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Archive for March, 2020

I have not generally written here about my personal religious beliefs, but I recently had the occasion to discuss these with fellow Quakers in our meeting, and thought I would post the notes I made about this. As so many of us are currently social-distancing, not working, or working from home (as well as some of us on the front lines, caring for other members of our communities) in this COVID19 pandemic, I think it’s good for us to share our stories.  

 

I have been a seeker for most of my life. Although there was a time in my teens I would have called myself an agnostic (never an atheist), I have most always believed that there is much more to this world than we can see or know directly. 

Born into a family that was mostly non-denominational Protestant, but rarely set foot in a church, I was given little religious upbringing — merely absorbing a typically American form of simple Christianity. In fact, I remember being baptized, because it happened only when my youngest brother was born, when I was four years old. I think it must have been only then that my parents realized that none of us earlier children had been baptized (my sister would have been almost seven, my younger brother was two). My sister and I were the children of my mother’s first husband, who had abandoned us. The two-year-old and newborn were my half-brothers, the children of the stepfather who raised us all. 

I remember the minister coming to our house — from what church, I do not know, but guessing from the fact that the first church I remember visiting was Grace Lutheran Church, it was probably the one.  We stood in a line and he had a bowl of water in his hand with which he went down the line baptizing us. 

When we were a bit older (perhaps I was about eight), we were riding in the car one day, and complained to our father (i.e., my stepfather) that our mother wanted us to go to church with her, which we did not want to do. “You should go to church with your mother. It would be good for you,” he said. When we argued back that he did not go to church, he responded, “I don’t go because I don’t believe in that shit.” (My stepfather was completely unguarded, and did not generally get irony.)  

When I was in high school, I sometimes attended worship services with friends, including Jewish, and Roman Catholic, and I read about other religions. Had there been a Buddhist group in my town, I probably would have gone there. Oddly enough, though I grew up in a Pennsylvania town that was founded by Quakers, and learned about Quakers in school, there was no longer a Quaker Meeting in my town, and it never occurred to me to attend one (I did not know any Quakers). In my young adulthood I was generally open to people who invited me to their places of worship, even if I did not identify with their theology. That applied most often to evangelicals. I could never really accept that a “loving God” would insist on everyone believing in any particular creed or dogma in order to be “saved”.  

In college, I majored in history, and also took some courses in the Religion Department. One important history course for me was “Historical Background of the Bible: the Old Testament,” in which I learned a great deal about how the Hebrew Bible was written — including the “Documentary hypothesis,” and also about how the Hebrew Bible is received by modern Jews (at least of the more liberal variety). One thing I took from this, long before I even knew about Benedict Spinoza, is what he established about the Bible way back in 1670: That the Bible records the religious experience of the people who lived in the Levant in about 600 BCE, and as such it has much to offer us, but it is not necessarily God’s word for us today, and it certainly is not God’s law. I have gone on to read scriptural texts of many other religions, and take them the same way. To those fundamentalists who say that one cannot pick and choose which parts of the Bible we believe, I say we must do that. It is a requirement in any reading that we do to read critically

Most of all, I gradually came to the realization that it is our own religious experience that is most important — our own relationship with God, however we define that concept — although it is also very good, for the soul, that we share in this relationship, in some way, with others. I don’t know when I was first exposed to the famous quotation from Margaret Fell about hearing George Fox preach in 1652: 

And then he went on, and opened the Scriptures, and said, ‘The Scriptures were the prophets’ words and Christ’s and the apostles’ words, and what as they spoke they enjoyed and possessed and had it from the Lord’. And said, ‘Then what had any to do with the Scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth. You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?’

This opened me so that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat me down in my pew again, and cried bitterly. And I cried in my spirit to the Lord, ‘We are all thieves, we are all thieves, we have taken the Scriptures in words and know nothing of them in ourselves’… I saw it was the truth, and I could not deny it; and I did as the apostle saith, I ‘received the truth in the love of it’. (See this text with commentary at: https://postmodernquaker.wordpress.com/2015/03/17/what-canst-thou-say-paraphrase-with-commentary/ )

We mostly don’t understand the true meaning of prophecy, which has been confused with predicting the future. (That is due to the huge influence of Messianic Judaism and Christianity reading the coming of a Messiah into even non-prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible.)  But a prophet, in the true meaning of the word, is someone who speaks on behalf of someone else — in most common parlance, for God. I’ve come to see that some people have a knack for speaking “Truth” — what I see as “God’s Truth”, and these are not necessarily the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible, and not necessarily even religious teachers at all. I’ve been reading Montaigne’s Essais, and found one (“On Pedantry”) in which he almost quotes George Fox, except that he is writing about sixty years earlier. (His Essais were first published in 1580. Did Fox read Montaigne?):

“We know how to say: ‘Cicero says thus; such are the morals of Plato; these are the very words of Aristotle.’ But what do we say ourselves? What do we judge? What do we do? A parrot could well say as much.”  (p. 121)  [Nous sçavons dire, Cicero dit ainsi, voilà les meurs de Platon, ce sont les mots mesmes d’Aristote: mais nous que disons nous nous mesmes? Que faison nous? Que jugeons nous? Autant en diroit bien un perroquet,. (p. 142)  And: “We take the opinions and the knowledge of others into our keeping, and that is all. We must make them our own.” (p. 122) [Nous prenons en garde les opinions et le sçavoir d’autruy, et puis c’est tout: il les faut faire nostres. (p. 142)]   

Jesus was a prophet, as was Fox, as was Benedict Spinoza, as were Dorothy Day and  James Baldwin. Read what they had to say, and you cannot help but feel they speak a truth that resonates in its verity. But we can all have that connection, if we cultivate it. Sometimes we hear or read a small bit of that Truth in the most unlikely places. There is prophecy all around us, sometimes coming from small children in our midst. 

Before I reached the ripe old age of 30, I had found Quakerism, first attending a Quaker meeting in, of all places, Brussels, Belgium. I have felt right at home in a group that honors ongoing revelation. Having read Henry Cadbury’s lecture, “Quakerism and Early Christianity” while I was in college, I realized that I could be a Quaker without being a Christian. While I have a high regard for Christianity and the teachings of Jesus, I do not buy the essential theology, which is implied by the name. Christ is the Greek translation of the Messiah, “the anointed one”, i.e., God’s anointed. It comes out of Jewish messianism, the expectation of a savior that would come to Israel in the form of a new king, who would drive out the foreign rulers and restore the Kingdom of Israel. The early Christians believed that Jesus was that Messiah, but with a different mission, to save all of humanity. But even that is not a theology that resonates with me. It was still a major part of the theology of the early Quakers, as Cadbury points out, but just as the later Christians realized that one does not need to be a Jew to be a Christian, Quakers have come to know that one need not be a Christian to be a Quaker. Cadbury was a historian, as am I, and we learn from history. He writes, “Religion looked at historically is an example of change. It is dynamic not static, it grows and moves.  … Religion becomes the accumulation of much of its past, and what it is today is often best understood from knowing its past.” 

In the future further changes will occur … but not from the same exact causes as in the past. We need not dread them for they are signs of life. We cannot control them, least of all by an attempted superficial imitation of the past. We should realize that variety is part of our inheritance, and a precious part.  (p. 39-40)

More recently, I have encountered Spinoza, who lived at the same time as George Fox, and even met with Quakers as part of his discussion circle. I believe that he was influenced by Quakerism as Quakerism was influenced by him. He believed that God is everything — the universe — and that everything in the universe is just a little part of God. So every person not only has “that of God” within them (as the Quakers put it), but is part of God. There are many elements of his philosophy that follow from this precept, and I do not buy all of these, but I think he saw very clearly, though he did not trust his own intuition, and felt that he had to prove it all mathematically (which does not work).  He was a man of his era, who believed in the power of logic — he was not a mystic. But so much of his philosophy fits very well with Quakerism and leads to the same ethical conclusions. 

Spinoza also sought to prove the existence of God, but mostly used the same existential proof of God that was developed in the twelfth century by Anselm of Canterbury. If we define God as the most perfect being that could possibly exist, then God must exist, for a being that existed would be better than a being that does not exist. Specious reasoning, to be sure. The problem here, for Spinoza, is that he believed, like Leibniz, that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Since God is the universe, both are perfect. But we now know that the universe is not perfect, for perfect means finished. The universe is ever expanding, ever growing, ever changing. Thus, so is God. God is not perfect. Neither God nor the universe follows human logic. So Cadbury’s idea that religion is always changing, and should change, is even more reasonable, as even God is always changing. 

Jesus boiled the old Jewish commandments down to two: Love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself. George Fox expresses those precepts more in the way that Spinoza might have, as in this quotation, which comes from a letter that Fox  wrote to ministers while he was imprisoned in Launceton (Cornwall) in 1656, and has been mentioned several times, recently, in our Meeting: 

And this is the word of the Lord God to you all, and a charge to you all in the presence of the living God: be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.

If we could all follow that commandment, this world would be a better place — and what more could we hope for?

 

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