Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
April 20, 2011
An Open Letter to Ministry and Oversight, to the Clerk, members and attenders of San Diego Meeting of “The Religious Society of Friends.” And To All Friends, for Consideration
As all things come from God-- Disagreement is a gift, however disagreeable it may seem. Disagreement is an opportunity to observe how we deal with disagreements, and to consider whether we can find better ways to respond.
I have been in disagreement with the spirit of this Meeting through much of my time here, and though I've handled that as best as I knew how, I've by no means felt that I'd adequately fulfilled my responsibility to Truth. Almost as a penance sometimes, this has led to me repeatedly offending against our consensual cult of restful silence.
Truth is not 'violence', but people often do call it bad names when it happens to disagree with them. We speak of feelings being “hurt”, but feelings (short of habitual abuse or long-term suppression) do not suffer violence. What feels the pain are our personal egos. These are far from fragile, and not to be mistaken for our actual selves.
One extremely natural approach to disagreement is to disparage the messenger. This not only provides a reassuring explanation for the disagreement, but an excuse for not listening. It's common, and reasonable, to seek understanding of how a speaker can be so wrong-headed-- but this easily leads to 'diagnosing' him, the better to ignore what he's saying-- Though that distinction is subtle, the violence implicit in that second lens is that we've gone beyond disagreeing with a person, and classified him as someone we don't need to listen and respond to.
Our accepted approach to disagreement is to give it formally-correct Quaker process. This falls short whenever our sense of truth and of God's intention stumbles over habitual assumptions and emotional reactions. Formally-correct is the easy way, but leaves us only with a reflection of the Meeting's surface feelings and beliefs.
Going too sharply against that tacit consensus would surely bring unwanted turmoil, and might render the Meeting unsatisfactory for many purposes-- Crucially, we would cease serving so well as a source of personal approval and confirmation for members with typical beliefs and attitudes. Our value as a respectable endorser of good political causes-- which probably has little enough effect on anyone's actual opinion-- might diminish. We might consequently be less appealing to some members, and to some other people we might like to attract. This would be unfortunate, but shouldn't overrule our true calling. [The Meeting might conceivably come to serve as a source of confirmation for my own beliefs and attitudes (routinely disparaged at present); but I don't think that's what I need or want.]
We are either 'in the Truth', or we're going through the motions--and if all we can reasonably expect is to be 'partway-there', we'd rather be coming closer to 'there' than when we started.
We inherited that expression: “in the Truth”-- because our spiritual ancestors believed that they were recipients and conveyors of essential spiritual truth, that they could and did know God, that they'd truly observed God living as that Truth within them (and-- usually captive-- within others.) I'm not saying the beliefs of early Friends are due normative priority over our own knowledge. I do insist that they knew this one thing, that it is essential, that we've failed to realize what it means, that “Quakerism” without it is a sham.
Late last year I felt led to give a message: that it is possible for human beings to know and embody Truth (not necessarily 'infallibility'-- as people often misunderstand the nature of inspiration-- but being given an intuitive sense of how things are, so far as a person has so-far learned to receive and understand.)
Being immediately contradicted, I had some taste of why our custom is against contradicting messages, which can certainly be disturbing. Perhaps I went against another (normally reasonable) custom and spoke again that day, attempting to clarify matters, but I'm not sure. In any case, there was yet another message, from someone else denying that truth was available or of any consequence in comparison with Good Works. I approve, of course, of both people's doings, and agree it would be good if more of us were so involved. But what left me deeply disturbed, wondering if this was truly the Society I'd thought I belonged to, was that Meeting closed with no one else inclined to affirm that spiritual truth exists and matters.
I wrote quite a bit in the course of that disturbance, wondering (painfully!) if I were being led to renounce my membership. I know I disturbed my share of other people in the course of my disturbance.
In substance, I feel that what most upset most members was the violation of their expectation that the customary rules should always be observed: that Meeting must not disturbed by people verbally disagreeing with one another. That aspect seems cause for even greater concern!
We do not meet in a séance, expecting to “channel” God (although many of our predecessors seemed to think of it in almost that way!) Neither are we (so far as I've observed) meeting to speak to God. We are supposed to be human beings attempting to feel and obey God's promptings, and Friends have a very long history of disturbing other people and their institutions by doing that.
I don't like to upset others, or to take it too lightly when I do upset them; aside from disliking it myself, I know it's generally not good practice for arriving at or recognizing the truth of a matter. But I agree with George Fox's advice, to “Be valiant for the Truth upon Earth... Trample under all that is contrary” (and so forth)-- to the extent that outward social peace can't be my primary consideration.
This Meeting has made outward social peace our primary consideration by default.
That suggests that most members have failed to find or connect with that more substantial and significant source of Truth and Guidance our spiritual ancestors knew.
I'd had to conclude that from pretty early on in my acquaintance with Friends... but for a long time there were certain members I could expect to have spiritually grounded messages. And now, for a long time since those members died, there haven't been.
God has given me this burden to feel-- though I could hardly be expected to carry it. God has also given me some gift for vocal ministry-- which is only consistently available for written messages.
Such a gift doesn't guarantee that what people read will be what I intended to say, no matter how much care I take. One aspect of it is a mere facility with words. Another is the stubbornness to struggle with a concept until it comes clear how to say it. But so far as this is a form of ministry, it tends to manifest as an immediate, given sense of what to write-- or else to simply leave me helplessly wordless.
That is, it isn't entirely “mine”, for my purposes, no matter how good those might be. My hope-- that this Meeting will start bringing more people consciously under God's guidance and teaching-- is in accord with God's purposes; but it may not be how SHe intends to fulfill them. Certainly I don't get to decide how, when, or if that ever happens.
A person can be mistaken, whether he stands up to speak in Meeting or sits down to write something on the internet. In one context, people try to listen respectfully, in hopes that at least some of a message may be prompted by God, may convey an insight they haven't realized yet. In the other context, these same people say, “I don't have time for this!”
In either setting, some people are upset or offended if one person contradicts another? Why? Do we imagine that Popes, or Meetings, can be infallible? Or should be passionless? People can be carried away in the defense of some idea-- and I too have stratagems for winning an argument, or backing off if I can't-- but when I catch myself arguing in that mode, it simply isn't what I want this to be about.
People can learn from disagreement, if that's what they want and if they approach it in that spirit. They can get hostile, and refuse to learn anything from it, and that's a terrible waste of a good argument! Should we be afraid to say anything, because that might happen?
I think we can agree that some ways of argument are abusive, and call people's attention to it if they lapse into these.
I don't think we should be mentally shutting each other out.
And so I consider the risks necessary, that we should strive to become a Meeting of minds, not just complacent bodies in the same room. I say that too much concern with appearing “peaceful” and consistently “rational” has gotten in the way of our finding the Reality we need to align with, before we can see the truth through our differences and settle them in fearless love.
In the Light,