Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Christ Has Come to Teach the People Himself: Part 1 of the Pagan Chronicles

The word "Christian" is an historical/cultural term that references those who take the Church as a source of authority in their lives. The Church is a fractured, fallible, historical, contextualized construct. Obedience to its authority and teachings is in no way the same as obedience to Christ. Therefore, it can also be said that those of us who reject the historical construct of the Christian Church are not necessarily rejecting the message of the one who was called Christ. Christ and Christianity are not synonymous.

On many occasions, I have heard others who share many of my beliefs make the statement that they are not willing to forfeit the name "Christian" to those who would use it falsely. To a point, I would agree with them. Christianity is diverse. Why let one group call the shots and set the terms for the rest of us?

So why have I decided to leave off calling myself a Christian? For two personal reasons. First, I don't believe that the teaching of Jesus was unique. I follow his teaching because it supports my conclusions as a rational human being dedicated to the principles of compassion, non-violence, equality, and community. Christian terminology, history, and mythology, no matter how liberally expressed, cannot fully describe my spiritual experience as an eco-feminist, a mother, or more generally as a woman. Second, I do not call myself Christian because to do so is to waste valuable time explaining to others why I bear a label that is so clearly linked to the history of the oppression of women and the denigration of the image and positve legacy of the Divine Feminine.

My argument with Christianity has never been with Jesus and his teachings as interpreted by the Gospel writers (although I am probably place a good deal more emphasis on them as flawed interpretations) but against the phallocentrism of the religion he inspired. Although he does not impress me as a God, he does impress me. He emerged out of both Hellenism and Judaism but stood strongly opposed to the inhumane qualities of each. As Lucretia Mott reminded us, "Christ was a bold nonconformist." His criticisms of religion as practiced in his day were unflinching. His was a religion written on the heart and emerging from direct relationship to the Divine and uncompromising Love for those beloved of God.

Unfortunately for all of us, his followers seemed to usually miss the point. Rome conquered Christianity and appropriated its symbols. The evils of the world with all its injustice, cruelties, and power games were incorporated into the emerging philosophy of the Church. For women, this meant that the dominant beliefs of women's inferiority were written into the theology. We were left with a Father God, a male hierarchy, and a dualistic philosophy that placed light, spirit, reason, good and men on one side of the dichotomy and darkness, carnality, chaos, evil and women on the other. Revulsion at women's bodies, traditions, spirituality, customs and very presence was woven throughout the fabric of Christian art, theory and practice.

As time passed, the Church did too. One would not expect the modern church to behave in the same way as the medieval church. Indeed, by the nineteenth-century, American Christians were increasingly vocal about the need to recognize human dignity and equality regardless of rank or station. Insofar as women are the beneficiaries of their men's status, this move toward justice lifted women. However, the belief in women's inferiority as inherent and divinely ordained was too persistent a component of orthodox Christian belief to offer women any genuine relief. In 1854, at a women's rights convention in Philadelphia, a man stood up against the idea of the right of women to assume equality with men. "Let woman first prove that she has a soul," he demanded. "Both the Bible and the Church deny it." (Matilda Joslyn Gage, Woman,Church,and State, 1893)

I'm certainly not saying that the Church in all its manifestations over 2000 years of history was universally patriarchal. In fact, I make it my business to learn about those Christians who despite the weight of history managed to follow the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. But I can't get away from the ugly reality that overwhelms their efforts. Christianity's history is grotesque in its phallocentrism. I'm not going to bother developing this argument further in this post. I think it very likely that we all could name at least a dozen books, articles, and recalled examples from our own lives to attest to this fact. So while I am not willing to say that Christianity has been universally bad news for women, I am saying that from the first generation of Christians to the current generation, "the woman question" has never been fully answered. Ecclesiastical and theological misogyny has not been accidental and it has not been without consequence.

"But then what of Paganism," one might ask, "Has that been woman-friendly?"

To that question, I'd have to ask, "To which Paganism do you refer?" If you are speaking of Bronze or Iron Age Paganism, the Paganism of the Sumerians and Babylonians, the Romans, the Greeks, the Germans and the Celts then I would have to agree that Paganism's history has been at least as violent, at least as misogynist as Christianity. There have been different emphases in the violence and hatred but I have no delusions that historical Paganism, in the general sense, is better for women than Christianity has been.

But I'm not bothered by that because I'm not a Roman Pagan or a Hellenistic Pagan or Sumerian, Babylonian or Egyptian Pagan. What they did or didn't do to women is irrelevant to my experiences. My Paganism is a Neo-Paganism, a new Paganism that emerges out of nineteenth century Transcendentalism, Progressive Quaker activism, Theosophy, post-colonialism, romanticism, environmentalism, the Civil Rights movement, Spiritualism and feminism to name but a few influences. The word Pagan is far more general than the word Christian and it makes even less sense to stereotype those who call themselves Pagans than it does to stereotype those who call themselves Christian.

To have Pagan infanticide and animal sacrifice tossed in my face as a Pagan is every bit as obnoxious as it is when someone tosses the Inquisition or witch burnings in the face of a liberal Christian Friend. When we are talking to each other, it is simply not enough, and it is simply unacceptable to use historical generalizations to characterize another person's spiritual source of authority. You actually have to look at the person's life and listen to the person's words. You have to let them define their Paganism, or their Christianity, or their Buddhism, nontheism, or Judaism. You have no right to do it for them. Here's why. To put words in another person's mouth and to define their beliefs for them is rude. It is also an inefficient and inaccurate approach to communication. This is particularly true of Friends who, whether Christian or as Pagan, are very likely to surprise the hell out of you with their ability to transcend the historical baggage of organized religion.

So that brings me to why I, a spiritual feminist inspired by the teachings of the human body and the matrix of Nature, find myself at home among liberal Friends. They are not, and have never been the kinds of Christians whose faith was based on a phallocentric interpretation of the biblical texts. Simply put, they don't hold the Christian beliefs I reject. By elevating a belief in Spirit's ability to directly connect to the human soul, they were no longer subject to the teachings of the ancient Church. As revivalists of the primitive Christian tradition, they placed themselves at the feet of Jesus rather than at those of his disciples, the church fathers, clergy, and theologians. They rejected the most injurious components of Christian religion with its obscene justifications for slavery, misogyny, corruption, war-mongering, power-lust, and hierarchy.

What they said was that we could bypass all that bullshit. Christ has come to teach the people himself. When they listened to Jesus, they heard a far simpler (although far more challenging) message. They heard that the only sure way to God was the way embodied by Jesus of Nazareth who taught a message of uncompromising love. Rather than fussing over complicated notions of belief, sin, and salvation, Quakers have let their lives speak. If their collective and individual behavior in the world is indication of the teaching of "Christ" in their lives, then I recognize them as brothers and sisters. Quakers make good Neo-Pagans. ;-)

If one looks at this introductory website to Quakers, one finds statements regarding general characteristics of commonly held Friends' beliefs. They believe that communication with the Divine is unmediated and that the way one chooses to live one's life is an outward manifestation of this inner connection. That's what spiritual feminist Neo-Pagans believe too. And that is why in the United States there have been strong connections between spiritual feminism and Quakers for over 150 years beginning with the 1848 Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls and lasting to this day.

So where does this blog entry leave me, apart from tired? Well, it leaves me with a great deal more work to do. The need for patient, careful, specific, thoughtful, and informed communication is absolutely necessary if Christian and non-Christian Friends are to move beyond coexistence to communion. It also means that there are elements of modern Friends' worship and belief that I must continue to confront as remnants and rebirths of Hellenistic, Pagan, and organized Christian phallocentrism. Associations with Amy Post and Lucretia Mott won't let someone off the hook if they go off in Aristotelian or Calvinist directions. So this is not one of those "Can't we all just get along" kinds of posts. It is an ornery post. But in the end this is the message:

I am a feminist. I am a Pagan. I am a follower of the teachings of Christ. I reject the historical Christian Church. I am devoted to the faith and practice of the Religious Society of Friends. I am not conflicted. Confused? Don't make assumptions. Ask me about it. I will extend the same courtesy to you.

Friday, August 21, 2009

William Penn and Quaker-Pagan Home Schooling

In Some Fruits of Solitude, William Penn wrote:

"It were Happy if we studied Nature more in natural Things; and acted according to Nature; whose rules are few, plain and most reasonable.

Let us begin where she begins, go her Pace, and close always where she ends, and we cannot miss of being good Naturalists.

The Creation would not be longer a Riddle to us: The Heavens, Earth, and Waters, with their respective, various, and numerous Inhabitants: Their Productions, Natures, Seasons, Sympathies and Antipathies; their Use, Benefit and Pleasure, would be better understood by us: And an eternal Wisdom, Power, Majesty, and Goodness, very conspicuous to us, thro' those sensible and passing Forms: The World wearing the Mark of its Maker, whose Stamp is everywhere visible, and the Characters very legible to the Children of Wisdom.

And it would go a great way to caution and direct People in their Use of the World, that they were better studied and known in the Creation of it.

For how could Man find the Confidence to abuse it, while they should see the Great Creator stare them in the Face, in all and every part thereof?"

I am educating my children at home as Pagan Quakers which means that in our household we emphasize our dependence on the natural world and our responsibilities to it. We teach a reverence for biological and cultural diversity, and a practical morality based on the Pagan belief that "Do what you will shall be the whole of the Law excepting that you harm none." We emphasize individual freedom and responsibility within the context of the matrix of life and the context of community. We encourage joyfulness in that which we know and contemplative humility in the face of that which we do not.

Practically, being a Pagan Quaker kid is not about gods and goddesses or magical rituals and divination; it is about a baby toad rescued from the road, fireflies and star light, the smell of good, rich earth after the rain, and the crayfish in the creek in the woods. It is the lessons of a litter of orphaned mice we could not save, a fallen tree, or a dried up creek. It is about a visit to see newborn babies and the need to be gentle around their great-grandmother's increasing frailty. Birth and Death. Pain and Joy. Need and Abundance. Hope and Nostalgia. Mother Earth and all her children are divinely en-souled. Each creature obeys its own calling as we humans must obey our own. Difference does not dissolve relationship. Kinship is not counted by genes. A tree's mute testimony can stand tall beside the wisdom of the ages and a child's tears over a fallen bird mark the pinnacle of civilization.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What Would Lucretia Say?

What would Jesus do? Seems like everyone has a perspective.
As a historian and liberal Friend, I wonder, what would Lucretia Mott say about Jesus and about religion in general?

Mott's response to some who wonder what Jesus would do if he were here:

"He is here; he has appeared, from generation to generation and his spirit is now as manifest, in the humble, the meek, the bold reformers, even among some of obscure parentage."
-- Cherry Hill Meeting, 1849

"I am willing to incur ridicule- to become a spectacle to angels and to men- if I thereby awaken any to a sense of what the times demand of them.
--Lucretia Mott sermon, "The Truth of God" Marlboro Chapel, Boston 1841.

This same attitude got me in trouble back in my seminary days...

"We shall not make progress as Christians until we care to read & examine the Jewish Scriptures as we would any other of the ancient records. By what authority do we set so high a value on every text that may be drawn from this volume? Certainly not by any command therein found. On the contrary, again and again is there an appeal to the inner sense. Why even of yourselves judge ye not what is right?"
-- Mott, 1841

Her own religious doctrine:

"...is simple, because it appeals to self-evident conviction. It is divested of mystery and mysticism, for it is not necessarily connected with anything miraculous or extraordinary...Christianity has been lamentably marred in its glory and beauty by the gloomy dogmas fo the schools. Many, however, are now enquiring for themselves, are acknowledging the heavenly light within them. They begin to understand the divine mission of Jesus; how it is what his coming was and ever is to bless mankind, by turning everyone from his iniquities; that, in him, in the great truths which he preached, all nations shall be blessed."
--Mott, 1849

And from the same sermon, Lucretia Mott continued:

"...firm in the blessed, the eternal doctrines preached by Jesus, and by every child of God from the creation of the world; especially the great truth that God is the teacher of the people himself; the doctrine which Jesus most emphatically taught, that the kingdom of God is within man- that there is his sacred and divine temple."

In 1850 she protests against the growing number of offenses for which a Friend could be disowned and laments the growing influences of evangelical and popular Protestant perspectives among Friends:

"...while we refuse the pecuniary aid to the Ministry we countenance all the machinery which supports him- Sabbath & Bible worship- belief in human depravity- a distinction of morals for the natural & spiritual man- a superstitious reverence for Jesus crying blessed Lord & Savior instead of doing the works wh. he said- mak'g a kind of righteousness & atonement of him, if not exactly after the Calvinistic pattern; if this is our course, it will satisfy a wily & grasping priesthood, and our invective against the hired minister will amount to very little..."

Well-established as a spokesperson for radical reform and religious liberalism, she later spoke at the Free Religious Association of Boston:

"Therefore, I say preach your truth; let it go forth, and you will find without any notable miracle, as of old, that every man will speak in his own tongue in which he was born. And I will say that if these pure principles have their place in us and are brought forth by faithfulness, by obedience, into practice, the difficulties and doubts that we may have to surmount will be easily conquered. There will be a higher power than these. Let it be called the Great Spirit of the Indian, the Quaker "Inward Light" of George Fox, the "Blessed Mary" Mother of Jesus of the Catholics or Burmah, the Hindoo's God-- they will all be one, and there will come to be such faith and such liberty as shall redeem the world."

**All the above are taken from Otelia Cromwell's 1958 biography and from Lucretia Mott: Her Complete Speeches and Sermons, edited by Dana Greene, The Edwin Mellen Press, 1980

Saturday, August 15, 2009

For Daniel. Theism and Non-theism

I dedicate this post to our conversation which has inspired and challenged me these many months now. I do want to keep talking to you about my use of the term "non-theist" if you are willing to also keep talking to me. We do have one little difficulty in that a good portion of the way I think is intuitive. It results in perceptions that fall outside of language but which I then translate to an audience in words. If I were an artist, I might be in a better position to communicate.

It goes something like this:

Here is the "Something" I have experienced. (*!*) The words I attach to it are merely a sign of the thing, not the thing itself. I'm aware that when I attach a symbol to the (*!*), I alter the original meaning of (*!*) since each word carries with it connotations I do not intend. There is no way to filter unintentional meaning out your head when I suggest a potential definition of my experience. I say "God" or "Light" or "Reason" or "Power" and the purity of my experience is already sullied in the translation because your experience of these words is not the same as mine and both of us possess historical and cultural translations of these words that create drag and prohibit swiftness of shared revelation.

Poetic and metaphorical language give me a better chance of communicating to you since I can intentionally apply seemingly paradoxical symbols to my experience in the hopes that the ultimate and transcendent meaning I intend but cannot adequately describe will flash briefly in the moment of confusion. Since my understanding of the Numinous tends to be acquired at the margins, my metaphors also tend to play a lot with paradox and to rest outside of orthodox definitions. For me, what some might call "God" is that which is both intimately real and even commonplace and wholly Other and Ineffable. If I use the word "God", people think I mean what I do not mean. The butterfly is pinned and people think I mean wings and legs and antennae when what I meant was flutter and delight and tenderness. The essence of the butterfly cannot be pinned. The Essence of the Divine also cannot be described. To me, this is the real meaning of idolatry, to settle one's faith in any given word or concept. That is why I resist theism.

I can explain this differently and I would if speaking to a non-theist, like one of my uncles or my father, who cringe at my emotional language. In fact, I will try to explain this differently later. I can speak in that dialect too although it is not native to me. Using metaphorical language, I probably make a lot more sense to you than when I use my "rational" language. That's the whole Jekyll and Hyde thing again. Although I'm resistant to a more literal or personified interpretation of "God", I have a profound sense of the numinous. I couldn't get away from that if I tried so I'm probably a lousy example of non-theism.

I suspect that many non-Christian and non-theist Friends are difficult to place into any tidy categories. Why would an atheist become a Quaker? I think the answer lies in the liminal areas that western dualism abhors. When you look at the kinds of misfits who call themselves "non-theist" or "non-Christian" Friends, you'll probably find people whose philosophical and experiential backgrounds bend gender, cultural, and even Cartesian boundaries of "this-ness" and "that-ness." What are the words to describe "not-this-ness" and "not-that-ness"? That's tough to do. From an historical perspective, we are a civilization in transition. Our old definitions do not serve us so well any longer and the new words are still being invented, still feel awkward on our tongues. We are still in the act of breaking the tension of the water but have not yet made the dive into the deeper layers beneath.

On top of that, you and I are working from different genders, generations, regions, and religious backgrounds. Much of the complications of our communication come from the metaphorical and philosophical tools we use to describe our experience. We are speaking in different philosophical and gendered dialects. Our bodies will experience the input of "Spirit" differently and our brains will translate those experiences differently again. Does that mean that "Spirit" is different? Laying aside verbal tools and intellectual approaches, I just feel, strongly, that you and I are just not that different where it counts. If there were a tender spot on the soul, a kind of spiritual tympanum where the "Voice of the Divine" resonates, I would say that you and I have heard the same Voice. Even when your words are foreign to me, I still believe I can hear "where your words come from."

Friday, August 7, 2009

Jesus Loves Me This I Know...

It was a long day full of aggravations, worries and loneliness. Actually, rather a typical day. Maybe a little better as it was heavier on aggravation than on worry. In any case, I'm tired, discouraged, and cynical. I have that feeling I get- like a wrinkle in my sock or a smudge on my glasses- of something being annoyingly "off" in my life.

I'm a perfectionist. No secret there. As a child, I did about five or six hours of homework a night unless there was a quiz or test scheduled for the following day. On those days I did more homework. Following my own rules, I studied two hours for a quiz and five hours for a test. If I had a chapter to read in a book, I read it ten times marking off the numbers on a sheet of paper. A 100% was a good grade. A 95% felt like a C and I considered anything less a failure. I was the kid who raised her hand and asked how long the paper could be. "It has to be at least five pages," might be the answer. "OK," I'd respond, "but how long can it be? How much is too long?"

One of my elementary school teachers assigned me "Christianity" as a paper topic, which given my perfectionism and status as a minister's child was a singularly stupid and cruel act. She had to have known just how much material I had available to me and that I would be compelled to use it. She had to have known that there was no way I could have approached that topic with anything less than compulsive, unforgiving perfectionism.

Of course I asked Dad for help. I remember standing in his office as he pointed at the walls of shelves all of them filled with books about Christianity. "This is just the tip of the iceberg," he told me. I was dismayed and overwhelmed. But Dad smiled and waved the books aside.

"Someone once asked an astronomer to sum up his work in one sentence," my father told me. "And the astronomer answered, 'Twinkle, twinkle, litte star. How I wonder what you are?'"

He let that sink in and then he said, "And someone once asked a great theologian to sum of his faith in one sentence." I waited to hear what the great theologian had said. "Jesus loves me, this I know," said Dad simply, "for the Bible tells me so."

So that was it. That was Christianity. And that was Love. That was my father's love for me and mine for him. It was the Love that was mine as a child of Creation and the love I would be expected to give as one of its trusted stewards.

Funny, isn't it, how often we forget that one simple commandment, that one simple truth. We push each other through a lot of hoops. We make each other dance and bow and scrape. We fall over each other in our desire to prove ourselves, to prove our worth, to earn the A. Ask me now what I think about Jesus and the Bible and I'll tell you all about archaeology, biblical scholarship and comparative religious studies. I'll talk about metanarratives and postmodernism long after you've lost interest. But push me on this point: "Do you think Jesus would love you or me?" and my honest answer would be "Yes. I believe the Bible tells us so."

I'll never be "just right". It isn't in my nature to be satisfied. I often mistake excellence for Righteousness and respect for Love. I am often very angry with myself. I struggle with feelings of worthlessness and failure. I fear that I've let down those who told me that one day I would be "Somebody." I want to be a giant, a scholar, a sage, and a beauty and prove myself worthy of approval. There are days that fill me with rage and disappointment at what has been an inconsequential life of modest achievement. There are days when I am filled with guilt for my mistakes. I can be petty and narrow, insensitive and self-centered. I am arrogant, ego-driven and even cruel. At my best, I'm never as good as I hoped. I grasp and fall and sit there on the ground sulking. There are days when I don't want to love anybody and I do not want to accept anybody's love.

But Love is more powerful than I am. A small voice in my head reminds me with persistent gentleness to forgive myself for my human weaknesses, for my errors, for my debts and for my trespasses and to forgive others for theirs. Perfect love is not a reward for perfect behavior, for perfect results, or even for perfect intentions. Love is freely given. If the Bible tells us anything about Jesus, it is that he loved freely and unreservedly. If such a thing is possible, even if such a thing is imaginable, then I can keep going.

Finally Spring

My kids and I planted bulbs today.  What a difference one week makes!  The spring warmth has brought everyone outdoors.  People are walking ...