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Peter at NEYM

Jan Hoffman, clerk of the committee on revising Faith and Practice, spoke in the meeting for worship for business. I scribbled down as much as I could. I got less than half of it, but I caught the gist:

“What words might we hear together?

“We will not eliminate every word that anyone might object to until all we have left is wishy-washy words that could mean anything. Nor will we try to include every single word that anyone might want, hoping that if we just throw enough of them in together then we’ll have a document that will represent us all.

“We must surrender ourselves to a sense of the corporate meeting. There is a corporate integrity that is not the same as individual integrity. I may wish that we were somewhere other than where we are; I may wish that we were where I am. [Appreciative laughter from the meeting] But we proceed with the faith that we can find the place where we can stand together. This does not prevent me from acting as an individual.

“It is difficult to listen to the needs of the corporate body. In a democratic society, we think that each individual must be satisfied in order to be part of the corporate body, but we do not. Faith and Practice states where we stand together, which means that where some of us stand individually will not be in the book, and that is a hard discipline. We are looking for words that might pull us to that place where we can stand together.”

A theme of this gathering for me has been listening for the truth behind words that we may find difficult or painful. Last week I started to write a response to Patricia Loring’s Listening Spirituality, which grew into an explanation of polytheism for those not familiar or comfortable with the idea, and then led into a howl of anger and pain, not so much at fundamentalist Christian bigotry, but at liberal Christian complacency with fundamentalist Christian bigotry. I called it “The Spirit gives life, but the letter just pisses me off,” and I was starting to compile a list of “words that piss me off.” (God, heaven, savior, salvation, sin, Christ, etc.) So much of the Christian vocabulary seems to mean completely different things to different groups of Christians, but they insist on sticking with the vocabulary because it makes them all sound the same so they can pretend they’re all somehow united in the worship of that “one” God. Which I’ve always had a big problem with because the vocabulary leaves me damned.

(Things to write about later: Thomas Moore’s fellowship, Tolstoy’s onion, The Edges of Language, Faith as “believing what you know ain’t so” vs. something real.)

I may be close to a breakthrough here. Christian vocabulary—the letter that kills—has been like a rotten tooth in my mouth for decades. I work around it when I can, but it makes me wince in pain when I bite down on it unexpectedly. And it’s sort of like I can feel the tooth wiggling in its socket now, and maybe it’s ready to come out. Yank the damn tooth, forget the words, then listen to the spirit and begin trying to talk about it afresh.


Some quotes:

“When Friends ask that crucial question ‘What canst thou say?’ our answer takes place in a living, changing tradition. The fabric of New England Friends is made up of threads from our history and of a rich variety of contemporary experience. It will continue to grow and change as new light is given to us. Some of our paths follow a universalist orientation and some are Christ-centered, focused either in the person of Jesus, in a universalist Christianity, or in a cosmic Christ-consciousness. Some of us find ourselves blending wisdom from a variety of traditions such as Buddhist, Jewish, and Pagan into our Quaker way. Some of us find our primary grounding in Spirit through the natural world. Others of us find a connection to the sacred is one that floods our consciousness but is unnamable and not in need of naming. Many of us are led to focus on actions to which we are called in the world, and to let our lives speak of the faith that underpins it. Some of us live with theological uncertainty, or are uncomfortable with traditional concepts of deity. These paths are not mutually exclusive; the same Friend may experience any of them at various times.”
--Faith and Practice Revision, Second Draft: “Introduction.” 2006 NEYM Advance Documents, pg. 21

“As we learn from each other, we may initially need to translate the words other Friends use to describe their faith, much as we would a foreign language. With practice this becomes easier, and although we may never adopt their language as our own, we are enriched and brought closer to each other by the ongoing practice of being able to listen outside the comfort of our own religious vocabulary. We rejoice in the Grace of a God who speaks to each of us in a voice we can understand, but who also provides others to help us understand those things which are outside our own experience.”
--Faith and Practice Revision, Second Draft: “Introduction.” 2006 NEYM Advance Documents, pg. 21

“When listening, Friends need to be aware that certain words carry powerful emotional weight for them personally, and that they may hear meanings which reflect their own emotions and sensitivities rather than the intentions of the speaker. Each person is encouraged to be faithful in using the language which feels authentic and appropriate to their message, and those listening are encouraged to hold the actual words as lightly as possible, while seeking to be open to the Spirit which enlivens them.”
--Faith and Practice Revision, Second Draft: “The Dynamics of Meeting for Worship.” 2006 NEYM Advance Documents, pg. 23

“Speak with your own, authentic voice, using the terms true to your experience. Encourage and welcome others to do the same. Hearing truth as others understand it is a way of deepening your own faith. Offer the message you are given in simplicity and sincerity, dispensing with preamble, apology, or justification.”
--Faith and Practice Revision, Second Draft: “Advices on Worship.” 2006 NEYM Advance Documents, pp. 24-5

It’s getting easier for me to hear people using Christian vocabulary and not react defensively. It’s gotten easier just in the last two days. I can listen with tolerance. I can hear the spirit behind the words. I can translate. But a couple of questions remain:

When am I self-censoring to avoid conflicts that may be off-topic at the moment? If every time I identify myself as a Witch, a Pagan, or a polytheist, I cause mild apoplexy in the people around me, and if I really want to be talking about other substantive issues for a change, then there is very great temptation to avoid using the hot trigger words…you know, just for now, until there’s time to get into it later. And then it becomes a habit, and you wake up one morning and realize everything you’ve said for the last hour/month/year to your closest spiritual community about your deepest spiritual identity has been a lie.

When do the words that trigger my defensiveness actually imply real hate? Someone I otherwise like and respect may frame a genuine impulse to virtue and nobility in terms of not wanting to be like the niggers and spicks. How long before you wake up and realize that your friends and neighbors are (very polite, very kind and generous) Nazis?

When might it be possible to forgive an insult to myself, but still wrong to do so because it is also an insult to others? One kid calls another kid “faggot,” just as a random insult. I confront him. He apologizes to the other kid but I’m not satisfied. The real insult wasn’t to that kid, it was to gays and lesbians everywhere, that he would use such a deep part of their identity as an insult to hurl at one of his straight white buddies. And the kid asks, “But you’re not gay, why are you offended? There aren’t any queers in the room right now, so what’s the big deal?”

Later—Two more questions:

When am I self-censoring to the degree that I forget my own identity? As Cat said the other night, “I don’t want to have the kind of light that comes from John Preston’s eyes if it means I have to lose the fire in my loins, if it means I have to lose Herne.” It’s not just about lying to others; it’s about forgetting my own truth.

When is confronting someone about their unconscious bigotry actually an act of service to that person? See Tolstoy’s onion. But later. Gotta run now.


Anonymous said…
"So much of the Christian vocabulary seems to mean completely different things to different groups of Christians, but they insist on sticking with the vocabulary because it makes them all sound the same so they can pretend they’re all somehow united in the worship of that “one” God. Which I’ve always had a big problem with because the vocabulary leaves me damned."

YES. This is most of why I identify as an atheist. Not because I think 'what-I-believe-in' is so very different from what the average liberal Quaker believes in, but because I think it's a mistake to use the word "God," as though we can take such a loaded word, owned by such an older and bigger community, and appropriate it for our own purposes.

(To draw an analogy, if we decided we were going to transfer our political allegiance to a slightly kinder, gentler, more northerly country, we would be silly to insist on keeping our old vocabulary, e.g. calling Canada "the U.S.A.")
Liz Opp said…

First of all, I love, love, LOVE what Jan Hoffman had to say. It is a difficult thing to explain the practice of seeking a corporate leading versus giving weight to all sorts of individual ones. Not to mention the interrelationship between the two.

Second, I appreciate the honesty with which you are wrestling with the Christian vernacular. And I also felt a sadness arise within me when I read this part:

So much of the Christian vocabulary seems to mean completely different things to different groups of Christians, but they insist on sticking with the vocabulary because it makes them all sound the same so they can pretend they’re all somehow united in the worship of that “one” God.

Like you, I once fled (inwardly if nothing else) from these Christian words and concepts. Rather than say more here, I'll refer you to a post I wrote a while ago, about how I began to hear some Christian language differently.

I hope you'll keep listening and allow for the possibility that the language you are hearing might have a completely different meaning among contemporary Friends--Christ-centered or not.

But also hold onto your distrust as long as you need to. There's a reason to go slowly with this sort of wrestling...

Liz, The Good Raised Up
Rex said…
I so glad to others struggling with our common human dilemma: Our understandings of reality can never be fully expressed in words, but, because our understandings all need to be confirmed by further experience (either our own or, through words, someone else's), we all need to become expert translaters: translating our word-free experiential understandings, as best we can, into words & then in translating others' words back into word-free experiential understandings. Communications are always tough because we can never ever be sure that we have understood each other fully! But because communication is so important, we must do the best we can & never give up trying to understand each other & the reality we are all immersed in!
Rosemary said…
I won't deny that I've gone through my own struggle with Christian language. I find the use of 'Christian-ese' by conservative Christians odd (just to start) and moving downwards from there, I almost always find it divisive, often inflammatory, and sometimes offensive.

But I am myself profoundly Christian. I am more Christian than I am Quaker, although I am still very much Quaker, and even when it's used badly, I hold Christian language and Christian metaphor very dear to my heart.

The same language that is used to divide by many conservative Christians, I personally find very nourishing. My life makes sense parsed in the form of fall and redemption and sacrifice.

"So much of the Christian vocabulary seems to mean completely different things to different groups of Christians"

Yes, it does.

"but they insist on sticking with the vocabulary because it makes them all sound the same so they can pretend they’re all somehow united in the worship of that “one” God."

That is not why any liberal Christian I know sticks with the vocabulary, and that statement hurt.

I stick with the vocabulary because it is meaningful to ME. I grew up with that vocabulary. The years that I was Pagan, that vocabulary still resonated with me. And now that I have come back to Christianity through my own will, that vocabulary and metaphor is even more important to me.

Yes, I value the connection that it gives me to Christians of other paths, but I am not trying to 'pretend' that I am artificially united with other Christians. When I disagree with other Christians about the use of words like 'salvation' and 'sin' I make it clear to them how we're using them differently.

I have never found it useful to burn a bridge that has already been built for me. Christian vocabulary can be used either to alienate or to unite. While I try to be open with the differences in belief between me and my more conservative friends, I find the unity of language remarkably powerful in finding ways that we are also similar. The statement that liberal christians are 'complacent with fundamentalist Christian bigotry' simply because we are struggling to communicate across what feels like a growing schism in our faith is very hurtful.

I realize from the fullness of this post that you, too, are genuione struggling with this issue, so I'm sorry if some of what I said were things that you've already considered. I, too, want to be able to listen to the Spirit and find some unity across the sprectrum of our faiths, but the words are too important to me to forget.
Rex said…
Sarah, I would never ask you to forget words that are precious for you, but I would hope that you remember that the main reason we need words is to enable us to communicate & communication is a two-way street. I try to find words that I hope will communicate my understandings of reality acurately to you. Unfortunetely, our understandings of reality don't come pre-packaged with such words. Words are so handy (& so amazingly effective most of the time)[if all parties involved happen to have had similar associations with those words] that it is easy for us to forget that, since our experiences are always different (sometimes extremely so), it can often take a lot of back-&-forth to make really sure we understand each other!
Even though the reality we are trying to understand is the same reality for all of us, the words we choose don't always mean the same to others. We need to respect that & really work at trying to really understand those with whom we differ! So I hope you are able to hang-in there!

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