Friday, February 03, 2006

this quaker's theology

i think it is possible that this systematic theology class might be the death of me. almost every time i leave class i have an angry knot in my stomach from disagreeing so vehemently with the theology presented that i just want to rant about it for about an hour afterwards. this is probably hazardous to my health!

what's the problem, you ask? good question. this blog is an attempt to try to find voice to articulate exactly what it is about this form of theology that bothers me so much.

what it mainly boils down to is that i am realizing just how spirit-oriented quaker theology is. i mean, i knew we believe in the leading of the spirit and that the spirit is a really important piece of our theology as a whole. (it may be the only thing quakers agree on--whether you think the spirit is that of the God of jesus christ or of yourself or just a vague spirit with no specific name.) and we think of "church" and "God" in a spiritual sense, not a dogmatic or objective sense. i have known these things. and yet, to be presented with such a completely different idea boggles my mind.

i grew up in evangelical quaker circles, and although those in my yearly meeting are not your typical "evangelicals" a la george w and such, i always thought there was a fairly strong emphasis on jesus as the "Word of God," of the bible as explaining God's interaction with the world so we need it so we can recognize what's God and not God better--y'know, overall i thought my yearly meeting had a pretty high view of scripture and the person of jesus as the Son of God. but compared to the reformed tradition, we don't place much emphasis on (the historical) jesus and the bible at all.

reformed theology, at least my rudimentary understanding of it thus far, says that jesus is the Word of God incarnate--he is revelation and there is no other. although people can catch glimpses of the character of God through nature and history, the bible is our only access to the special revelation of God which is jesus christ. the holy spirit is there in the sacraments and floats around in our life to make sure that we receive salvation.

i can go along with some of this. i think jesus was the physical expression of God's Word in the world, and that the revelation of God that occurred in his life on earth is important and unique. God is revealed to people in the life and witness of jesus. we can catch glimpses of God through natural means and this view of God is always going to be kind of fuzzy, so it helps us to have the bible and tradition to help us see what God's activity in the world has looked like in the past.

but the bible is not by any means our only access to revelation. i could say that perhaps jesus is the only revelation of God to the world, in that, since he is still living and speaking to us we can come to know God through knowing him. but revelation from God occurs in my life every day, every moment (if i'm paying attention). God is present here and now, speaking to me, guiding me, teaching me. i think this is the part of God that people label the holy spirit, although it doesn't make much difference to me if we call it God, jesus, the holy spirit or whatever--the important thing is that the divine is interacting with me personally, helping me to understand things and grow, challenging me to new thoughts and more courageous actions on behalf of others, etc.

i could easily think that something else was God's spirit interacting with me, and follow that by accident. therefore it is helpful to have the bible as something to check my own perceptions against. but the bible isn't God.

further, we need the spirit to interpret everything for us anyway! if i read the bible on my own i could come to some pretty wacked out conclusions about God and how i'm to treat others. what if (like most christians until a couple hundred years ago) i looked at scripture and saw that slavery was ok, and used it to prove my own beliefs? in this case, the bible is just another book. but with the spirit there to interpret for me, i am better able to see the truths laid out in the bible and to be challenged toward right action by it.

also, if i had been alive when jesus was, would i have been able to recognize him as God by myself? no. i would still have needed the spirit to nudge something in me, to open my spiritual eyes to the truth he incarnated.

i have experiences throughout life that i think of as "spiritual" experiences, and i could not have those if not for the spirit being active in me. they would just be normal moments of my day to which i attached no significance, because my eyes had not been opened to a new truth. i would not have come to some of the conclusions i've come to if i hadn't been attending to that spirit in me.

so all the levels of "revelation" that reformed christians talk about--jesus as the ultimate revelation, seen through the lens of the bible and then proclaimed in human language, are all based on the interpretation that can only be given by the spirit. without the spirit as our interpreter, showing God to us in all these things, we would not see God. likewise, the spirit can show us God without having to use scripture, and if one never heard about jesus one could still know God.

without a direct connection with the spirit of God, how do i know i'm following the right path? let's think about it this way: i choose to be a christian and believe in the bible. why? because the church believes these things. why do i believe what the church says? because i was raised in it. why was i raised in it? because my parents were, and theirs before them, and so on back to someone who was convinced it was true. but how do i know it's true? is it only because of tradition and because that's what the bible says, and because so many people before me have believed it? if so, i don't want to be a christian! what's the point? why not be a muslim or a jew or a buddhist or an atheist?

but most christians would tell you that this is not the only reason they're a christian (if they're the kind of people who think about things). most people would say they've been convinced in some interior way that this is truth for them. they know beyond anything they can explain objectively that something has struck them as important and uniquely truthful about this person who we call jesus christ, there is a deep internal resonace with something that leads them to believe in him. the bible plays a role in this, telling the story of jesus and of other people who have interacted with this God, and there is a recognition that this is the same spirit with whom they have unconsciously interacted. i believe--or at least i hope--that this is the actual process most christians go through, and that they do not only continue to espouse christianity just because it is what has been taught by the church over the last almost 2000 years.

and yet to label it this way is too scary for most denominations. this can be too easily taken advantage of--people can say that anything comes from God and get away with it. and as we have seen, this is the danger that has faced quakerism. but if we say that the Word of God, the revelation of God to humanity, is "contained in the bible" (as one of my classmates said today), we have made for ourselves an idol of a book. and if we say that God only specifically revealed God's self to humanity through jesus as a living human, we have limited the power of God to interact in the world God created. if we suggest that God only interacts with us through a mediator we are in much more danger than simply mishearing God.

we are in danger of not hearing God--we are in danger of not listening, not waiting expectantly for God's transforming power to break into our lives. we are disallowing the power of God to once again incarnate human flesh through our own persons.

i don't know about you, but i would much rather listen for God, running the risk that sometimes i'll hear wrong and need correction from my community, than throw out the idea of trying to hear God altogether because it's too risky. yes, it's risky, yes it's scary and it's hard and it's not predictable and God might ask us to do things that do not make us comfortable. but this is what life is for! what's the point of faith in a dead god--or a god who died and rose again just to leave us?

in this case i have much more in common with a sufi (muslim) prophetess i heard about, who was walking around with a torch and a pitcher of water. when she was asked why she was carrying these things, she said it was because she wanted to set fire to heaven and douse the flames of hell so that no one would believe in God for desire for one or fear of the other. instead they would just love God because God is God, and no more reason is necessary.

if God is not present here and now, why should i be a christian? i'll never get to know God until i die anyway. but this is not the case. God is present here and now, and for the love of God i desire to live my life to its fullest capacity, loving God with all that i am and all that i do, listening to God with my full being and acting on that, even when it's hard and when the lines between God's voice and other voices are fuzzy. i desire to throw myself so completely into the passion of my love for God and God's love for me that there is room for nothing else.

this is living in revelation, this is God's living Word active in the world, this, i believe, is the message of christ.


Gregg Koskela said...

Cherice, what a great post! I promise you, it will not be the death of you, from personal experience. I promise you, you are not crazy. You are thinking good and right thoughts, and it will be frustrating to be with folks who think in the reformed manner.

I can't decide if it's brave of you or crazy of you to take systematics during your first year. I took mine in my third year, and it was still crazy making. Louis Berkhof's systematic theology was the most frustrating book I think I've ever read in my life...but I loved the prof, Miroslav Volf.

See if you can find a friend who thinks in the anabaptist realm. It saved me at Fuller (thank you, Laura Schmidt Roberts! I blogged about it here.)

But there are new moves, even in the reformed tradition, toward a position that is more comfortable (and biblical, in my opinion) for Quakes. I just got back from a theological conference at Yale with Miroslav Volf, and asked him specifically your question (and mine): Is there room in systematics for a true, immediate encounter with God? He said yes.

I'm so glad you're doing seminary. I'm so glad you're uncomfortable and frustrated with some of what you're learning. You have a voice, Cherice, and I hope they will hear it at Princeton. Thanks for this blog (Peggy Parsons sent me your way), and I'll look forward to reading more.


Liz Opp said...

Great post indeed!

And I agree with you on this: "i don't know about you, but i would much rather listen for God, running the risk that sometimes i'll hear wrong and need correction from my community, than throw out the idea of trying to hear God altogether because it's too risky. yes, it's risky, yes it's scary and it's hard and it's not predictable and God might ask us to do things that do not make us comfortable. but this is what life is for!"

Sometimes I wish that more liberal Friends would "get" the power and importance of seeking "correction from the community." But explaining what corporate discernment is in the context of American individualism is, I have found super-hard.

Liz, The Good Raised Up

cherice said...

Thanks for your encouragement. It's nice to hear other Quaker "voices," although I do have a couple friends here who are semi-Friends to talk to, which is so amazingly helpful. And I do find that most students here who are "Reformed" have mostly similar beliefs, just different ways of stating them--the prof isn't representative of all Reformed belief!

Yes! Corporate discernment is so important, and so hard for us to "get" as Americans. But I hope that even through online communities we can be support for each other as we work with our own meetings on reconstituting this lost art. Some of my favorite memories of community and spirituality have happened in business meetings where people were intentionally trying to do corporate discernment and putting aside their own opinions, and in meetings for clearness. Meetings for clearness have to be one of the most awesome things ever invented! =) I don't think whatever-is-the-opposite-of-liberal Friends are any better at it, though...