Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Nature of Reality: Step #3

How does one explain the nature of reality according to the Society of Friends? After all, early Friends didn't think much of theological abstractions or obtuse dogma. Unlike the Puritan/Reformed or the Catholics who wrote volumes and long tomes on theoretical topics such as God's sovereignty, election, and hidden decrees, the Trinity, the Atonement, original sin, the nature of Christ, etc., Quakers most often wrote practical exhortations, ethical warnings, prophecies, and spiritual journals. They did so partially, because at heart, the Society of Friends was and is a deep movement of spiritual experience of God, not abstract analysis or theoretical explanation.

Ultimate Reality is seen relationally and intimately, not primarily intellectually. After all who can know the mind of God? How can we the finite know the Infinite except by the Spirit, by personal transcendental experience?

Secondly, Friends saw from day to day that professing creedal Christians who focused on theology and dogma didn't often practice basic human virtues, let alone the ethical truths of the Spirit--peace, compassion, patience, purity, and joy. On the contrary, the professors of Christianity were hypocritical and intolerant; their leaders used their clerical office for greedy gain, to oppress others, even to slaughter their own neighbors in the name of Jesus Christ.

For the Friends there was no good news in the religions they saw around them. George Fox when searching for God despaired of finding any succor. "But as I had forsaken the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those esteemed the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh, then, I heard a voice which said, "There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition"; and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give Him all the glory; for all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the pre-eminence who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power. Thus when God doth work, who shall let it? And this I knew experimentally.

When it comes to intellectual knowing, there is some truth in a poem I wrote "Less Is More":

When young
I knew so much
So I thought
But the less time
The less I know
By the time of my death
I will know nothing
But will be known
By God who knows all

from Western Friend
December 2008

Our Pacific Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice says, "The Quaker way emphasizes experience over religious belief or doctrine. It is difficult to capture the essence of that experience in words. Yet every Faith and Practice attempts to do that very thing...The religious practices of Friends are founded in direct communion with God and the conviction that the Divine Light is accessible to each person; Yet it is one Light, one Truth. We wait with hearts and minds open to the Divine so that Truth will be made known among us.

Key Truths Friends Have Experienced:

#1 God is love and desires all humans to come to the Truth.
John 15: 12-15 The son of man says, "Love each other as I have loved you.. I call you friends because I have made known to you everything I heard from my Father."

#2 Truth is primarily relational.
from PYM's F.&P. "Truth is tested, not by the degree to which it conforms to dogma, but by its power to transform our lives and the lives of others."

#3 Truth starts within us and moves outward.
"All life is sacred." PYM
"True religion consisted in an inward life, wherein the heart does love and reverence God the Creator, and learns to exercise true justice and goodness...I found no narrowness respecting sects and opinions, but believed that sincere, upright-hearted people, in every society, who truly love God, were accepted of him."
John Woolman

#4 True faith creates within us Life contrary to the "world."

#5 Worship is expectant openness to the Divine--beyond forms and rituals, is sometimes hindered by forms and rituals, especially if the latter are done by rote rather than a Divine encounter.

#6 True values are not relative customs according to time and place and culture, but are eternally true and come from the inner essence of God. From God's Spirit come Equality, Honesty, Purity, Community, Peace, Love, Justice, Mercy, Humbleness, Simplicity, Kindness, Expectant Silence, Temperance, Goodness, and Joy.

#7 Individual leadings should be brought before the Body for corporate discernment.

#8 Worship leads to service.
There is an old Quaker joke about a stranger who came into a Quaker meeting. Nothing was happening, so the man leaned over and asked one of the Friends, "When is the service going to start?"
The Friend whispered back, "The service will start outside after the end of worship."

#8 There is no professional clergy. All Friends are active ministers of various kinds.

#9 Scripture is interpreted by the Spirit within the gathered body of the faithful.
"...tell them in the name of God that there is to be no wrangling about words: all that this ever achieves is the destruction of those who are listening." 2 Timothy 2:14 NJB

#10 Receiving love from the Light within the community of the faithful leads to the living out of testimonies among all humans and in nature.

All Friends may not hold to every one of these key truths, but most have in the 360 years of the society's existence.

To be continued

The Nature of Reality: Step #2

Our first step looked at the "ocean of darkness" of non-theism. Our second step will give an overview of the main religion that Friends rejected as evil and totally contrary to their own worshipful experience of God. (Then, hopefully, I will get to the detailed experience and faith of Friends themselves, since this series of blogs is an effort to share the nature of Reality according to Friends.)

The Society of Friends came out of the chaos of religious and social upheaval in the 17th century. In some ways human societies of the 1600's were like today: religious extremism was everywhere, and people thought it was God's will for them to kill other religious people over doctrine. However, the killing then was much worse than now. In the Thirty Years War, Catholic versus Calvinist/Lutheran armies slaughtered each other and often killed innocent civilians as well. Probably about 600,000 died in the military, but 7 1/2 million died because of the war! In the English Civil War and after (including Ireland) about 868,000 died!

Why would so many Christians kill each other? There are many factors, but the central one was disagreement over religious doctrine and theology!

No wonder that George Fox said, "I lived in the virtue and power that took away the occasion of all wars," and "We do utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fighting with outward weapons..." Instead, Quakers spoke of the Lamb's War--meaning what Jesus had said, that we are to love our enemies, are to be peacemakers.

In England, the Church of England was involved with an internal division between formalists and those who wanted to 'purify' the church. Also, various extremist sects came into being. And there was both avid hatred and secret support for Catholicism. In the English Civil War and after, Christians killed each other for Jesus. Hundreds of Quakers were imprisoned, some died. The Friend James Naylor was flogged, branded with a B on his forehead, and had his tongue pierced with a hot iron. In the New World, Puritans banished Quakers. They had a law that Quakers should have their ears cut off, and if they came back witnessing again they were to be executed. Massachusetts Bay Colony hanged Mary Dyer for the crime of being a Quaker.

Why was there such hostility by Puritans against the Friends especially? Quakers didn't even practice violence or war. So why such hatred against them? There are a number of reasons, and not all the blame is on the Puritans' side. Check out Larry Ingle's insightful biography of George Fox, First Among Friends, for a good understanding.

However, the key difference was how the two opposing religions saw and experienced God, the nature of ultimate reality. Puritans and their 'cousins' the Reformed on the European continent believed religious doctrine and theology were paramount and supreme. In contrast, Friends thought much abstract doctrine so many "notions" that had no real spiritual life in them. Puritans believed revelation came through Scripture and that revelation had ended 1500 hundred years before, but Quakers trusted God spoke to them now; that there is continuous revelation.

Yet those differences aren't the central crux. For the Puritans/Reformed, God is primarily sovereign power. There is an acronym T.U.L.I.P. which shows where their utter hatred of the Friendly persuasion comes from. Nearly all Puritan/Reformed held to this doctrinal outlook and still do today. According to statistics, Puritan/Reformed churches are some of the fastest growing and largest in the United States in the 21st century.

Total Depravity--Puritans/Reformed think all humans are born evil from birth and are so evil they cannot even seek the Good at all. Humans don't have any choice or any free will. We are like clay, dead to anything right or true or spiritual.

One of the most famous Puritan poems, "The Day of Doom" by Michael Wigglesworth, had a section dealing with why God predestines millions of babies to Hell to be tormented forever.

Such theology was reprehensible to the Friends. While the Quakers agreed we humans are bound up in the "ocean of darkness," that we often live in selfish and unloving ways, Quakers were more convinced God lightens every human who is born so every person does have a choice to turn to the light and leave the "ocean of darkness." Furthermore, no infants are predestined/condemned to Hell, nor are any babies born evil.

Unconditional Election--Puritans/Reformed think that before the creation of the Cosmos, in eternity past, God in his sovereign pleasure chose to love only some humans and save them for heaven. The rest of us--millions--were passed over, pre-damned to Hell. While God outwardly calls humans to be good, secretly in hidden decrees he wills most humans to do evil and go to hell, even secretly willed that Adam and Eve sin! It is God's will that these humans are born totally depraved, live lives of sin, and then are damned to hell for eternal torment, all for God's sovereign glory and pleasure.

As you can imagine, such thinking was totally abhorrent to Friends. D. Elton Trueblood the famous Quaker writer said in his book The People Called Quakers the central meaning of Friends was their rejection of such a terrible view of God.

In utter contrast, Friends experience God as unending eternal love.

Limited Atonement--Since God pre-selected some humans to be saved but most to be predestined to Hell, then Jesus didn't die for the sins of everyone but only for the pre-selected ones.

Besides totally rejecting such horrible theology, Friends emphasize that Christ is within us and loves all humankind. He is not a strange theological legal transaction that pays a sin debt for some humans, while ignoring others.

Irresistible Grace--Since, according to Puritans/Reformed humans are born evil and have no choice--are literally dead spiritually, then they conclude that God changes the will of some evil persons, the ones he pre-selected before time began. These individuals have no choice but are changed because of God's plan.

Again, Friends reject such awful "notions."

Perseverance of the Saints--Since God preselects some humans to become good, and changes these individuals against their evil will to become good, God is going to keep such humans from ever living for evil.

Well--very unwell--there is the second view of the nature of Reality. Definitely not the good news, not the "Ocean of Light and Love" of which George Fox experienced and trusted in.

To be continued

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Nature of Reality: Step #1

What is the true nature of Reality? Notice the capital R. I'm not talking about the finite observable present day-to-day temporal world of basic facts which includes humans as one form of primate undergoing evolutionary change.

Rather, I am speaking of the ultimate category of reality of which philosophers, physicists, and cosmologists refer to, and what religious people and mystics say they experience--the ultimate objective source of Being and Becoming.

Where does "all this" come from and eventually go to?

After this cosmos in so many trillions and trillions of years either stretches out space to infinity or implodes back to a singularity, what will still BE?

Why are we here? Are there eternal truths?

Of course some philosophers and scientists declare there is nothing "out" there beyond matter and energy. The cosmos-- maybe universes beyond universes--has no Meaning or Purpose, only IS for no reason.

Scientists such as Richard Dawkins claim that even to think there might be some Meaning behind it all is to be deluded in the worst sort of way. He wrote The God Delusion to try and demonstrate this central non-theistic thesis.

And Stephen J. Gould the famous Darwinian biologist, in a magazine interview, said humankind itself is only a "fluke" of evolution that probably wouldn't show up again if evolution were re-run another time.

Other famous scientists in this chorus of non-meaning include Coyne, Harris, Cashmore, Hutchens, Monad, Dennett, and Provine.

Dawkins' most famous statement against religion and the transcendent is probably his declaration in River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life:

"The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so."

"If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored."

"In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice."

"The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference."

So there is the first option as to the true nature of Reality: Matter, Energy, and Chance or Cosmic Determinism. The natural, indifferent Cosmos itself is all there is.

We humans are an accidental species or "meat puppets" who construct our own illusions.

Then die. Eventually we as a species will go extinct.

In strong contrast, Enlightenment figures argued that consciousness, reason, human rights, justice, equality, and so forth show evidence of the essential nature of existence--the Deity.

And Friends have trusted for 300 hundred years that Ultimate Reality is Loving Relationship, Equality, Purpose--
that at the very center and heart of Reality are eternal truths, everlasting ideals, absolute love.

Some other faiths agree with the Society of Friends. Transcendent Love is the Center of the Cosmos.

Martin Buber, the Jewish mystic wrote a book on God, titled, I-Thou, which speaks of a love relationship between God and each human.

The Baptist minister and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., (despite his own moral failings), strongly held to Ultimate Reality being loving and good and true and just.

In his speech "Rediscovering Lost Values," King said, "The first principle of value is that we need to rediscover is this: that all reality hinges on moral foundations."

"In other words, that this is a moral universe, and that there are moral laws of the universe just as abiding as the physical laws..."

"I'm here to say to you this morning that some things are right and some things are wrong. (Yes) Eternally so, absolutely so."

"It's wrong to hate. (Yes. That's right) It always has been wrong and it always will be wrong. It's wrong in America. It's wrong in Germany..."

"It was wrong in 200 B.C. and it's wrong in 1954 A.D...It's wrong in every age and it's wrong in every nation."

"Some things are right and some things are wrong, no matter if everybody is doing the contrary. Some things in this universe are absolute."

No doubt early Friends would have ascribed non-theism to the "ocean of darkness" that threatens humankind. So how is it then that some Friends in the last 40 years have come out stating there is no God to worship, no Ultimate Reality to "quake before"?

They say God is a fiction, a word which does not represent anything real.

It is uncertain why such Friends deny God's existence. We are all doubters to one degree or another, but when humans, especially Friends, claim for certain that there is no God, it is puzzling and distressing.

After all both names--"Friend" and "Quaker"--are in reference to God. And the vital central focus of a Quaker meeting is worship of the Truth, the Light, the Divine.

If there is no One--no Center--to worship, then it would appear that such individuals are consciously choosing to pretend, what other non-theists such as Dawkins term "delusion."

Before I continue with an introduction to the Friends view of worship, let me emphasize that ALL humans are invited to come to commune in worship, even those who don't think there is any Ultimate Reality to live in and commune with. Hopefully, they will encounter the Truth, the Light.

After all, remember what Stephen King that famous Quaker horror writer;-) wrote in his novel, The Stand. In response to an atheist's statement that he doesn't believe in God, the heroic leader in the novel laughs and says, "But that don't matter. He believes in you."

To be continued

In the LIGHT,

Daniel Wilcox

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Beauty versus Plainness: A Question of Truth

When I first encountered the Friends' Way, there was so much that spoke deeply to me of Truth--the peacemaking, equality, honest, purity, open worship, non-dogmatism.. but the testimony I couldn't understand was plainness, the original emphasis on drab clothing.

I'm not talking about John Woolman and others who chose to wear un-dyed clothes because dyed cloth was made by slaves. On the contrary! What a mighty testimony for Woolman, a tailor and clothing store owner, to refuse to wear fashionable clothes if it meant he would be wearing what the slave system had produced. I hope I would have done the same.

Rather, I am speaking about what Margaret Fell/Fox complained against--the rigid testimony of wearing plain clothes as a central outward sign of being a Friend. Such a focus seems simplistic, not simple. Indeed, she called such an outward display a "silly poor gospel. We must all be in one dress and one colour; this is silly poor gospel. It is more fit for us to be covered with God's Eternal Spirit, and clothed with his Eternal Light" 1700. After all the word "simple" literally means 'single" and has to do with innocence--as in simple beauty.

But Quakers became obsessed early on with what had originally been an outward sign of witness against inequality and pride. Finally, George Fox and Edward Perot even verbally fought over exactly when one should take his hat off and when not during Meeting--talk about superficial, outward, and simplistic!

As the charismatic Quaker movement gradually changed into a peculiar sect the emphasis on such outward plain forms hardened into codified rule. Strangely, a religious movement which originally emphasized the inward Spirit came to emphasize outward forms. Rather ironic. Nor do I understand the recent interest of some modern convinced Friends to return to such plain dress, not at all.

The main reason I am against plainness is that I am heart and soul--to the deepest innermost--an artist, a poet, novelist, and photographer. I love all things creative, all things colorful, all things beautiful.

The early Friends came out of the Puritan revolution--a movement that wanted to 'purify' Christianity of much of art, considering it pagan and idolatrous. The latter fanatics smashed stained glass windows, defaced artwork, tore doewn prayer railings, and condemned the festive and bright. Friends generally didn't involve themselves in such destruction but they did join in the revolt against the showy aspects of religion because too often the show had no real Life within. Church of England ministers were often hypocritical, lacked spiritual vision and passion, and sometimes were only in it for money.

When religion becomes superficial, when people focus obsessively on fashion, when the arts become an expression of extravagance, pride, and even evil, then a return to the simple is necessary. Plain speaking is needed, and I suppose even plain dress as a witness against the surface gaudiness of corrupt culture. But surely that doesn't mean one has to hate an illumined stained glass window by Marc Chagal or the poetry of Gerald Manley Hopkins.

Yet as so often happens among humankind, when people revolt against one wrong extreme, they too often end up at the other. Thus for many years Friends didn't become artists or writers (except in their journals).

Another factor in the lack of creative arts was that Friends were banned from advanced educational institutions in England. So they primarily focused on business enterprises and excelled there because of their honesty. And then during the Quietist period, many saw creative and intellectual pursuits as 'creaturely activity' contrary to God's Light.

In contrast, I don't think God is primarily interested in the plain--the drab, the lackluster, the outward. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus refers to the beauty of plants in the natural world, saying "Think of the flowers of growing in the fields; they never have to work or spin; yet I assure you that not even Solomon in all his regalia was robed like one of these."

While it is true, God doesn't want us to be obsessed with the temporal, certainly not the ostentatious or gaudy, God is vividly desirous of us to seek Beauty-- to be innovative, creative and bright.

What God wants are not outward efforts of denial anyway but an inner singleness of spirit, our heart wholly for truth, for goodnesss, for true beauty.

Plain beauty!

Daniel Wilcox

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Trouble with Names and Terms

The word "Quaker" has become like the word "Christian" a term that means almost anything. It's original meaning came from a story where an early Friend told others to quake before God. And the other term 'Friend' self-chosen by Quakers (after Children of Light) meant "friend of God," "friend of Jesus" as in John 15:12-15.

The term "Quaker" had a very powerful history and over the years came to stand for open worship, social concern, honesty, equality, religious experience instead of dogma, and peacemaking.

I first became involved with Quakers in 1967 when doing my C.O. time in Pennsylvania. Dissatisifed with my religious affiliation because it was adamantly in favor of the Vietnam War, was very doctrinal on issues that seemed non-essential, etc., I decided to visit the Friends meeting and was inspired.

The worship and peace position of Quakers spoke very deeply to me and helped guide me. Indeed, I remember, especially transformative experiences including when I first found Thomas Kelly's book The Eternal Promise at a yard sale and read it. Then I read George Fox's Journal, Woolman's...

But there is the counter-side. Over the years, I observed many Quakers, contrary to their historic stand, strongly support everything from nuclear weapons to suicide, to actually claim that there is no Ultimate Truth to worship or love, yet practice weekly worship (to whom?), and to reject most of the theological distinctives of early Friends and adopt instead a very Fundamentalistic theology, etc.

These contradictions were so disillusioning and the term "Quaker" became so diluted seeming to mean and stand for almost anything so I stopped calling myself a Quaker (like I also stopped calling myself a Christian in the 1970's) because people almost always got the wrong idea of what I meant.

But that didn't work either. A person needs to be able to identify his deepest convictions about Truth without passing out a doctoral thesis;-) so I began to hyphenate. But such a semantic change becomes confusing too. So many of the hyphenated words are contradictory or at least ambiguous. I mean what is a Christian Quaker?

That's like saying I'm a Christian-Christian or Quaker-Quaker. And if I am going to clarify with hyphens what I mean this is where that would have to lead me: I am a very-liberal-nonfundamentalistic-Christian-in-some-ways-Hicksite-in-some-Gurneyite--unprogrammed-mission-and-evangelistic-but-not-proselytizing-antiwar-anti-abortion-anti-capital-punishment-anti-suicide-pro-environment...Quaker;-)

Well, you can see such hyphenating becomes a ridiculously long monologue and I've never actually said all of that together, though eventually I do have to explain it.

Let us go back to daily life where while the term "Quaker "or "Friend" means almost anything, we just need to identify as Quaker and then get into a conversation and say what the term means to us.

I am on the inclusivist side. Let anyone who wants to identify as Quaker do so. Maybe he or she will begin to yield to the Spirit of God and become all the term originally meant: to quake before God; and what 'Friend' originally meant: being a Friend of God and Jesus (as Jesus says in the Gospel of John).

Besides, naming and terms are only the beginning. We are here to live in the Spirit and the Light, sharing and helping a lost world.

And this my Friends is the Good News, not that we have decided who is 'in' or 'out' but that God is drawing people to the Light that we might be little seeds to the nations:-)

Daniel Wilcox