Goddess-spirituality and the reclamation of witchcraft in the United States through the work of people like M.J. Gage who in turn inspired Mary Daly and Carol Christ. And such women inspire my thealogy which inspires me to find a place among Friends.

But I digress-on purpose and at length because I felt that honesty required it.

Yvonne said...

A note about Universalism.

Many members of the Greek Orthodox Church believe in apokatastasis - the eventual restoration of all to the presence of God.

The denomination of Universalists (which started in the 19th century and,in the USA, merged with the Unitarians in 1961) initially believed in apokatastasis and eventually came to the conclusion that all religions were (or included) valid paths to the Divine - the modern meaning of universalism. But the term isn't copyrighted. If you mean universal salvation, then apokatastasis is the word you want.

As some wit put it, the Universalists believed that God was too good to damn anyone, and the Unitarians believed they were too good to be damned ;)

Anyway, HysteryWitch, I hope you continue to find your spiritual home among the RSoF.

cath said...

Hystery--fear not, my comment was not directed at you or anyone else. It was a general thought that I've had for a long time, and it has more to do with the term "universalist" than anything with the word "Christ" in it. :)

I am a theistic Friend who believes that all will be reconciled with God (in a positive sense) someday--either before we die or perhaps after (I have no clear leading on what comes after we die). I know several Christians who share this spiritual POV. In fact, it's not really a new concept, but it's not always been a widely held one.

Among Friends, however, I have found the word "universalist" used in a way that tends to stereotype. And this bothers me as much as any stereotype does. That's why I also try not to use the words "Christ-centered" or
Chritocentric." Given the various Friendly interpretations of the concept of "Christ" such a term might actually be very limiting.

The term "universalist" and the terms "Christ-centered" or "Christocentric" are open to being used to put people in a box. (Note: I'm not saying everyone does this.) And because of this potential for misuse, however unintentional, I feel we need to be very careful--as you have been in your last comment.

As for prefering to use Universalist instead of pagan, I can certainly see your dilemma. But again, I would caution prudence here. Many of us who are universalists are not pagans.

Tradition is an interesting energy. Sometimes things enter into tradition in a careful, taught-to-the-apprentice way and sometimes things enter into tradition without anyone taking note of it until it has become a habt.

My personal opinion is that when something becomes a habit via tradition it requires periodic examination to see if it still fits the needs of the present day.

Of course, making a mission of changing Friends' use of the word "universalist" is time consuming and would ultimately fail since habits of long standing are hard to break.

But I do feel compelled to make my concern known, for reasons of inclusivity and understanding. If we cannot describe the other person in a way that lets that person stand outside the box, we will have a hard time hearing what the person is saying and will certainly have a hard time recognizing that which their life is speaking which might be relevant to us.

To see this for ourselves, we need only witness the fear and loathing the word "pagan" encouraged in the Christianity Today article and comments. Many of the comments revealed that some people had no idea who a pagan really is and what a pagan really believes in the 21st Century.


Hystery said...

Cath, well said. I love this kind of conversation!

I like to revisit words and my use of them to see where the hidden stories are in their use. Keeps me on my toes.

Hystery said...

Yvonne, thank you. I hope I can find a home among the RSoF too.

Lone Star Ma said...

Hey, your blog name changed(:

On a totally unrelated note, your knowledge about Quaker history and mention of the sainted Lucretia made me wonder if you could tell me in what way Lucretia Coffin Mott and Levi Coffin were related, if any? I have never been able to find it.

Hystery said...

I've never looked into that and so I can't tell you at this time what their connection was although it seems sensible that they were related in some (perhaps distant way). Now I will have to start investigating.

Perhaps someone else knows? I'd love to hear it!

Anonymous said...

I concur that the book by Scott Savage was both convicting and intriguing at the same time. The style was relaxed, friendly and the reader was encouraged to join the author on a spiritual journey into his new life. Plain and variations of simple to plain are quite popular, perhaps to the point of kitsch. As a theologically conservative Anabaptist who has removed the TV and Radio but not the Internet or Automobile, I found much in the book as well. We cook simple meals, have a garden to can produce, sew most of my cloths (some obviously “plain type” dresses and some not). We would do well to evaluate the need of technology in our lives and reduce its influence to “tools” verses thoughtless entertainment.

The idea of Quaker and Post-Christian is strange. I suppose the “non-programmed” Quakers have fallen away from the Faith, based on what I am reading herein. I don’t imagine the early Quakers who spent time in jail would be to impressed with the modern crop of unbelievers. It makes me sad, I suspect George Fox and John Woolman would fall to their knees and cry in deep prayer for the lost claiming adherence to the Society.

Jeremy Mott said...

Friends, there definitely are two
quite different meanings of the
term "universalist." This fact makes for unending confusion.
The traditional QUAKER doctrine is
that every person on the face of the earth has access to the Light Within, the Inward Light, the Christ Within, Truth, "that of God
in everyone," Transforming Power
(this last is a new phrase from
AVP), by whatever name it is called. We all know this is true
from our experience. It is true
for Christians and Muslims and Jews, for agnostics and atheists, for Buddhists and neo-Pagans, for
members of all churches and none.
In fact, this doctrine is merely
the extremist Quaker version of the doctrine of the universal
church: saints may be found in
all churches and in no church.

But it does not follow that all
persons will actually accept the
salvation offered by God to all.
The Universalists believed that;
the early Friends did not believe
it; some Friends in the last
hundred years or so have believed that. I find it hard to believe
myself, though I can't believe that our good God will actually
send anyone to hell.
In my mind, I leave it as an
unanswered mystery. At any rate,
the ides that God saves everyone
of all religions, though an ancient
minority opinion among Christians, is entirely recent among Friends.
I know that God offers salvation
to everyone, Christian or not,
and that is all we need to know.

It also doen't follow from
the doctrine of the Inner Light that our Quaker church must admit non-Christians to membership.
There is still a lot of debate
about this among Friends. I
think that, at least among liberal Friends, the sense of the meeting
is that we do admit non-Christians
to membership, even though we
clearly are a Christian church.
I hope all this leaves readers
less confused rather than more.
Jeremy Mott

charles morse said...

Universalist or Christian, programed or unprogramed are labels which create boundaries, define, and separate. The need to create an "other" even among those sharing in the search for God seems somehow misguided to me.

charles morse said...

Universalist or Christian, programed or unprogramed are labels which create boundaries, define, and separate. The need to create an "other" even among those sharing in the search for God seems somehow misguided to me.

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