Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Temporary Break in the Conversation

Dear Friends,

I need to close this blog down for a short period of time. To do this, I will adjust my privacy settings so that I will be the only person authorized to read the blog. I will reopen the blog to other readers when I am better able to engage in conversation. See you in November.

Best wishes,

Thursday, October 15, 2009

What Does the Bible Mean for Quakers Today?: Part II of the Pagan Chronicles

Note: While this blog is evidence of a continuing conversation about the role of the Christian and Jewish scriptures in contemporary religious belief among Quakers, the opinions expressed on this blog are not meant to be representative of the Religious Society of Friends.


I've had an interest in bible study since I was a kid. It was cool to see Sunday sermons and the selected biblical passages get researched, analyzed, and discussed. I remember conversations about the relative merits of various translations and hearing about archaeological discoveries and historical research "that could change everything!!" about how we interpret the text.

Today as a grown-up, I'm interested in that stuff because I study the history of religions within an academic context. Given how difficult it is to get people to show an interest in most historical documents and ancient histories, it surprises me that so many other people show an interest in (or feel an obligation toward) study of the bible. Sure, it is a lot of fun if you're into exegesis, but who apart from dorks like me is into that kind of thing? Those who think the bible has the power of perpetual revelation serving as a direct link between God and the reader (like Tom Riddle's Diary in The Prisoner of Azkaban), clearly have reason to study it in depth. But what of people who do not view the bible as inerrant? Why are liberal Christians and non-Christian Friends drawn to figure out "what it means to us today." The answers are varied and diverse.

What follows is only my own approach to the role of the bible and its meaning.

The first question I ask is: Does it have to mean anything in particular? Why should this ancient text have any more power to speak to me than any other? Of course, one can easily and appropriately argue that the bible has had such a long history of strong influence on my culture that it is sensible to continue to study its meaning, agenda, and influence. I agree with this. However, I do not understand why we feel that there is a spiritual significance that resides in the text apart from its cultural significance.

I do not think we can ignore the bible's influences, both positive and negative, on our cultural history. I do not, however, believe that the bible continues to speak to us today apart from our entanglements with its ancient proscriptions, most of which are no longer appropriate for our own situations. The biblical texts were not written for us therefore attempts to make the book speak to us today corrupt the original meaning and motivation of the authors and prevent us from engaging in rational exegesis. I make an assumption that when viewing an ancient text my job is to ascertain, as closely as I am able, what sense it made within the context of the community that produced it. I cannot expect it to speak to my situation for the simple reason that it was not written to address my situation. At times there may be resonance. Human beings are human beings after all. But largely, the socio-cultural differences between 2nd Century Rome and 21st century New York are too profound to warrant expectation of continued relevance. Are we so arrogant that we think that they were all wrong about their own beliefs and context and that God was really using them as a conduit to speak to us? Or are we so silly as to believe that the Bible just keeps changing its meaning with each generation so that a text that condones patriarchy in one generation suddenly means marital equality in another?

So why continue to study the bible if

A) we don't believe the bible was an Inspired-with-a-big-"I"


B) there are so many deeply spiritual texts written in our own time and context that we can understand without outrageous amounts of cultural compromise and apology?

I do not advocate against the attempt to find useful material for social change in the bible or in any religious text. The bible has tremendous poetic and metaphorical authority in our culture. That I can't deny. Simply because it has been used to promote spiritual equality so frequently in the past is reason enough to continue to employ its language so long as that language is useful. Perhaps my attitude here will seem opportunistic. Here is the point where I must disclose that I continue to quote from the New Testament books with particular emphasis on things Jesus said about mercy, compassion, and basically not being a prick to the poor and powerless. I'll also quote from Thomas Jefferson, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Gandhi as well although I certainly do not accept any of them as ideal representations of human virtue. Likewise, while the idea of the Christ is a concept I accept as a sacred archetype, the historical Jesus is not. After studying primitive Christianity, I am convinced that I would not have joined the movement. Still, I am spiritually bound to the idea of Agape whether or not Jesus preached it. The concept of such love existed independently of his particular articulation of it. While I accept that the writers of the canon were inspired, I do not accept that the inspiration was from "God" or that it was somehow more inspired than the latest clever or lovely thing I might hear from my grandmother. (Don't scoff. My grandmother is effing brilliant.)

Now don't get me wrong. I do believe that Friends should study the bible and that they should have a very strong foundation in biblical and religious history. When I went to seminary, I met a woman who wanted to be a Unitarian minister who couldn't find the New Testament if you set it on fire in her hands. That was sad. Let's not be that way. We need to know about the bible if only so we won't look like damn fools when the Methodists and Episcopalians call us out to play.

I do suggest that we study the bible in an attempt to understand what the original Christian communities felt about God. Here's my selfish motivation: I think it is important for people to understand historical texts in their own context so they don't say stupid things about them in front of me. When my students talk to me about the Shakers or the Oneida Community Utopians as if those folks were 21st century people with 21st century problems, resources, and solutions, it makes me crazy. You can imagine how much more crazy it makes me feel when someone suggests a biblical solution for a contemporary problem or expresses a belief that somehow biblical authors were writing for us. They weren't. They not only weren't writing for us and our time, they didn't think we would ever exist.

Now it does seem to me that in order to understand what it means to be a Quaker, we have to understand how past Friends understood the bible. For the earliest Friends, Christian language and tradition was the only show in town. The bible was therefore the most important document although I would maintain that this was not by choice. They didn't have any choice in the matter. Go try finding a New Age bookstore in 17th century England. So as it turns out, much to my disappointment, one cannot understand Friends without understanding both their general historical context and the prevailing biblical interpretations available to them. As history drags on, they'll start to comment on Buddhism, Hinduism,and indigenous spirituality as they would relatively early into their development as a religious body. (Have you read the Letters of Paul and Amicus? I nearly peed myself with delight when I saw "Amicus" talking so positively about Native American and Hindu spirituality.) But apart from fleeting glimpses of awareness and experimentation of cross-cultural spirituality among Friends and their contemporaries, it took the general Western world a long-ass time to discover that other people had more to offer than servitude and woe. Even for the open-minded Quakers, the bible was pretty much it. We have to understand them within their spiritually limited Sitz im Leben. We must be mindful that they didn't have the archaeological and historical research that "could change everything!!!" and they didn't live in the fertile multi-cultural intellectual world in which we live. So we have to cut them some slack when they seem intolerably ignorant. Maybe I'm deluding myself but I personally very strongly doubt that if they were blessed with the wealth of spiritual literature available to us today, they would not have ignored it back in the day. I don't think we should either.

So, as much as I hate to say it, we need to understand the bible because it is a foundational document in our history as a religious people. In fact, Quakers don't make any kind of sense without it. (And this is a Pagan saying this!) But I'm not convinced that contemporary non-Christian Friends need to understand "what the bible means to us today." It doesn't have to mean anything to us today. We have to understand what it meant to our ancestors and how our ancestors' legacy affects us. We need to be able to mature into the finest of their expectations and deliver ourselves from their failings.

They had the bible and they had themselves. We owe much to our ancestors but we are given our own calling in our own context. Our spiritual wellsprings are more numerous and I pray, just as deep.

Study all things for the good we might find there but accept no other Source of Authority than the Divine Source. We are children of Love. Don't underestimate the power of the Divine to find us wherever we may be and do not doubt that Love will speak clearly in the languages we know best. We will find no truth in any book that is not already written on the tender parchment of our hearts.

See also
Part I

Saturday, October 3, 2009

O, Canada! (On gay rights and FUM)

Warning:  This post is not meant to be taken completely seriously.  Except when it is.  Also, I'm a complete ass.

In my last blog post regarding my strong feelings about FUM's policies regarding homosexuality, I was confronted with the interesting phenomenon of those who share my view that it is absolutely wrong to deny equality to all people but who also strongly oppose schism with FUM.  Now, these are people I happen to think are quite amazing people.  These are people who long ago proved themselves to me to be of the highest honor and most uncompromising loving nature.  So as argumentative as I am, I do not feel inclined to cast their words aside or to dismiss them lightly.  I begin to wonder why I cannot find myself in accord with these good people with whom I am almost always in agreement.  A curious thing.  Why don't I agree?  And by "why" I don't mean "What is wrong with them or their arguments?" or even "What is wrong with me and my arguments?" but "What does this expose about my personality and motivations that may deserve my contemplation?"

Perhaps it will be helpful for me to make a list of that which I know (or think I know) about myself within the context of this situation:

1.  I am raised from early childhood to be an advocate for the rights of all persons including GLBT people.
2.  My family has a large number of people who fit into this category.
3.  I give the highest priority to social and environmental justice. Committment to these defines my honor.
4.  My success as a human being is directly related to my ability to stand firm by my principles in the face of opposition.
5.  As far as possible, it has been my policy to boycott, denounce, or otherwise protest those organizations that have stubbornly clung to policies that I feel have no honor.
6.  I believe that I dishonor myself and shame my family if I fail to maintain committment to #3 through my practice outlined in #5. 
7.  I believe it is sinful to choose personal happiness, comfort, or popularity above one's principles.

On the other hand:

A.  I am fearful of war and have no confidence in our government's ability to keep us out of it.
B.  I do not want my children to be a party to war and I love my children more than my principles.
C.  I cannot move to Canada because I do not have enough money.
D.  I can be a Quaker and raise my children in a community that is historically acknowledged as a pacifist organization.
E.  Unitarian Universalists and Neo-Pagan communities annoy me.  (Sorry.  But there it is.)  Quaker communities also annoy me but less so.  (Lower Birkenstock to white sock ratio).
F.  I agree with every testimony liberal Friends share both in their simplistic manifestation as "S.P.I.C.E." and I also identify with and share an interest in conversations about how to understand these testimonies in a manner that is more transcendent, more demanding, more challenging, more broad, etc.  (I'm always looking for ways to challenge myself to a more demanding and austere life.)
G.  I am lonesome for community with people who share my spiritual orientation, philosophical tendencies, and principles who have the power to uphold me, correct me, sustain me, and nurture me.  I also have to believe they have to have the moral authority to do so.
H.  I am hungry for a community of people who both want and need my skills and offerings.
I.  I want my children to benefit from a spiritual community and I don't want them to be as lonely as I have been since I lost my religious community as a young adult.

Also to be considered:

a) I don't feel any community at all with FUM.  Not even a little.
b) I'm not sure why I would.
c) unless I spent more time at meetings beyond the local level where everyone I know is either non-Christian or nominally Christian.
d) but I can't go to meetings because I can't afford them.
e) because Quakers are unconsciously classist.
f) but that's another post.
g)) So it doesn't feel like schism when I resist community with people who could even entertain a policy specifically targeting homosexuality any more than it feels like schism when I resist community with the fundamentalist folks down the street
h)who are crazy.
i) And I don't mean to say that I resist greater community or that I fail to care for them as people since, as it turns out, a good portion of my extended family, almost my entire beloved village and region are conservatives and I love them to pieces.  Also my best friend since childhood goes to that crazy church and talks about possessions, Armegeddon, and biblical literalism and I respect and love her.
j) but holy shit. 
k) and that's pretty much what I feel about FUM's policies and christology.  Wow.  So not what I believe.

I can certainly be in love with conservatives.  I can love them and eat with them and cry and laugh and maintain loyalty to them...as individuals.  But I cannot maintain affiliation with them.  There seems to me to be a very clear difference between loving individuals with whom I disagree on important matters and belonging to and financially supporting the organizations to which they belong.  Organizations have powers that individuals do not have.  One chooses one's political, religious and social affiliations carefully.  One does not join organizations who make public statements that are directly opposed to one's most cherished values.

Now this is a question that comes out of innocence and newness not out of crankiness and bitchiness:  Is it possible that my reaction to FUM is different than other liberals within the Quaker fold because I am so new?  I honestly did not know that NY had affiliations with a religious organization that had anti-gay language.  Frankly, having grown up in the United Church of Christ, when I heard about FUM's policy I was blown away and I was enraged.  I felt betrayed by liberal Friends.  I felt that there had been a bait and switch.  Here I thought I was joining with a group of people about whom I could feel trust and pride and who had the moral authority to lead me and my family and then I hear about this policy which shows an utter and reprehensible lack of love.  When I speak to my liberal parents about my affiliation with Friends, it shames me to have to include information about FUM's policies and that NY has dual affiliation.  It feels worse than that time I had to walk into a Walmart with my fundamentalist friend for her to buy a meat product and baby formula.  God, how dirty that made me feel.

So I have not pursued membership because I am not clear that I want my name associated with FUM.  It would shame me and it would shame my family and it would undermine my principles.

So what will I do for my children?  I don't have enough money to get to Canada.

Garbage Day

A windy day.  I saw my husband off as he headed to work.  Minutes later, the sound of aluminum cat food cans tumbling into the streets aler...