Friday, December 26, 2008

Gettin' ticked off for mysterious reasons

I've been involved in several conversations over the last few weeks around religious identity that end up with me full of bile. I don't think of myself as bigoted. But here I am, gettin' pissed off. And not against small-minded, homophobic, hate-filled, cling-to-guns-and-bibles, fire-and-brimstone Christians. I got into a pretty seriously angry argument with my wife, who like me is a basically happy member of a liberal Quaker meeting.

What the hey? Where on earth is this bitter anger coming from? No one's really stomped on my religious liberties lately. If anything, my respect for and understanding of honest, deeply felt personal religious faith has grown a lot over the last few years.

But when the question turns to whether we as a community identify as Christian, my dander mysteriously rises like hair on the back of a dog in the seconds before an earthquake.

What on earth?

A clue: in my argument with my wife, she felt the same feeling of personal threat, only in her eyes it was me telling her she wasn't allowed to express her beliefs. So it's not simply a matter of feeling trapped by the patriarchal hegemonizing colonialist bully-boy politics of evangelical theology. (Did I get all the key words in there? I feel like I've forgotten one. Oh, right, I forgot to weave the word "power" in there somewhere.) It's personal, not institutional.

Another clue: What struck me initially as I really try to get hold of this anger is how much it feels like not being picked for the middle-school softball team. Now, some of the language some religionists use to discuss matters of group identity are explicitly about "you're on the team bound for heaven; they're didn't make the cut and are going to hell," but that is not the case here. In fact, in all the discussions in my family, in Friends meeting, among friends, there is an explicit statement like "we're all on the same team here, and we don't believe in Hell, and the afterlife is an open question, and we love and support each other." But somehow following this up with a question like "What's our team song?" sets off some weird stuff.

Yesterday, Ingrid mentioned what to me felt like a sharp wedge cracking into what's going on: she was observing how, from a kind-of-Buddhist sensibility, we all hang on to our sufferings. If someone has done us wrong, we remember it, tenaciously. We make it part of ourselves.

Now, I was not raised oppressed. No secret churches under threat from the secret police for me, no razzing at school for wearing religious paraphernalia (not sure what paraphernalia I would have worn anyway—gold question mark on a chain?). My parents tsked and winced at televangelists and crazed imams, but we were not the Madalyn Murray O'Hair family in any sense. Secular, but not crazy. Heck, my parents met at a Unitarian church and were happy at my getting some sort of religious background at my high school.

So what kind of suffering am I remembering? And what am I getting so mad at now?

I think it has to do with trust.

Here's the thing: the biggest freak-outs I can remember having have to do with physical trust exercises: the kind where you stand up on a platform and fall backwards into the rest of the team's outstretched arms. Or where you have to get the team members up and over a tree limb. The last time I tried one of these was back in high school. Freshman orientation, actually, so I was 14. And I just freaked. I lost it. I don't remember all what happened, but there were tears, and as I recall, I was the only one who really freaked this way.

I am lousy at situations where I can't put my feet on the floor, metaphorically or literally speaking. I hate swimming in over-my-head water. I hate being on the edge of a roof. And apparently, I need to keep my own feet under me religiously as well.

I absolutely see that being able to off-load your troubles/trespasses/moral compass to another is very helpful. I visit in prison, and have seen repeatedly how getting religion helps ground folks, gives them a sense of not being out there on their own. I think Jesse Ventura was profoundly messed up when he talked about religion as a crutch and preached the gospel of self-sufficiency. None of us are self-sufficient, but some of us are better than others about giving credit for being held up.

But there's a point at which, to me and a lot of other folks, there's such a thing as too much faith, too much off-loading of responsibility. The Ben Franklin mantra, "God helps those who help themselves" comes to mind. Or the joke about the man who trusted in God to help him win the lottery, only to be dressed down from above for not actually buying a ticket.

So what the heck has this to do with me being pissed off at Christians? Or my wife being pissed off at secularists?

Simple. We don't trust others to hold our spirit up. We don't want to put much of our weight onto a foreign spiritual language, or a foreign set of stories and theologies. We my love our neighbor, our fellow member of Meeting, our spouse even, but we need to feel our own feet planted under us.

When someone asks us to name their religious basis as our own, they're in essence asking us to do that trust exercise where everyone sits on everyone else's laps, in a circle. Except that it feels to each of us like everyone else is sitting on some pretty unstable ground. When we're being Universalist about it, we can shrug and be philosophical about other people: you stand on your self, I'll stand on mine, and we'll each take our chances and love each other just the same.

But when it comes right down to it, we like our own foundations, and we're not interested in jumping off them. Which is what making a statement about universalism feels like to some, about Christianity feels like to others.

No answers to this one, folks. Just a survey of the landscape.


James Riemermann said...

Your take on this issue does seem to reflect the way a lot of people feel about it. I'm not sure it reflects the way things actually are.

To greatly oversimplify things into two camps, let's say the universalists don't want Christianity imposed on them, and the Christians don't want a non-Christian (or worse yet a nontheist perspective) forced on them.

But there a couple of flaws to this view. One is, there are plenty of Christians in liberal Quakerism who are just as fiercely universalist as anyone. These Christians see no fundamental conflicts in a Quaker community that fully embraces Christians and non-Christians, and see no reason Quakerism has to be defined as essentially Christian. So the supposed Christian-universalist distinction doesn't have to be a distinction at all.

The other is, I think if there is a distinction, it's between those who think that a religion can't be genuine without some sort of exclusive core definitions or understandings, and those who feel that exclusive understandings are unnecessary and even harmful, perhaps the fundamental flaw of traditional religion. The terrible irony in this is, religious exclusivism is contrary to many of the teachings of Jesus. His ministry was essentially about breaking down religious walls, not fortifying them.

In Quakerism, and particularly in our own meeting, I have become comfortable, even delighted, to find myself in deep and genuine community with people who have world views or belief systems that are radically different from my own--world views that I think are wrong. Where there is a rub, it has not been with people who think that I am wrong in my views--I have no problem with that--but with people who think that the pronouncements of my wrong views harms our community, harms the Quaker tradition. I don't know how to respond to that. Sometimes it makes me angry, but mostly it just breaks my heart.

Liz Opp said...

Hey, Nat.

Thanks for the heads up about this post. I particularly like this part:

there is an explicit statement like "we're all on the same team here, and we don't believe in Hell, and the afterlife is an open question, and we love and support each other." But somehow following this up with a question like "What's our team song?" sets off some weird stuff.

Like you, I have had many opportunities to reflect on and talk with other Friends about theological diversity in our meeting and in our larger faith tradition as Quakers.

I find I am continually being exercised at a deep level to "listen to where the words come from." But on a closer reading, apparently Woolman didn't say that he listened to where the words came from, but that he loved to feel where the words come from.

It's a challenge to describe the difference, and often I find I can only point to experiences that I and others have gone through. For example, I found this post by Brent Bill, writing about how his worship sharing group stays in unity in the Spirit because of their own depth of religious belief, not because of striving to be inclusive.

If we all allowed ourselves to be and feel included in our theologically diverse meetings, and trusted that we were in fact welcome and included, I think we'd feel a similar sort of unity that Brent Bill describes.

But as you allude to, trust is a different sort of inner and personal work that takes time and tending.

In my own journey among Friends, it's been easier for me to get defensive out of my fear of being tossed out because I, in my own imperfect mind, had decided that I don't "fit"--and I can easily project that conclusion onto my fellow worshipers instead of owning it myself.

Of course, in Perfect Love, we all fit, we all belong.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

P.S. This comment has gotten long, and I think I'll expand on it on The Good Raised Up.

Liz Opp said...

Before someone else corrects me, I wish to correct my own error:

It wasn't Woolman who said, "I love to feel where the words come from." It was apparently a statement made by a Native American who was worshiping with Woolman, following some spoken ministry that Woolman gave.

Click here to go to one of the webpages where I got the phrase.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

natcase said...

Thank you, James and Liz. Here is Liz's further comment on her blog.

James, I think that everyone has a core definition or understanding, core to them. I think some secularists and universalists get away without owning up to theirs because they have a straw man in their nearest organized religion.

What varies, I think, is the degree to which individual's core understandings are part of a group identity. I think for most people in my circle, there's a mixture. My sense of Quaker practice feels pretty intimately shared with Friends in meeting, but my sense of religious text and story is very personal to me — I do not share it in the sense of it forming part of a communion.

Does that make sense?

Mark Wutka said...

I understand that you don't want to think of yourself as bigoted, but I think you should take another look at the phrase "small-minded, homophobic, hate-filled, cling-to-guns-and-bibles, fire-and-brimstone Christians".

I appreciate not only your willingness to look at your reactions, but also to share them as deeply as you have here.

You, James and Liz touch on some of the issues that I often wrestle with. As an example, Liz touched on the "unity of the Spirit", which is supposedly how our business meetings are supposed to work - not some compromise of personal opinions, but a communal searching for God's guidance. Not everyone may believe on God, or any kind of divine guidance. At what point does that affect the business meeting? When we start describing it as "consensus", do we end up changing its nature?

I think there is a point at which we do have to give up the need to have our feet on the floor, as difficult or uncomfortable as it sounds. As Isaac Penington wrote:
"Give over thine own willing, give over thine own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything, and sink down to the seed which God sows in thy heart and let that be in thee, and grow in thee, and breathe in thee, and act in thee"

With love,

natcase said...


Yeah, I'm really not a big one for giving over. At least not on a daily basis, and not to someone/something named. But I think I do give over in the sense that I try not to make too big or long-term plans, but play things more as they come. I've found that my "decider" hat works a lot better when I'm not trying to set a course across an ocean, but instead use it to decide where I am and how to avoid rocks I can see. If that makes sense.

About my snide comment about "small-minded, homophobic, hate-filled, cling-to-guns-and-bibles, fire-and-brimstone Christians." Guilty as charged. I am bigoted against the Rev Phelps' followers, and against people who teach use Hell as a way to persuade them to sign on with the church, or who believe that killing an infidel is the way to heaven. Yup. May they know peace and love, and please keep them out of my family's life as much as possible.

Anonymous said...

In my experience, whom I allow to guide me makes all the difference. I'm not any more eager than Nat to cede control to a named leader or organization here in the world.

But I think it's essential to put our faith in something larger than our earthly selves.

Discerning between the True Guide, spirits and notions is a challenge no matter what tradition we invoke. We can judge our discernment by its fruits and by testing our leadings with trusted friends and communities.

If we can't trust any person or spirit as a guide, then don't we end up worshiping and following our own selves? I have too clear a sense of my own folly to want that. And what's the point of setting ourselves up with a faith that's based on nothing greater than one's self?

Perhaps I'm missing your most important points, Nat. And I don't want to challenge you so far that you end up getting ticked off at me.

Jay T.

James Riemermann said...

Nat, I wouldn't for a minute deny my core understanding, my world view. It is critical to me, and it is quite different from the core understandings of many others. What I deny is the right, or even the desirability, of declaring my core understanding as binding on other Quakers. Likewise, I think others' wishes to make their core
understandings binding on other Quakers, is an unfortunate approach that will not lead to a deeper or more genuine Quakerism.

The only thing I would hope to be binding, is the web of relationship itself. We bind ourselves to one another, not in the name of an idea or an understanding or a theology, but because binding ourselves to one another is the best and deepest thing humans can do with one another.

Beyond that I would also admit that there are practices I hold to that seem to facilitate that binding process in an extraordinary way. Our silent worship works because it obligates us to listen, and in listening we learn, we connect. But even that practice, as rich and fruitful as it is, is not sacrosanct. We follow it because it works.

natcase said...

Jay, I'm with you, except that I question whether it is necessary to identify (give a discrete identity to) that "thing larger than myself." And I think the question of what "putting your faith" entails. Faith in regards to what?

Surely most of us put faith in all sorts of things: sun coming up tomorrow, stuff like that. And most of us will not put our faith in the idea that if we hurl ourselves off a cliff that we will be lifted up by a hand coming out of the sky. And everything in between? Depends on the person.

And that kind of gets back to the main point of the original post. In re-reading it, I realized I inadvertantly overgeneralized in saying "We don't trust others to hold our spirit up." Because of course we do. But the ability to trust enough to allow someone else to be bedrock requires a level of commonality, of communion, which is really tough when what you are committed to is diversity. I have that sense deeply with really only a bare handful of folks on this planet. And a lot of what makes it possible is that at a deep level we speak each other's language. Some of them are regulars on this blog.

Even if we disagree, we trust where the other is going.

Mark Wutka said...

Does it not strike you as at least ironic that you can be so unabashedly bigoted against a particular religious group when you are so committed to theological diversity? At what point do theological differences outweigh the commitment to diversity?
With love,

Liz Opp said...

It seems to me, in the end, we must look to what it is we do, how we treat the stranger and one another, not what it is we say.

As a result, I believe I can stand side by side with both my nontheist and my evangelical brothers and sisters, if their lives preach love, patience, compassion, humility, etc.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

James Riemermann said...

Yes, Liz, exactly. It what we do that matters most, that we all need to focus on. When I look at myself honestly, what I do is not good enough, and Friends help to hold me to a higher standard.

But it is also my sense that it is hard to give freely of myself, to be my best self, if I feel I have to hide a big part of myself out of fear that others will disapprove. I have heard this sort of fear in the words of so many of us: fear that others will disapprove of our faith in God, our devotion to Christ, and, for people like me, our atheism. That, to me, is the heart of all this talk about spiritual diversity, that is why I think it is important for *all of us*, not just for odd birds like me. We need to shed our fear of being found out.

Mark Wutka said...

Liz, I just want to take that idea a step further and ask about those whose lives don't preach love, patience, compassion, humility, etc. Although we don't agree with them, we are still called to love them. We may still openly and publicly express our disagreement, but I do not think that speaking of them in disparaging terms is okay. If we believe in the possibility of the Spirit changing people's hearts, we should be careful of pushing people away because their theology is different (of course, I also don't think we need to continually redefine our theology to accommodate all the differences).

natcase said...

"that is why I think it is important for *all of us*, not just for odd birds like me. We need to shed our fear of being found out."
Yes yes yes and yes again.

"Does it not strike you as at least ironic that you can be so unabashedly bigoted against a particular religious group when you are so committed to theological diversity?"
Yep. I called it the Quaker Paradox in high school. I'm going to do a separate post on this, to follow.

James Riemermann said...

Mark, my own response to your question to Nat would be something like this: it is not tolerant, to be silent in the face of intolerance. Resistance is necessary. It is fair to question the methods of resistance, including the tone of language, but silence will just result in the victory of intolerance, which is to say oppression.

Nat, I look forward to seeing your post on this.