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The Many Things We Call "Divine" (Marshall Massey replies to Peter)

Spiritual Identity and Membership Series:
Part 1: Quakerpagan or Paganquaker -
Part 2: Membership and Identity -
Part 3: Marshall Massey Replies

The following is a reply by Marshall Massey of Earth Witness Journal to my post about Membership and Identity. I think it raises points that are important enough to both Quakers and Pagans that I want to feature it in a post of its own rather than have it tucked away as an appended comment.

Marshall’s reply:


Friends Peter and Cat, you don't have to publish this comment on your site if you don't want to; you can read it and then delete it, and that's fine with me. I'm not sure what I am about to say is better discussed on an open forum than in private e-mail.

But since I am mentioned in the opening paragraph of this post, I believe I have a bit of a duty to respond.

The truth may be either that there are many things we call "divine", or that the divine has many faces. Different paths take one to different "divines", or to different faces of the one "divine". The path of the Berserkers of Norway, who worked themselves into a murderous superhuman excitation that they regarded as possession by the divine, took them to a very different "divine", or a very different face of the divine, from the path of Francis of Assisi or the path of George Fox.

Traditional Quakerism takes its practitioners to a specific face of the divine that is (in my personal opinion) either identical or virtually identical to the face that the historic Jesus Christ showed his followers. But (still just speaking personally) I do not believe that the face of the divine experienced by modern Pagans who "draw down the God" is the same face or even anything near the same face. I do not deny that there is something one may validly call "divine" about it, but I do not, personally, believe that what is divine in it is what Christ wanted us to practice and approach.

A community that defines itself by relationship to the divine, without looking carefully at what it means by that word, is, in my personal opinion, a community that is quite capable of going profoundly wrong. I think it was this sort of inattention to changing understandings of the divine that led the humble, meek early Christian religion to evolve over the course of a thousand years into something that hosted the Inquisition and the Crusades.

So I view the visible lack of concern for changing understandings of the divine, that many liberal Quaker meetings display in accepting a very, very wide range of applicants as members, with great dismay.

I'm not saying that I expect liberal meetings to sponsor a Crusade or an Inquisition tomorrow or next year; but I certainly see the seeds of hatred in their reaction to FUM's personnel policy, and in their usual attitude toward Republicans. I'm not saying that FUM and Republicans are pure and virtuous; but for someone genuinely on a Christian path, the effort is always to remove the board from one's own eye before removing the mote from one's neighbor's. And I don't see that happening in meetings (or churches, either) where people say, "My truth is different from your truth; my way of understanding the divine, my way of approaching the divine, is different from yours, different from Friends' traditional way; and I'm going to be a member of your Society but I'm hanging on to mine."

The gentle Christ who taught a non-resistant path to overcoming evil, is not Herne, the god of the hunt. The path of saying to God, "if it's all the same to You, I'd rather not drink this cup, but nevertheless, not my will but Thine," is a different path from that of "drawing down" divine energies. It just might be that what you experienced, Peter, when you stood and spoke in meeting for worship for the first time -- even though it was an experience of the divine -- nevertheless was not anything like what traditional Quakerism is actually about.


Peter again:

When we asked Marshall if we could publish his reply in a post, he expressed some concern that “because it was such a direct challenge to the theory underlying modern liberal-pluralist Quakerism, that I thought it might offend or upset you or others.” Quite the opposite, at least in my case. Plain speaking among Friends is as important as corporate worship as we labor together towards discernment. But beyond that, the questions Marshall raises about what exactly is going on in worship or in drawing down (two very distinct practices, as he points out) are of bedrock importance to anyone who practices any kind of ecstatic communion with the Divine.

It will take some time for me to respond. I write with great deliberation at the best of times, and I’m coming now into the final six weeks of a difficult year of teaching. Further, the questions here are profound and I want to sit with them and let my thoughts season a bit before giving them voice.

Thank you, Marshall, for the faithfulness of your reply. May I do as well.


John, of A Tentative Quaker has responded to this discussion in a post of his own, in Expressing our faith: Response to Marshall Massey and Peter Bishop

He says (in part):"This spoke directly to the pages I was reading as I fall asleep. Beth Allen on page 61 talks about British Friends that hurt others by their ministries and are then hurt by the responses back. One group is those that have a close and personal relationship with Jesus, God and the Spirit and see the answer as turning to the Christian God for all of us to be flooded with the experience of God's Love. The other group she mentions are those that go beyond all traditional Christian and Theistic God language and want Friends to move away from historical and dated forms, Both remain baffled and even angry when they are eldered that this is not speaking to the condition of all..."
David Miley, who also kindly posted a link to this blog on the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids Message Board, sent this in via email, as he was having some difficulty posting through Blogger earlier:

"Marshall states that traditional Friends worship leads toward the face of Jesus or someone indistinguishable from Jesus. The key word is face. Marshall seems to be describing the Inner Light as the direct receipt of a message, much as the Jewish prophets and Paul received direct communion and instruction.

"Pagan experience of immanence, while not limited to this, is often about the gift of vision (or hearing or touch or scent) that is godlike in nature. I remember asking to be able to see as Spirit sees and suddenly being surrounded by all the souls of trees, grass, birds, people - orange spirals against a steel gray sky.

"In both cases, divine presence or enhanced vision there is an undeserved gift given. There is really no self-inflation (an underlying criticism of Marshall's when he juxtaposes "humility" against pagan experience). How can you be inflated if you are the equal of an acorn? I would also go a bit further than perhaps Peter would go. I would say that the experience of divine immanence in Nature can also open one's heart to compassion.

"Our gods are part of Nature and not separate from it. Neither are we separate from Nature nor is the ancient silver maple or each blade of grass (whose color differs ever so slightly from its neighbor). That seems to be the strength of the pagan vision. Not tied to an afterlife "in the sky" but to the love for this world and creation within.

peace and health,

David Miley"
Anonymous said…
I thank you for your blog and the Quaker Pagan Website. I just started my new blog and will add links to both.

My religions are: Engaged Buddhism; Jainism; Native American Spirituality; Mysticism; Eco-Spirituality; Quaker Pagan; and Spiritual Humanism.

I list Quaker Pagan because I connect to Unprogrammed Quakerism, and I feel it connects to my beliefs in eco-spirituality, voluntary simplicity, unscripted prayer, silently listening for the voice of the Divine, and earth honoring traditions.

I learned it's not necessary to have just one religion and stick to that. I enjoy a rich tapestry of spiritual expressions.

Dictionary definitions of "religion" include: "A set of beliefs, values, and practices." "A cause, principle, or conscientious devotion."

These beliefs can be inspired and affirmed by the wisdom of spiritual leaders and teachers.

As an abuse survivor I find the art of healing expressed in many interspiritual and intercultural teachings.

I'll end with a quote from The Dalai Lama that I think says it all: "There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness. My religion is very simple, my religion is kindness."
Thanks for the links, Babe. (I followed yours back to your blog, and I'm looking forward to exploring it further.)

One caution on the note that it is "not necessary to have just one religion and stick to that." Though I agree that, as one bumper sticker puts it, "God is too big to fit inside one religion," and I certainly find my own inspiration coming from more than one set of teachings, it's important to remember that many religious practices have an important part of their practice that is communal.

Gerald Gardner taught that one "may not be a Witch alone," but the flourishing of solitary practitioners of Wicca pretty much puts a lie to that notion. However, Quakerism (and some Pagan and Wiccan traditions) just aren't practicable alone--we need a community in which to work, or we're not really complete in our practices.

I think that there is a core piece of Quaker religion that must be experienced within a community--and within a community you are committed to actively participating in--to really make sense. Being a Quaker without a community is a little like trying to be a Buddhist by reading books about meditation, but not meditating... or like trying to feed yourself when you're hungry by looking at a picture of food.

Long-winded way of saying that I hope you not only enjoy what you have read here, and that you keep exploring Quaker ways as well as Pagan ones. but that you find a community in which to learn and practice the disciplines of corporate Quaker worship. It makes such a difference!

Hopefully you already know of a Friends meeting you are comfortable in. Just be aware, though, that there's more to being a Friend than any one Quaker can create alone...

Blessed be.
Anonymous said…
I came to this page through a circuitous route and have no interest pro or con Quaker, Pagan, Quaker-Pagan, eco-Buddhist or any other compartments in the above for experience of a 'religious' kind. Also, usually, I read and pass by; a traveller rather than a dweller. However, a few things struck me as odd here.
First, the Berserkers strike me as not experiencing the 'divine', as Marshall suggests, regardless of what they or others think. 'Murderous excitation,' as he describes it, is just that and not divine at all.
Secondly, the conversation, whilst asking about the divine focuses on the 'faces' of the divine. I think we all know the mistake in wanting to understand one thing but confusing it with something else entirely different, for example, the moon and the reflection of the moon in a puddle of water. There is only one moon, but many representations of it.
Kind regards,
Anonymous said…
Cat, thank you for posting David Miley's comments on what I wrote. It was interesting to see what a complete stranger, with a background very different from my own, makes of my concerns!

Let me try to clear up some points of misunderstanding, if I may.

Here's the hard one. David writes, "Marshall seems to be describing the Inner Light as the direct receipt of a message, much as the Jewish prophets and Paul received direct communion and instruction." And no, that's not quite true. Yes, the concept of the Inner (or Inward) Light is one which the early Friends took from Scripture; but no, the nature and operation of that Light is not as David describes it here. It is actually best explained by one of the anonymous authors of the book of Proverbs.

This person wrote, in Proverbs 20:27, "The heave of a person's breath [neshâmâh] is the lamp of YHWH, searching all the hidden places in his gut." This is an understanding rooted in the old, old Mediterranean idea that God continuously breathes life into us, i.e. that the force making us inhale and exhale is, in some very real sense, God. That force was called Ruakh in ancient Hebrew, Pneuma in ancient pagan Greek, Spiritus in Latin, and so forth: it's the original meaning of the term "Holy Spirit". In Genesis we read that God breathed life into Adam: just so.

In attentive meditation, we can feel our breath, as it moves in and out of us, moving against, and thereby highlighting, whatever tensions are present in our chest and heart and gut, the places where our body is affected by worry, or guilt, or a feeling that we are not exactly doing what we need to do. Proverbs 20:27 says that it is through this highlighting process that God, Spirit, knows us, knows our inmost thoughts, knows the secrets that we would prefer to keep from Him -- knows them, indeed, better than we ourselves do.

This, then, is the "lamp of YHWH", the Inward Light. It not only reveals our condition in intimate detail to God, but also reveals God's answers to us -- the feelings He sets in motion in our hearts and guts that reprove us, awaken remorse, inspire us, soothe and heal our wounds, or prompt us to do some right thing.

The same idea recurs in other places in the Bible -- for example, Jeremiah 17:9-10, Ezekiel 11:5, Job 32:8, and Hebrews 4:12. The early Friends, who were close readers of the Bible, picked right up on it, and it shows up again in their own writings.

Does this make "the Inner Light ... the direct receipt of a message", as David writes? No, not exactly. The Light, the lamp of YHWH, is one thing; the feelings the Spirit initiates, that answer our condition and direct us, are another. The latter are certainly related to the former, but not the same.

On to easier matters. David says I "juxtapose[d] 'humility' against pagan experience." He puts the word "humility" in quotes here as if it was one I actually used. But I never used that word in what I wrote; and I cannot find any place where I suggested that the difference between Quaker and Pagan experience was one of humility. Somewhere in my writing is something that David has misunderstood. I can't tell what it is.

And finally, David writes, "Our gods are part of Nature and not separate from it." I won't quarrel with that statement; its truth is obvious.

The God of traditional (Judæo-Christian) Quakerism, though, is at one and the same time the One who speaks in our hearts, the One who makes us breathe and gives us life, and the One who makes winds blow and empowers all things to move and happen. He is thereby as close to Nature as it is to itself, less than a quark's width under the surface of every motion. And yet, as the One who moves the inanimate, and gives the animate power to move, and makes life and being exist, He is something more than Nature -- He is Nature's origin, master, and support.

So, turning to David's last sentence, who is it that says our God is not tied to the love of this world that He oversees and shapes? Certainly not the Hebrews who said that after He created it, He looked on all that He had made and pronounced it good. Nor John, who said that God so loved the world, he gave it His son. Nor Jesus, who observed that God cares for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, and can be trusted to care for us in the same way.

Here too David seems to have misunderstood something, I'm not sure what.

On a final note -- Cat, many thanks for what you said about the place of community in Quakerism. I can only agree!
Anonymous said…
Here's where I picked up the humility concept from Marshall -
"I think it was this sort of inattention to changing understandings of the divine that led the humble, meek early Christian religion to evolve over the course of a thousand years into something that hosted the Inquisition and the Crusades." Perhaps humble and humility are not the same root concept, but I read this as a paradigm for where Christianity and particularly Friends should be headed.

I'm always willing to learn something and I appreciate Marshall's response to my (very)external understanding of the Inner Light. If I could further display my ignorance, it seems much like a dialog in relationship, almost Job-ian in its intimacy. If that's the case, it is probably very different from the gift of Divine insight.

There are branches of pagan practice that may be closer to what Marshall is describing. But, I fear that I'm going too far afield for this particular discussion.

I thank Marshall for his response and hope to hear more from him.

peace and health,
Hi, David,
I know that _I_ appreciate your comments here.

I'll also say that my own experience of what I term the Light is very much of a relationship--though it's more complicated than that. I know that I sense both similarities and differences--to me, very significant differences--with the Wiccan practice of drawing down.

But writing anything coherent on that topic will definately have to wait for Sunday afternoon for me--the first time I'll really get a chance to sit down and write carefully on the topic.

Thanks to all who have posted. Your comments are greatly appreciated.
Anonymous said…
My thanks to David Miley for his kind clarification. I really found it helpful!

Yes, friend David, I do believe humility is where we Friends should be headed. But no, I don't think humility is a necessary difference between Christianity and Paganism. It's not Paganism as such that leads Friends to loss of humility; it's when our collective understanding of the divine degrades, and we lose the details of our former understanding of how discipleship works, and in consequence we gradually cease to practice discipleship to a God who -- speaking in our hearts and consciences -- teaches us how to be humble.

What I've been criticizing is not Paganism per se, but that lack of concern, within so much of the Quaker world, regarding the slow decay of our collective understanding, and the consequent unconscious loss of our former focus on shared Christian discipleship. And that's the point I was making in the sentence you refer to.

Many of us think that, as we shed this understanding and this focus on Christian discipleship, we are growing in broad-mindedness and inclusiveness. But what I believe is actually happening is that we grow stiff and self-righteous as we slip from the humbling yoke. We wind up being tolerant and inclusive in our own theory, but judgmental in practice, and not even terribly conscious of the ways in which our daily acts contradict our self-image.

So where Pagans come into the picture, friend David, is not that they are embodiments of evil (hey, they're just people!), but that we Friends include them to prove our inclusiveness, even as we forget our Christian discipleship. Thus, once they are members of our meetings, we don't teach them much of the wisdom embodied in our discipleship because we are neglecting the discipline that would keep that wisdom fresh in our own minds.

I personally think we could be doing better. And I'm trying to do better myself -- although I must confess, I'm still not good at it!
And, just to clarify myself in few enough words to fit my lunch break... Obviously, I hope and believe that the presence of Pagans need not be inevitably fatal to Quaker disciplines (another word that is hard to translate outside the world of Quaker practice, since the concept, as Quakers use it, is so complex)or I would not be Quaker. But I agree with Marshall that avoiding the issue, or pretending it doesn't exist, whether in the name of inclusiveness or for some other reason, is a mistake.

Quakers can do what they do because they seek unity with one another and the divine in worship and in "gospel order"--lives lived in accord with those divine leadings. My experience as a Pagan teaches me that it is possible for people with quite varied ideas about the gods to worship harmoniously together... but Quaker unity goes beyond that. (Not to mention that fact that Pagans often also fail to acheive harmony in our diverse groups, too.)

My experience with Quakers teaches me to trust that, there, too, it is possible for people with quite diverse understandings of the Light to come together and find spiritual unity within that Light together. Of course, Marshall and I have never had that experience of worshipping together, so it's hard to test whether or not we are speaking of the same experience.

But each of us, I think, acknowledges the importance to Friends of honoring and protecting the uniqueness of that experience, and that, certainly if approached without care, diverse ideas of and approaches to that Light may sabotage that experience.

I wouldn't care for that any more than Marshall would.

*laughing* I hope this is at least a little clearer than mud--no time even to spell-check anything today, so please forgive me if I'm murky.
hi, thanks for linking me into the discussion. It has taught me to think more about the headings of the post as both appeared to have fallen flat in terms of responses from the wider community. Its Part 2: Expressing our faith: Response to Marshal Massay and Peter Bishop, that was the core of my response. In this section, I explain what experiences in my life have shaped my spiritual language/framework.

I am arguing that when Friends differ in "theology" then looking at the individual journey/experience can focus the conversation on the heart and not the head. It can act as a clearance that allows the spirit/light etc at the core of communal Quaker worship to speak
Anonymous said…
Wow, Cat, you inspired me to write an entire post today on "Solitary Spirituality."

It addresses Gerald Gardner's take on it, my take on it, and that which exists in other world religions.

It also includes a wonderful excerpt from (and link to) the perspective of a Traditional Quaker solitary.

Thank you for the delicious food for thought! We are all here to learn from and inspire each other.

The most significant part of my spiritual journey has been the ongoing change and evolution, which I've accepted as a lifetime process. I had to, as it took on a life of its own :) There was a time when I would have wrote/said/believed something completely different!

May you know the greatest of journeys, joy and safety always.
Yewtree said…
What an interesting discussion. I think there is much that Pagans could learn from Quakers, both in terms of process and theology. I can also see how Marshall would want to be careful about diluting the tradition by being so inclusive that there was a loss of meaning. However, it may help if we compare the Pagans who join Quaker meetings to immigrants to a country. They will be changed by the experience - and the country will be changed by their presence. If people are attracted to Quakerism by the values lived by Quakers, then they will also wish to emulate those values, and engage in the process of careful listening that Quakers engage in. I also think that Cat and Peter are very thoughtful people, and sometimes seem to me to be more Quaker than Pagan - so I guess it depends on which end of the spectrum you are sitting.

Last year I had an experience of Jesus which was very profound, but difficult to assimilate into my worldview. One of the things I find fascinating about spiritual experience is its refusal to sit within nice tidy categories.

Regarding the comparison of drawing down with speaking in the meeting - I have experienced drawing down and also (a very long time ago) speaking in tongues. The two experiences were different, but I can see how they're in the same area, as it were. But I think discernment (in the Biblical sense) needs to be applied to any such experience.

What I really liked about Marshall's post, was that even though he was disagreeing with you, it was so considerate, polite, thoughtful and theologically nuanced.

On the question of berserkers - not the kind of invocation results we really want to revive! But, it is possible to manifest righteous (and divine) anger - think of Jesus overturning the tables of the moneychangers. It's not the same as berserkers, but then do we really know what the berserkers were like?
Anonymous said…
My personal thanks to all who have offered their comments on my own comments here. To "a tenative Quaker": I was deeply moved by your biographical posting of May 13, which helped me a bit to understand your own position. To Yvonne: I am humbled by your very kind words.

Also to Yvonne: we do know a fair amount about what the berserkers were like, because there were literate observers in their place and time, both among their own people and among the peoples whose lands they invaded. There is an okay presentation of the basic known facts on Wikipedia, and you can follow up on the statements made there by checking the references listed at the bottom of the page. A more thorough account, and nicely documented, appears on the Viking Answer Lady's web site.

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