“Welcome to the battlefield,” writes Ross Douthat in the New York Times yesterday. That sentence concludes a piece in which he responds to a letter sent to the Times by a sizable group of Catholic scholars, and that letter, in turn, was written in response to a series of columns by Douthat, particularly one two weeks ago.

I find the “battlefield” image inappropriate for a dispute over what God asks of us. Have we not had enough of killing as a response to religious difference? Nevertheless I am finding myself fascinated by the disagreement Douthat has waded into.

Christ_Pantocrator_mosaic_from_Hagia_SophiaThe substantive question at issue is whether divorced Catholics can be allowed to take Communion, or whether, as is the current posture of the church, those once ostensibly married have to have their marriages annulled before Communion is again available to them. Pope Francis recently convened a synod of bishops on the family. Douthat has written that Pope Francis wants to move the Church in a more liberal direction on the question of divorce. “[He] deliberately started this civil war,” Douthat wrote in September. (Again with the inappropriate military metaphors.)

That question of divorce has some interest for me but only a little. The annulment process in Roman Catholicism has long seemed to this outsider a convenient workaround for the New Testament’s bracing clarity that divorce is wrong (Matthew 19, 1 Corinthians 7, etc.). I have focused more on those evangelicals who decry homosexuality as a sin (a topic on which Jesus is silent and Paul unclear) but who pass over divorce in silence (where clarity abounds in the New Testament).

Much more interesting to me is where we look for authority about what God asks of us. I know this question makes some people uncomfortable. But if you believe that there is right and wrong in the world (you do, don’t you?) and that you should try to do right things, you have to ask (don’t you?) who or what has the authority to say what is right and what is wrong.

For many Evangelicals, the answer is the Bible: that’s the sole source of authority. For me, that answer has two huge problems. One is that even a cursory look at how the Bible was assembled in the centuries after Jesus shows a deeply political process among human beings. I love politics as a way to work through disputes but I don’t look to it for Final Answers to Life’s Big Questions. The other problem is that as soon as Protestant reformers begin insisting on the Bible as the sole source of authority we have an explosion of schisms.

The Protestant Reformation’s insistence on the Bible alone as a source of authority was a challenge to the Roman Catholic view that authority is a three-legged stool resting on scripture, tradition, and the church. Ross Douthat is writing about how the Roman Catholic Church draws on these three sources in developing doctrine and teaching its members.  (I think he undervalues the Pope’s interest in keeping the church’s teachings vital and fresh.) The Catholic scholars are saying in their letter that he doesn’t really know understand enough to plunge into this matter. Generally I dismiss out of hand public arguments that someone shouldn’t offer an opinion because s/he doesn’t have the right credentials. In this case I think the Catholic scholars wrote their letter because they took Douthat to be hurling around charges of “heresy,” which considerably ups the stakes and can put people at risk.

On the question of sources of authority, I’ve come to prefer the Roman Catholic view to the Reformation view. Insistence on the Bible alone is a dangerous turn, I believe. (I do nevertheless understand how early Protestant reformers believed the Church had drifted a long way from Bible teachings.) Both the Catholic and the Evangelical answers put the sources of authority somewhere in the past and come dangerously close to saying that we in the present can only mess things up.

For this Quaker (and for many Quakers) there is a sturdier source of authority in the present: in waiting worship to listen for God speaking to us now. The Bible, tradition, and religious figures from the past and present can all prepare us to hear God. These are not to be cast aside. But they are not final sources of authority. Putting weight on waiting worship leads us be reluctant to crystallizing doctrine in creeds, and it leads us to teach through advices and queries rather than long declarative affirmations that some write for others.

The past may have gotten it right about many, many questions, and we’d do well to embrace those answers. Just maybe the past has got it wrong on some questions, however, and we need to find ways to go forward to a better place. I believe God is speaking to each and to all of us, today, and that this is the best source of authority.

[also posted on River View Friend.]

Views: 1000

Comment by James C Schultz on 11th mo. 3, 2015 at 4:09pm

Keith, I agree that once you have connected with God you should free yourself of whatever rituals helped you get there but as Paul said I try to be all things to all people and most people who don't have a relationship with God have been indoctrinated into the use of things such as communion and rosary beads and unfortunately they stay there until they die.  It's important to find a way to help them get past that and I don't think calling them idols is going to work.  As someone raised in the most sacramental of all churches I speak from experience.  A painful experience at times.

On another note let's not overlook our Quaker tradition and testimonies and writings of our favorite Quakers as potentially idolatrous.

Comment by James C Schultz on 11th mo. 3, 2015 at 4:15pm

I tell people that if it concerns an important personal matter that they are waiting to hear from God about, they should expect God to speak to them first and then confirm it through a vessel that has proven itself trustworthy in the past.  If the Bible has been there for them in the past there is no reason to think it wouldn't continue to be there.  If it's an elder, preacher, pastor, or prophet, again there's no reason to think confirmation wouldn't come from them.  The only time this doesn't work is when you have a strong desire for a certain answer.  Then you're dead in the water.  I hate those times.

Comment by Keith Saylor on 11th mo. 3, 2015 at 4:45pm

James, It is fair to point out the potential nature of favored Quaker writers becoming idols. Personally, I came to Quakerism after the inward Light touched my conscious and challenged my conscience. By the power of the inward Light illuminating my conscience, these Quakers are at best colleagues with whom I am in discussion and fellowship. They are not my guides or teachers and are not a source of confirmation. Inward Presence itself is my only source of confirmation. In fact, many of the founding Quakers I read explicitly state they have no desire to confirm another's conscience and that it is idolatry to seek confirmation through them. They state explicitly that it is not their prerogative to confirm the conscience of another. This is why I count them among my colleagues. I am with you in supporting another's posture toward waiting. Love is waiting with others in the quiet and rest of the inward Light itself. To set other forms up or other people as confirmers of another's conscience is to lead them out of that which they have been lead into through patient waiting. Patiently holding and supporting another in Light and Love as they live through the direct and unmediated  movement of inward Presence is sufficient fellowship as they embrace the sufficiency of immediate Presence to anchor their conscience and inform there conscience. This is the essence of participatory fellowship in Presence itself, to be open to and have faith in the sufficiency of the inward Spirit to guide and to not trample over the prerogative of Christ.

Comment by Howard Brod on 11th mo. 3, 2015 at 5:58pm

Jim, You are correct that even in a mystical spiritual tradition like liberal Quakerism, there can be a danger of relying on all types of things as an idol, i.e., something that becomes an end in itself, rather then the true 'end and beginning' of the Spirit.  Too many liberal Quakers, in the name of "Quaker identity", prop up their archaic Quaker traditions, emphasize liberal politics, require recorded membership to be a full participant in the meeting life, and feed an overbuilt and burdensome permanent committee structure - all no longer making any sense to seekers in the modern world. These have become a poor substitute for an emphasis on identifying with the eternal Spirit. 

We have had this revealing discussion many times at my meeting over the last few years.  As we peel this onion of liberal Quaker idolatry, a deeper spiritual awareness has become manifest in our meeting community.  One unintended side effect has been that newcomers tend to stick with us now, sensing that we are not a peculiar religious group stuck in the past, missing our spiritual purpose.  Rather, we are spiritual seekers trying to live in the Light, manifested as Love in the modern world.

So, yes, almost anything can become an idol - not just the Bible.  Thank you for pointing that out.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 11th mo. 3, 2015 at 8:03pm

Paraphrasing (correctly, I believe) Jesus: "If the Light in you is darkness, you're really screwed!" I am quite sure he was being ironic here.

It isn't that people lack the capacity for self-deception, for imprinting on the wrong Mama Duck, for any of a number of ways of Getting It All Wrong -- but so long as we're making our mistakes and learning from them, trusting God to be as Jesus described, and so trust God to help us through this muddle with unlimited love and wisdom and the power to reach us on any number of different channels -- Then we haven't become Infallible; but we can strive to render ourselves Correctable.

If you couldn't trust the Light, you couldn't trust anything else to point you to the right Bible or the right interpretation of the right passage, the right preacher or the right advisor... so all external aids would be as useless as Keith says.

Given that we can trust it, we can trust God will guide our choice of cues and our reading of them -- so that even a stumble can turn out to be a step in the dance. (Not the most graceful sort of step; but as in my wife Anne's metaphor of the Dancing Master, it isn't our own grace that makes this work...)

Comment by James C Schultz on 11th mo. 3, 2015 at 8:13pm

Forest said: "If you couldn't trust the Light, you couldn't trust anything else etc." to which I can only say that about sums it up.

Comment by Keith Saylor on 11th mo. 4, 2015 at 12:17pm

Forrest. The numbers are many who extol adherence to outward forms or icons to anchor the conscious and inform the conscience and who excuse a conscious anchored in and a conscience informed by outward icons by pointing out (in truth) that the Spirit is able to break through even the most literal conscious and conscience. That is not an excuse to temper the message of the wonder,  beauty, and mystery of a conscious anchored in and a conscience informed by inward Presence itself. This life wherein being, consciousness, meaning, purpose, and identity, are in the direct experience of the Light itself is the conscious and conscience free from the imprint of outward representations. It is a mis-characterization to suggest that the message of a conscious and conscious unbound from outward representations precludes the activity of inward Light piercing through outward icons and guiding. 

While it is truth that inward Presence works in even the most literal conscious and conscience, that is, we all have a measure of Light; it is also true that the longer outward forms are drawn from, the more hollow and unsustained can become the adherent from the inside out.

It is also a mis-characterization to suggest that a conscious anchored in and conscience informed by Presence itself is a message of  infallibility and incorrectability. The message is of a life corrected through Presence itself guiding in the relative degree of Light experienced in a given moment. It is a new way of direction. A different way of correction. Not based in outward forms but in the active working of the Light itself  illuminating or dimming, increasing and decreasing. 

It is mine to extol being, meaning, identity, and purpose in Presence itself and the direct experience of guidance through that Light itself and not through reflection up outward forms.  

Comment by Jim Wilson on 11th mo. 4, 2015 at 2:10pm


Returning to your original post, I am also fascinated by how the two sides have lined up on this issue.  A Catholic friend of mine, who I have known for years, said that for some orthodox believers communion is a 'reward for good behavior'; that is to say one can receive communion if one has lived up to the community standards of the Church to which one belongs.  For others, communion is a means for recognizing the Presence of Christ in the world; that is to say the sense of Presence that a communion service can communicate can be carried into the world at large.  The ceremony becomes kind of like spiritual nourishment.  Because these two groups view the function of communion differently they often talk past each other in these discussions.

There is a book that traces the history of Communion (mostly in the West).  It is called "From Age to Age" by Edward Foley.  I found it to be a beautiful and thorough book, with lots of illustrations to assist the reader in understanding this history.  What struck me is how the Church has often changed its criteria as to who is eligible for communion, how often it should be taken, how it should be served, etc.  Traditional Catholics often refer to the changeless magisterium regarding communion; but what they are referring to is a theological interpretation.  It is true that the Catholic Church has adhered to a doctrinal view of communion (transubstantiation) throughout its history.  But that uniformity is only a seeming one.  On the ground, there has been a series of changes throughout Catholic history.  There is a kind of separation between doctrine and practice so that traditional Catholics can look at Doctrine and feel that there is a basic unchanging core.  But if you look at the application of the doctrine what you see is a constantly shifting application.  And this raises the question for me as to how important is it to have theological consistency if the everyday practice is subject to myriad changes?

I have had very profound experiences of Presence in communion services.  So I am inclined to feel positive about the potential of the ritual (an un-Quakerly view, I know).  Yet, historically there has been a great deal of rancor surrounding the ritual, which I think is unfortunate.

Comment by William F Rushby on 11th mo. 4, 2015 at 4:32pm

Howard Brod wrote: "Doug speaks my mind and he reminds me that human experience throughout the ages confirms that "God is Love". 

"Love" is a value, an abstraction.  It doesn't tell us what is right or wrong until we translate it into more specific attitudes and/or actions.  I think we all believe in the value of love.  Where we find difficulty is in translating "love" into specific attitudes and actions.  That translation is not automatic, and it is not straightforward.  It may appear to be straightforward, but that's because we are assuming how it is to be interpreted.

Comment by William F Rushby on 11th mo. 4, 2015 at 4:56pm

As a case in point, consider Norman Morrison's self-immolation and his apparent intention to take his daughter's life too.  Did Norman Morrison do the loving thing when he killed himself?  The essay says that he felt led to do it!  And what about taking his daughter's life.  A bystander persuaded him to give the daughter to him/her, putting the child out of harm's way.

What about the consequences of Norman Morrison's suicide for his wife and children?  Did he show love for them, his family, who in a sense became the victims of his actions?

The implications of the value of love for behavior in a specific situation are not obvious and not easy to figure out. 


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