Republished from Quaker Universalist Conversations (10/4/2015)

In “Seeing beyond the Projections” (9/7/2015), I voiced my concern that modern Friends across the spectrum tend to perceive liberal or universalist Quakerism as representing anything but Christianity. As Wendy Geiger has put it so gracefully in her comment, I wanted to suggest an alternative view, a way “to keep one’s heart-mind supple and expandable and inclusive.”1

To give the discussion historical context, I cited James G. Crossley’s 2015 Jesus and the Chaos of History: Redirecting the Life of the Historical Jesus. Crossley’s scriptural studies and his analysis of social disruption in 1st century Galilee show how the earliest Palestinian tradition of the Jesus movement was led to embrace the power metaphors of “kingdom language.” The tragic irony is that within a few generations such metaphors were being used to rationalize a doctrinaire and authoritarian hierarchy in the early Christian church.

My personal discomfort with institutional Christianity arose during my young adulthood as the response of a self-affirming gay man to that tradition’s condemnation, but also as the response of a first-year seminary student to doctrinaire exclusion of non-Christians and to two millennia of global violence, both done, allegedly, in Jesus’ name.

As I explained in a follow-up comment on “Projections”:

I usually avoid calling myself a Christian out of respect for those who experience Christianity as a creedal religion with an orthodox theological belief system.

Nonetheless, Jesus has been my spiritual master since my earliest childhood. He is the human face of God for me, a “perfect type” of what God tells us we can ourselves become as human beings.

I became a convinced Quaker in my adult years because I understood that the first Friends had centered Quaker faith and practice in the witness of Jesus, indwelling as a teacher in our hearts. This primitive focus on the reality of Jesus, rather than on the theology about Jesus, speaks to my condition.

In other words, I became able to lay down the personal hurts I was projecting onto Christianity, able to discern the faith and practice of the historical Jesus, which transcends the abuses done by the human institution of the church. Now I can reembrace “Christian” as my native religion, the faith language my soul was taught from infancy.

In joy or despair, I can again listen to Jesus, I can seek rescue from Mother-Father God, without stumbling over the conceptual constraints of human doctrine or theological debate—and without distancing myself from those who speak other faith languages.

However….

That “however” involves complex, interwoven challenges.

One commenter on “Projections” objected that Crossley’s thoughtful textual and socio-political reconstruction of the 1st century Palestinian Jesus movement is merely “a contemporary projection that universalists find congenial.” He alleged that “those who disagree with this interpretation are psychologically analyzed as being in some way deficient.” In modern Quaker communities, he wrote, “Christians often fell marginalized (at best).”

This objection represents well the hurt reaction of some creedal Christian Friends to their exclusion by hurting anti-Christian Universalist Friends. That my soul can embrace a non-creedal, universalist “Christ within” does not mean that I can readily share unity in worship with hurting Christians and hurting Universalists who misperceive and therefore mistrust each other as opponents. How do we all become “supple and expandable and inclusive” enough to receive such unity?

Religion is always bound up with identity. More specifically, it is bound up with collective identity: that is, with belonging.2 This in itself would not be a problem, save that the suffering which human beings perpetuate against themselves and each other is frequently the result of believing that “identity” is something real, rather than (at best) a mere poetic shorthand for a complex of shared characteristics which are forever alive and in flux.

During my “radical years,” I used to reply jokingly, if asked my religion, that I was a “Lutheran-Buddhist-Faggot-Witch.” In other words, there was—and is—no name for the religion I share with others, because that religion is not a thing. What is the reality encompassing all named religions which binds together all beings? That is my “religion.”

When we cling to “identity”—worse, when we imagine that identity entails boundaries between “who is” and “who is not”—worse still, when we trick ourselves into ideological stances over “identity politics”—then we deny each other the unity of being which comes from knowing that we sit together around the one and only reality. We separate ourselves from each other by imagined boundaries, instead of worshiping a common center with boundariless horizons.

In the evangelist Matthew’s parable of “The sheep and the goats” (Matt 25:31-46), there is a rarely noticed paradox. The King does not divide those whom he calls “sheep” from those he calls “goats” according to their identities or their belief systems. He does so according to how they have treated each other. That challenge contains its own paradoxes, yet I am referring here to a more elusive paradox.

If I reject the goats, if I do not welcome and bless them as if each were the King, then I, too, am a goat.

My old radical joke was: “We all get to heaven or nobody does.”

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,
Michael


Notes

1 I invite readers to visit some of the earlier posts which have explored aspects of the concerns expressed here:

2 Possible etymology of the word “religion”: re-ligare, re- (again) + ligare (to bind, connect) or “to reconnect.”

Image Sources

Christ of the Desert,” an icon by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM.

Two sheep and two goats resting together in a field.” Lithograph with gouache by A. Ducote. [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Views: 505

Comment by Olivia on 10th mo. 18, 2015 at 5:40am

It is a privilege reading this post, Mike.  These final points about the sheep and the goats are profound. 

I wanted to also explore this terrain, where you said "In other words, there was—and is—no name for the religion I share with others, because that religion is not a thing. What is the reality encompassing all named religions which binds together all beings? That is my “religion.” "

First of all, that's beautiful and thank you for sharing (and for having that particular religion). 

I felt drawn to ask you, what you find to be true on this point when you have been deeply immersed in weeks of daily meditation on Jesus / the Christ? [I use these words Jesus and Christ to refer to the actual Spirit you commune with, not to you plugging in to any particular doctrine.]  If you find that when you are deep in that particular spiritual space and have reached that place of strangely right interpretation (I suspect you know when that happens)...if you find that in that space there are in fact no words for that belief, then there are no words for it! 

But if in that space there are words for it, for your version of it, words that feel true and right, then I would trust those words fully as well.  I wouldn't be surprised if they include some insightful version of “Lutheran-Buddhist-Faggot-Witch" either.  ha   (because clearly you will be in a space that is not about words but is nonetheless mindbending and all inclusive, and in some sense a new religion, an experience of fresh feedback)

For me --  one day in that state I sensed that "God" is simply the most loving, most intelligent, ENERGY in existence.  In other words I was describing some very specific Sentience -- very specific -- but it didn't feel like or act like what I'd been taught in the crusty, previously-firmed-up version of God and Jesus I'd learned.... there was instead the discovery that it's all energy, all flow!    All about listening to that, being in that (being that?)

In our lives, having boundaries and knowing who you are  is important.  But that's important for internal reasons of being safe, centered, grounded in your life, not for external reasons like naming yourself to others or judging other people.   And all at the same confounding time, "flow happens".  It needs to happen. 

A flower is continually being renewed, growing in the garden.  It is attached to a source of life and nutrition (the soil and what is in soil) and that's what allows it to remain supple and keep evolving but also stay alive.    The alternative is to cut it off from its life source and then (if you dry it properly) it will look beautiful for years to come.  But it will be dead, of course.

The freshness of new life, new nutrition coming in, and "flow" opportunities is what goes with being alive.

I've found very liberating as an adult mystic the slow and continual discovery that when when I am giving all things to God I am not personality-less, boundary-less, or less my organic self, but am even more those things, even more embodied and specific somehow, even more clear in who I am.    The awe being that it's really going to be okay to keep giving things over (to keep "freshening up" or letting go).  I think my long-term lesson to keep learning is this discovery.  Always needing to rediscover that when you keep letting go and letting go and letting go, you don't end up with less.

Comment by Mike Shell on 10th mo. 19, 2015 at 10:29am

Friends,

The discussion begun by Patricia Dallmann and Forrest Curo is a worthwhile one.  I've started a separate Discussion in the Forum titled "What does Paul mean by I Corinthians 12:3?" so that we can continue it there.

Blessings,
Mike

Comment by Mike Shell on 10th mo. 22, 2015 at 8:04pm

Keith, you write:

Query: Is it possible you have tricked your-self by mixing "ideological stances" ((viz. Universalism, inclusiveness, unity, etc.) with a testimony to an experience that is essential non-ideological....

That's possible. However, though I edit the blog for the Quaker Universalist Fellowship, I personally am not interested in Universalism, "inclusiveness" or "unity" as ideologies.

Through several paths of exploration—Buddhist psychology, quantum physics and neurobiology of consciousness research—we are beginning to recognize that the cosmos simply is, and that it is human observers who draw boundaries and assign names.

Boundaries and names are tools which the organ we call the brain uses to help navigate the animal it lives in.

Consciousness and "sense of self" may be higher order constructs of the brain, even more powerful "navigation tools," yet they are still constructs.

A challenge we might choose to play with (one I think Jesus also played with) is to relax our grasp on "self"—not deny self but simply relax our grasp—and observe how experience changes and flows.

I don't know, Keith, if I am at all on the track you suggest with you query.  Help me out a bit.

Blessings,
Mike

Comment by Forrest Curo on 10th mo. 22, 2015 at 8:27pm

In Buddhist theology, consciousness is considered a 'construct'; but really, if you consider your actual experiencing, it is primary data -- not an inference, but the act of experiencing as such. There is nothing smaller from which it could be constructed, though all the phenomena it contains are known only through this basic Be-ing. Which is the only 'thing' (though it isn't a separate 'thing' among 'things')  we truly know to exist. For if we could somehow be mistaken about that -- "who" would there be to be mistaken?

Comment by Mike Shell on 10th mo. 23, 2015 at 8:14am

Forrest:

In Buddhist theology, consciousness is considered a 'construct'; but really, if you consider your actual experiencing, it is primary data -- not an inference, but the act of experiencing as such.

Correct. I think I made a careless use of the term "construct," because I was using it more in the sense that Antonio Damasio uses it.  Not that consciousness is a "conceptual construct," but that the brain "constructs" consciousness.

Thanks for the correction.

Mike

Comment by Mike Shell on 10th mo. 23, 2015 at 9:00am

Olivia,

Thanks for your October 18th comment.

Re my bit about the sheep and the goats: I sometimes imagine Jesus as a yiddish-accented comedian, telling the story of Matthew 25 and then chuckling to himself: “I don't think anyone got the joke.” 

"In other words, there was—and is—no name for the religion I share with others, because that religion is not a thing. What is the reality encompassing all named religions which binds together all beings? That is my 'religion'."

This feels like the first time I’ve been able to articulate it that clearly—even to myself.

Decades ago when I was briefly in seminary, I had an assignment to write a paper describing my personal “theological methodology.”  I wrote that whenever I see a pair of opposites, I assume there is a larger whole which includes both of them.  My faith and practice are always about opening and opening and opening toward that larger whole.

If you find that when you are deep in that particular spiritual space and have reached that place of strangely right interpretation…if you find that in that space there are in fact no words for that belief, then there are no words for it! 

Yes.  It precedes words.

Words are our necessary yet inadequate attempts to describe to others what we have found there.  That’s why I belief it is essential for us to recognize and respect all “religious language” (including the “religious language” of humanists and atheists) as sacred storytelling and poetry.  We dare not pretend that the words are factual accounts.  That way leads and has always led to violence against so-called non-believers.

For me --  one day in that state I sensed that "God" is simply the most loving, most intelligent, ENERGY in existence.  In other words I was describing some very specific Sentience -- very specific -- it's all energy, all flow!

I’m not sure I’ve perceived that consciously (without smoking funny plants, that is ), but it jives with my understanding.

A flower is continually being renewed, growing in the garden.  It is attached to a source of life and nutrition…and that's what allows it to remain supple and keep evolving but also stay alive.  The alternative is to cut it off from its life source and then…it will look beautiful for years to come.  But it will be dead, of course….

A nice metaphor…though even the dead plant is still in the flow.

[When] I am giving all things to God I am not personality-less, boundary-less, or less my organic self, but am even more those things, even more embodied and specific somehow, even more clear in who I am.    The awe being that it's really going to be okay to keep giving things over….

Yes.

A friend of mine years ago told me that, when he took his little boy to a Disney movie in which he knew there was going to be danger, violence or death, he would warn his son with a phrase that his son understood: “This is going to be scary fun.”

That’s the awe you describe: scary fun.

Blessings,
Mike

Comment by Forrest Curo on 10th mo. 23, 2015 at 10:27am

We think there's a brain because we find this blucky mess if we start digging around in people's crania; but no, that brain does not "construct" the consciousness that sees it.

It may construct our self-image, our notions about who and what we are -- but base level is: Things exist (and become secondary evidence) because what's primary 'exists them'.

Busy biological chemical-electronics may generate all sorts of behavior people typically mistake for consciousness, because these can be pointed to while the actual consciousness that does the pointing is just here, just there -- perceived beneath the level of thinking, as when we 'know' "someone looking at me" but have to invent elaborate mental constructs to describe such knowing...

Comment by Olivia on 10th mo. 23, 2015 at 12:56pm

ha ha!   Forrest said "We think there's a brain because we find this blucky mess if we start digging around in people's crania; but no, that brain does not "construct" the consciousness that sees it."

This would be a great time to pull this particular rabbit out of our Quaker hat.  http://philipshepherd.com/the-sun/    The article is on the brain in our belly...but has a much larger divine purpose of dismantling our sense that consciousness (what we Know) has anything to do with our brain in isolation from everything else Wise within us. 

Comment by Mike Shell on 10th mo. 24, 2015 at 10:56pm

Forrest,

So is consciousness a biological phenomenon or a supernatural one? And if a biological one, where does it arise from if not from the brain?

Blessings,
Mike

Comment by Mike Shell on 10th mo. 24, 2015 at 10:57pm

Olivia,

I'll have to look at this one: http://philipshepherd.com/the-sun/ .

Mike

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