Tuesday, September 15, 2009

new quaker women's theology group

Last week marked the very first meeting of a new discussion group for Quaker women who are interested in talking theology! It was great fun, and I'm excited to see how it goes. We plan to meet every other Thursday night, so if you are in the Portland, OR area (and female--I know, that's not inclusive at all!) and want to join, let me know and I can give you the details. It's a combo of women from NWYM and from George Fox Evangelical Seminary. The goals are mainly: to create a space where Quaker women are able to build community and support one another in ministry (whether that is "released" or not), and where we can talk about theology from our unique perspectives as women in this neck of the Quaker world. We plan to do short readings so we can discuss them together. We hope to maybe do a monthly movie night of some sort.

I'm excited because, having just graduated from seminary a few months ago, I feel a definite lack of people around here with whom to talk theology. Most of my friends with whom I usually have such discussions are off doing their own graduate or ministry work around the globe. So I'm excited about this intentional and regular connection with a group of women. I'm also excited because this grew partially out of a concern (not just by women) about the kind and amount of support female ministers receive in NWYM, and a desire to be more connected to one another as well as to think about how ministry might be more accessible and feel more supported for female released ministers in the YM.

I suggested we read She Who Is by Elizabeth A. Johnson, but since several of the people in the group are students, they thought that might be a little heavy...so once my current project is finished, I'll assign that to myself. It's a really important feminist theology that I've seen cited in tons of texts but haven't had a chance to read yet.

Speaking of my current project...I'm a little behind, so I'd better stop writing blog posts and go do my "homework"!

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

on the importance of inclusive language: an open letter to all worship leaders

This post has been rolling around in my head for about a month and a half--since our Yearly Meeting sessions. Inclusive language is something that's been important to me for a long time, but it's hard to know how to address it in a community in a way that will be truly heard. So, rather than address it in a community, I guess I'm choosing to just throw it out into cyberspace and hope that someone, somewhere benefits by it! Maybe this is a first step in addressing this issue in your community, and in mine.

Inclusive language is important to me when we talk about people and when we talk about God. I'm willing to wait a while until we can change our God-language in ways that are helpful and stimulate conversation and imagination, rather than closing people off. But that means kids right now need to be taught differently, and adults right now need to start being educated, so that at some point in the future we can speak of God in ways that are more helpful.

But language about people should ALWAYS, ALWAYS be inclusive! There is no excuse in American society for keeping all-masculine language in songs, biblical translations and preaching. There is NO excuse. Songs are easy to change, and although people already know them a certain way, it's easy to just change the words on the PowerPoint or in the bulletin and people will sing along. (Granted, it's a little harder with hymnals, but you can probably figure something out.)

Translations of the Bible into English have traditionally translated the Greek and Hebrew words for "people" as "man," even though there are separate words in both languages that mean "male people," and those words are used when referring solely to males. So changing our translations is not changing the Bible or the meaning therein, it is updating the translation to fit with modern English. A couple hundred years ago, even though it was still sexist to use the word "man" to mean "humanity," it was commonly accepted and used. Today, it is really only in the church that we've held on to this antiquated usage.

Why does it matter, you might ask? Well, imagine we put in "women" and "she" everywhere we meant "all people." Doesn't that sound like it excludes all males? Even if you know that it means you as a male, doesn't it take an extra step to get your brain to wrap around the concept that you are included in that statement? Doesn't that remove you one step from being fully present and feeling wholly acceptable in that space? This is what women must deal with daily when this kind of language is used. We may have gotten used to it; our brains may traverse this extra step quickly.

But to do this all our lives, to have to translate in our heads that we are meant to be part of the "men" who are spoken to in the Bible and in the church, means that we are subliminally taught that we aren't as fully part of humanity as are men.

Especially as Friends we should change this behavior. We believe all people are created in the image of God, male and female, Greek and Jew, slave and free. We are all beloved children of God. We can all hear God and respond in faithfulness. Some of us seem to hear God "better" than others, or have a special sense of God that others don't, but this is not based on gender--it's based on the way the Spirit works in us as unique individuals. And so to speak to only the "men," to treat all women as a sort of second tier, tears down this supposed belief among Friends.

Therefore, I ask you, as you lead worship music, as you preach, as you read from the Bible in community: please be intentional about using inclusive language.

Personally, when I lead worship music, I change the words. (Even when I'm singing in my pew I change the words, but no one can really tell.) It's not hard. You can change "man" to "humanity" or "people," or you can just change the wording of the phrase slightly so that you get rid of the problem. For example, in "Be Thou My Vision," change the verse to:

Be thou my wisdom and thou my true word
I ever with thee and thou with me Lord
Thou my great Father, I thy true child (instead of son)
Thou in me dwelling and I with thee one

Riches I heed not nor vain empty praise (instead of man's)
Thou mine inheritance now and always...

(This doesn't get rid of the problem of all masculine imagery for God, but at least it's a step in the right direction.)

Also, I write or print out the biblical text I'm going to read and change any of the masculine language so that it's gender-neutral or gender-inclusive. This is pretty easy, too. I can often do it on the fly if I didn't get a chance to prepare ahead of time. It just takes awareness and intentionality. There are gender-inclusive translations of the Bible you can use as well, such as the TNIV. (Here is an article posted yesterday by Sojourners that gives support for the TNIV, stating, "many of us believe the TNIV is biblically correct," although it has proved controversial among evangelicals and Zondervan is going to phase it out, to be replaced by a fully revised version of the NIV, which will include many of the TNIV changes.) The NRSV uses inclusive language for people, although not for God. (It is also a really excellent translation of the ancient texts available to us.) There is also "The Inclusive Bible," which you can find on Amazon or elsewhere, but I've never read it so I don't know how accurate it is or anything.

Basically, what I'm trying to say is that in order to respect all persons, we need to include them wholly in the ways we talk and the ways we act. When we use all masculine language, although we may not do it intentionally, we exclude half the population. We also ingrain ideas in ourselves accidentally about the relative worth of people, and this bleeds over into the ways we treat ourselves and others. Hopefully if we can be more intentional about using inclusive language in our music and sacred text, that will also influence our behavior and the ideologies that inform the way we treat one another. There is still a great deal of sexism in our culture today, for all the good work that has already been done. A major part of this sexism resides in the church and its refusal to admit when it's wrong and needs to repent: meaning "turn around," "go a different direction."

Please allow the Spirit to speak to you on this matter, and if you have any questions or need help changing the wording on a song or something, please contact me or leave a comment here.


Did you see the news today, that Netanyahu (prime minister of Israel) approved the building of 455 new houses in existing Jewish settlements in the Palestinian (occupied) Territory of the West Bank? Here's an article from the BBC News. As I understand it, Netanyahu is approving this building now and then he wants to talk about a freeze on further settlement expansion as Israel and Palestine continue to work out a peace agreement.

In my opinion, if you don't want people to send terrorists into your country, it doesn't help to build and protect illegal housing units in their country and try to control their country militarily. How does this contribute to peace in any way? I just don't understand how this can make sense to anyone.

OK, that's not true--I understand the Zionist argument, I just don't agree with it. I think if the land in question is to be the "Promised Land," God's "Chosen People" have to treat those there with love and respect, as God required of them in their own sacred text.

For example, Deuteronomy 10: 12-13, 17-20: "So now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you? Only to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the LORD your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being....For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the LORD your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear." (NRSV)

For another example, Jeremiah 7: 5-7: "For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, IF you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, THEN I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever."

Acting justly toward the widow, orphan, foreigner and alien in the land is part of the deal. Period.

And another thing--it would be one thing (maybe) if Israel was too crowded and so they needed space to grow. But a good portion of the houses ALREADY BUILT in the settlements are completely EMPTY!!! Here's a report on that by Israel's own media:

Remember, Israeli settlements were illegal under international law when built, and any new construction is now illegal under international law. And yet, it is Palestinians whose homes and other buildings are destroyed when they build on their own property. No one has an excuse to be a terrorist, not even a Jew. And not even us "Christians" who support and send our tax dollars to the state of Israel to build these settlements.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

the fall

I'm a little behind on my summer reading project, but oh well. That just means I had a fun summer, spending a good amount of time at the beach and in the garden and not too much time inside with my nose in a book, right?

I actually did almost all of the reading for this post about a month ago, but it's just been difficult to formulate how to address all the issues regarding "the Fall" in one post that's a length anyone will read. (That never stopped me before, right? I just write a post longer than anyone will read!) At any rate, there are just so many issues on this one that it's hard to boil it down to just the essentials. Part of this is how we view scripture--do we have to understand the creation accounts literally in order to find truth in them? (My answer is "No," but I don't know that others will agree.) Part of it is how our beliefs about "the Fall" relate to how we view human beings, especially male and female relationships and bodies and persons. Another piece is how we view God as we think about God creating people who were "meant" to be a certain way but who would almost certainly fail--repeatedly. Then there's the question of the meaning of "sin," how and why we are "separated from God" by sin, if there's a way to not be separated from God in this life and what Jesus has to do with that, and whether we view human beings as essentially good or flawed in our "nature" as we are right now. Some of these questions will just have to wait until we deal with other doctrines, such as atonement, which I think is next week (as I optimistically assume I will read the texts and write a post about it within the next week...). Others will just have to wait for my full-length systematic theology to be published (ha!). I think in this post I'll focus on the idea of "original sin" and where it comes from, although I'm going to largely ignore debates about the creation account regarding how we read it in light of modern science, and how we read it regarding relationships between genders. Maybe I'll write about those things later.

At any rate, this is one doctrine where I don't find Barclay particularly helpful, because so much has happened in the last 350 years regarding "acceptable" Christian belief on this doctrine that what he has to say seems fairly dated. He is helpful in that he sets the historical parameters of the debate. Basically there have been two extremes of thought regarding the origins of sin and the way it's passed on. Pelagius, condemned as a heretic in the fifth century, believed so much in human freedom that he said no one was born with a sin nature, but had to choose to sin themselves first. Therefore, one could conceivably live a sinless life; although once one chose to sin, one must receive God's grace through Jesus just like everyone else.

On the other end of the spectrum is Augustine, also writing in the fifth century, who believed we all inherit our sin nature through the flesh, as children of Adam and Eve, who apparently made the ultimate choice for all the rest of us. Therefore, even if an infant died without being baptized, and hadn't really had the chance to choose to sin yet, it would still go to Hell because of the nature into which it was born. For Augustine, and many other theologians to this day, our "free will" consists of our ability to choose to sin. Only God can be good, and therefore any good we do is because of God in us.

Barclay says neither of these options is correct, and I agree with him. He looks for a middle road, but I think his middle road leans more toward Augustine, while my middle road would lean more toward Pelagius. Barclay says we only receive condemnation after we actually sin ourselves (so infants who die are not culpable), but we can't really choose good on our own. He says, “How can he inherit any good from Adam when Adam had no good to pass on to him?” (Freiday, ed., 68).

For me, it is difficult to make sense of our lives being of any joy or pleasure to God if we're unable to choose good ourselves. Sure, it's God working in us, in a way, when we choose good, but it's God working in us (in a way) when we breathe, if we believe God created everything. Without God at work in us we couldn't do anything. So that argument doesn't make sense to me. But if God gave us any free will at all, I think it has to go both ways: we have to be able to, in some way, make choices that foster both good and evil.

Some disagree with this because it protects God if we can't actually choose what is good. I think they explain this by saying that this way, God has ultimate control and power. To me, though, this creates a God who is not someone I want to follow--it is a capricious God who, at God's own whim and fancy and for no particular reason chooses to help some do good and not others. At the same time, I think part of this argument rests in the grace/works debate, because if we can choose to do good, we should do good works all the time, and we can create undue guilt in ourselves (and those we teach) when we say it is up to us to make sure we're acting "good" all the time. So it's a delicate balance, and I don't claim to have the full answer.

Now, most theologians today are of the opinion that creation didn't happen literally the way that it's described in Genesis. (For one thing, we'd have to pick one of the accounts, either Gen. 1 or Gen 2-3, before we said which one was literal. Did God "create them male and female" at the same time, or create Adam and then create Eve out of his rib when he got lonely?) I'm not going to go into all of this now, but suffice it to say that although I don't think Genesis gives a scientifically literal account of creation, it is a "true" story in the sense that it tells us truths about who we are, how we find ourselves, and our relationships to God, other people and the world.

So if we read Genesis 1-3 from this perspective, we can take several things from it: first, God created us and found us good (whether this took a day or several million years). We are creatures meant to be in relationship with God, like Adam and Eve in the garden, walking and talking with God. This is our essential self, who we're meant to be, who we yearn to be. Second, we're created to be in relationship with other people. Adam got lonely and God created a partner. (Interestingly, the word used for the person God created just means "human being," admah and only when Eve is created does the text start using the words "man" and "woman," ish and ishah.) Third, there's something about us as human beings that for some reason doesn't live up to the potential that we wish we could. Paul put it well in Romans 7:14-25 as he talked about his struggle with his sin nature: doing the things he didn't want to do, and not being able to do the things he really wanted to do.

I think that passage and others about the law (of love) being written on our hearts helps illustrate my point, although other people might come to the opposite conclusion. But to me, these passages state that the fact that we have an understanding of what "goodness" would look like means we are capable of making choices for good. We don't always do it, but most of us long to live justly and lovingly toward all people, long for a world in which all creatures could live peaceably and bountifully.

Migliore's explanation of this doctrine is helpful in Faith Seeking Understanding. He basically says that we are created as embodied beings that have the ability to be in relationship with God--to be addressed by God and to respond. With the concept of humanity as “fallen creatures,” Christianity describes the human condition (where we find ourselves now) rather than the human potential or the way we got here. We may be created for relationship with God and others, but more often than not we attempt to live as if we are God. "Sin" is this attempt to be God, to live as if we are more different from other people than similar. “We deny our dependence on the Other who is God and reject our need for our fellow creatures, most particularly those who seem so totally strange and 'other' to us--the victim, the poor, the 'leftover person'” (Migliore 150). He describes sin as "primarily the disruption of our relationship with God,” in other words, trying to be God and therefore rejecting the need for God's grace, because we think we can be independent enough to do without it (151). This shows itself in both self-aggrandizement and self-rejection, and in power struggles where one must win while another loses.

As Christians we have the opportunity to accept God's grace, which is God's desire to be in relationship with us and to help us live in right relationship with the people and world around us. "Christian love is an act of freedom,” (161) because we are able to become the people we are created to be, the people we want to be: living in ever-deepening relationship with God and others, as we so desire to do. This happens because of God's love reaching out to us, and because we accept the hope for the future that God's love brings. Because we live in this radical freedom, we are able to (more often) live out our true selves, the essential selves we want to be, because we are intentionally seeking right relationship with God and learning how to do so.

Migliore points out that, “People whose freedom is rooted in God's grace...will always be disturbing presences in a world that knows all too well both the coercive power of 'masters' and the unresisting servility of 'slaves'...” (161). In other words, when we live in this radical freedom we won't look like everyone else, and this will scare people and threaten their worldview, their hierarchies, and their spaces of comfort within the systems of domination in which most of us live our lives. To be New Beings in Christ means that through our daily, moment-to-moment connection with the Living Spirit, we are able to learn how to live as the people we want to be, to unlearn the systems of domination and oppression which have become so natural, and to live out true love toward God, neighbor and world.

The Fall is the condition in which we find ourselves, but it is not the last word. We have hope through our ability to yearn for and seek right relationships, and through these small acts God will change the world.

Friday, July 31, 2009


I've been holding this blog post in my head for a couple weeks because I haven't had time to post it, for no good reason perhaps, except that we had our Yearly Meeting sessions this week. Although I didn't have any major roles this week, it was a full week between attending meetings for worship for business, evening worship gatherings, and leading a workshop on Christian Peacemaker Teams. It was also fun connecting with F/friends, old and new.

Anyway, it was interesting reading the three chapters I read for this doctrine, from Barclay's Apology, Migliore's Faith Seeking Understanding and Freeing Theology, edited by LaCugna. The most interesting thing was that I agreed with all three of them, and they all added something the others didn't do as well. In a lot of ways they were saying the same thing from different perspectives.

The main point of all three can be summed up with a quote from Barclay: "the scriptures are only a declaration of the source, and not the source itself...." (46). Or again, here is a similar quote from Migliore: "Christians do not believe in the Bible; they believe in the living God attested by the Bible" (50). Sandra M. Schneiders, the author of the essay "The Bible and Feminism" in Freeing Theology, points out that Vatican II emphasizes that Christ is the only true revelation, as opposed to the Catholic Church's previous emphasis on scripture and tradition. All of these authors emphasized that the Word is Jesus, and the biblical text is just words about God, about the history of human interaction with God and words through which God often communicates with us. But without the Spirit, the words therein are just the same as any other words--they can be harmless, and also can be harmful.

It is difficult for all three authors to distinguish this doctrine fully from that of revelation, because so many tend to believe that the Bible is our only source of revelation, that it and it alone tells us the truth. All three of these authors combat that claim. It is the Spirit who communicates Truth to us, the Spirit we recognize speaking through the biblical text. "Otherwise," says Barclay, "there would be no distinction between the law and the gospel" (50). He means that if we think of the biblical text as a kind of law book showing us the truth, then what did we need the gospel for? The gospel frees us from the confines of the law.

The problem with this is its tendency for supercessionism, for making it really easy to demonize Judaism because all they had was the law. (Did I already write about this, or just think about it?) At any rate, the important thing to remember is that this tension exists within Judaism as well as Christianity. There is an amazing prophetic tradition within Judaism, calling the people back to faithfulness to God, not just to the letter of their law. The summaries of the laws Jews are to follow are the same as those for Christians: we are to love God and our neighbors, we are to act justly and love mercy and walk humbly with God. In this way both religions are ones of the law--the law of love. Christianity perhaps makes this more explicit, but this theme is present and even dominant in the Hebrew Scriptures (that which we often call the Old Testament).

Although scripture is not the truth itself, it is the written record we have that, whether we like it or not, has been handed down to us as something through which God speaks to us. Personally, I trust that what is in there is there for a reason, although it's hard to see why some of it is in there and how much we can reinterpret for a new time. I think there may have been other things written that could have been in the Bible but were kept out and destroyed because perhaps they were written by women or in support of women, and that is sad. I agree with Migliore who reminds us that although this is something through which God communicates, it is also a human document, written by human writers, and collected by human leaders of the church in particular contexts. I also agree with Schneiders who emphasizes that the Bible is "God's self-communication in human language" (37), so although it is as authentic a communication of God as we can get (apart from Christ in physical form, or the Spirit speaking to us directly), every revelation we receive is communicated in a way we can understand. Therefore obviously it does not contain or communicate all of who God is, because of the limited medium and the limits of our own minds for comprehension.

One huge problem with the biblical text, which of course Barclay doesn't think to talk about, is that "the biblical canon was established by men who selected writings by men that men found valuable since they reflected male experience, interests, and theological positions, because these male authorities obviously thought that male experience was equivalent to human experience" (Schneiders, 42, in LaCugna, ed.). One could add to this that it was written in particular places and times, reflecting particular cultures and norms, which may or may not translate to current cultures. So the text is not perfect for us. It is confusing, it is archaic, it uses metaphors and cultural contexts we don't understand, and without illumination by the Spirit it can be incredibly damaging.

I found Migliore's "Principles of the Interpretation of Scripture" helpful as we think about these things. I think he helpfully balances these tensions by emphasizing personal connection and interpretation of the text combined with communal and historical understandings. Here are his principles:

1. Scripture should be interpreted with historical and literary sensitivity; yet Scripture's unique witness to the living God resists its imprisonment in the past or its reduction to pious fiction.

2. Scripture must be interpreted theocentrically [with God at the center]; however, the identity of god is radically redescribed in the overarching narrative of Scripture as the triune God, i.e., the God of Israel who comes to us in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

3. Scripture must be interpreted ecclesially, i.e., in the context of the life and witness of the church; however, an ecclesial reading of Scripture differs not only from an individualistic reading but also from the control of Scripture by church doctrine or hierarchy.

4. Scripture must be interpreted contextually; however, the context of our interpretation must not be confined to our personal history or to that of our immediate locality.

Interpretation of the text is so important, because it is in our interpretation that meaning occurs. This is also where the Spirit is present with us. I love this quote by Schneiders: "meaning is not 'in' the text but occurs in the interaction between text and reader, just as music is not 'in' the score but occurs as an event when the score is performed" (47). I think when we read the text apart from interacting with the Spirit it's like looking at music notes on a page, when we can't read music and can't even begin to imagine what the song would sound like. But when we listen to the Spirit we can hear the symphony played in us, and through us. We can respond and participate from our own context on our own unique "instrument." This goes well with the following, final Barclay quote:

"This is the great work of the scriptures, and their usefulness to us. They find a respondent spark in us, and in that way we discern the stamp of God's ways and [God's] Spirit upon them. We know this from the inward acquaintance we have with the same Spirit and with [the Spirit's] work in our hearts" (59).

Monday, July 13, 2009

the trinity

The Trinity is a rather strange doctrine, because on the surface it doesn't have much to do with Christianity or faith, but just seems like a kind of strange belief that Christians are supposed to ascribe to. The Trinity as such is never mentioned in the Bible, and in fact there is a major emphasis on the fact that there is one God. Some feminists actually find the doctrine oppressive (which I will explain shortly), and there have been many splits in the church over the years regarding the level of divinity of each of the three “persons” we call the Trinity.

Early Friends, including Barclay, apparently basically agreed with the doctrine of the Trinity, in that they believed Jesus was somehow part of God (in a way different from how anyone else can be), and they believed in a spiritual being called God who they had no trouble calling Father or Spirit. Barclay doesn't actually address the doctrine of the Trinity in his Apology, but he does make it clear that he believes Jesus to be divine (Freiday in his introduction cites Barclay's Confession of Faith, Article IV on this point).

Also, in Barclay's Apology, Proposition 2, he is discussing revelation but he makes a fairly Trinitarian claim:

“The only knowledge of the Father is by the Son
“The only knowledge of the Son is by the Spirit
“God has always revealed [God's] self to [God's] children by the Spirit....” (p. 23)

What it seems like to me is that early Friends kind of assumed the doctrine of the Trinity was more or less correct, but they didn't get caught up in its nuances. The point is, Jesus is God, we learn about God through the Spirit, the Spirit is both God and Christ, and we don't have to split hairs about who did what in creation, redemption, etc., and who is doing what now—all we know is that God is here, speaking to us, and the God who is present is the God of Jesus and is Jesus.

Other people, however, find the doctrine of the Trinity to be extremely important, and there is a lot of theological work devoted to figuring out exactly how the Trinity works over the centuries. There are two aspects of the Trinity: the “economic” Trinity, meaning the part we can see, the three ways God has interacted with humanity to enact the things going on in our world; and there is the “immanent” Trinity, the speculated internal relationship between the three parts of the Godhead in their own being and essential self, regardless of how they interact with us.

Migliore helpfully distinguishes between the confession of the Trinity and the doctrine of the Trinity: “The Christian confession of God as triune is a summary description of the witness of Scripture to God's unfathomable love incarnate in Jesus Christ and experienced and celebrated in the community of faith. The doctrine of the Trinity is the always-inadequate attempt to interpret this witness in the most suitable images and concepts available to the church in a particular era” (Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 2004, 67). In other words, we see these three aspects of God named over and over throughout the Bible, so the confession of the Trinity is simply naming how we see God interacting with humanity across time. The doctrine is the attempt to explain those different aspects in a way that makes sense to the context of a particular community. When seen this way, the Trinity can be a helpful concept.

There are some positive and negative things about the doctrine of the Trinity, however. Feminist thealogians point out (and I believe rightly) that the way the Trinity is often envisioned is both hierarchical and all male, both of which are not helpful because they are so often used as the basis for other Christian doctrines (Catherine Mowry LaCugna explains these well in the chapter I read for this week, “God in Communion with Us: The Trinity,” in Freeing Theology, 83-114. Migliore also does a good job of presenting these issues in his chapter “The Triune God,” 64-91.)

In many explanations of the Trinity, it is seen as a hierarchy of “persons,” from the Father-God who is the supreme divine being, to Jesus who is “his” Son and therefore heir but not quite equal because he was a human being for a time, to the Spirit who is sent by the Father through the Son as sort of their messenger or mediator. On this basis, many have tried to back up the hierarchy they posit in church leadership, family roles, races and/or slavery, and the hierarchy some see in the natural world (with human beings at the top).

Another major problem is that all the “persons” of the Trinity are spoken of as male. We use masculine pronouns for all of them in English. (In Greek, all nouns are assigned a “gender,” masculine, feminine or neuter. “Spirit” is neuter, so technically in the original language the Spirit is referred to as “it.” But the other two are masculine.) If you ask most Christians, I think they will tell you that God is neither male nor female, and yet often people think of God's qualities as more “masculine,” and males as more like God than females. There is the ever-pervasive analogy of Christ and the church, where Jesus is a prototype for males and the church (submissive, obedient, passive) is the model for females. I think this misses the whole point of that analogy, but that's for another post. The point is, because all the “persons” of the Trinity are set up as male, it is easy to support a hierarchical ideology in all areas of church dogma.

But there is hope! LaCugna and Migliore both spend a good deal of time in their chapters explaining the original reason the doctrine of the Trinity came to be (controversy in the church over the divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit), and the original understanding of the Trinity. The Cappodocians (two brothers and a friend who were priests in the fourth century, as well as, probably, their sister Macrina) first really explained the Trinity, and their understanding was that the Trinity was an essentially social entity: one God who was in relationship with God's self in an inexplicable way. The three “persons” we have come to know through history exist in constant, perfect, loving communion with one another, and it is this love and communion into which we are invited.

This became the basis for the Eastern Orthodox understanding of the Trinity, while the Western understanding became more one of a single God with three aspects, like Augustine's more psychological analogy, where the aspects of God were less persons and more like aspects of one's personality or something akin to Freud's id, ego and superego. Western thought became more focused on the singularity of God, of God's fullness and autonomy in God's self, while Eastern Christianity focused on the social nature of God even within God's self, and how God invites us to live within that social structure of love and mutuality.

Western theologians today, it seems, are beginning to stress the social Trinity more than in the past, which I think is a good thing.

The problem still remains, however, that all these “persons” are considered male. This is a problem because it limits the way we view God, the ways we connect with God, and the way we value human persons. I think part of the problem is that our analogies have become rigid dogma, rather than something to help us understand different parts of God and how they can be part of a whole. The Bible uses many different names for God, and yet over the years, Christians have focused mainly on three, deciding with no actual scriptural basis that God is three persons, no more, no less. I understand the need to make it clear that Christians believe in the divinity of Christ and of the Holy Spirit, but I don't think this means we must limit God to only three persons, or three ways of relating to us. These are helpful analogies, but they are only that: analogies. God is not Father, God is like a father, and we can call God “Father” as a way of helping us know how to relate to God. At the same time, God is also like a mother, and it seems to me like we should have permission to call God “Mother” if that name helps us connect with God. I don't see God having a problem with that, and yet many people do have a problem with it.

Now, I understand how easy it is to get set in one's ways and want things to be done how they have always been done. I've actually noticed myself experiencing that a few times this week. I'm at a summer camp where my husband and I have led worship for middle schoolers several times, and there are certain ways we like to do things. We're leading this week with some people who we've never led with before, and they have some great ideas, and yet I find myself chafing about having to do things a little differently. I like the patterns we've set up. They work for us and they seem to help people draw in to worship and attentiveness. And yet, I have to take myself aside and say, “Cherice, are you just annoyed here because we're not doing things the way we've always done them, or do you have a genuine concern that this will be something that will make it difficult for these middle schoolers to practice worship?” Sometimes it's the former, and sometimes the latter. So I've been trying to be really intentional this week about letting my little forms and boxes I want to put around God be broken. But it's hard, and I don't always like it. So I can understand why people don't want to start using other names for God with which they're not familiar—it's hard! It takes work to let ourselves be drawn out of our familiar patterns and the ways we like to connect with God.

But I think it is in these places that we really meet God.

I think that's what Quaker silent meetings were originally about. I think the point was to listen for God as God, not through our familiar forms or comfortable patterns, but just to stop and listen, to be vulnerable to the point of being moved, to receive courage and insight that allows us to break out of the ways we've always done things, and to be moved to do something new. It is only through this kind of opening that we are actually able to live out justice and love in the world.

In Quakerism, whether we are programmed or unprogrammed, Christ-centered or not, whether we talk about the Trinity in formal, informal or nonexistent ways, I think we've still allowed ourselves to build up these kind of forms and boxes that hold us in, that keep us from really experiencing God in God's fullness. Perhaps some of us don't use the traditional “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” language, and I know many of us do, but either way, when was the last time any of us allowed God to be someone bigger than we imagined? When was the last time we allowed God to draw us in to God's playful, loving, co-suffering relationship?

Whether we use Trinitarian language or not, I challenge all of us to allow God to envision God's self to us, to break out of the mold we have put around our concept of God, and to experience God ourselves, unmediated, no walls, no forms, and to see where that experience—of a relationship so deep and loving and painfully aware of others' circumstance—leads us.

Thursday, July 09, 2009


This is pretty much the basic Christian doctrine, because how one understands revelation really affects how one speaks of any of the other doctrines. Basic questions are asked here: how do we know what we say we know about God or anything beyond our "normal" senses? What is the content and mode of revelation? What is its purpose? Contemporary theologians ask questions regarding who is believed to be able to receive revelation, and whose interpretation "counts."

Migliore's definition of what we mean by the term "revelation" is helpful: "Revelation is the disclosure of the character and purpose of God, and when it is received, it radically changes the lives of its recipients" (Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 2004, 22).

Quakers and feminists agree about many things regarding revelation, and in many ways it seems that Quakers were incredibly ahead of their time on this one. Barclay spends his entire Proposition 2 on "Inward and Unmediated Revelation," explaining that it is foundational to being a follower of God, and that other denominations really base everything on this direct revelation at some point, although they do not all agree that we can still receive this kind of revelation. Barclay states that this inward revelation will not contradict scripture, but scripture and reason should not be seen as more important than inward revelation: they cannot be used as something to contradict our inward experience. It is true that we can test things against scripture and reason to see if what we are hearing is likely to be actual revelation from God, or whether it is something else (self-deception, another spirit, etc.). But it is ultimately our own inward experience of God we must trust and live by.

If you're interested in such things, Barclay gives a whole list of "church fathers" who speak of this kind of direct, unmediated revelation, and its importance as the basic way we come to know God. Barclay even gives examples from Luther, Calvin and a prominent Anglican contemporary, "Dr. Smith of Cambridge." This latter wrote, "seek God within your own soul....The best and truest knowledge of God is not that which is wrought by the labor and sweat of the brain, but that which is kindled within us, by a heavenly warmth in our hearts."

Quakers were obviously not the only ones to believe that God speaks to us directly. There is a strong stream throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition of mystics, prophets and activists who claim direct connection with God. (Some of these, Barclay points out, were obviously not in connection with God, but we are not to judge actual connection with the Spirit by the fact that some people claim to have it and don't, any more than we should judge the efficacy of reason just because some claim to be using it and aren't. But how would we know the difference between something that is from God and something that isn't if we didn't each have the capacity to discern that, through Christ's Spirit?) I think Quakers have had a huge impact on Christianity through this particular doctrine. The Wesleyan emphasis on a personal choice of faith was influenced by Wesley's knowledge of Barclay (according to Dean Freiday, as I talked about in a previous post), and this in turn has influenced the entire evangelical and holiness movements, and arguably the Pentecostal movement.

As I read the chapter from Freeing Theology on this doctrine, I was struck by how much similarity there is in that Catholic, feminist perspective and Quakerism. I don't know that this is from the direct influence of Quakerism, but I think it is at least obliquely due to the challenge Friends (and others) brought to the Roman Catholic church over the last 400 years. The chapter is called "Experience and Tradition--Can the Center Hold? Revelation," by Mary Catherine Hilkert. She emphasizes that feminists' main point is that womens' experience, as well as all human experience, can be revelatory, can be an experience of the divine. She discusses something similar to Migliore's definition above, stating that it is through relationships that we come to points of "conversion," points at which we change in radical ways that we would not have done apart from those relationships. She says that feminists primarily use the human relationship as a metaphor for revelation, which is seen as learning to know God more fully. This can only happen in relationship. Therefore, human friendships are seen as very important in understanding how we can become "friends" with God. Does this sound familiar to us "Friends"?

Barclay states very clearly that revelation is available to all people, and that it is the point of faith. Here is a fun quote: "Take away the Spirit and Christianity is no more Christianity than a corpse is a man...." I think this is so important as we try to understand how we can live a faith that is not just going through the motions. This means that we can't get caught up either in the traditions of the church, or the supposedly not-traditions of Quakerism. Instead we must be constantly led by the Spirit, listening for how the revelation Christ embodied is to be continually lived out in a way that meets us in real relationship here, now, in this moment. We don't ignore the past, but we don't rely on it, either.

One of the main questions feminists ask is, "Whose experience counts?" Barclay deals with this obliquely by saying that everyone can experience God. But the problem is, what do we do with tradition? What do we do with a tradition that has been handed down to us primarily expressing a male perspective from a dominant class? Is there a way to include other voices (women, those who are not in a power-position, etc.) while still calling ourselves "Christian"? Early Friends and feminists mainly agree that while the Bible is a witness to people's interaction with God, it is not itself God's Word--Jesus is that. We read the Bible for its overarching meanings, not getting hung up on any particular verse or passage that either proves or disproves what we think is right. This gets into next week's topic, however, so I will leave it at that.

But how do we utilize scripture and other traditions in ways that support the humanity of all people, and that allows all people's experiences of revelation to "count"?

It is interesting that Migliore's text doesn't really address this question. Although he talks about revelation as something that changes one profoundly, and although he gives some examples of people who realized something internally that shook them to the very core, he doesn't really address the question of inward revelation. He focuses a good deal on whether revelation occurs only in the Christ-event and an individual's encounter with that event through the Bible, or whether God can be seen in a general way through all creation. He doesn't really ask or answer the question of whether and how human beings today know revelation when they see it (in theological terms, this is called "general revelation," while revelation only in Christ is called "special revelation.") Migliore does say that we would know nothing of revelation without the Bible and the Spirit, but really what he means is that the point of revelation is knowing about Jesus, and the only thing that is actual revelation is knowledge of Jesus' life and death (he doesn't mention the resurrection).

I think this is where Quakers and feminists differ. Yes, there is something unqualifiably important about Jesus, but for some reason, God cares about each of us and our lives, too. God has chosen to make us part of Christ's body, a part that is really important in living out God's love in the world. This happens as we experience God ourselves and our lives are transformed. This is utterly more important than knowing anything about Jesus' historical life, although knowing about that helps us understand God better to some degree.

I guess it just seems to me like there is so much more to revelation than just the Bible. Anytime we try to limit it to the Bible we become idolatrous, and this is what Friends responded against. Anytime we limit it to the Bible, we reject the experience of those who were not part of creating that text, and we try to limit God to working only in ways God worked in the past--which is to say, we limit God to only being able to work through people who lived in the past. I think this is the basic point that Quakers and many contemporary theologians try to make: if God was only active in the past, we practice a religion that is dead. If this is the case, why not practice any other religion that claims to be inspired by divine revelation?

It is only through our inward understanding of truth and love that we can come to true belief in a God, faith, religion or community. Otherwise we miss the entire point of faith.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

intro part 3

I'm finally getting to the last post of the introduction to my summer project going here--I read this material fairly quickly, but then getting time to sit down and write about it has proved more challenging. We'll see if this "summer project" actually gets done in the summer!

Anyway, the final book I am reading as part of this project is Freeing Theology, a collection of essays on the various Christian doctrines by Catholic feminist theologians. It may be surprising to some that one can be both a Catholic and a feminist, but actually a good portion of the most renowned feminist theologians are Catholic. Perhaps this is because they have more to fight against, and the academy is their only choice since they cannot go into official parish ministry. At any rate, this book was written in 1993, but I think it is still useful in seeing how these doctrines can be explicated from a feminist perspective. As Catherine Mowry LaCugna, the editor of this book and the author of the short introduction, says, "This is not a book about feminism or about the Christian tradition but an example of doing theology from a new perspective" (LaCugna, ed., 1993, 1). This book was also written to be used in a classroom such as the one for which I originally read it. It doesn't include all the traditional doctrines, so I'll have to use other sources for a couple of the topics, but it gives a sampling of the way feminists look at these doctrines, staying firmly in the Christian tradition while questioning the "androcentrism" we have inherited.

(Androcentrism is a term coined by Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, I believe, in her wonderful book In Memory of Her: a feminist theological reconstruction of Christian origins. I don't have that book with me right now so I won't give you the exact citation. Anyway, it means that Christianity assumes the male experience to be normative and central, while the female experience deviates from that norm. She counters this with historical and biblical evidence that Christ's intentions were not thus, and that even the first couple of generations of Christ-follwers did not live this way. As the community became more formal and norms of belief and leadership became established, the egalitarian impulses of Christ's message were suppressed, though never completely eradicated.)

The first chapter of this book is called "The New Vision of Feminist Theology: Method," and is written by Anne E. Carr. She writes about the method of doing theology from a feminist perspective. Part of this method is reminding us that we all come from a particular context with our own assumptions which inform the conclusions we reach. While theologians of the past have not called themselves "contextual," their theologies have yet been shaped by (and shaped) their particular context. They think and write as they do because of the culture and the time period in which they were born. The questions they ask are shaped partially by that context, and the issues at hand in their generation. Since the Enlightenment, many people have tried to get rid of that "contextual," subjective part of theology, attempting to look at theology rationally and objectively. The problem with this, feminists say, is that no matter what, we are all shaped by our context. Feminists and other "contextual theologians" simply state their assumptions and context and see it as an asset as they look at theological questions from their particular vantage point. Rather than becoming discouraged because we cannot get an "objective" view of God or decide based on replicable evidence whether or not a particular faith claim is "true," we recognize that we can each see a different angle, and because of the particular place in which we are located, we can help inform the whole.

Carr highlights the work of two important feminist theologians, and the way they talk about the method of theology from a feminist perspective. She discusses Rosemary Radford Ruether and Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, two of my heroes (heroines?)! In her work Sexism & God-Talk Ruether says: "The critical principle of feminist theology is the promotion of the full humanity of women. Whatever denies, diminishes or distorts the full humanity of women is, therefore, appraised as not redemptive" (qtd. in LaCugna, ed., 1993, 13). Therefore, the goal of feminist theology is not really to promote any major, unfounded agenda or to negate the humanity and worth of men. Instead it simply seeks to remind the Christian communities that women are human being, also created in the image of God, and equally capable of connecting with and interpreting revelation from God.

Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza's work focuses on the early church. She is a biblical scholar who sees in the biblical text traces of the egalitarian community that attempted to exist, and the debate that began very early in the life of the church regarding the role of women in leadership and interpretation of revelation. She even calls into question whether things that we take to be anti-women were in fact meant thus, or whether through tradition we have learned to understand them so. I won't go into all that, because it would take forever, but she makes excellent points regarding many difficult passages in In Memory of Her.

I think it's important to include a feminist voice in my little study here, because a) it's important to me, and b) there was no such thing as "feminism" during Barclay's time, and I think in many ways feminism goes along with Quakerism very nicely, but adds an extra element that early Friends just weren't thinking about yet. Like Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, early Friends apparently looked back to the early Christian community as one of relative equality, regardless of race, gender or social class. They pre-empted feminism in many ways, although traditional roles were still in effect to some degree in households and such.

I think at times Barclay was too much under the sway of Enlightenment thought and did not give adequate thought to context, either his or anyone else's, so having a theology that emphasizes the context of the individual is helpful.

I also think that feminist theologians pick up on a theme similar to Quakers when they emphasize the personal experience of the one doing the theology. For Friends, we emphasize that everyone is able to hear and respond to God. Feminists give us a helpful insight when they remind the church that we sometimes block our collective understanding of revelation when we say it must occur within certain boundaries, which have traditionally excluded huge populations of people from the process of listening to and interpreting what we hear from God. This caution is still important for us as Friends, although we in theory believe God can speak to and through anyone. It is important for us to continue listening to "that of God in everyone," in whatever way God wants to speak. As we listen to the experiences of those around us we test them against history, the biblical record, our community, and our own understanding of God, but we allow new voices to come in and soften the barriers we put up around what "counts" as revelatory experience and what is "acceptable" theology. We stand for something, yes, but within that there is incredible freedom to explore the mystery of the intimate, incarnate, transcendent God who is simultaneously within and beyond.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

intro part 2

I chose the other two texts for this self-imposed summer project because a) I've already read most of them, and b) I really appreciated many things about them and the theologies presented. The main deficiency in this project is that all these texts are written by white Westerners (well, I'm not sure about whether all the women in Freeing Theology are white, but a majority of them are anyway). For my seminary systematic theology courses we also read works of Black theology, Asian theology, Latino/a theology, and other feminists/womanists. (We also read several other "traditional" theologians.) But in order to keep this project somewhat manageable, I'm going to limit it to these three texts.

Daniel L. Migliore's Faith Seeking Understanding was written for use in a classroom as a slightly-more-than-basic introduction to the traditional Christian doctrines. Migliore was a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary until he retired at the end of this school year. I never got a chance to take a class from him, but he seems like a genuine, thoughtful person, and I appreciate the way he wrote this text. I like the way he states his objective for this text: he wants "to offer an introduction to Christian theology that is both critically respectful of the classical theological tradition adn critically open to the new voices and emphases of recent theology" (Migliore, 2004, xiii). In other words, he presents theology from the past, and tries to incorporate contemporary and more contextual theologies, but he does not accept either kind without critical reflection.

The name of his text comes from a quote attributed to Anselm, a Medieval theologian, that the task of theology is "faith seeking understanding." Theology is not simply regurgitating what people have said in the past, but "Christian faith prompts inquiry, searches for deeper understanding,d ares to raise questions" (2). I appreciate Migliore's caution that "faith causes us to do more than think" (7). As we do theology, we have to realize that if we're just sitting around thinking and writing about the intricacies and inanities of various doctrines, we aren't doing theology. To do true theological inquiry is to think about things, then act on them, then reflect on that experience, and go out and act on our thoughts some more. (Practical theologians call this "praxis," and perhaps do a better job of living this theory out more often than systematic theologians, but at least Migliore addresses this and sees it as the ideal.)

Migliore lays out four helpful "Questions of Theology" (pp. 10-14):

1. Are the proclamation and practice of the community of faith true to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ as attested in Scripture?

2. Do the proclamation and practice of the community of faith give adequate expression to the whole truth of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ?

3. Do the proclamation and practice of the community of faith represent the God of Jesus Christ as a living reality in the present context?

4. Does the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ by the community of faith lead to transforming practice in personal and social life?

I appreciate these questions as ways to think about theology, rather than just explicating doctrines created by human beings. I think the parts of theology that Quakers have traditionally rejected come in when theology ceases to address these questions. When "theology" is only theoretical, when it does not prompt action in the world for the sake of others, it is useless. On the other hand, it is also not Christian theology when it's not focused to some degree on the Bible and the life of Jesus, historical and present in the Spirit who moves in our midst. I think Quakerism and other denominations witness to the struggle between tradition and contemporary revelation. How do we understand past revelation in a way that is still relevant? How do we make sure that the "revelation" we receive today is actually revelation and not just false prophecy? (I would define "false prophecy" as "things that make give us the impression of happiness without taking into account past, future, other people or the world in which we live.") But that's getting into the next chapters' topic, so I won't say too much about that now. Suffice it to say, I think the way Migliore explains the task of theology is helpful and, when stated thus, is something with which Quakers can be in complete agreement.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

intro to my summer project

In my last post I said I was going to start a summer reading project, comparing Barclay's Apology with two other theological works. Since I have accountability, I'd better do it, right? So my plan is to post at least once a week on various theological doctrines, either explaining how all three books express these doctrines in one post, or doing a couple posts that explain each book on its own. I'll give you my "syllabus" for myself, so that if you want to read along at home you're more than welcome to do so. Then I'll begin with a discussion of the introductory material/chapters of each of these works, and why I chose them.

Week 1: Introduction (this week)
Dean Freiday's forward to Barclay's Apology
Faith Seeking Understanding, Migliore, chapter 1
Freeing Theology, ed. LaCugna, chapter 1

Week 2, (week of) June 29: Revelation
Barclay Propositions 1 & 2
Migliore 1-43
Freeing Theology 59-82

Week 3, July 6: The Trinity
Barclay 20-26 (he doesn't have a separate proposition on this)
Migliore 64-91
Freeing Theology 83-114

Week 4, July 13: Scripture
Barclay Proposition 3
Migliore 44-63
Freeing Theology 31-58

Week 5, July 20: The Fall
Barclay Proposition 4
Migliore 139-162
Freeing Theology 139-160
Sexism & God-Talk, Rosemary Radford Reuther, 159-192

Week 6, July 27: Salvation & Christology
Barclay Propositions 5 & 6
Migliore 163-222
Freeing Theology 115-138

Week 7, August 3: Justification & Sanctification
Barclay Propositions 7 & 8
Migliore 223-247
Freeing Theology 235-259

Week 8, August 10: Predestination
Barclay Proposition 9
Migliore 117-138
(If anyone can suggest a good feminist source on this I'd appreciate it!)

Week 9, August 17: The Church
Barclay Propositions 10 & 11
Migliore 248-273
Freeing Theology 161-184

Week 10, August 24: The Sacraments
Barclay Propositions 12 & 13
Migliore 274-300
Freeing Theology 185-210

Week 11, August 31: Ethics & Politics
Barclay Proposition 14
Migliore 330-353
Freeing Theology 211-234

Disclaimer: I will be at camps two of these weeks, and one is Yearly Meeting sessions, so I might not actually get to all this within this timeline, but I'll try! We may have to bump it back, but my goal is to finish this within the official "summer."

Now for a short explanation of each of these texts and why I chose them.

I read Migliore's text and Freeing Theology for (I think) the first semester of my systematic theology course in seminary, and it's been in the back of my head since then that I should do some kind of somewhat-systematic comparison of the theologies presented with the Quaker explication. Barclay is the first (relatively) systematic Quaker theology, and arguably the only one to date. (If you know of others, let me know--I would be interested in reading them. I suspect that perhaps something from Ben Pink Dandelion would fit this category, but I haven't read much of his stuff, although I'd like to read more. Someone at some point in one of the comments on my blog suggested John Punshon's book, Reasons for Hope, but that is more a history of Friends, not a systematic theology.) I've read a good deal of Barclay's Apology, but not in the order it's written--mainly just to compare it to whatever else I'm reading on a certain doctrine. Barclay wrote his original work in Latin, published in 1676, and he translated it into English in 1678. I'm reading Dean Freiday's edition in "modern English" (1967).

For this week I just read Freiday's introductory materials on Barclay's life and the Apology itself. This was helpful to me, not only to get a feel for Barclay's personal context, but to set him in the midst of the historical-theological timeline. Freiday gives helpful and brief comments about Barclay's and Quakers' theology compared to those around him. He talks about Barclay's reaction to Calvin and Luther, Wesley's reliance on Barclay's thought on perfection, and the contemporary debates to which Barclay refers in his text as well as those who responded to his work. Freiday says that Barclay loosely used the order of doctrines presented in the Westminster Shorter Catechism (catechism created for the Anglican church in the 1640s), although he does not address all the questions therein or necessarily in that exact order. For a general overview of Barclay's thought on major doctrines, this introduction is very helpful if you don't have time to read the whole Apology or want extra insight into the broader picture of Barclay's thought.

I think I will leave my explanation of the other two texts for another post (or two), because this one is getting quite long already. So look forward to that in the next day or two.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

back in the NW

Well, as my father-in-law commented yesterday, it's been a while since I've blogged. I mean, it's not like I've been busy or anything! OK, maybe the last week or so I haven't been THAT busy, but...anyway, I've taken a little break.

In the last month I finished my German class, graduated with my Master of Divinity degree, packed up, drove a moving truck across the country with a several-day stop in the Tetons, moved in and got mostly unpacked, and started swimming lessons with my kiddo. (Here's a picture.) It's been a fun and full month.

Right now my days are mainly filled with taking care of myself and Espen. I haven't really had time to take care of myself for a while, so it's really been nice! I get up most mornings at 6am, do centering prayer for a while, then do yoga until Espen wakes up. I got a new bike for graduation and that has been so awesome! I've never in my adult life had a bike that actually fits me and works well, so it's quite a revelation that biking can be fun and not that difficult. Espen and I very rarely use the car, because we have a great bike trailer with enough space for a bag or two of groceries or whatever else we need to carry (although that makes biking somewhat more difficult!). We've visited most of the parks in the area at least once, and even gone over to a F/friend's house not too far away, forgetting she lives on a HUGE hill! (I thought I was going to die. When I visit Leslie this summer she'd better know I really love her!)

"Taking care of myself" also means reading novels. I haven't read tons, but I read a little each day and relish the fact that I'm not procrastinating when I do so! I finished Eat, Pray, Love, which I really enjoyed, and I'm working on Bridge of Sighs.

My upcoming goals are to a) learn Spanish, and b) read Barclay's Apology as well as a couple other theological works, and compare and contrast Barclay's theology with others. I plan to compare his to two books I read in seminary. One is Daniel Migliore's Faith Seeking Understanding, in which he lays out the different theological doctrines with explanations from various perspectives from Christian history. The other is Freeing Theology, a collection of articles by various feminist theologians, edited by Catherine Mowry LaCugna. I'm going to try to set myself some assignments as if I was reading these for a class and had to write reflection papers or something. We'll see how that goes! Check back in and see if I'm doing my self-imposed homework...

Monday, May 11, 2009

belated: forum on youth ministry, day 4

I didn't get a chance to post anything about the last day of the youth ministry forum. I had my German exam that morning and then I was exhausted, and then a F/friend from home visited for several days, which was fun, and then...well...I guess I have no excuse for the last several days. I've just been vegging out and not doing much of anything besides a bit of work and taking care of the kiddo.

Anyway, the last day of the forum was also excellent. I attended the final session by Douglas John Hall in my extended seminar, "What Christianity is Not." Then I went to electives called, "Lifecasting: Teens & Technology" by Andrew Zirschy, and "The Courage to Hope: Caring for Troubled Youth" by Greg Ellison. The conference rounded off with another plenary lecture by Andrew Root, author of Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry. All of these were excellent, but I'll try to just give a brief summary of their main points and what stood out to me.

Douglas John Hall entitled this lecture, "What Christianity is Not: a 'Religion of the Book.'" I found this very interesting, because he pointed out that it is not the Bible which is the Word of God--even according to the Bible. Instead, God's Word is living. It became incarnate in Jesus Christ and is active in the world today. Read without this living Word, the written words of scripture are meaningless. To me this seems like a very Quaker idea, but he backed it up with staunch Protestant names: Calvin, Luther, Barth, and going back further, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. It's good to know Quakers are in "good" company! Read through Hall's eyes, I actually like Barth... Hall emphasized that God's Word is prophetic, meaning it can't be once for all time, it can't be something codified and contained in a book. The Bible is a reminder of God's action throughout history, but we listen to the Word today because the living Word is a Zeitgeist, the Spirit of the times, speaking into our current context words of prophetic hope and peace. At the same time, Hall emphasized we need to get to know the Bible. He said, "Christianity isn't a people of the Book, but without the Book it isn't Christianity." I think both sides of this are things that we as Friends need to remember, and it is this very delicate, paradoxical line that often divides us. But we need both.

The elective on teens and technology was also excellent, and connected much more with youth ministry, which was helpful. Andrew reminded us that youth turning 19 were born in 1990, the year the Worldwide Web was created. That's pretty crazy! Anyone 19 and under has grown up with the Internet(s) as commonplace. He talked about ways teens are changing technology, and ways technology is changing teens. Basically teens are changing technology by making it ever more a tool for social connection. But technology is also changing teens. Although we have Facebook, what are such social networks doing to "face-to-face" interactions? Why are teens (and others) so drawn to such online social networking opportunities? Why do teens feel the need to text people all day and even throughout the night? (He told us that teenagers are the lowest demographic of people in the USA with computers who don't have email addresses--lower than the over-70 demographic. Why email when you can text?) Andrew's main point was that youth desire true intimacy, and they're looking for it in places other than the church, because they're not sensing that kind of intimacy available in the church. He asked the poignant question, "Does your church serve communion, or is it communion?" In Quaker circles maybe we would answer, "None of the above," but the point of our time of silence (whether for the whole meeting for worship or only a portion) is designed for us to commune with God. That's all well and good, but do we commune with others as well? Do we intentionally live communion in a way that creates intimate relationships with others in our meetings, and spreads out to others in the world? Andrew suggested this is much more important than whether we have the newest technology in our meetinghouses. What teens are looking for is relationships, not technology--they only use technology as a tool to build intimacy.

After lunch I went to the "Courage to Hope" elective. Greg Ellison taught the course and did an excellent job. I think the teaching style itself was one of the most interesting things I learned in the class. He incorporated drama, video, role playing (unbeknownst to the rest of the class he had several participants role play "troubled youth" throughout most of the class period), small group and partner discussions, and passionate speaking. The information he taught was also important. It fit well with the "Lifecasting" session, although from a different angle. Basically, both classes were emphasizing the fact that youth have no real place or purpose, and that can lead to loss of hope. Youth who can, try to fill this void with technology, and with trying to create intimacy, to be known, through casting their lives out on the Internets, pleading to be seen by someone, anyone. Other youth are made to feel invisible because of their race, class, disability or something else, and they lose hope over their future. They don't even feel safe to be seen, so "Lifecasting" might not be very appealing to them. Instead they act out in anger and violence either against themselves or others. Ellison suggested "solution-focused brief therapy," where you help with someone in this state of despair to use solution-talk (not dwell on the past), think of exceptions to their negative view of the world, and do role plays or imagination journeys where they think of themselves at the end of life, giving advice to their grandchildren (which means they have already made it that far, so they must have a future!). He based a good deal of this, he said, on Donald Capps' Agents of Hope (even though he, ironically, went to Capps' school and was made to feel invisible because of his race).

Andrew Root's lecture covered a lot of what he wrote about in his aforementioned book, but it was good to hear it again. He tried to bring his ideas down to earth by giving suggestions for real youth ministry. He said a real relationship has to be both open and closed. A major problem with "relational" youth ministry as it is often practiced is that the youth minister thinks they have to be always open: they have to be always available, an open book, for youth to come around at any time. Instead, a real relationship needs to have boundaries. This makes a person real, gives them dimension, not just a person I can use to meet my own needs but someone who has needs themselves, who has struggles, who has places of mystery. We need to create boundaries or barriers around ourselves that not only protect our own personhood, but also show others where they themselves stop and we begin. It's a process of helping us all become more truly human, and in the midst of this process we encounter the Divine Presence, who is there in the midst of our contextual suffering and unknowing. In this way we become partners with youth, on a journey to encounter God more and more fully, as we help one another become our true selves.

So, that was the conference, and my last seminary credit! It was a good way to get my last credit and I'm grateful for the experience. I have one more little thing to do for German and then my Masters of Divinity is complete! Graduation will be in a couple weeks, then we head home to the beloved Northwest.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

forum on youth ministry, day 3

Today was more of a laid-back day at the youth ministry forum. We just had a plenary lecture in the morning and then worship, then the afternoon off for exploring the area (for the visitors), or, in my case, studying German and working at the coffee shop where I work once a week. Since I have a German exam tomorrow morning I can't write much, but I'd like to at least talk about the speaker this morning, briefly.

The lecturer was Obery Hendricks, and he was great! He teaches at a seminary in New York, I think. He wrote a book with a title that sounds very familiar to many of us as Friends (or especially any who read this blog who are Mennonite...), "The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Character of Jesus' Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted." He presented a lot of the same types of things I've been writing about here lately, regarding privilege, Jesus' radical call to break down social/political/economic/religious systems of domination, and the American "church's" complete complicity in that domination system.

One thing I found particularly good from his talk was a comment he made that was something like this: "I'm not talking a prosperity gospel, where only my situation within the same system is changed, but I'm talking about good news to the poor, which can only happen through changing the whole system, including the way we live our lives." I think this is so important for us to hear. It's not just that, as middle class American Christians, we want to make it so that everyone can live like we do. Instead, we have to be willing to change the system in which we live. The way we live automatically oppresses other people, so a) it isn't possible for everyone to live like we do because there have to be two classes of people--the oppressed and the oppressors--in the system we live in; and b) we wouldn't want everyone to be forced to live this way.

The question, again, is, "How do we start to implement this?" Yes, this is great advice, a prophetic word. But how do we go about doing the work of breaking down the systems in which we live? How do we go about refusing to cooperate with these systems on a large scale, or even on a small scale that is actually faithful (not just a token giving up of a privilege here and there)? How much giving up of privilege is necessary? Can I, as a white, middle class American, begin this work, or do I need to follow the lead of someone who is "oppressed"? (Do I count, since I'm female?) I don't know the answers to these questions, and neither does Hendricks, as he stated himself. But it seems to me like we need to start doing something, something big, as a Society of Friends. Something that will address the divide between "us" and "them," us who give and are so generous to those needy people, who are only needy because the way I live and earn money and buy things cheaply is because they are not paid adequately or treated justly.

What's our form of Quaker gray today? How can we rally for "fixed prices," as Friends did in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? How can we stand up against the oppression that happens every day in our country and because of our country, because of the way we live? How much letting go of privilege is enough? Even the way I framed that question shows my unwillingness to start down this road...

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

forum on youth ministry, day 2

Today I spent another day at the youth ministry forum. I think it was a day well-spent!

First I returned to my extended seminar on "What Christianity is Not." The teacher, Douglas John Hall, suggested that what it is not is a religion. Instead, it is a faith. Religion is something that is aligned with a culture, with specific rules for living, taboos, etc. "Jesus didn't come to start a new religion, but to end religions once and for all." He talked fairly extensively about "established" religion as against everything Jesus stood for. I thought he was fairly "Quakerly," until I realized on the back of one of his books I've read, it says, "Hall is Karl Barth's type of theologian, with the Scripture in one hand and a daily newspaper in the other." I'm definitely not a Barthian, but I do appreciate that about Barth, and I like Hall. (I think I probably would have liked Barth if I met him, too, but I just don't like all of his theology.) Anyway, so I appreciated this lecture, although it still was not explicitly connected to youth ministry. I guess that's what the rest of our brains are for. (What, you mean we have to actually think???!) I've been thinking a lot lately about how to get someone to pay me to do ministry that breaks down the establishment who's paying the bills...something about not biting the hand that feeds me keeps coming to mind directly after, for some reason...

But as Friends, or at least as Friends who pay some of our ministers, how do we walk that fine line between "releasing" people to be ministers, and paying people to do what we want them to do? How do we ensure that the people we're paying are serving a prophetic role rather than being false prophets who tell us what we want to hear? I see this critique that early Friends warned against, and yet...it would be really nice to do ministry and get paid for it adequately. We'll see what happens.

Then I went to an elective workshop called, "Saying No is Not Enough: sexuality, teens and religion." It was led by Kate Ott, who works for the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing. She spoke practically and helpfully about how to present sexuality education in youth groups. She suggested helpful resources, gave us good statistics, and presented important insights. One of these insights is that we need to be careful about even our implicit sexuality education. An example she gave was prayers that focus completely on God transforming our minds and/or spirits. Do we neglect the body completely in our prayers? Do we think God is present in our physical beings as well as in the parts of ourselves that we call "mind" and "spirit"? Or are we basically Gnostic, thinking that it is only through transcending evil physical existence that we can come close to God? Another important insight, which I've heard before but was helpful to be reminded of, is that sexuality is more than just "who does what to whom." It is a part of our whole selves: our desire for intimacy, our senses, our identity, our health, and the way we act toward others. In the church if we either treat it as only an issue of learning about "plumbing," or just tell youth to "say no" without providing ways to meet needs in all those areas, we are not really being helpful.

After lunch I went to an elective workshop called "Youth Ministry Amidst the Culture of Youth Violence." I thought that sounded interesting in light of my views on the way violence is portrayed in our culture, and the way it is emulated. But unfortunately the teacher spent about an hour convincing us that violence is on the rise in the world, the United States, and youth (we probably don't have to be convinced of that if we're at the workshop--or at least we don't have to be convinced that violence is a problem that needs to be addressed), and then the last half hour trying to fly through PowerPoint on some ways to pick up on violent tendencies in youth, and Bible verses that help us address those issues. There wasn't much about how to actually go about addressing these issues in the context of youth ministry.

I think one of the main reasons there is so much violence in youth culture today (besides violent movies and video games, etc.) is the systems of domination and hierarchy that are in place, and a simultaneous undermining of authority. It's funny, because I think the fact that authority is being undermined is contributing to people feeling less accountable for their actions and therefore they can justify violence more easily; but at the same time, the systems of domination and oppression create a space where people see no choice but to enact violence against those more vulnerable. Also, the situation of being in high school often leaves youth feeling powerless and oppressed, low on the pecking order, and therefore some lash out with violence (through anything from bullying to mutual fights to school shootings). I would have liked to have gotten into more of this systemic stuff and how the church can be a countercultural force for youth, providing meaning and identity, and refusing to live within and put others under a system that oppresses them.

Then we had small groups and a break, and then we heard Andy Root, the keynote speaker. For my youth ministry class we read his book, "Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry." It's excellent. Did I already write about it? It doesn't look like it. Anyway, it was excellent, although I would take it even further. He says the traditional way youth ministry has been done is through "relational youth ministry," where the youth minister tries to build a relationship with a young person for the purpose of getting them to become a Christian. Although this is usually done with good intentions (wanting to share the joy/hope they've found), it ends up being manipulative, so that the relationship is a means to another end. Instead of delighting in being with that young person, the youth worker is really just using that relationship to coerce the youth to perform in a certain way. Therefore it is not a real relationship, but a tool to try to get kids to do what we want. In this kind of ministry we actually don't need a living God. All we need is a model. We look at the life and ministry of Jesus and try to do ministry from that model: using the tools we think he used to achieve our ends (or the ends we think Jesus wants us to get to).

But what if it is the relationship itself that is the place where we meet God? What if it is only in that willingness to act as a "place-sharer," as Root puts it, that we are able to participate in the incarnation, the fleshiness of God in Christ? By place-sharer he means one who is present, listening, loving, challenging, reflecting, hurting and acknowledging the other's hurt...in short, being truly human. Instead of just following a pattern, we are participating with the living Christ in the lives, especially the suffering, of adolescents (and sometimes the suffering FROM adolescents). We can't do this with every kid in our youth group (unless there are only about 2-4 kids), but we can foster an environment where everyone in the worshiping community takes part in this ministry--mentoring as well as learning from youth, being real humans together who are struggling to encounter Christ in the midst of mundane and/or painful life circumstances.

Root will speak again on Thursday, and I have to get some sleep now, but that's a very brief synopsis of my experiences in the forum today.

Monday, April 27, 2009

forum on youth ministry

This week I'm attending the forum on youth ministry held here at my seminary. It happens ever year, but previously it's been in the middle of finals week so I haven't been able to go. This year it's the week after finals, AND we now get a credit for going (and writing a little reflection paper). So it started today and goes through Thursday night. This is my last seminary credit!!!

Today we had opening worship, an "extended seminar," small groups and a workshop/elective. The sermon focused on our favorite passage as Friends, John 15 about us being Jesus' friends, and greater love has no one than to lay down one's life for a friend. It was a good sermon, emphasizing the need for community--real, live community--in this age of social fragmentation where so many people from the US say they have only a couple people they can actually talk to, and 25% say they have no one they ca really talk to.

I went to an "extended seminar" about "What Christianity is Not," emphasizing the "apophatic" side of theology. That means that although we can't know and describe who God IS, we can say some things about who God is not, label false gods that we try to set up in our lives and doctrines, and in that way clear off the junk that gets in the way of what faith is truly about. This way of doing theology is more common in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, but I think it is also why Quakers tend to have a lot in common theologically with Eastern Orthodox thought, as well as mystics of all stripes. (E.g. Meister Eckhart and his "cloud of unknowing," etc.) This was a good lecture, but it didn't really connect with anything about youth ministry. It's the one I'll be going to all week, so hopefully as it develops, the connections will become more apparent.

Then I went to a workshop on "the empowering mosaic," meaning encouraging diversity in our faith communities. This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately, and unfortunately in an hour we couldn't get to a whole lot of the nitty-gritty stuff, but it was still helpful. For me, I think it's really important for us to think about "diversity" not only in terms of the color of the skin of people in our meetings for worship, but to think about ethnic diversity, and socio-economic diversity. I don't think most Friends are racist, but I think we tend to be rather classist. Anyone is welcome to come to our meetings for worship, but they need to be part of the culture we're part of--the middle class, English-speaking, interested-in-helping-other-people culture. These things are not bad, but when they become the defining factors between who's "in" and who's "out," that's a problem. And when the people we're "helping" start coming to worship and they don't fit that criteria (because they're not middle class and they don't help people, in our definition, but are the ones being "helped"), then we inadvertently exclude them by the way we unconsciously define ourselves as communities.

Anyway, this workshop was about helping shape the culture of our communities so they are ready for more diversity of all these kinds. So it was interesting and productive, I think.

Well, that's my day. At the same time I'm also still working on German, so I have a test on Thursday, with of course tons of time to study this week, between that and the forum...which is why I'm sitting here blogging...

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

pedagogy of the oppressed

Finals approaches...which is not why I haven't been posting lately--I've just been lazy. I've thought about writing blog entries, but haven't gotten around to it. So I thought I'd just post some short little snippets in the coming days regarding things I'm working on.

Today I started reading "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" by Paulo Freire, first published in 1970. He's a Brazilian writer, theologian and educator. This is a great book so far! His basic point is that if we're serious about anything to do with helping the oppressed, we need to allow ourselves (meaning those of us in power, therefore those of us participating in the group of "oppressors," whether we like it or not) to be taught by the oppressed. This does not mean a simple role reversal--this would just continue oppression. What it means is listening to the oppressed, being willing to let go of the things about being oppressors that we benefit from, and actually work on changing the structure of things. The oppressors can't do this. It has to come from "below."

Here's a great quote from his introduction: "From these pages I hope at least ht following will endure: my trust in the people, and my faith in men and women, and in the creation of a world in which it will be easier to love" (1999 edition, p. 22).

This is the kind of book I could just sit and read and meditate on. I find myself reading a sentence, thinking about it, reading it again, and allowing it to open and unlock doors in my mind and heart. I don't want to be an oppressor, but here I find myself in this country, living a "normal" life--a good life--in the richest nation in the world (well, maybe not richest, but the one with most resources and power, at least for now). I can't escape the fact that I'm part of the problem. And so this book is challenging and powerful, and I hope I can rise to its challenge.

One more important thing: he talks about how both the oppressed and oppressors suffer under a fear of freedom, because it would mean a change in the status quo. For the oppressor this is obvious: we have a stake in the status quo, because it benefits us. But the oppressed live under this same fear for a couple of reasons. First, because if they don't live under the status quo, it could get worse. Second, because they themselves have learned the domination system, so what they often want more than a change in the status quo is a change in their status quo, to become rich and powerful--to oppress others. So true liberation is not only a change of perspective for the oppressors, but also for the oppressed: to see the another option.

In my opinion, although Freire hasn't said it (yet), this option is what many people call Jesus' "third way." Not the way of violence and revenge; not the way of passivity and cowardice--but the way of courage and freedom that lifts up the humanity of all.

OK, just one more thing. He also talks about "false charity," which is when we give hand-outs, when we give stuff to people that makes us look generous but keeps them in a position where they must "extend their trembling hands." Instead, "true generosity lies in striving so that these hands...need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world" (p. 27). How do we get at the root of problems, so that rather than keeping people in subjection so that we can look good through our "generosity," we actually help people live decent lives?