Thursday, April 27, 2006

quakers & the resurrection

I will work on the next two points that QuakerK makes on Quaker Glimmerings, because they go together:

3. Early Quakers didn't stress the physical resurrection. Again they got a lot of flack for this. I've seen this in the Nayler writings that I have read--they stress the idea of "spiritual body."

4. They discounted the overriding importance of Christ's death on the cross: not that it was unimportant, but that by itself it meant nothing, and wasn't effectual without the Inner Light.

I don't pretend to be incredibly knowledgable about early Quaker writings on these topics--maybe that shows that there aren't many! Or maybe I'm just ignorant of them. At any rate, I'll do my best here.

First, I would echo a comment from Wess on QuakerK's post: Friends contemporary with Nayler came to see him as heretical, in that they felt he was going a different way from the goals of the Friends movement. I haven't read much Nayler, so I'm not sure if what QuakerK is referring to is from his earlier or later writings, but either way I'm not sure I would take him as representative of early Friends, although some of his writing is probably still useful and good.

I think in a way it is true that early Friends didn't stress the physical resurrection, but that is at least in part because it wasn't really questioned yet. The Enlightenment was going on at the same time, but I think most people hadn't gotten to the point of truly questioning faith and miracles yet. There wasn't much of a need to "stress" Jesus' physical resurrection because it was assumed that most people would already believe in that. We have to remember that it was a completely different culture and mindframe! Europe was nearly all nominally Christian (with some Jews and Muslims and others thrown in there). Most all regular citizens would belong to some church, probably the state church. Most people weren't converting to Quakerism from atheism, but from other Christian denominations.

Quakers tended to emphasize that followers of Christ will suffer, be persecuted, and possibly die for their beliefs and actions. I think QuakerK is right that early Friends didn't emphasize the crucifixion as an end in itself, but saw it more as an analogy for the lives of the followers of Christ: if people will persecute and kill God, how much more likely is it that we normal people will be persecuted for our beliefs? They focused more on the life of Jesus, following his example and in that way "carrying thier cross."

In the modern era several atonement theories have been put forth to explain the reason Jesus had to die on the cross. The early Friends were working with just one atonement theory, pretty much the only one there was (as far as I know): that of substitutionary atonement, that God had to die as a perfect sacrifice, mimicking the Jewish substitutionary system with the perfect human sacrifice, who alone could cancel out our sins through death. This theory emphasizes the death part of the life-crucifixion-resurrection, and while it has some good parts and some biblical basis, more modern atonement theories come at it from a different direction.

Perhaps the early Friends were unconsciously reacting to this fairly negative way of looking at the life of Jesus, not to mention humanity. As I said in my post yesterday, Quakers tend to be on the whole a more optimistic group in terms of human nature than most other Protestants. Quakers and Anabaptists tended to see the life of Jesus as an example to live (and die) by, and the resurrection as the promise of new and full life in God whether one survives or dies as one follow God's guidance. Although they didn't come up with a new atonement theory I think in many ways they lived it out.

I would also say that perhaps early Friends didn't spend too much time debating the little doctrinal pieces because they felt there were more important things to do--like work against injustice and help others. But I think all these impulses came out of their understanding of the true life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ which gave their lives and their actions meaning and hope.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

quakers, universalism & evangelicalism

As promised, I'll tackle the next issue raised by QuakerK on the blog Quaker Glimmerings, which happens to be about the Quaker tendency toward universalism. This is a good way to step on toes of Friends from all sides! Here goes.

QuakerK says:
2. Early Quakers tended towards some form of universalism (meaning this: being a Christian wasn't the only way to be saved). Or at least some did. I recall a passage in George Fox's journal, when in the colonies, where he questions a Native American to demonstrate that the Inner Light is in everyone. Or consider this passage from Isaac Penington: "The Lord holdeth forth some beams of his eternal light to all mankind, according to his pleasure, at some time or other visiting the darkest corners of the earth...The Lord is able to make any dispensation of his life effectual...The knowledge of Christ runs along in all the dispensations of the eternal life: the light cometh from him, and it manifests him in spirit." (From "Some Questions and Answers Showing Man His Duty")--I read it as this: in any dispensation of the Light, Christ is, by definition, present. And then of course there is the famous passage from John Woolman.

I actually completely agree with QuakerK here, except for the fact that I wouldn't necessarily call this "universalism." I think this is a more universalistic expression of Christianity than some, and I agree that this would support the title of the blog post, "Why Quakerism isn't Evangelical Christianity."

As a brief explanation of the origins of evangelicalism during the Great Awakenings in America in late 18th-early 19th centuries, when evangelicalism started it wasn't so connected with fundamentalist Christianity as it is today. Now it seems that evangelicalism and fundamentalism in American Christianity are often synonymous. But when evangelicalism began it was interested in social justice, in equality of peoples (at least to a progressive degree for the time), and personal spiritual experience. There was emphasis on "conversion," but basically what it meant was they were so excited about the experience of God they'd felt that they wanted everyone to experience that life and power and love. That's why some Quakers were originally drawn to the movement, because it seemed like a revitalization of some of the things Quakers had traditionally held dear.

Unfortunately, as the evangelical movement has "progressed," it has become more fundamentalist/conservative, more egocentric, focusing mainly on "me and my spiritual experience," and is often shallow because "conversion" is thought of as a one-time deal where nothing else is necessary for "faith" than to "invite Jesus into your heart." It has lost its other-centeredness, its sense of deep and true experience of the living God that affects the individual's life not just once but daily and moment by moment, and the focus on being called out to service in order to bring about the Kingdom of God has been lost.

So to defend "Evangelical Friends," it seems like this group has been caught in the middle of two groups going separate directions. What does a community do in a situation like this? Should they make up a new name? Or should they hold onto the old names (both "Friends" and "Evangelical") and try to live them as they feel the originators of the movement were attempting to do--and more importantly as they feel led by the Spirit to do today?

Another problem that Evangelical Friends face is that they draw in both those who consider themselves "evangelical" but don't know anything about Friends, and those who know something about the history of Friends but aren't necessarily evangelical (in the current sense of the word). This causes quite a bit of tension between those who want to be your basic evangelical church and those who feel led to live out the historical Quaker distinctives.

Yet another issue is the different meanings for these words among those who find themselves in "Evangelical Friends" settings. From my experience, those who are younger have a harder time wanting to describe themselves as "evangelical" because of the bad reputation that term has among those who aren't evangelicals in the United States and abroad. This comes from the shallow spirituality that is so often displayed by "evangelical" leaders, whether they be preachers or politicians, and by the fact that one can't necessarily tell that an American is an evangelical by their lifestyle except for the fish on their car.

But many Evangelical Friends have a hard time being called "Friends," too. They have too often had the experience of introducing themselves as a Quaker and having people make assumptions about their political and religious beliefs which aren't true, because the person they're talking to has been exposed to liberal Friends. These Evangelical Friends find themselves frustrated with the fact that not all Friends stand for anything, and in a desire to stand for their belief in Jesus as the Son of God they want to distance themselves from those who are more universalist than the above statement.

Which brings me back to responding to this statement. (Whew! That was a long digression.) I agree that Quakers have traditionally believed that, since the Light of Christ shines in everyone, everyone has the opportunity to respond to it, whether they have heard the name "Jesus" or not. The theological term for this is "general revelation," the idea being that God reveals God's self to everyone through the way the entire universe is made and the way history unfolds. Everyone has access to this and can know God through this. In Christianity there is also "special revelation," which is the understanding that Jesus is the Son of God, and witness to revelation from God in scripture.

In the Reformed tradition, which is what my school is so I'm learning a lot of it, they believe that although knowledge of God is available everywhere in nature, people are so corrupted by their sinful nature that they can't respond to it without the saving grace of the special revelation opening their eyes and changing their hearts. I think this is where Christian Quakers generally become protestants to the Protestants, because I think we have a more optimistic view of human nature and free will.

However, because of the influx of nondenominationalists and evangelicals into Evangelical Friends churches, many Evangelical Friends wouldn't agree with QuakerK's quotes of early Friends about universalism.

At the same time, I doubt many liberal Friends would agree with those statements either, because they say that it is the Light of Christ which is available to each person, not some non-specific God-Light whose name and historical actions don't matter.

Obviously these caricatures of evangelicals and liberals aren't completely true of most of either group, but show the extremes of the spectrum. Through the example of early Friends, I think we can be encouraged to look more closely at their universalism and their Christ-centeredness. We can focus on God's willingness to make God's self known to all people, and we can be part of helping them recognize that living Presence. At the same time, we can remember early Friends were firm in their faith in Jesus Christ as well as acknowledging that God works in ways of which they weren't aware. We can learn much from the amazing balancing act these early Friends pulled off: they were able to listen to God and act on that, and not worry too much about basing their faith on those who had gone immediately before. They remained focused on the historical teachings of God and Jesus in the Bible and the practices of early Christ-followers without idolizing those accounts. I hope we can all learn to balance our sometimes paradoxical faith with as much agility as these early Friends.

commercial break!

OK, so yesterday I promised all these cool upcoming posts...and tonight we went in to New York City (and back) so I don't have time for a "real" post.

But why did we go to NYC, you might ask? We were on the Colbert Report, which is on Comedy Central at 11:30pm. It aired tonight but we didn't get to see it because a) we were on a train home, and b) we don't have a TV. But it was fun being part of the live studio audience, and the show's hilarious. So if you're ever in NYC, plan ahead and try to get free tickets to the show...

More responses to QuakerK's post tomorrow hopefully.

Monday, April 24, 2006

early friends and the bible

Over on the blog Quaker Glimmerings there is a great discussion going based on the post entitled "Why Quakerism isn't Evangelical Christianity." I think QuakerK, the author of Quaker Glimmerings, makes some excellent points, and although I grew up in an evangelical Friends community, I too sometimes wonder if one can concurrently be evangelical (as it is known today) and Quaker. However, I think Quakerism and Christianity definitely go together, and the early Friends were Christians in a form of radical discipleship few are willing to follow.

QuakerK suggests several points, so I will focus on the first today.

1. Early Quakers did not stress the Bible. Quite the contrary, they stressed that the scriptures were not the Word of God, but rather that Jesus was--and they got a lot of flack for this, too.

In some ways this statement is true: Quakers stressed that it is Jesus who was (and is) the Word of God, present and revealing truth to them through the Spirit. Christ as present teacher is more important than the Bible, but the Bible to the early Friends was still the Word of God, and the Word of God who is Christ and the written Word wouldn't contradict one another. Sometimes we don't understand the appropriate reading of a text and so the Spirit illumines it for us, interprets what is meant for one cultural setting but not our own, or helps us understand something which has been misunderstood for centuries (e.g. slavery). The Bible isn't God, but it is a record of people's experiences of God throughout history, and I think a majority of early Friends would have agreed that God somehow speaks through this text in a way that is unique from how God speaks through other texts.

I don't see it as true that early Friends didn't stress the Bible, however. It is said that George Fox practically had the Bible memorized. He read it often and used its principles in his teaching and preaching. The beginning of Quakerism, as I said in my initial comment to the Quaker Glimmerings post, was when Fox heard God speak to him, "There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to your condition." I think if I heard this I would start reading everything I could find about this "Christ Jesus" person, and texts that told me about him would tend to be fairly important to me. And I think that was true for Fox. As I read the Journal I see biblical references interspersed throughout the entire thing. Even when he doesn't quote the Bible directly he makes allusions to biblical concepts, stories and persons.

The same can be said for most other early Quaker authors. In college for my History and Doctrine of Friends class I read part of William Penn's "No Cross, No Crown," and could hardly wade through it because of all the quotations from the Bible. I also took a Quaker Seminar on early female Friends authors, and we read many of their pamphlets and journals, collected in a book called "Hidden in Plain Sight," compiled and edited at Earlham School of Religion. In all of these there are massive amounts of quotes and paraphrases of Bible verses. It is almost as if the early Friends who wrote these pieces knew the Bible so well that it was just a part of their everyday language. They don't stop to say, "This is from Matthew 5:9," because it's also from their heart and soul. It's a part of who they are.

And yet, at the same time, I think evangelical Friends today could do well to remember that the Bible IS NOT God. The Bible isn't revelation, it isn't God incarnate, it isn't the Spirit, it's just a book. It's a book like any other book--except maybe more dangerous than most--unless it is read through the illumination of the Spirit. God uses it to speak to us still today, but it is only one way God can speak. The people who wrote it down were human, the people who copied it were human, the people who decided which books and which versions of books to canonize were human, the people who translate them for us are human...and yet amazingly, through all this, God can still use it as God's Word! But it isn't God's only Word, or even God's most important Word--just a witness to the Word who is Jesus.

If my theology professors saw this they would cringe--so I guess Quakers are still getting a lot of flack for this idea that Jesus, as the true Word of God, can speak to us in other ways than through the Bible.

QuakerK, thanks so much for your post! It's a great discussion starter, with lots of good points to consider.

Coming up: Quakers and universalism, physical resurrection of Jesus, atonement theories, and "tone" of early Friends vs. any Friends today. I'm looking forward to this! =)

Sunday, April 23, 2006

what canst thou DO?

Today I was reading a book for church history class called "You Have Stept Out of Your Place: A History of Women and Religion in America." A chapter I read today was about Native American women in the nineteenth century, and about the women who went to them as missionaries.

As I wrote about a little bit in my post on missions, often Christianity was so associated with "civilization," i.e. white Western culture, that missionaries ended up being more imperialists than anything religious. That was also the case a lot of times in missions to Native Americans. White women felt that converting Native American women to Christianity and to Western ways would elevate their status and give them more freedom. So to become a Christian meant to give up all their ways, take on the traditional gender roles of Western culture, change your main language and style of dress, and for women, to learn Western ways of keeping house and raising a family. Young girls were put in boarding schools so they would be kept away from their families and tribes and not have the "bad" influence of their culture.

The way we treated Native Americans is a huge dark spot on white Westerners' reputation. I'm not sure which was worse--the way they treated black slaves or Native Americans. To some degree, they treated black slaves better: they kept them in their communities and wanted them to live. At least they understood the humanity of Native Americans enough to realize they posed a threat, and they respected that personhood enough to know they had to kill them in order to take their land. But both ways were horrible.

It's hard now to know what to do about all that. I mean, we can say we're sorry, we can try to be more sensitive with other cultures in the future, we can do all we want to make sure various racial and ethnic groups are treated fairly in our nation now--but how much do these things really matter in the face of the fact that we destroyed many, many Native American cultures and decimated the ties of so many African Americans to their native land? We shouldn't be held responsible for the faults of our ancestors, but at the same time, in recognition of the pain and destruction that happened, and the fact that we are still benefitting from what slavery accomplished and from the land that was stolen, what can we do? It's impractical to think of giving all this land back. We certainly can't give lives back, and we can't bring back the habitat--the animals, the trees, the clean rivers--that we've destroyed.

But it seems that these people should receive some repayment...

Thursday, April 20, 2006

bible translation

I spent some time tonight writing a response to a Friend on our World Gathering of Young Friends listserve, so I figured I might as well kill two birds with one stone (if I was John Woolman...heh heh) and post that here as well.

A question was asked about Galatians 2:15-16, which a Friend heard says in the Greek "faith OF Jesus Christ" rather than "faith IN Jesus Christ," which might seem to have the connotation of us needing to have faith of the callibre of Jesus' rather than faith in him as part of God. So here's my response, although it's just a preliminary analysis of the text.

Galatians 2 (Cherice's literal translation)
15 We ourselves [are] Jews and not out of ritually unclean nations [usually translated "Gentiles"]. 16 But we knew that a person is not justified/vindicated/acquitted out of works of a law if not through faith of Jesus Christ, and we believed in Christ Jesus, so that we were justified/acquitted/vindicated out of faith of Christ and not out of works of a law. 17 But if [when] we desired to be justified/acquitted/vindicated in Christ we were found also [to be] ritually unclean ones, then is Christ an agent/intermediary to sins? Certainly not!

There are several forms of the word usually translated "sinners." This one generally means "those who are ritually unclean," often associated with their occupation because they're required to touch unclean things and therefore become unclean (shepherds, tax collectors), those born with physical defects or who have diseases, women who are pregnant or on their period, and of course anyone who's not a full-blood Jew. The term in NT times generally refers to "outsiders," those who are not accepted by the Jewish elite community because of their designation as "unclean."

Likewise, the term translated "Gentiles" literally means "the nations," and it's where we get our word "ethnic." It's a specific kind of ritually unclean person--one that can never become clean short of conversion, circumcision, etc. The English of this makes it sound really elitist and self-righteous, but I think what the author means is that he and those he's writing to were born into Judaism, so although they can follow the law, following the law is not enough for them to be "justified."

The word "justified" is difficult because we don't use it anymore in common language, so it's been relegated to the position of an antiquated religious term along with "sanctified" and "unction"[except for Peggy!] and stuff like that. I think the Greek word basically means "to be made righteous." The word as a noun means "righteous." We can't be made right by following laws alone.

Then the Jesus f/Friend is right: it does say "through faith of Jesus Christ." But that's not all it says, because the very next line says "and we believed in Christ Jesus." The word for "in" here has a feeling of motion--we moved into faith in Christ, and then in verse 17 the word for "in" is a stationary word. We are fixed in our faith in Christ. The conditional clause (if-then) in 17 is more like "since now we're fixed in faith in Christ, if we're found to be ritually unclean, does that mean Christ is helping us sin? Of course not!" So he's actually making a case for not having to worry about who's "clean" and "unclean" anymore. But it's clear from the context that the author meant that people were to have faith IN Christ, not just faith like that of Christ.

But I do find it interesting to look at that phrasing and think about how watered down we (as Christians) sometimes make it--we just have to believe IN Christ, and that's enough. But this passage is also saying to have faith LIKE Christ.

One more thing: where it says "we were justified out of faith of Christ and not out of works of a law," the "out of" means "from the source of." So what it's basically saying here is that we are made right "from the source of" what made Jesus righteous, rather than from the source of the man-made law. We're not just clean because we follow some rules, but we're clean (whole, transformed, being perfected) "from of the source" that Christ was walking in, which is God. Pretty cool, eh?

This is a really interesting passage, pretty much summing up Christian belief.

It can be difficult to know who to believe when it comes to Bible translation, because things can be completely altered just because of someone's translation choices. Even as I'm learning Greek it's hard because the ways we're taught to translate various words can change the meaning, but that's the definition we're given. So unless we all want to become Greek scholars and learn all the nuances of the language, even having an introductory understanding of Greek doesn't always help a whole lot because I'm using someone else's definitions. (But if you're looking for a good English translation I suggest the New Revised Standard Version, because they try to make it as literal as possible, leaving ambiguity when it's in the text and trying not to make theological choices for the reader.)

But I think that's the beauty of it. There IS ambiguity. There IS room to think and wonder and explore. Greek is pretty ambiguous sometimes, and so we get to wonder, did the author mean A or B, or both? Plus when it was written down punctuation and spaces between words hadn't been invented yet so we're not even sure that we have that right. So we build off what scholars over the years have thought.

Even with all the ambiguity, I trust God to speak through this text. It has its flaws, and sometimes it's frustrating because we don't know what is culture and what is meant for all, and it's hard to understand. But I learned a lot just by looking at this passage for a half hour or so, and I think it helped me grow in my faith because of it. So thanks, Friend, for bringing up this topic, and giving me a chance to show how nerdy I am! =)

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

the devil?

A few posts ago, Liz asked what I thought the Quaker view of the devil is, and I gave a quick response, in the comments area, but I'll try to give a more full answer here. This is a sticky topic, because believing in a personified devil figure is not very popular in our postmodern culture.

It's obviously very difficult to pin down the "Quaker view" on anything, so I'll do my best and then say what I think.

In early Quakerism there was a lot written about being involved in the "Lamb's War," that is, the war of Jesus against the powers of darkness. I don't think they probably questioned whether there was a personified devil any more than they questioned whether there was a personified God. To the early Friends, having faith is to become a soldier in a war against evil (to be distinguished clearly from the War on Terror!). They recognized that there were evil forces at work, and that it took sacrifices in order to advance the Kingdom of God. This Kingdom is not a flesh-and-blood kingdom, it's not going to be a government or even a form of government (although Penn kind of tried that), but it's a coming age when the righteousness and justice of God will rule because all will know and follow God. Their work as Christians and as Friends (which were one and the same to them, as far as I can tell) was to follow their commander, Jesus/Holy Spirit, even when it meant death. And it often did mean death, or at least imprisonment, because they were sincerely fighting against evil, and evil was fighting back.

As far as Quakers today, Quakers in "developing" countries I think generally would believe in a personified devil. They are mainly on the evangelical end of the Friends spectrum and tend to read the Bible more literally. Their cultures generally are more spiritual, in that they believe in a spirit world that effects daily life all the time, for god and evil. So they can understand Christianity with its duality of good and evil spirits.

Although there isn't exactly a personified devil in the Old Testament (the serpent is never named as the devil, the "adversary" in Job is interpreted as the devil but not so named), a concept of a personalized devil has developed by New Testament times: Jesus is tempted by THE devil (given a definite article in Greek, meaning it is a specific entity not just a force of evil or a demon), the Lord's Prayer in Matthew says "Deliver us from the Evil One," (again with the definite article in the Greek), and Jesus and his disciples expel demons from people--and these are just a few examples. So there is definitely biblical reason to believe in personified evil spirits and one head devil.

American Christian Quakers don't talk about the devil much, at least in circles I've been in. There is talk of sin and sinful nature, and I think it's more popular to think of an evil force that corrupted our human nature, as it was supposed to be created, from the Image of God to a distorted image that can't help but sin until it's regenerated by God's grace through Christ, and through the Holy Spirit helping us to recognize God's grace and accept it. Many American Quaker Christians also believe there is a devil who personifies evil and may encourage acts of evil in the world.

Some people think that demon possession is really mental disorders, and Jesus could heal the person's mind as well as their body, so he wasn't expelling demons but healing the mind. But this doesn't really make sense with the biblical witness because the demons can talk, they recognize Jesus as the Son of God, and they can be driven out of a person and into pigs.

And some American Quakers don't believe in a devil at all, especially those who do not identify themselves as Christians or who think the Bible is an interesting and helpful story but shouldn't be taken literally at all. Probably some American Quakers don't believe in evil, only in structural injustice, which causes evil things to happen, which influences more evil things...etc.

So what do I think? Well, philosophically and theologically, from a Christian perspective, there are many problems with believing in a personified devil, and there are many problems with not believing in said devil. If there is a devil, where did it come from? Did God create it? If so, can God create evil? There is no place in the Protestant Bible where the story we're told of Satan as a fallen angel appears, although I think it's in the Apochrypha (which is in the Catholic Bible), so probably was written sometime between the Exile and the time of Jesus (about 500 years). So pretty much in the Protestant Bible, the devil just shows up in Matthew 4 for the first time and there is no indication where it came from. So it's hard to know if Judaism was just influenced by its neighbors, espeically Zorastrians who were complete dualists, and took on the idea of a personalized devil when there really isn't one, or if the understanding of the evil spiritual world kept developing over the years as they learned to understand the good spiritual world more fully as well.

Another problem is dualism. If we believe in the devil, does that mean there's another force that is outside of God? If God can't take any part in evil, how could it come to be without God? Is there another eternal power besides God? Christian doctrine says no: God is the only infinite. So where could this evil being have come from? We can explain sin as a rupture in relationship with God, and that God din't create this but created the possibility. But it's harder to explain an actual entity whose purpose and personhood is evil incarnate.

At the same time, as a Christian I can't just ignore passages in the Bible that talk about a personified devil. I can choose to believe that they are allegorical, but I can't just discard them without thinking about them.

And I've been thinking about this issue a lot lately for a couple reasons. First, I read an autobiography of a Christian woman from South Korea for my church history class, and she said she hadn't believed in demons but then she saw someone with a demon, and she and another minister prayed, they talked to it, and eventually it came out of the man. This autobiography was written in 1988. I don't think she's making this up. We could explain it away by saying the person had a mental breakdown and believed there was a demon speaking through him but he made it all up, but he wasn't even a Christian and knew nothing about Christianity and yet the demon knew the name of Jesus, etc. (Cho Wha Soon, "Let the Weak Be Strong: A Woman's Struggle for Justice," 1988.)

And today I was reading a book called "The Song," part of a trilogy of "The Singer," "The Song," and "The Finale" by Calvin Miller. These are allegorical stories that explain Jesus' life and then how Christians can live like Jesus. They're really cool--you should read them. They're written almost in the form of poetry, and the flow of the words and the imagery is amazing. Anyway, so the devil comes to this Christian (although they have different names, it being an allegory), and has changed forms. No longer is he "World-hater," this being that everyone knows is evil and whom they fear because of his evil power, but now he is "Sarcon," he is beautiful, he is the ideal person, he knows science and trusts reason, and people are drawn to him because they can understand what he's saying--as opposed to the Christian message. Instead of loving something outside themselves, Sarcon teaches people to love themselves and to try to reach some ideal. Knowledge is the ideal, and science will get them there, because if they just figure out one more thing they'll be able to unlock the secrets of the universe. This is a form of trying to be like God--not that science is evil in itself, but the desire to know everything so that we can be in control, this is idolatry.

So I wonder if perhaps "the devil" has changed forms in Western culture. Instead of being a personified being who we could easily avoid, evil has become amorophous--just the basic desire for power and control, knowledge that will keep us from death, understanding that will keep others subjected to us. If people were possessed by demons they would know there was evil out there. But they're being sneakier--with subtlties we can't quite grasp we are influenced to desire power, recognition, control, love, on our own steam.

I'm not sure if there is no personified devil, or if there is. I'm not sure if there are demons. But I know that there is evil, that sometimes I'm taken with an inane desire to do something that I know is stupidly hurtful or wrong, that sometimes I don't want to do what I know would draw me closer to God who is Life, and whether this is just me and my own stupid human nature or whether this is a personified devil doesn't really matter much. But I'm not throwing out the idea of a personalized devil just yet, because I've had experiences where there's a feeling of deep, unexplainable darkness, and I can't forget the power this has. But thankfully, amazingly, God's power is greater.

I pledge to be in this Lamb's War, even if it takes suffering and death, even when I'm scared, even when I'd rather do something more "respectable." Who's with me?

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


Why is fiction so enjoyable? I think I could sit around and read novels most of the time and be happy (as long as they were good ones). I might need some time hanging out with real people, and I might read outside sometimes after a nice hike, and I might need to process what I was reading with people either verbally or in writing, but other than that I think I could just read novels all the time. Maybe I just feel that way right now because I'm tired of reading heavier stuff, and the bit of time I give myself every few days to read fiction is much anticipated.

But fiction in itself is really enticing. Whether books or movies, it seems like most people are interested in stories. Even in cultures who don't/didn't have access to books and movies, story has always been a huge part of culture. What is it about fiction that draws us in so much?

Part of it is learning about another person's perspective and experiences. In other cultures before this proliferation of fiction I suppose they used narrative to define their group's identity. What do we use fiction for now? A lot of people talk about it as an "escape." What are we escaping from? I don't think of it as an escape. For me, reading fiction shows me something about what it means to be human that I can't learn from my own life. It shows me life in a form that I can't see without a story, but I can see once it's written in such a way that I can grasp it. This isn't really knowledge that is empirical or objective--I can't really explain (usually) that I learned X, Y & Z from such and such a novel. I can say things I learned, but the things I can speak are not the only things I learned. There is something deeper going on, something about fiction that feeds my soul and nourishes it, something that shows me how to live rather than being an "escape" from life.

This isn't always the case, of course--sometimes I get sucked into a junk novel or watch a pointless movie for the escape of it, but even those, if I allow them, can "speak to my condition," can show me something about who I am and what I value, that I may not have thought of otherwise.

But in my rather utilitarian mindset, it often seems silly to me to read fiction. It didn't ever happen! It will never happen! Why am I wasting my time sitting around reading when I could be doing something that would help someone? But I think art does help people. I think it's essential for us to experience creativity, even if that creativity is "only" to allow our minds to be drawn in to someone else's work of art. Our minds are amazing things and can be nourished and grow even--and perhaps especially--from coming in contact with someone who is not ourselves through art we would never have imagined.

So here's my encouragement, I guess: go enjoy some good art, and allow yourself to think of it as time well spent.

Sunday, April 16, 2006


Yesterday was my sister's birthday and I told her, (being the wonderful older sister I am), "Your birthday is the only day this year that Jesus was dead all day long!" (She looked mock-indignant but thought it was funny.)

In trying to decide what to write about just now she and I had a good discussion about easter and Jesus' resurrection and all that. In my class about the gospels the other day we looked at all the resurrection accounts and discussed how and why they appear different, so I was ready with all sorts of theological data to bore my sister with, but I had fun with the discussion anyway... =)

So reading the 4 gospel accounts, it is unclear who was there when they discovered Jesus' body wasn't in the tomb, or what happened, or whether the women told anyone and who they told, and who came to see, and how many angel(s)/young men there were--but the main part is the same: Jesus died on Friday, all his disciples (being the good Jews they were) stayed at home on Saturday because it was Sabbath and it was too far to walk to his tomb, and then when they went to visit the tomb Sunday morning, Jesus' body wasn't there and no one knew where it was.

Three of the four gospels has post-resurrection accounts of individuals seeing Jesus in the flesh for the forty days after his resurrection. Mark has no conclusion, really (at least in the part that is legitimate, ending at Mark 16:8). It just says that the women saw that Jesus wasn't there, a young man told them he wasn't there but to tell the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee as he'd said, and the women left and told no one because they were afraid.

I kind of like this ending, because it makes you decide what you believe yourself. So, what did happen? It's pretty much agreed among historians that the main facts are true: a man named Jesus of Nazareth lived during that time, died, and his disciples didn't take his body but believed that he had raised from the dead. The disciples wouldn't have taken the body, because it's pretty clear from reading the gospels that they didn't have any idea what was going to happen before Jesus died. And the Jewish leaders wouldn't have taken the body, or else they would have shown it once the disciples started saying Jesus had been raised. No one knows for sure what happened, historically speaking...

So Mark leaves the question open: what do you believe? Who do you say that he is? (Mark 8:29)

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

the bell jar

So you all don't think all I ever think about is theology and Quakerism, I'm going to write about a book I just read for fun, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. It's a semi-autobiographical novel about a college-age woman who slowly goes insane. It ends on a note of hope, but unfortunately Sylvia Plath committed suicide about 10 years after her similar experience.

The book itself was well written and held my interest. It's written in a fairly easy style, where you feel comfortable and at home with the first-person narrator and the story, being mainly about everyday life, makes sense. I can empathize with the character and understand how she, quite logically, would go through a mental breakdown, even though I have never done so myself. Her actions and the paths of thought that go on in her head make sense and I can see myself having similar reactions if I wasn't careful.

I was a psychology major in college, so I've learned a lot about mental disorders, and although I've never had a situation where I've been clinically "disordered," I think there's a continuum of each disorder and everyone has tendencies toward one or another of them. Some people have tendencies toward depression, and although they don't become clinically depressed they are on the verge of it often. Some people tend toward obesessive compulsion--we even admire this in some people in certain areas, like obsessive compulsive studying.... Or there are people who have fairly big mood swings although they wouldn't technically be diagnosed with manic-depression/borderline personality disorder. I know some of people who almost have multiple personalities because they split themselves into such different people when in various company that they find it almost impossible to bring those separate personalities together into a unified version of themselves. So I think we all struggle to keep our sanity day in and day out, whether we think about it that way or not.

To put it in a more positive way, I think it's miraculous how many of us DON'T have mental breakdowns. There are plenty of difficult and downright evil things that happen in the world, that happen to us. It's amazing to me how we learn to deal with things, and have the ability to grow from them. And it's amazing to see the human mind cope with difficult and dissonant things, and instead of letting those things destroy them, they cope by splitting their personality, controlling their routine, or shutting down many body functions until their mind can reorient. Isn't the human mind amazing? I think so...I guess that's why I was a psych major.

It's pretty weird how different people going through the same hard event will respond differently: some will grow and some will break down. Something that has helped for me is community. When I've gone through tough things I've been tempted to get depressed, or to cope by trying to control an aspect of my environment, or to split myself so that the "me" everyone sees is not the one that is hurting. But I've been fortunate that the people around me have been incredibly supportive and helped me work through everything so far without major problems, and have helped me grow.

Note, however, that I'm not trying to say that if someone in your community has had a mental breakdown that means you're doing a bad job. People can make their own choices, and sometimes they choose poorly. And sometimes it's not a poor choice, it's just that they can't see any other options. Sometimes mental breakdowns seem to be necessary in order for someone to get through to another space that is more healthy. But it's amazing how a community can help ease the pain in those situations, even if there has to be a movement through psychological problems.

In The Bell Jar, the character doesn't have that supportive community. Instead she has a community that expects perfection, especially outward perfection. I think she feels like she's in some sort of science experiment, being observed and stifled in a bell jar from which she cannot escape. There is no acceptance of her personhood apart from her achievements, and I think she has to break through this by going into a mental breakdown--showing herself and those around her that she's not going to hide inside a cage of socially acceptable parameters, and only through this process can she become who she really wants to be. I hope to be part of a community that can recognize others' strengths and encourage them to live up to that, but at the same time allow that person to be fully themself and who they feel called to be. This is a difficult balance, especially in the church. (See, I couldn't keep away from theology completely!)

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

more inner light

Tonight I've been reading more Calvin--this week's systematic theology topic is the doctrine of sin, and I don't think I'm ready to tackle that one yet, so I'll stick with the nice doctrine of the Inner Light. =)

Calvin is talking about how although humans were created in the image of God, they sinned and so lost their capacity for spiritual insight apart from God's grace, and although we still have the ability to be rational and to use our will, these have been perverted by the Fall (although we won't tell Calvin that the term "Fall" doesn't appear in the Bible, or even in Hebrew literature until about 200-100BCE...but that's another topic).

So Calvin's saying that we don't have the ability to recognize God apart from God's revelation to us, which I suppose is true, but I think it would be true whether we were perfect or not. Anyway, where this connects with the Inner Light is that Calvin talks about John 1:5 where the author says, "this light shines in the darkness, but the darkness comprehends it not." Of this Calvin says, "[God] shows that [hu]man's soul is so illumined by the brightness of God's light as never to be without some slight flame or at least a spark of it; but that even with this illumination it does not comprehend God" (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.II.19).

This sounds like an Inner Light to me. I think I agree with Calvin here. If the world is somehow in darkness, meaning that there is evil present in the world and we are not all in full communion with God at all times, if there is any light in the world we probably all see a flicker of it, and keep this flicker alive in ourselves if we try. At the same time, we can't fully comprehend God, of course. We can see a glimmer of light and we can walk toward it, we can cultivate it in ourselves, but we'll never understand or possess it completely--else it isn't God!

This is where I differ from Calvin, however, because he would say that there is nothing we can do to recognize or move toward the light. Only God can cause us to recognize God's self, and only God can make God's self more comprehensible to us. Calvin doesn't believe in free will to do good--everything good is from God. I agree in a sense, in that God created everything good and therefore every good thing has its root in God. But I think God has created us in such a way that we can choose good. We know what is good because of God impolanting knowledge and recognition of God's character in us, but we have the free will to choose what to do with that knowledge. If all we can do is choose evil, why wouldn't God cause all of us to choose good? Why only the "elect" few?

Instead, I think God offers the Light to the entire world, and most of the world doesn't comprehend it although God makes that recognition available to all. We can choose to move toward the Light, to fan the flame of the Light within ourselves and our communities, or choose to keep our distance, remaining in darkness and incomprehension.

Does anyone know of a Quaker systematic theological work besides Barclay? (I know, it's kind of an oxymoroan--Quaker systematic theology--but hey, I think it's an interesting way of dialoguing with other groups.) Reformed theology is interesting and all, but it would be nice to read a Quaker perspective, but I don't know of any that are more recent than Barclay's.

Monday, April 10, 2006

inner light

Thanks everyone for your comments and thoughts. It's interesting to get others' perspectives. So here goes my take on the "Inner Light" issue.

I think this is one of Quakerism's most unique, most orthodox Christian, most unscriptural and most biblical doctrines of them all! As many of you pointed out in comments to my last post, the image of the Inner Light comes directly from the Bible, from John and I John. John 1 talks about the Word being God, Light, and Life, and says this being who is all of these things became flesh in Jesus. Later in John Jesus says, "I am the Light of the world." I John says that if a person is not in the light they are in the darkness, and many other places in the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures use the metaphor of light and darkness to describe spiritual states of awareness. Those who follow God are a city on a hill (at night) that cannot be hidden, a lamp that shouldn't be hidden but should be put on a stand to give light to all in the house (Matthew 5:14-16) or all who come in (Luke 11:33-35). There are many instances where spiritual lack of awareness is expressed as blindness, indicating that light is not being allowed to come into the person (as through the eyes).

It seems that in the New Testament, light refers to God or Jesus, and the truth of the ability of humans to know God, be aware of God, and be obedient to the call of God in their life, especially through Jesus' command to love. So this idea of the Inner Light is in many ways very biblical, if we think of the Inner Light as God, or in Quaker-speak, "that of God in every person."

But "that of God in every person" is perhaps where we get a little off track from mainstream Christianity--and I'm not saying that's a bad thing here. It is, however, difficult to see where we got this idea of that of God being in each person, except from Genesis 1:26, where God says, "Let us make humankind in our image." This is what got me thinking about the Inner Light to begin with, because last week in my systematic theology class we discussed what it means that humans are created in the image of God.

The first thing that comes into my head when I think of being created in the image of God is that we all have the Inner Light in us--a piece of God that recognizes and longs for God. Calvin criticizes this idea (although Quakers hadn't come along yet) by speaking of some who "thought the soul to be a derivative of God's substance, as if some portion of immeasurable divinity had flowed into man" (John Calvin, Institutes of the Divine Religion I.XV.5). I don't think this is the original idea of the Inner Light that Quakers had--I don't think they meant that a piece of God is possessed by each person and is somehow separate from God and only in that person. I think the original Quakers who used this term meant that God is at work in each person, and each one has the ability to know God (as opposed to the doctrine of predestination).

Today, however, I'm not sure if we always remember to make this distinction. It's all too easy to think of the Inner Light as something we own, or something that is me rather than being something of God that is communicating with me. It's hard to know where to draw that line, because if I'm created in the image of God, there is something about me that is similar to God, that connects me to God, but that doesn't mean any part of me is God.

It's nice to think of little pieces of God being spread out through all humanity--like R.W. Emerson's "over-soul." He was influenced by Quakers, and he thought of "that of God in every person" as sort of a pre-Jungian collective unconscious, the part of ourselves that connects with other people, but he didn't really believe in a God who had a consciousness separate from humanity.

But I think that takes away the whole point of the Inner Light. To me the Inner Light is that part of me that calls out to me that there is something (Someone) Other, something not-me, and this not-me affirms my humanity and my goodness, as well as calling me to let go of the parts of me that aren't good. This Light calls me to give up the security of the darkness where I can hide, and calls me out into the glorious and sometimes painful Light where everything is exposed and laid bare--but where everything is loved. In the Light I can be who I am and be challenged to step more fully into who I am created to be every day, taking baby steps away from the darkness and toward the Light.

I too like the image of Light because it can't be defined, even by science. Is it a wave, or a particle? Who knows! Both. But how can it be both? It's a paradox, but we can see what it does, we can all recognize that it's there and we know its effects. Without it there would be no life on this planet, as there would be none without the ultimate Light, who is God, with whom we can participate and commune as a tree growing by streams of water (Psalm 1) in the sunshine.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

pondering the "inner light"

I've been busy lately and we had some friends over the last few days so I've been neglecting blog-dom, and I don't have time for a real post right now, but for the last few days I've been thinking about the Quaker concept of the Inner Light. Where did the phrase come from? What did it mean originally? What does it mean now? I'll work on answering these questions later.

For now, you can ponder these queries with me, or share comments about your conceptions of the "Inner Light":

What does "Inner Light" mean to you? How do you find the metaphor helpful/not helpful? How has it been personally meaningful to you?

Tuesday, April 04, 2006


Now there's a loaded word if I ever blogged about one! I think maybe this is one of the areas that the focus of "evangelical" and "liberal" Friends differs the most. Missions creates a problem because it's incredibly difficult to distinguish between essential elements of a religion, and traditions that have become so matter-of-fact that they take on almost sacramental overtones. On the other hand, I went to the World Gathering of Young Friends last summer in England, and it was so amazing to be joined by Friends from all over the world! I think there were two Friends there from unprogrammed backgrounds who weren't from Europe, the USA or Russian states. (The ones I'm thinking of were from Costa Rica and Colombia. Feel free to correct me if there were any others.) If EFI and FUM weren't doing missions work, would Quakerism have ever spread south of the equator? And now I think a majority of Friends worldwide live in the southern hemisphere.

We've been learning in my church history class the last few weeks (or really all semester) about colonization and Christendom, and how those often went together and were seen as pretty much the same thing by native peoples of the colonized (shall we say invaded?) countries. This is truly unfortunate, and frustrating. Our church history profs talk about "Christendom" as the culture of the West that includes Christianity, but that incorporates Western cultural traditions which have nothing to do with faith, although colonizers often act as if they do. For example, wearing Western-style clothes, eating with Western utensils, becoming "civilized."

Most of those who first colonized much of the "New World" and Africa weren't really concerned about the spiritual welfare of their new "citizens," but were more focused on subduing the population and getting them to conform to an orderly and managable system, and used Christianity as an excuse--almost a crusade--to get their country to back their government in its quest for wealth and power.

At the same time, I truly believe that a lot of the early missionaries themselves went with good intentions. Sure, they didn't use politically correct terms (calling the native people "heathens" and such), and they often acted in a superior manner, but I think they meant well. They truly felt that the Western way of life was better than the native ways, and wanted to share that with others. This seems more like a cultural evangelization rather than a religious one, however.

Now missionaries are generally being more empathetica, treating others as humans rather than numbers they've baptized and that sort of thing. Now most missionaries are focusing on learning a trade that they can do as they build relationships and from that basis of friendship they share what brings them hope and joy--namely their faith. I think a lot of missionaries are even attempting to be more open about paying attention to where God is already working in people's lives and religious practices, finding those places of commonality and working from there, rather than going in with the idea that "we Westerners have all the answers and everyone else is too ignorant to understand."

But the word "missions" still makes me pretty wary. The history of Christian missions has been so bound up with war, crusades, colonialism, imperialism, racism and the destruction of so many cultures that it's hard to want to support its continuance.

And yet, if we truly we believe we have "good news," if we truly believe everyone has this Light within them that is yearning for [I'll let you fill in the blank with your favorite word but I'll use God], then why wouldn't we want to share this with people? To me the good news is a message of freedom, that we don't have to fear death or suffering, that we're not alone, that there is a meaning to life and that we have a part in that, that we are saved from our stumbling around in the darkness, that we can love and follow this amazingly loving God who wants to work with us to establish a kingdom of peace. Wow, that's so cool! We don't have to worry or be afraid. We don't have to succumb to unjust systems and let ourselves be oppressed. There's another way, a way through finding the wholeness of ourselves in God. And I want others to know that, too!

But I don't want to destroy who they are in order to make them see it. That's the beauty of God's Light in us--it looks different through every person. A lot of you are probably not evangelical enough to have heard of Keith Green, but he was a Christian singer/songwriter in the 70s and early 80s. He has a song about how God's Light shines through us like stained glass windows. Even though Quakers aren't really into stained glass windows, I still think it's a great image. If we're doing what we're meant to do (be a window to God), we'll let God's Light shine through us, and it will look different through each of us. But as we come together in community, we make a beautiful pattern of various hues.

But if we sit inside our own communities and don't let the world see us, the Light doesn't shine through us and we're purposeless, and although we still have those colors and the potential for the Light to shine through us, it can't unless we put ourselves in positions to be lit up by it.

This doesn't mean we have to go to other countries, and it doesn't mean we have to preach on every streetcorner and hit people over the head with the Bible. But what DOES it mean for us as Quakers? Is "missions" a good thing, or not?

[By the way, the picture is of one of the windows in the Lancaster Priory, right next to Lancaster Castle where many early Quakers were imprisoned, including GFox and MFell. No wonder they hated stained glass! But it's pretty anyway...]

Monday, April 03, 2006


As I was examining one of the new nickels today, it struck me that not only is our country creating new commemorative quarters, but nickels, $10, $20 and $50 bills too (maybe higher but I don't see those often...)--where will it end??? It's interesting for two reasons: first, I always think it's funny when things are created just because someday they'll be collectors itmes--like Beanie Babies (remember that fad?) or commemorative plates. It's like we're completely full of ourselves. We think that because we dig up random old stuff and think it's really amazing just because it's old and rare, that people will think the same thing about our junk in several thousand years. (I think if anyone does do archaeological digs on our stuff they'll have way too much information than they'll even care about, and everything will be preserved really well because it's made of plastic!)

Second, it got me thinking about the fact that every day our country creates more money by printing and minting it. It makes sense to make some new money--some gets lost or damaged, so we need replacements. But to make new money all the time? Why?

Why, you ask? Because our economy is based on growth. If we don't have inflation our economy fails.

Now if you ask me, this isn't a very good way to found a lifestyle that a whole culture depends upon. I'm not an economist, but it seems like at some point it has to fall apart. At some point there can't be any more. At some point there is too much excess and the system can't hold it. At some point someone has to start paying their debts.

This made me think about the way we as Westerners, or at least Americans, live our individual lives. We (as a culture--hopefully not those individuals reading this blog!) live based so much on progress, on getting better and more and faster. People work so hard so they can buy the newest thing, or spend gratuitously on food or entertainment or vacation--but do they ever have time to enjoy the food? Do they ever take a vacation? Americans spend plenty of time doing "entertainment" that is mainly sit-on-your-butt-and-be-brainwashed type entertainment like movies and TV, and they have to buy the best system to do that with and have the right snacks to go with it. (Note: movies and TV aren't inherently bad, I think, but if we do them just to "escape," what is it that we're "escaping" from?)

I'm not so bad with the entertainment issue, but I do spend a lot of my time and energy becoming "more" educated, knowing "more," learning the newest stuff in my field, getting better at languages and everything so I can progress to the next level, so academia can progress because of all the work I and my colleagues are doing in my generation to advance the field.

All this "more," all this "better," all this stuff--when do we just sit and be happy with what we have?

George W. was right [I could make a sarcastic comment here but I'll refrain] when he counseled Americans to go out and be consumers when the economy was lagging after 9/11. If no one buys anything, no one gets paid and the economy doesn't go around. But this seems to me an economy based on fear, and it breeds anxiety in everyone in a majority of people in our culture. We always need to have and be the best--but how do we know when we've gotten there?

I think this is the time when we need to sit and contemplate who we truly are, to let God inform our self-identity with love for ourselves and for God that overflows into love for those around us. In this space of freedom, in the security that comes from knowing who we are and that we are loved and are free to love others, there is no need for more or better. There is just me, and God, and the good news of that freedom that I get to share with those around me.

Doesn't that sound so much more appealing than this crazy rat race?

Sunday, April 02, 2006


As a centering tool in meeting I often use a simple song (Taize/contemplative style) that repeats a prayer or thought to keep me on track and focused (kind of like a word that you come back to in contemplative prayer). The one I usually use is a song that goes, "Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life," except I change "shepherd" to "center." (It's by John Michael Talbot.) It's become kind of my "mantra" when centering and helps me to come back into a centered space more quickly. It's almost like my own personal liturgy, a natural part of the way I remind myself that my purpose of focusing on God and letting all my own fears and wants fall away.

This is so helpful for me, because it brings continuity between my times of silence on my own and my times of waiting with others. Also it helps me fall into a rhythm that is natural. It pulls me more quickly into a space of depth--not that we should just be all about doing everything fast, but I think it does show something about the space I'm in spiritually when I can center more or less quickly. When I'm more centered in general, when I'm paying attention to God in everyday life and spending time with God on my own, I can center faster. But when I am more scattered and not paying attention in my "normal" life it takes longer to get centered in meeting.

So for me having a simple prayer (in this case a prayer song) helps me to continue that rhythm of centeredness in my everyday life as well as in times of intentional centering, and even in my times of intentional blogging. =)

Center me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.

(Check out my friend Nate Macy's version of this song, that my husband recorded for him a couple years ago, named "Psalm 23.")