Monday, February 21, 2011

Being Modern Artists of Quaker Faith and Practice

 The Peaceable Kingdom (1848) by Edward Hicks.  Albright-Knox gallery

 Gap from the "Tiny Town" series 2001/2006 by James Turrell
Light installation.  Albright-Knox
(photograph by Jim Bush)

I think of Friends' religious education the same way I think about education in general as both a college teacher and a home schooling mom.  I'm very, very liberal/progressive/leftist, but I think that before we dive into the modernist and postmodernist stuff, we have to start with the classics.  When I was a child, my father and I were walking through a modern art gallery.  This stuff looked nothing like the representational work from the Renaissance to the 19th century that we had just viewed together in the adjoining building!  Was this really "art"? 

Dad pointed out that there was a lot more going on in that gallery than random paint splashes on canvas.  To understand modern art, I needed to understand the history of art and the ideas modern artists were highlighting, accentuating, or challenging.  To the untrained observer, modern art might look like an anarchy of paint, but I should remember to ground my judgment in knowledge and recall that a truly excellent modern artist only broke the rules after they had learned all the rules of their craft and had a strong foundation in representational art and its history. Because they had that foundation and familiarity, they could break the rules in meaningful ways. Though clearly quite different from their predecessors, modern artists participate in a long tradition of evolving and dynamic artistic expression. 

As one who can be identified within the "non-theist", "universalist", and "pagan" manifestations of modern Quaker perspective, I might be considered one of the modern artists of Quaker faith and practice.  Among us, there many conversations about whether or not it is important for us to be grounded in Christ-centered perspectives or whether or not it is important to learn about Christian Quaker history.  I think it is clear to anyone who reads my blog that I do not feel that Friends must be Christian or even theist to be good Quakers.  In the end, I believe we should be judged by our fruits.  Our service and love, not our fancy theologies and philosophies, are what matter to those who need that love.  That which many call "God" remains ineffable.  We are called to serve, not to define.

But what does that mean for Friends?  Does that mean that anything goes?  No.  I don't think so.  In Quaker history, the individual comes to trust the Inward Light within a community of people who support each other  through collective discernment and gentle discipline.  We believe in continuing revelation and do not mistake our past for our God, but we also know that in coming to know the Light together, with patience, and over time, we are able to be a stronger force for love than we could ever be alone.  That strength of collective discernment and discipline is part of who we are.  When I became a Friend, I knew that I must ground myself in that tradition.  I knew that it was a process and discipline that would take me years (perhaps my whole life!) to learn, but that my contributions would be stronger if I submitted myself to that process.

I am hopeful that Christian Friends who feel uncomfortable with my presence among them will come to see me as a sister.  I am also hopeful that non-Christian Friends who feel resentful of Christian language will come to value the beautiful ways that Friends have lived their Christianity.   Quakers have a history worth learning and contemplating.  Friends were a peculiar people not just because of how they dressed and spoke, but because they were so bold in their understanding of Christ in their lives.  We may indeed be a theologically diverse group, but I feel that Friends like me who bring new thea/ological and philosophical ideas to the Quaker tradition show more skill in our service to the world if we remember to launch our avante garde spirituality from a solid foundational knowledge of Friends' historical origins in radical Christian spirituality.  We don't have to be Christian, but we should understand the history of Christianity, particularly as Friends have understood that term.  We should understand the metaphors, narratives, and historical context of those who went before us so that when it is our turn to add color to the canvas, even our boldest and most unorthodox strokes will come from a skilled hand.


E. said...

Beautiful post, beautifully written. Very well said. :)

Morgaine said...

She takes her stand on the top of the high hill...

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Hystery,

I suppose I have mentioned my bafflement before, but will again:-) Hope you understand my confusion.

I am still baffled by the term Nontheist. If there is "no God", no Spirit of God, no Ultimate Truth, no Ultimate Love, then how can there be any "spiritual", any "love", any "truth", any "equality" at the finite level?

I suppose I show my own particulaa philosophical background in this.

Sometime I do doubt there is any God--any Ultimate Meaning, any Ultimate Truth. I used to joke that every Thursday I was an Existentialist:-) in the tradition of Albert Camus and his powerful novel The Plague.

But Camus I do understand because in his classic works such as The Rebel,The Stranger,etc. he demonstrates that existence is godless, Meaningless, etc. that the cosmos and, especially, humans are absurd. Based in such absurdity, one can choose to create his own reality, his own ethics.
As I say I understand such Nontheism.

What I don't understand is Quaker Nontheism.

Who do we worship in meeting if there is No One to worship?

How do we call all humans to love
if there is no "love" except an evolutionary misfiring or spandrel that has no basis in Reality?

I just don't understand this. For me the term Nontheist Friend is like saying Nonexistent Love, or Notruth Companion.

the ol' gadfly;-)

In the Light,


Hystery said...


I don't think I'm using the word non-theist the way others use it. Maybe.

I don't use the way I would use the word atheist which, to me has pretty firm boundaries. And I don't mean it the way others might use the word agnostic either because that implies a kind of apathy or noncommittal energy I do not feel.

When I use the word "non-theist", it is because I am rebelling against the limitations of the word "God" not the reality of that which Friends and other spiritual people experience as God. I'm being stubborn about language. The word seems too limited and limiting to me. I feel that we need to challenge ourselves beyond the limitations of our current metaphors...and "God" is only a metaphor. It is merely a signifier.

I'm finding I can't respond adequately to you here except to say that I resonate with your cautions about the implicit meaning of non-theism as the word is generally understood. I think I need to compose something that avoids all of these theological words which carry meanings I may not intend and then see how that goes.

staśa said...

Hystery, blessed be.

Daniel, I can't speak firmly for others, and what I'm about to say does not represent my own experience or views 100%, either. But here is some of my understanding of "non-theist" from my participation among other non-theists, Friends and non-Friends.

Theism/atheism is an either/or, and it's about belief -- either you believe, or you don't. But for many, it's not about belief; it's about experience. As Hystery says, the conventional concept of "God" is very limited and limiting. And for many, it's not either/or, it's a continuum, it's a both/and.

So one way to look at it could be theism on one end of the continuum, non-theism lots of places in the middle, and atheism on the other end of the continuum.

Kind of like Kinsey 0s on one end of the continuum, 1-5s in the middle, and 6s on the other end. *grin* People aren't either homosexual or heterosexual; an awful lot of us are actually bisexual, even if we're not right smack in the middle, but have substantial leanings in one direction or the other.

It's just a completely different conception of Deity.

I don't know if this helps, or not.

But it's a way in which theists and atheists are actually closer together -- either/or -- than atheists and non-theists, sometimes.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Hystery,

I've felt ambivalent about responding for a number of reasons and waited holding all of this in the Light of God. After hours, I still hesitate, but do feel lead to clarify and share more.

I do understand that many words have nuances and some words have become "catch-alls" for a wide variety of meanings (especially the English words "God" and "love").

And I understand that you often use words in your own creative way.

From my perspective, I can see how the word "Non-theist" might include a variety of meanings.

But, I don't see how the denotative definition of Nontheism
(non/no god)can carry any sense of God.

I keep trying to understand your perspective, but since I am writing this, I realize I don't.

Also, keep in mind that all of the Nontheists I have known or read were soft or hard atheists. This includes all of the Quaker Nontheists I have read and dialogged with.

It is intriguing to me that you find the word "God" has limitations. I find the word to be just the opposite--that the term is too wide open.

Also, I wouldn't agree at all that "God" is a metaphor (except in the sense that all language is in some sense metaphoric).

To me a metaphor is when Jesus calls God, "Abba or Father". It would seem that Jesus is saying, not that God has gender or literally has children,but that like a good father loves his children, so Ultimate Reality is personal and loving and guiding and discipling...

Thanks for dialogging with me:-)

In the Light,


Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi stasa,

Thanks for sharing your perspective.

First, I would like to share that my faith in Jesus and God aren't about mainly about belief. At least my faith before it ever became an intellectual view, was first mystical experience. (That doesn't mean I am not deluded;-) but I am definitely not a doctrinal person. I enjoy intellectual speculating, but that isn't where my faith is.

I think you make a good point about how in life, humans exist on a "continuum." At one extreme are fundamentalists and other people like Carl Jung (who said he didn't believe in God, but "knew" God); then there are people who experience God directly but still doubt intellectually; then people who are intellectual believers; etc. on to the other extreme...extreme doubters, soft and hard agnostics, soft and hard atheists, and so on.

I understand that.

However, as I shared with Hystery, I don't see how the term Nontheist Quaker works either denotatively or connotatively.

In my understanding, some issues are either/or (such as either slavery is right or it is wrong).

For years I taught students the danger of fallacies such as "Either/Or" fallacy, so I do try to be very cautious about stating an either/or. Most of life isn't either/or. But whether God IS or ISN'T does seem to be an either/or.

If God, isn't (nontheo) then why come to worship what ISN'T?

To me there is cosmic difference between existentialism and essentialism.

Lastly, this doesn't mean that seekers aren't welcome to worship. We are all seekers at some point in the continuum. But that is vastly different from stating categorically that the Society of Friends is "Nontheist".

In the Light,


Hystery said...
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Hystery said...
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Hystery said...
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Hystery said...

Well, I've responded to Daniel's comments (and I do owe you very much for the way you have of nudging me into deeper reflection), but it took me three comment spaces to do so and I didn't edit. So I erased those comments and will post them as a their very own blog post.

Anonymous said...

I am researching my religion and it seems quaker is right for me so far. To daniel I would like too add my perspective. I have always felt a connection to god. But I don't believe in the bible.i believe in jesus but as a son of marry out of wedlock. I believe he has the same status as mother teresa. I feel like I understand non theo in the sense that I have strong feelings that I can know what to do in any situation.i feel that i am not alone. I would share those feelings in worship. I cal that feeling god. I can easily see how someone else would call those feelings instincts and therefore be nontheo. Sorry about lack of capitalization,i am writing from a phone.

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