Wednesday, October 7, 2009

...Of All He Surveys

Confession time: I want to be king. Seriously. Not the elegant, modern, bespoke-suited kings of modern Europe, or the jokey Henery-the-Eighth-I-Am-I-Am king. I want trumpets blazing a fanfare as I walk down aisle of Westminster Abbey with a heavy gold crown and an orb and scepter and boy choirs singing and all that stuff.

I just don't want to have to become the sort of person that you seem to have to be, to become king. I was reading a little last night about Louis XIV, the Sun King, and I think I would have not liked him much at all. Lots of sending former friends into dungeons or to be burnt at the stake. I like the character of Prince Hal/King Henry V, but I suspect he was deeply fictionalized. Went to war over an insult, and whole bunch of folks died to give him his victory at Agincourt. Nice.

And yet, I love high church, if it feels real. I buy into very little American high church stuff, because we're a democracy dammit. It just doesn't fly. Now, Westminster Abbey... One of my favorite things to do in England is to arrive an hour early for sung services at Westminster, and get to sit in the stalls right behind the choir. It's glorious.

In high school, I wrote a short play, and a central character of that play has stayed with me. He was the son of a king, who decided he didn't want to become what he saw his father was, and what he saw his brothers becoming. So he pretended to go mad, to go deaf-and-dumb, and everyone believed him and no-one expected anything further from him. A variant of the story got put into "Tales of the Tattoo Rumba Man," which I've discussed earler:
My father was king, and I was his son. I walked the dangerous cold halls of the palace and waited for something to happen. And while I waited, I watched them, especially my father. I watched him slip into the decay of deceiving words; I watched his hands sweep out capturing only empty space.
And so, when it becomes time for the prince to take the crown, he refuses—he walks away. Kind of like The Lion King, without a pair of wiseacre pig and meerkat sidekicks.

Why does all of this come up?

I've been pushing around the concept of leadership in my head. I'm taking on co-clerking Ministry and Counsel at my home meeting for the next year, and it's weird. Clerking is not "leading" in any modern sense of the word. It's not supposed to be, anyway. And yet there is a certain deference paid to the clerk, usually, because it's the clerk's job to watch the movement of spirit in the meeting, to keep a watch on the sense of meeting, and then test an overt statement of that sense and see if Friends agree that is where in fact they are. The clerk is supposed to be separate from the committee much of the time, and this to me feels like part of what is expected of good leadership in general.

Over the last couple years, I've been going back repeatedly to a conversation I had with an older F/friend, where she reminisced over her early years in the meeting, in the 1970's. In particular, she was remembering Mumford Sibley, who was clerk of M&C when she first served on it. Mr Sibley was formidable, a person of great authority. Gravitas, maybe is a better word. But she and I observed that this gravitas is not one we see a lot of in the current crop of elders. I think this is true across the board among liberals of the last few decades, and I wonder why.

There has certainly been a dearth of authentic "gravitas" among our national political leadership, and in religious circles, it has come to be associated with pious hypocrisy, the kind of behavior that early Quakers and other anti-establishment groups railed against in the 17th century. I think it is something we suspect, as so often it seems like a mask for something sinful or just plain ignorant. Pedantry.

I think there's something deeper though, and it has to do with the disconnect between our mythic language and the real power structures in our lives. I'm talking here about the word "Lord."

The language of pretty much all religions with personified gods includes phrases like "Lord Jesus," or "Lord Krishna," or "Kingdom of Heaven." But for the last century or two, we have lived in a world where old-fashioned lord-liege relationships simply don't exist. You can see formalized remnants of them getting blown to bits in World War I, but even by then they were pretty stale.

Institutionalized slavery was gone by then too, replaced by wage-slavery. I'm reading David B Davis' Slavery and Human Progress now (thanks Marshall!), and I'll be curious what I find out about the cycle of slavery as in institution in the modern West.

In any case, we don't have kings except in church, if we go to the sort of church that still emphasizes "Lordship." Liberal Friends don't, and I'm beginning to wonder if we aren't missing something big here. Like the central point of most of the variants (Islamic, Jewish, Christian, Mormon, etc) of the Abrahamic tradition.

My question is, how to bring in this sense of submission—which historically could be described as an analogue to the liege-t0-king relationship—into a truly egalitarian world-view.

Maybe it's like clerking: submitting and allowing yourself to be submitted to, round and round.


Joe Banks said...

Nat, I love that you poke at and articulate the soft bits, the pieces of shadow and discernable echos that collect around the more obvious parts of your thought and discourse.

This fragment of a Robert Bly poem flashed into my head as I read your post, for some reason:

"The toe of the shoe pivots
in the dust ...
And the man in the black coat turns, and goes back
down the hill.
No one knows why he came, or why he turned away,
and did not climb the hill."

natcase said...

I was interested to see Christopher Kimball's (Cooks Magazine) comments on the demise of Gourmet. I think it has some relevance here. He's talking about the rise of internet knowledge bases: "To survive, those of us who believe that inexperience rarely leads to wisdom need to swim against the tide, better define our brands, prove our worth, ask to be paid for what we do, and refuse to climb aboard this ship of fools, the one where everyone has an equal voice." It's an interesting view of the role of experience, which is something that's been left behind in much of our recent work.

Ingrid Case said...

The word Islam means submission--submission, in this case, to the will of God.

I need to think more about this, but I have a sense that this links back to the statement of (non)belief that we so energetically kicked around last winter. When everything and everyone are equally good and legitimate, how can there be a sense of lordship? Friends believe that there is that of God in everyone, and pursue a social justice mission that demands basic dignity for all people. Good and important things, yes, but I think we sometimes miss the fact that this bit of God in everyone does not make all players interchangeable.

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Nat, you write, “My question is, how to bring in this sense of submission—which historically could be described as an analogue to the liege-t0-king relationship—into a truly egalitarian world-view.”

I’m not sure why you feel you need to “bring it in”, since the two things already coexist in the Hebrew and early Christian and traditional Quaker world-views.

Equality was the standard relationship between every human being and every other. “God does not play favorites,” the Bible said (repeatedly), and therefore we, being called to follow God's standard and Christ’s example, must not play favorites either. The epistle of James, in the New Testament, comes down hard on this point. Christ, at the Last Supper, tells his disciples that none of them are to be masters.

But the relationship of human to God was that of servant to Lord. That is precisely what Quaker worship was supposedly all about: Friends waited upon the Lord as a courtier upon his king, quietly alert for the slightest hint within their hearts of what the Lord desired, so that they could run and do it.

There’s a story about a Friends meeting in the mid-nineteenth century, where the old, weighty Friends were all of the traditional type, but a younger Friend became a Holiness revivalist. Week after week the young man would stand in the hour of worship and preach about the necessity of coming to the front of the meetinghouse and kneeling and accepting Jesus into your life. And of course no one came to the front of the meetinghouse in response to these “altar calls”; everyone just sat silently in waiting worship, alert to the guidance of their Lord. Finally the young man burst out, “What am I to do with you people?” — thus exposing his delusions of personal leadership. At which point a woman in a back pew responded, “John, we own none but Christ master in this assembly.”

So that is the traditional relationship between egalitarianism and submission. FWIW.

natcase said...

Marshall: Thank you as usual for a great comment. It is precisely that lord-to-master relationship that I think many of us modern liberals (including liberal Friends) have trouble with.

Pride? Hubris? I do see some of that, but I think as a blanket statement it doesn't hold. Frankly, as in your example of Holiness revivalists, that comes out of all traditions.

What I see is a struggle to find a humble relationship NOT to a named divinity, but to the un-personed universe and to each other. How to find humility and sense of submission without a Lord to submit to.

Richard Fuller said...

I hear two themes in your last two posts that intrigue me.
1. I think your interest in submit and in the Grid are related. I believe you ask, in part,
"Is there a system or a sovereign power to which we can 'submit' in order to advance the shared work/common good?"
Submit in this context implies "This is WAY bigger than we understand, at least as we go from one daily task to the next." You wrote, "... I love high church, if it feels real." Part of you longs for a consensus reality --agreed-upon or ordained. The Church offered that, for centuries. It was real for the multitudes and remains so for some.
Submit is a big word for me, and is not something I dismiss as just a longing for the small certainties of childhood. I have been forced to this, personally, despite not having a personalized deity to submit to. My devotion to "Lady Gaia" is perhaps my most eloquent round in the wrestling match.

2. Clerking Quakers.
You write:
"Clerking is not 'leading' in any modern sense of the word. ... And yet there is a certain deference paid to the clerk ... because it's the clerk's job to watch the movement of spirit in the meeting, to keep a watch on the sense of meeting, and then test ... and see if Friends agree that is where in fact they are. The clerk is supposed to be separate from the committee much of the time, and this to me feels like part of what is expected of good leadership in general."
I'd say:
"the clerk has a special role on the committee"
rather than
is "separate from the committee."
Is this role
"traffic cop of the local Quaker grid"
or is it
"specially aware of the divine Grid"?
My answer is "both."
I see emerging a new consensus reality regarding the divine Grid. Here's my review
Quakers and the New Story: Essays on Science and Spirituality, by Philip Clayton and Mary Coelho.

natcase said...

Richard: a large and rich response and I need to spend some more time with it.

I personally am (so far) unconvinced by the new-science-is-close-to-religion thesis, but then I've not read the pamphlet in question, and I'd like to.

You restate my question as: "Is there a system or a sovereign power to which we can 'submit' in order to advance the shared work/common good?"

Well, no, that isn't my question. My question is, can we practice submission without such a sovereign power, within an egalitarian system. I am seeking submission without a specified submission-object, or with a shifting submission-object. This seems counterintuitive, but I guess what I'm asking is akin to the way Friends eliminated ordination not to say no-one is in ministry, but to say all of us are in ministry to one another.

So, what I am suggesting is that it is possible to see submission to the universe not in its mighty totality, but in its small details, including one another. I don't know how to do it, exactly, but I can see that it might be possible.

Thank you, Richard, that was a very useful question.

Re clerking, I will discuss in a separate post soon, I think.

Ingrid Case said...

The majesty of the whole is expressed in the details--in all of creation. As the Psalmist says, "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork." Or as REM says, "Life is bigger--bigger than you." You can call it what you like, God or life or the universe or George, but my understanding is that, as Quakers, we affirm that little bit of What in everyone, and that this is the basis for assuming a radical equality between people. Otherwise, some quick observation reveals that we are not as equal as all that, by many other measures. In ministering to others, ministering to yourself, and allowing others to minister to your--ministering in this case including both leading and following, as appropriate--you take your rightful place as a part of creation, which is both *part of* and *the result of* What's inestimable glory.

natcase said...

I just want to throw in a related conversation on the Twin Cities Friends Meeting website: