from Meetings: A Religious Autobiography by Chuck Fager:
“I’ve been trying to lose my religion for years now, but it refuses to go away. Just when I think I’ve shaken it – put it firmly behind me, a piece of my obscurantist past no longer suited to the faithless life I now lead – it turns up again, dogging me...”
"Daphne Merkin wrote that in the New Yorker, and it made me smile with recognition. As I undertake to unpack in these pages, losing “my” religion was also a major goal of my early adulthood.
But for me there turned out to be a difference between religion” and “Religion”: shaking off the church of my youth was possible; but then “Religion” proved not so easy to discard. Everywhere I turned, it kept coming at me."
"Partly this was no more than inclination and predilection: even shorn of belief, feeling the prickles of a theological buzz-cut as when rubbing my scalp after visiting the barbershop, the stubble of religion was still there, and was soon growing again, combed differently perhaps, but not to be held back. I was still interested in the subject."
"I only know to approach the answers through stories: and one lesson has been that any religion worth its salt is built around stories..."
from Meetings: A Religious Autobiography by Chuck Fager.
Available on Amazon,
First let me say: During a deep, dark, despairing time in the past, Chuck personally encouraged me to not give up, to instead overcome despair. He did this by sharing his own personal story dealing with despair and overcoming that dragon.
Eventually, Chuck even made it into one of my published books, my speculative/alternative history science fiction novel, The Feeling of the Earth. In that book he appears as a minor character, Charles Faber, working at Quaker House. A friendly thank you.
I doubt that I am in his new autobiography--haven't finished it yet--since I was only one of millions of past commas in his long life. He probably doesn't remember our email exchange during my time of the "ocean of darkness." Nor should he. But I am very thankful for his encouragement and direction.
Second, let us all thank him for his decisive witness
for many years against war,
racism and intolerance.
And for his compassionate work for years
with those in the military at Quaker House,
in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Now for the Yes and No.
(Skip this if you want to jump immediately to the thesis of theism
versus nontheism and everything inbetween):
I admit to being a Friends' member-at-large, no longer officially related to the society.
I resigned from my local meeting of the Society of Friends in 2009. And since then have become a practitioner of the Society of the Swimming Pool:-)
And what does this have to do with Chuck Fager's stories and spiritual reflections,
and my Yes and No to religion and Quakers in particular?
Patience...Though only the Divine seems privy to that virtue.
For a number of reasons, I've decided to give you the long version of this
(contrary to strong advice from my spouse to always give her and others
the "short version," the very short version!)
Religiously, I've been a part of the Quaker movement for nearly 50 years. First at Backbench Young Adult Friends Meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the fall of 1967. I was newly arrived on the East Coast to begin my service at a mental hospital after being drafted as a conscientious objector.
I don't remember if our meeting belonged to the Hicksite or Orthodox wing of the Quakers. Hard to say, there are many 'angles' in Quakerism, like in other religions. Yes I know I mixed my letters;-). It matters little now.
Then later I became a active member of California Yearly Meeting and then of Pacific Yearly Meeting.
When we didn't live near a Quaker meeting, my wife and I drove 2 1/2 hours into Phoenix for a while to attend 2 Friends meetings there.
But some Friends supported killing! So we changed to a progressive Mennonite Church when in Phoenix.
Later, we were avid members of California Yearly Meeting, but were troubled that it de-emphasized some key ways of Friends.
I tried to affect this when I was a member and teaching the Quaker history and spirituality class at our local meeting.
But then California Yearly Meeting's leaders came out in support of nuclear weapons in 1981. And our local meeting hired a fighter pilot as our released minister, etc.
So we resigned and moved on.
Later I resigned (but didn't become resigned to these severe losses) from Pacific Yearly Meeting when our "peace committee" opposed involvement in Christian Peacemakers in Iraq, etc.
Even most upsetting, some Quaker leaders came out in support of nontheism and self-identified as nontheists!
How can a religious/spiritual group whose central focus for 350 years has been on worship and ethics possibly come to think there is no Truth to seek and worship, and to act upon?!
Besides, haven't they read key books of deep spiritual experience by George Fox, John Woolman,Thomas Kelly, and so forth? Were those central thinkers deluded?
Sometimes, what this comes down to is a difficult question of very important philosophical semantics.
But most of the time, this whole issue and Friends is filled with contradictions, like what is characteristic of most religion.
Why am I recovering from religiousness, but being "dogged" by it?
And why, do I now belong to the swimming pool?
And I am not 'lyin' in the den,
but only a brief primate named Daniel in the swirl of the vast cosmos, seeking...
So when it comes to religion, all ideas spiritual, ethical, and philosophical, and the Society of Friends, here's a few of my answers:
See above for my thankfulness, for Chuck's many years of service helping others and for many other Friends who have been an inspiration, direction, and guidance.
Chuck is to be commended for his vivid, user-Friendly;-) prose articles, blog, and other writings. One never gets bored with bland, obtuse, meandering prose when an article has the Fager name.
To use a wholly incorrect metaphor, as a writer and thinker, he shoots to the target.
Speaking of humor, Chuck majors in that with a wry angle. Yes, his off-the-wall sort of humor is hilarious.
Take the preface of his new book where he compares religion to hair:"...shorn of belief, feeling the prickles of a theological buzz-cut as when rubbing my scalp after visiting the barbershop, the stubble of religion was still there, and was soon growing again, combed differently perhaps, but not to be held back."
LOL, but what an apt metaphor!
Not that I know this personally. I've kept my hair long
(except for one buzz-cut at Christmas 1967) for many years and, basically, a beard since the late 60's.
But I know plenty of shavers and short-hairers, including my father, relatives, and friends for whom keeping that hair back is a never ending chore.
Even an early morning shave begins to look shady by afternoon!
The liberal Quaker religion which Chuck has explained in great detail in his books such as Quaker Theology, Remaking Friends: How Progressive Friends, Some Quaker FAQs, Without Apology
is winsome, positive, and has contributed to the furtherance of compassion, justice, and truth.
What's not to like about it and other forms of liberal religion
which have a lot in common with Friends?
Well, that is in the NO part.
The YES section, to be continued--
We both grew up in the Vietnam generation, but my life actually took a very different turn from Chuck's.
He wrote in the Preface of his new book, "losing “my” religion was also a major goal of my early adulthood"!
Exactly, the opposite for me.
To reverse a phrase from C.S. Lewis,* I was dragged kicking and screaming from religion, desperately trying to hang on to that center of my life. Maybe, its time I write my own story, too.
Take a look at this ironic story from Chuck. In 1976, he was writing for the San Francisco Bay Guardian as a journalist feature writer of odd stories.
When he studied the very popular anti-tradition simple-life book of E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful, Chuck discovered that many of Schumacher's views come from Roman Catholic writers, though the academic speaks of "Buddhist Economics."
So when Chuck interviewed the thinker, he thought he had a "gotcha" question:
"Dr. Schumacher, wouldn't it have been more accurate...to have called your program 'Christian,' or even Catholic economics?"
...[E.F. Schumacher] "threw back his head and laughed..."But if I had called it 'Christian Economics,' nobody would have paid any attention."
Chuck got his story: "Exposed: E.F. Schumacher Is A Vatican Agent."
"The Bay Guardian's readers ate it up. The editors loved it. But the whole adventure still left me looking to stretch a skimpy paycheck at the St. Vincent thrift store."
What an ironic story. How wry is the fact that while Fager was dissing an academic over Roman Catholicism, he himself was regularly frequenting and economically supporting a Roman Catholic institution dedicated to the poor?!
And Chuck himself was poor, though not by choice, like the 'Poor Brothers' of that faith.
Chuck has played us a story comic song worthy of Samuel Clemens or Kurt Vonnegut's ironic wit.
Rather a thrifty combination of prose meaning, irony, humor, and contradictions.
But let's get deeper into Chuck's religious and philosophical views.
Chuck writes about a holy relic card he found in a missal at the Saint Paul thrift store, ..."that the card had been brushed up against something, which had in turn touched something else, which touched something else, in a sequence repeated..."
"All of these were links in a sacred chain stretching back through twenty centuries, to one which had purportedly touched something which had been in contact with the actual cross on which Jesus hung and breathed his last..."
I don't think there is a better summation of religion, especially the Christian religion, than that description. Except, of course, Protestant Evangelicals and Fundamentalists--while rejecting relics as superstition--attach a similar extreme importance to the literal Bible.
This example is one of the two key reasons why I think religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is untrue. There is way too much superstition, illusion, and delusion.
As for Chuck's comments and points, to be continued--
P.S. One last gag:-)
I'm surprised that Chuck at this point didn't wise off with a comment on his autobiographical life--calling his autobiography--From Missals to Anti-missles.;-=)
But then his humor isn't as ridiculously corny-bad as mine. He was born in Kansas, not Nebraska, the Cornhusker state, like me:-)
In the Light,
* Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis, a spiritual autobiography: “the most dejected, reluctant convert in all of England . . . drug into the kingdom kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape.”