Saturday, September 30, 2017

Dual belonging

Apparently I'm going to be on the radio in a couple weeks. The topic for the radio show is "dual belonging," or how to be part of two groups that differ. I think. Don't quote me on that.

The reason they called me is the essay I wrote a few years ago about being a Quaker and a non-theist. It seems like a difficult divide. And I certainly have run into a number of people who agree that I shouldn't be calling myself a Quaker and an atheist at the same time. But membership in a Quaker meting is decided by each local (monthly) meeting, and the three meetings I've been members of let me in even though I was explicit about my beliefs. They seemed to think it was "rightly led" for me to be part of the group.

Here's the weird thing: I actually feel more comfortable in the group I am in now, that was formed in part to provide a place where more overt scriptural and theistic language was not only tolerated but encouraged. It's my observation that the spiritual life of this group gains focus and clarity when we use less vague language. As I put it when I joined the Quakers in 1997, instead of going to the Unitarians, which I had been a member of with where I lived previously, it feels like there's more of a spiritual spine. There's more "there" there. When I was married the second time, there was always the option of coming up with our statement before the group that were specific to our situation, but I (and my wife) felt really comfortable and happy with simply using the language embedded in our yearly meeting's book "Faith and Practice." The fact that it was a time-tested tradition was not a minus. We were leaning on something large instead of depending on our four spindly legs to carry all the weight.

The phrase I am using this year is that I believe in the experience—religious experience—but not the conventional explanation of why and how it happens. And I believe in the power of some fo the "trappings" of that experience, of things like "scripture" and "prayer" and "congregation" and "sacrament." I think they are very strong juju. I also think that they fill places in us individually and corporately that are not disposable. Even when I do not believe that prayer is "talking with God," I understand that asking a question or expressing gratitude to persons and powers unknown is a really instinctive and powerful and important thing to do. Anne Lamott's book Thanks, Help, Wow is an excellent tool for getting at that. She's unapologetically theist, but also very much understands that prayer is not just about the being being talked to; it's about the shape of that conversation, and it what it does to have that kind of discourse.

So, I believe in the power and reality of what we experience as a group of worshippers, and I believe in the fact that something happens that gets described as a relationship with God. I do not think that explanation is accurate, but I do think it's true. And this is not such a paradox as it sounds. We all think things from fiction are true, just not in the same way that "I have eight eggs in the fridge" is true. No, wait. I went to confirm that hypothesis. There are five. The point is, that dependence on common, confirmable fact is not all we have to pay attention to in the world. And so I can belong among a group that explicitly believes something to be factually real, and not have that be the determining factor in whether I belong with them. I can find a way (and I have) to respect, and hear, and get great value, from their understanding, without making it literal. If I said otherwise, I would be telling my friends their experience was somehow a lie. And it's not.

We had a terrible mess in our group shortly after our family joined. About half of the group left. And there were a lot of things it was about, but one of the things was simple whether we beleived one another. Some of us, I think wanted to believe a promise of sacredness over the clear expressions of hurt and fear we heard coming from other people (Is that vague enough for you?). It took a long time for us to get through to that point, those of us who stayed in the group, but what we came back to was a kind of trust, a thing we needed to have. Believing the essential story people told, even if we didn't believe in the factual details necessarily.

It's very much like what I see in issues around categorical bias: there's believing and believing (for example) women's stories of what it's like to be a woman who is regularly catcalled and harassed on the street when she goes for a run (this is my wife we're talking about here), or black people's stories of what it's like to be black. We keep wanting to turn to factuality, and there is factuality there, but there's something viscerally different about believing a person's personal story abouf her experience.

I remember a few years ago, Ingrid telling me about how she expected (was pissed off at profoundly, but expected) shit from random passers-by, commenting on her body and what it should do. And how she had to very carefully plan her route for safety, in what I think of as a basically safe neighborhood. Because rape is something she has to plan around, and I don't. And that conversation, something clicked. It's not that I didn't know factually that women get harassed and raped. Duh. But knowing it was Ingrid, and knowing that this was her story, moved something internally in me. It really was like a click. The story went from accepted to believed. And believed in a way we've lost clarity about in our language. We used to have a clear set of social constructs described by words like loyalty, trust, truth, faith, obedience, and so on, that descibed a network of who and what was "with" you. Many of those words have been diluted in their meaning as more of our society becomes dependent on formal systems and rules over individual and corporate allegiance and "with-ness." But that doesn't mean the basic function disappears.

And I think that's the root of any "belonging." That "with-ness" (etymological red herring: with and witness are not related), the sense of trusting loyalty and faithfulness, both to one another and to the thing that the group carries in the middle of the group, or that it sees as carrying it.

1 comment:

forrest said...

There are people who don't think you can see the Sun unless you're calling it 'Apollo' -- and there are people who think they mustn't see anything that isn't on their globe -- and if our atmosphere weren't transparent to visible light, we'd have a hard time collectively verifying the Sun's existence.

There's a truth beyond what sciencistic taboos may allow or forbid people to think; and that isn't like drawing dragons into the empty bits of our maps. What warms us and lights up this globe is in fact the Sun.