Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Questions for Christian Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are my questions:

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

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

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

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

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


*Sandra* said...

Hystery, you are way too learned for me; I'm afraid I couldn't follow much of that. But one thing piqued my interest, not to say shattered my illusions. I've always been pretty atheistic, but anyone who reads my blogs or my postings here and there knows that wearing plain dress has lead me to start believing there just might be a little more to this existence than meets the eye.

My take has always been something along the lines of, "I believe in Jesus of Nazareth, because his life (well, the last few years, anyway) is quite well documented. But I don't believe he walked on water or rose from the dead, and I have trouble getting my head around a supreme being."

But now you're telling me that Jesus probably is a fictitious character? Throw me a bone, Hystery! :(

And by the way, your posting about your college professor was very moving. I was able to follow that.

Hystery said...

I'm not saying Jesus of Nazareth was a fictional character. We have enough documentation on that count to make me confident that he did exist and did have a ministry. But what if he hadn't? What if all we had was the myth of such a ministry? Would it matter? Would the message be powerful enough without the man/god behind it?

Then there's the related question: What is the message? Christians seem to disagree on that one too.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hello Hystery,

I'm downloading to you my 700-page-tome response to your foundation-shaking questions;-)

Seriously, I've been planning to write reflections on some of these questions.
Here's several mini-answers. (The longer reflections will appear on my blog over the next few weeks.)

#1 First there is the trouble with terms. Words such as "Christian" and (more recently) "Friend" have become so generic, they mean almost anything and nothing--empty-bucket words which are filled by contradictory ideas and worldviews. For example, "nontheistic Friends" is a contradiction. Friends chose their name, meaning Friends of God, Friends of Jesus (from John). Does Friends of No God make any sense?

Of course, words can be used any way people want to use them. But what sense would there be in saying "capitalistic communists" or
nontheistic Islam?

On the other hand, I am far closer to nontheism than I am to Reformed Christianity. I didn't really like the pop novel The Shack, but there is one marvelous dialogue in the book where Jesus says he is NOT a Christian:-)

#2 There is very little basis for the creeds' version of the Trinity in the N.T. The vast majority of verses differeniate between God and Jesus. Besides, if Jesus were God would he forget about his parents for three days when he was 12 years old?! And there is the difficulty of his baptism by John. Etc.

The longer I live the more I realize I am a child of the Enlightenment and the Radical Reformation (Friends,Brethren, Mennonites).

I am a follower and Friend of Jesus. His words have given me hope and Life.

#3 If Jesus never existed and God is a human construct, I must admit, I would agree with Richard Dawkins--that religion is delusion.

#4 I love the lines of John Woolman: True religion consisted in an inward life, wherein the heart does love and reverence God the Creator, and learns to exercise true justice and goodness...I found no narrowness respecting sects and opinions, but believed that sincere, upright-hearted people, in every society, who truly love God, were accepted of him.

In the Light,

Daniel Wilcox

Mary Ellen said...

Hystery, I've been carrying your questions around, but finding that I don't know what label to put on myself. I'm not sure I am a Christian Friend, though I'm not sure that I'm not. Am I Christian? What would that mean to me?

Mostly, I can define myself in terms of Christianity by the forms of Christian understanding that I reject - which is to say, creedal forms, or doctrinal forms. My F/friends who are most believably Christian are those who have had an inward experience of connecting to a living Presence that they understand to be Christ. Is their encounter really something different from my connection (on occasion) with some Presence just out of view, full of delight, tenderness, and wisdom? Is that Presence separate and other from my most true-hearted S/self?

None of this can be even minimally adequately put into words. And also, I believe, there are many different types of spiritual gifts / capacities / appetites. The understanding of the different yogas (devotion, service, study) makes much sense to me.

Just today, rather remarkably, my mother (raised Mormon, converted to Presbyterianism) in a phone conversation said she was having something of a crisis in her faith around this notion of Jesus-as-God. What a gift of possible opening that was - but - what do I really have to say?

Hystery said...

Daniel, I love Woolman and I love his definition of a true religion.

Mary Ellen, I don't know where to put myself either. I know I'm better at feeling what I feel than I am at articulating it and I figure it is the same for others. I believe that we are all unique manifestations of the Divine Energy and not supposed to feel the Light in the same way. Each of us is given only a portion of Wisdom. What need would we have of each other if we were given the full cup?

Brightest blessings,

Lance said...

For me weather it's true or mystical about the teachings of the lord as long as I believe in God and practice being a good christian.

mike said...

Whatever happen i really believe in God...I'm a Christian

R. Scot Miller said...

Do we differentiate between the Christ and the Historical Jesus? Good Question Hystery. For me, the "christ" is the historical Jesus, a first century messianic yahwist who intentionally took on a role that a few others also attempted to take on. (They also failed). Jesus of Nazareth differed from other messianic figures in that he preached that violence was not ordained by the diety as a means of establishing the realm of God. He differed significantly in other ways, but space limits me.
I am a christ-centered Friend. I believe that Jesus' life fulfilled the covenant obligations of Israel, which opened the way for Gentiles to fully participate in an ongoing covenant relationship between YHWH and Israel.That is my "story" and I'm stickin' with it.
Importantly, for me, it is the life of Jesus as opposed to any atoning death through which "salvation" is identified. The faithfulness of Jesus brings me into relationship with YHWH by showing me how to live in relationship with the creator God.
Of course, just like so many others throughout history, Jesus was killed for his trouble. The resurection, however, stands as a vindication of Jesus' faithful life.
As for the question of what I think of the Trinity, I can take it or leave it. I think the humanity of Jesus is the most important aspect of Christ-centered theology, and I suggest that the kenosis language of Philippians speaks to this idea of a Deity fully divesting the Godself of divinity and living a fully human life. I am not a fan of Hebrews' sinlessness claims and sacrifical language. I like the idea of a Holy Spirit that counsels communities through life toward the full establishment of the realm of God.
That the resurrection is a bone of contention for so many non-messianics is not important to me. As one who believes in the resurrection without being able to fully articulate that faith, I am more invested in a faith community that Lives! as though the resurrection is true, as opposed to insisting that it is an empircal fact. I don't know if the Exodus ever really happened, but I know that Martin Luther King Jr. makes it a truer story for than most others I have heard from "competing" world views. I am not interested in someone stating creedaly that the resurection is true, I am interested in worshipping with people who live as though it happened, and that a faithful life will be vindicated by the children of Wisdom.
I'd like to answer the rest of your many questions, but time is limiting. I look forward to continuing the conversation in the future. You are a talented writer and I enjoyed the opportunity to interact. Blessings, r. scot miller

Hystery said...

Thank you for your comment. There is much I could say regarding my own perspectives as what one might call a Christ-centered, post-Christian Goddess-Woman, Neo-Pagan Friend. Lots of labels and each of them modifying the others in significant and complicated ways! Still, there is little important change in my most fundamental beliefs from the time I was a small child to today. The only differences are in the notions and potions of faith- certainly not in ethics and execution of those ethics.

My own thealogy (the "a" is on purpose)is deeply affected by my methodology and my methodology is deeply affected by standpoint theory. (I suppose I could say that my standpoint theory. Perhaps I'll need to write more on that topic. I find I cannot understand what any of you really mean until I understand your Lebensanschauung, your perspective and your Story more fully. What is a Christian? What is a Neo-Pagan? As Daniel points out, such words have very little meaning apart from that given them by those who use them.

Anonymous said...

I'm Pagan, and have always had a fondness for Jesus - I just knew that the mainstream churches I grew up in weren't right for me.

I've come over the years to understand Jesus's historicity as a cool and interesting debate, but neither here nor there when it comes to spiritual experience. I don't much care whether any of the gods were once human in reality, I care about what their myths and my experience tell me.

I see Jesus as someone who, like Dionysos, was wholly human and wholly divine. He was about active, non-violent resistance to oppression, about equality, compassion, teaching us to remember what our priorities are when we allow ourselves to experience our connection to the divine, the universe which pulses with life. He was so able to be in Spirit that his presence inspired, and his message transcended death. He was subversive, funny, practical, and got really cranky when he allowed his fears to take over. He struggled with being in Spirit at times, but he allowed himself to live in it much of the time.

So, teacher or god? Human or divine? Yeah, pretty much. Doesn't make much odds to me - I just see me trying to make my connection with myself healthier so I can connect more healthily with the gods and the great life force we're all manifestations of.

I'm not an academic, so that's the most coherent I can get.

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