Skip to main content

God Stuff and God Talk (Cat)

Not too long ago, I was visiting the home of a close Pagan friend of mine, and I made mention of "God" in a conversation which included Laura's very bright and inquiring son. Laura stopped me, saying, "In this house, when someone says 'God' we always ask, 'which one?'" And it's true--adopting monotheistic language can make polytheist, panenthest, animist, and nontheist points of view invisible. Laura, of course, was politely insisting I not marginalize her son's religion (and hers) in her own home. The irony, of course, is that we're co-religionists, she and I.

I don't mind at all Laura calling me on apparently privileging monotheism, particularly in the context of her family life. But if I describe my experiences among Friends at NEYM this year in any detail, I'm going to wind up using a lot of words and phrases that may give my Pagan friends reason to get a little nervous about me "going native" in my time among Christians.

Rather than issuing some boilerplate about where I see myself in relation to Paganism or Christianity these days, I'm going to try to describe the names I give to my experiences. Just this once, I want to lay the labels aside. You can pick them up and put them where you think they belong when I get done, OK?

I know that Quaker worship works for me--when I am in worship with centered, seasoned Friends, I am convinced that I am experiencing the same Spirit which they feel, though our names for the experience may differ. And I've been working--especially hard while I was at Sessions, since there were some wonderful resources there for it--to listen deeply into the language and experience of Christian Friends. I don't think my language and understandings match traditional Christian ones (even Quaker Christian ones) very much. But as my reading and my experiences have brought me to different places spiritually, I've been searching for language that reflects what I'm experiencing, and some of my understandings sound pretty monotheistic sometimes.

As I say, I'm convinced, based on the awareness that I am tendered when they are tendered and gathered when they are gathered, that the Spirit I experience in Quaker worship alongside my Christian friends is the same Spirit they are experiencing.

This Spirit seems to go by many names among Christ-centered Quakers. Never mind terms like "Inner Light" or Paraclete or Friend of Friends, this Spirit gets named Jesus, Christ, God, and Holy Spirit. Every aspect of the Trinity, from the historical Jesus right through the ineffable Ground of All Being gets identified with that Spirit.

My point here is that the Christian Friends themselves are not exactly, um... exact in describing the Source of this illumination. It's blurry when they talk about it, and it's blurry when I talk about it. I don't call it Jesus, and I don't call it Christ (though depending on what is meant by that term, I don't know that I'd argue with it, either).

But I do call it God--just as if I knew clearly what that word meant, and were a convinced monotheist. However, what I'm really getting at with the shorthand word "God" isn't exactly God, in the personified and monotheistic sense I think most Christians would use the word.

So what do I mean when I say God? What experience is it I am trying to name?

I use the word when I mean that Spirit I most often experience in images and an inward sense of power and intimacy. Usually, it's an image of water--either a great sea of brightness, or a thundering river that is trembling and shaking within and around all things. So "God" means the almost unbearable flood of liquid light that I feel all around me when I worship.

In C.S. Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, King Caspian and the crew of the Dawn Treader have been sailing east, hoping to come to the kingdom of God--Aslan--when they reach a place where the ocean water becomes sweet and not salt.
The King took the bucket in both hands, raised it to his lips, sipped, then drank deeply and raised his head. His face was changed. Not only his eyes but everything about him seemed brighter.

"Yes," he said," it is sweet. That's real water, that. I'm not sure that it isn't going to kill me... It--it's like light more than anything else," said Caspian.

"That is what it is," said Reepicheep. "Drinkable light..."

...And one by one everybody on board drank. And for a long time they were all silent. They felt almost too well and strong to bear it; and presently they began to notice another result. As I have said before, there had been too much light ever since they left the island of Ramandu--the sun too large (though not too hot), the sea too bright, the air too shining. Now, the light grew no less--if anything, it increased--but they could bear it... They could see more light than they had ever seen before.

That--that overwhelming drinkable light--that's what I understand by "Spirit"--especially "Holy Spirit"--and "God."

My sense is that all things rise from that sea of light.

Not that Light is its only aspect--sometimes my experience of God is of the deep, fertile richness of a forest (like Lewis's description of The Wood Between the Worlds in The Magician's Nephew, though I'll spare you another extended quote.) Sometimes I understand it as a great tree, the Tree of Life, and that everything that lives, including the myriad spirits we call gods are manifestations of life springing from that Tree. Some beings are very close to Its roots--like gods--and other things--like individual rocks and worms and humans--are relatively farther away. But nothing is really separate from It.

"It" I said. I really don't think of this Spirit as very personified. (Intimate, yes--personified, no.) I'm sure this isn't a very satisfying point of view for a devout Christian, who feels a deep, intimate, and very personal connection with Jesus. But then, I don't need it to be. Like Christians, I know a face of the unknowable God which is far closer to me, more personal, and that's Herne.

I can't help but see Jesus and Herne as similar, in at least one way--they are not God, but they are closer to that root of God (or able to bear more Light) than I am.

Not for a moment do I believe that Herne is Jesus. But neither do I believe that he is separate from that great Sea of illumination, because I think that Great Sea is within everything, and surrounding everything.

What of the famous scripture, "None may come to the Father save through me?" Well, first of all, I do not subscribe to the belief that the Bible is some sort of universal rule book. I don't have to play by those rules, and I don't have to make sense of those pages.

However, I have spent time thinking about it, over the years, and my sense has long been this: if Jesus really said that, and if it is really true, then I have to believe that either "the Father" is yet another face of that ineffable Source of everything, or that Jesus was speaking in a kind of metaphor, of his own ability to stand, flooded with Light and Spirit, so closely allied with it as to become lost in it. So it wouldn't be the historical Jesus who was the Way--it would be that illuminating energy. (I suspect that some Christians would term that Christ, and distinguish it somewhat from the historical Jesus. But maybe not.)

If "God" is the Tree, then the trunk is nearer to the root than are the tips of the branches. I can buy Jesus as one of the branches. I can even accept "Christ" as one of the terms for that trunk (or even the root). But there's a part of me that cannot, will not, does not know how to accept the notion that once and only once in history, a door opened to the Spirit. All my experience of God and Spirit is that the big things, the things that matter, happen over and over.

I think in the wheel of the year. Life is cycles; Spirit returns and renews itself endlessly. For all of history and prehistory, here and to the ends of the universe, to be prelude and epilogue to one tiny event in the Middle East strikes me as absurd. My heart rejects it. My spirit rejects it. God is too big to fit into that one tiny narrative.

I do feel that some of what we call "gods" (and here I'm using the lower case to refer to a class of spirit beings, relatively more personified than that sea of Spirit I'm calling "God")are closer to or farther from the Root of that great Tree than others are. For me, Herne is in a sort of foreground of "God Stuff"--closer to me than that Root or Sea, certainly. Perhaps too close to pray to.

Where's Jesus on that family tree? I'll leave that question to those who know him. I don't think I've got a clue.

I do pray, though. (There's another word that Pagans may have trouble with.) Sometimes I do so spontaneously, and sometimes when someone asks me to. And on those occasions, I find myself calling out to Spirit as the Lady--the Great Goddess I learned to worship among Pagans, "known by many names among men." If I pray, She is the face of the divine I automatically pray to. (Capitalization here is an attempt to reflect that I experience her as closer to that Source, and thus less personified.) If "none may come to the Father save through me," and if the Father is that Root, then I think I find my way to it through Her. (Does that make the Lady Christ? The Holy Spirit? Or shall we simply set the Scripture aside--as I'm sure my Pagan readers are more than ready to do, having been beaten over the head with it for years and years...)

So prayer, for me, is the Lady's turf. But when I am reaching out for the Beloved, it is generally Herne's presence I hope to feel--the life of the forest, the animals, the give and take of life in a body with sweat and tears and lust and love of Earth which he holds for me.

And when two Christian Friends at Sessions this year spoke with tears in their eyes of having become not merely Friends, but Christians, followers of a beloved Jesus, through their contacts with Kenyan Friends whose faith in Christ was profound...well, the answering tears of tenderness in my own eyes were from the reminders of how precious my relationship to my own Beloved Friend has been. The tenderness and intimacy they felt was met with an answering tenderness and intimacy I could understand, because I love my god, too.

What a muddle, I'm sure someone out there is thinking. Maybe so. Certainly, I'm aware of a host of influences (some even outside of the works of C.S. Lewis, believe it or not) that may have affected my thinking. But part of the reason that I'm presenting this as a muddle is that I'm trying to be as far from notional as I can. These are not, really, my ideas. These are the understandings of my experience that undergird my use of language.


Carol Maltby said…
I think what I'm having the most problem with is the hierarchical way you are presenting it, with a tree, or with gods/Gods being closer to the Source.

But I'm not at the moment able to articulate my perception and thoughts of
what the system might be, without delving into territory where we (humans, animals, spirits, gods, trees, rocks etc) are all sockpuppets of the Ground of All Being.

Though given the concept of Lila, the Hindu concept of divine play, maybe it'll do.
Anonymous said…
Hi, there, Cat!

Once again you've crafted an essay I find fascinating!

One of the issues you struggle with here, you express as follows: "I can buy Jesus as one of the branches. I can even accept 'Christ' as one of the terms for that trunk (or even the root). But there's a part of me that cannot, will not, does not know how to accept the notion that once and only once in history, a door opened to the Spirit. All my experience of God and Spirit is that the big things, the things that matter, happen over and over."

This is a concern that has vexed the Hindu world for millennia, and since I spent many years involved in Hinduism (even lived in an ashram under a guru's guidance at one point) I am somewhat familiar with the back-and-forth about it.

The Hindus can point to the fact that there have been many avatars -- people so full of and radiant with God that you could not point to any aspect of them that was clearly just them and not God-suffused -- down through the ages. The existence of those avatars who lived in post-medieval times is, by and large, impossible to dispute. People go to India today and meet them. Throughout history, many of them have worked miracles as astounding as Jesus the Christ's. And some of these avatars have also been quite Christ-like in their teaching and example -- Guru Nanak, for instance.

Christians can respond that, prior to the coming of Jesus the Christ, there were no avatars that drew ordinary people into an intimate personal relationship with a God whom they could experience as a kind, caring, and gladly forgiving Dad. (Christ's word for God the Father, "Abba", was the Aramaic equivalent of "Dad" or "Papa".)

Nor, prior to Jesus the Christ, were there any avatars who taught -- let alone lived -- the path of the Cross -- the path of willing self-abasement and self-sacrifice, even to the point of death, for the sake of the ordinary humans around them. Jesus was the first ultimate-servant avatar.

Nor, prior to Jesus the Christ, were there any avatars who specifically identified the voice in the heart and conscience, calling us to do the very kindest and most constructive thing, as the voice of the Creator of Heaven and Earth. There were Mediterranean philosophers who made this identification before Christ, among the Cynics and Stoics, and there were Hebrew prophets who did it, but there were no totally God-transformed, God-radiant men or women who did it before Christ did, and thus there was no one who combined this teaching with a demonstration, in the form of his own God-filled state, that the teaching was valid.

Leaving aside for the time being, then, the question of whether Christ was the one-and-only Incarnation, one can still say that he represents, and encompassed, a profoundly significant alteration in the human relationship with the Divine. And that is not far from what the Christian Church keeps insisting -- that by his life, his teaching and example, and his death, he accomplished a Redemption. The change Christ effected in the human relationship with the Divine is, from the point of view of anyone who fully participates in it in her or his own consciousness, very much a Redemption.

In your next paragraph, you go on to speak of Jesus the Christ's appearance as "one tiny event in the Middle East". But Newton's revolutionization of physics was "one tiny event in England", and Einstein's revolutionization of Newton was "one tiny event in Switzerland" -- and yet that doesn't make them any less deserving of the credit for transforming human consciousness. Gautama the Buddha's appearance was "one tiny event in the Himalayan foothills", but in its own way it was very nearly as revolutionary as Jesus the Christ's appearance. An awful lot of the big turning points in human development can be reduced to one tiny event somewhere. Why should that belittle them?

In terms of prayer, I am curious to know if you've read the writings of Mary Penington -- the best guide that Quakerism ever produced to the art of prayer in the Quaker manner. Her work was reprinted a few years back as a paperback, On Quakers, Medicine and Property: The Autobiography of Mary Pennington (1624-1682) (Cambridge MA: Rhwymbooks, 2000).

Your attraction to prayer-to-the-Lady, of course, parallels the historical reason why Catholics came to pray so much to Mary. The "Convergent" and neo-Conservative crowds in the Quaker world, of course, prefer to pray to Jesus. But maybe it's worth noting that Christ himself focused on prayer, not to his human mom, and not to himself, but to God, and not God-as-the-Root, either, but God-as-Papa, "Abba". I personally doubt that Christ would have insisted on the male attribute for God; it was a cultural convention of his time and place, but I can find no evidence that it was anything more. So there may perhaps be a point where prayer to the Lady is not far from what Jesus the Christ was teaching. Something to chew on, perhaps.
Hi, Carol, hi, Marshall,

Carol, I should probably note both that I'm not at all attempting to present a Universal Pagan Field Theory of God Stuff; I know with great certainty, for instance, that my dear friend Maureen would disagree with my impressions here utterly. (Interestingly enough, that has never kept us from being able to experience the gods with great power with and through one another. So there you go--theory trumped by experience!)

I'm only trying to give my current impressions of how my internal vocabulary is coming to reflect my own personal experiences. As Macha likes to say, "Individual mileage may vary."

I'm not altogether sure I've avoided the notional, in any case. There's something about words that tempts me to insert logic, maybe prematurely, to my understandings. I'm not sure that the reassuringly hierarchical symbol of the Tree, at least as I'm using it here, isn't a distortion where I wind up imposing something reasonable sounding on experience... Certainly, I don't think we are "all sockpuppets of the Ground of All Being." And I don't think I've captured the ways that I think that Andras' explanation of an animistic/non-theist universe does make sense to me, though it does not entirely satisfy me. I would not, for instance, say that the spirits that surround Andras in the forest are less sacred or important than the faces of the divine--gods like Herne--through which I understand them--actually are. And I think the Sea of Light is equally present within all things, though some of us have the option of turning away and being more separate from it for a while...

Again, not sure I'm making sense, here... but that's actually good, because I'm trying to convey a sense, rather than over-interpret it through my tiny human mind. (wry grin)

Marshall, I'm delighted that you find something worth reading here, and I'm glad to have your input! Though Hinduism is not, of course, entirely parallel to Western Paganism, it is relevant enough that I know at least one "weighty Hindu Wiccan" (if I can borrow the Quakerism for a moment). I appreciated your discussion of avatars.

The whole discussion of how religious thought among humans has changed over the ages is one that is hard to explore without superimposing our own prejudices on history and pre-history, unfortunately. (I tend to think, for instance, Marija Gimbutas, darling of the Goddess movement, has really succeeded more in imposing her own prejudices onto the Neolithic than on breaking and symbolic code from the cultures she studies...though at the same time, I find her ideas thought provoking and resonant!) Your discussion of avatars and their changes over history holds together pretty well... but so does Gus DiZerega's comments on how human experience of "God Stuff" may have changed with the development of agriculture and then industrialization. (Alas, Gus's book, Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience,does not go into detail on this. The book, while interesting and well worth a read, also somewhat caricatures Christianity, and certainly omits the Christianity of the Quakers I know entirely... The only place I've yet heard Gus discuss this idea is in an interview he gave on the Pagan podcast, Deo's Shadow, in Episode 31.)

The idea that human understandings of the divine have changed and do continue to change throughout history is one I can sit down with, I guess. But the idea that God's availability or willingness to engage has changed over time just isn't grokkable to me. Of course, the figure of Jesus is a point where the human world and the divine world interact. And my brain thinks your points about giving credit where credit are due make sense--though I would leave to scholars of religion and religious history to refute or confirm your points regarding what avatars have done what when, since it's beyond my area of expertise.

It's still a stop to me, though, the linear historicity of the Christ story. My heart thinks in cycles, and the Scandal of Particularity, as I've heard it described, I find very chilling. The idea of a universality revealed through only one particularlity just does not feel right in my bones, in the places beyond logic. How could the Light that rages like a river in flood stage through the smallest leaf or stone be so constrained? I don't get it. Some will say, "Mystery," and perhaps it is. But to me, it's more like, "Huhnh?"

Revelation, however, is ongoing. One of the nicest things Jan H. has reminded me of is the way that Quakers accept their understandings of our leadings expecting that they will change as more Light is given.

One thing I'm pretty sure of, even in the face of my own dim understanding and feeble attempts to explain myself... and that's the joy and strength of that Light that is just there, in everything from the AIDS virus to exploding stars, to my own heart on a First Day morning. I don't have a lot of faith, per se, but I'm working on trust, and every time I sit with that Light, the trust gets stronger.

Heavens, I think this is as long as the original post! Thank you both for indulging me, especially if you're read to the end.

Oh, yes! Thank you so much, Marshall, for the Mary Pennington recommendation. Though it may take me a while to get to it, with the school year looming, I absolutely will look for it. I very much appreciate direction in what readings are relevant to my current seeking from the early Friends. (Happily, as an English teacher, the language is not problematic for me--but the sheer volume of material to choose from often is.)

Anonymous said…
Hi, Cat!

I agree with your assessment of Marija Gimbutas -- stimulating ideas, but not really a clear-sighted assessment of the Neolithic. I haven't read DiZerega, but the insight that human religion changed markedly with the advent of settled agriculture is a very old one, one which was current even back in the Nixon era when I was studying this stuff at college.

It wasn't clear, in your previous posting, that you were talking about "the idea that God's availability or willingness to engage has changed over time". In your previous posting, you talked about "the notion that once and only once in history, a door opened to the Spirit" -- a much more ambiguous way of putting it, at least to my way of thinking. The point I made in my previous comment was that human attitudes, human understanding, and human practice have evolved, and that Christ's ministry brought about a truly profound change at that level. I wasn't talking about God's availability or willingness, but about human attitudes, understanding and practice.

Many theologians have pointed out that one of the big breakthroughs in Hebrew religion, a breakthrough that preceded Christ by a thousand years, was the realization that God works in history, investing the unfolding of history with divine meaning and purpose. Such an idea was alien to the Egyptians, the Greeks and the other Mediterranean peoples; it was and still is alien to the Hindus; and it has absolutely no place in shamanism. The closest that any of the Hebrews' neighbors came to it was the thought, much cherished among the Hebrews' Canaanite neighbors, that the gods of their cities worked to aggrandize their cities. But even among the Canaanites, there was no visible curiosity about any larger, time-binding divine plan. It was the Hebrews who first said, "God must have a purpose for the human race that extends over all of time; if we remember our history, it might help us gain some insight into what His purpose is." And so they labored to remember their history, and their rememberings (flawed though they often were) became what we now call the Bible.

What you refer to as "the scandal of particularity" is, in fact, just one way of interpreting God's purpose in history. It is not the only way of interpreting that purpose; it's not even the only way of interpreting that accords with what we find in the Bible. (We also find Amos 9:5-7 in the Bible, after all, and Isaiah 19:23-25, Malachi 1:11, Mark 9:38-41, Luke 9:49-50, and John 10:16 -- all of which controvert the idea that the Hebrews, the Jews, and Jesus's historical disciples had some sort of uniquely privileged access to God that no one else could match.) One can thus reject "the scandal of particularity" and still be a Christian.

However, the larger issue here is that you seem to be relating to God as One who is Timeless, a universal Presence; and this is very fine and valid, but somewhat different from connecting with His Will as expressed in our hearts and consciences and as detectable in events and choices in time and history. It's not really that the one way of connecting with God invalidates the other, or that the other invalidates the one. One can actually learn to use both these eyes to see God with, and when one does so, one is all the richer for it.

Do let me know what you think of Friend Mary Penington when you read her. She taught me much about the art of prayer, for which I will forever be in her debt.
What of the famous scripture, "None may come to the Father save through me?"

My response is that it’s highly unlikely that Jesus said any thing of the sort. John is not a historical account of a factual event but a theological construct reflecting the fractional fighting within the 1st century Christian church. Bultman (1971) suggest that is based on several sources and types of document such as a sign-source, a Gnostic source and a passion narrative source. He argues that it was reedited later with different theological concerns arising from sacramental and eschatological views.

Brown 1979 argues that the early Johannnine community had two fractions: one that saw Jesus as the Davidic Messiah and another that was critical of the Temple cult and saw Jesus much in a Mosaic tradition. In becoming fused around 90CE this generated the new Christology which was used by the proto-catholic movement in the struggle with the Docetists who saw Jesus as Divine rather then human.

In terms of verse 14.6 is a good illustration of the problem of taking a verse out of context. And picking the theological meaning that suits the reader, the discussion prior to this is about how Jesus would come back for them( much of early Christianity development is about end-times and the impact of end time not happening) which the narrator has Thomas confused as to what this means and hence verse 14.6. Its not about Christians having the only hot-line to God, its about what Jesus as a role model reveal what God is like to his disciples . And that in following his example and have faith they will also know God and have access to the same powers if not greater until the day that Jesus returns which was expected to be in their life time.

Now as argued this is a theological argument for missionary work that reflected part of the final rupture with Judaism. As much of the later text builds on Yet now, an imminent 2nd coming, speaking in tongues, healing of the dead, miracle working, etc that underlies these passages are not mainstream Quakerism or Christianity so if we reject and question these notions why don’t we question the others and see it for the historical and human construct that it is. It’s a beautifully written piece, with powerful images of asking what is a human reflection of God in action and answers that show love is at the heart of knowing if you are “being” God.

But there's a part of me that cannot, will not, does not know how to accept the notion that once and only once in history, a door opened to the Spirit. All my experience of God and Spirit is that the big things, the things that matter, happen over and over.

On to even more interesting ground here-the notion of history unfolding is a integral part of the western culture and its Christian-Judaic roots but not from the cultures it suppressed such as the Celts or Romanic-Greek. As such early Christians had no problems with the notions of a wheel of life.

The first great Father of the early orthodox Church was Origen (A.D. 185-254) who was the first person since Paul to develop a system of theology around the teachings of Jesus. He was an ardent defender of pre-existence and reincarnation. Pre-existence is the religious concept of the soul as not being created at birth; rather the soul existed before birth in heaven or in a past life on earth. Origen taught that pre-existence is found in Hebrew scriptures and the teachings of Jesus.

Origen was a disciple of Clement of Alexandria who was a disciple of the apostle Peter. Clement and Origen wrote about receiving secret teachings of Jesus handed down from the apostles. One of these secret teachings was the concept of physical and spiritual rebirth. The existence of secret teachings and mysteries from Jesus is recorded in the Bible. Here are some of them:

He replied, "The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance." (Matt. 13:11-12)

I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness - the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Col. 1:25-27)

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed. (1 Cor. 15:51)

The doctrines of pre-existence and reincarnation existed as secret teachings of Jesus until they were declared a heresy by the Roman Church in 553 A.D. It was at this time that the Roman Church aggressively destroyed competing teachings and so-called heresies within the Church..

My point at the end is that the Bible is a reflection of the context and beliefs of those that wrote and developed its theology. We are not beholden to the past so need to make sense of the world and our experiences as we live them. We can’t assume that the thoughts of a 2000 year old fraction of a newly emerged sect on the edge of mainstream Judaism(also in its own throes of development in the aftermath of the temple destruction) is a blue print for us today. But Liberals before dismissing need to read passages etc in their full context as it often reveals a more subtle understanding that a sectarian 21st century “Christian” reading may suggest.
Anonymous said…
Dear Cat,

I appreciate your revisiting for all of us the matter of "God language."

As I wrote on the About page of my blog, The Empty Path, "My perspective is that all religious or ideological statements, all stories and creeds and rituals, are descriptions of how we human beings experience our interrelationship with the Real, not descriptions of the Real itself or of it’s 'will' for us."

In that text I cheated by using something of a code word, "the Real," instead of using the word "God."

The challenge for any of us is that in our private conversations with ourselves, our prayers, we know what we mean by our own words.

But, when we want to express our faith and practice to others, we stumble over all the baggage carried by those same words.

Thus, in private I pray to God or Jesus or Christ or Goddess or Mother-Father God or Spirit, etc., etc., etc., and I don't worry about whether I've used the "right" title or name.

It's all a matter of pointing my own attention to whichever facet of my experience of the Divine is most poignant for me at the moment.

For example, I've noticed that when I want "masculine" kinds of intervention from the Divine, I tend to pray to God; when I want "feminine" kinds of intervention, to Goddess.

Duh. I'm a human being who had the blessing of a good father and a good mother.

But the key thing for me is that there is....somewhere beyond human capacity to name... The Divine.

I don't mean this in the personified, monotheistic sense. I mean it in the sense that where there are parts there is the Whole.

And I think you have touched on the crucial truth for Quakers of whatever flavor: that Whole, that Spirit, shows us the character of blessing, of forgiveness, of love, of permission to proceed beyond our failures and our finiteness to the next moment.

"Power and intimacy." Yes.

Both awesome aspects of the direct experience of the Divine.

"Tenderness and intimacy." Yes.

As to Marshall's interesting explication of avatars and your response:

"It's still a stop to me, though, the linear historicity of the Christ story. My heart thinks in cycles, and the Scandal of Particularity, as I've heard it described, I find very chilling. The idea of a universality revealed through only one particularity just does not feel right in my bones, in the places beyond logic."

I don't think it's a matter of the Divine "picking" one moment in history to reveal itself.

More a matter of the Divine always having been available, but the human race... perhaps... not having begun to be ready to notice the part of the Truth which Jesus was able to see and point us toward, until that moment in history.

[Not that we've done that great a job of noticing yet what he was really talking about, really living.]

And, yes, as more Light is received, we will see more.

Bléssed Be,
Michael BrightCrow
Anonymous said…
"A tenative Quaker" quoted Cat -- "What of the famous scripture, 'None may come to the Father save through me?'" -- and commented, "My response is that it's highly unlikely that Jesus said any thing of the sort. John is not a historical account of a factual event but a theological construct reflecting the fractional fighting within the 1st century Christian church."

My response is that estimates of "likely" and "unlikely", regarding such matters, are highly subjective and totally dependent on prior assumptions about Jesus and God.

If there is really no such thing as the God portrayed in the Bible, and Jesus was just a slightly-better-than-ordinary guy with a message of social revolution, then yes, it is highly unlikely that Jesus said that.

But if Jesus was the equivalent of one of Hinduism's God-realized saints or avatars, then it might be noted that such people have a long history of saying things exactly like that, and that the Buddha is on record as having made similar statements five hundred years before Christ.

And if Jesus was who Luke and Paul appear to have thought he was, then it seems to me it was utterly inevitable that he would say things like that.

(Shrug.) You bets your life, and you takes your choice.

My choice, obviously, is not the same as "tenative Quaker"'s.

I am personally inclined to agree with Cat's interpretation of this saying; Christ's statement, "no one comes to the Father except through me", seems to have been intended as a description of his rôle as the Christ, the eternal and omnipresent Teacher, Exemplar and Sacrifice. If it were not so -- if it had been intended, instead, as a description of his rôle as Jesus the first-century Jew -- then there would have been no point in proclaiming the Gospel to those who came too late to have known Jesus the first-century Jew in the flesh. The whole of Christianity's Gospel is predicated on the assumption that Christ's saving work is accessible to those of us who showed up after Jesus died.
Thanks for the comments, Marshall, Michael, John/Tentative Quaker...

We ate dinner last night with Quaker Friends, and when places and books and animals we'd known wore through as topics, we did spend a little time talking about God. J. said something that is staying with me, though, in the fashion of humans speaking carefully on such a subject, he found himself struggling for the exact words...

The idea he was conveying, however, was that he thought that perhaps God was not so much interested in our believing in Her, as in our listening to what She is trying to say to us--or maybe in being in relationship with us?

Anyway, it spoke to me, especially in the context of my having belabored the topic myself so recently in this post.

I think I should have been clearer referring to Gus DiZerega's idea on how human perceptions of the world of Spirit changed with the coming of agriculture, because, of course, Marshall, you're right, that the idea that human religious expression changes with the Neolithic is an old one. Gus was drawing on the distinction that is often made between modern Western Paganism, like Wicca or Druidry, that tends to see nature as good and as a refuge, and the earlier, historical Pagan perceptions of nature as filled with Spirit, yes, but Spirits that are frequently hostile to us, and need placating and wariness when we need to approach them.

Gus points out that agriculture changes the relationship humans have with nature from one of receiving gifts directly to one of wresting those same gifts forcefully away from the earth. However much effort goes into a hunt, hunting and gathering are a very different way to earn a livelihood than are tending a herd or a crop. Never mind the fact that the few remaining hunter-gatherers on the planet spend so surprisingly little time on food collection and "work" as we'd recognize it, there's a whole psychological shift when one goes from seeking to take the life of a fellow creature, whether plant or animal, to feed one's belly, to jealously guarding the new corn from the grazing deer! Suddenly nature is a competitor... There's greater security in terms of available calories and the removal of hungry seasons, but instead, there's the possiblity of wholesale famine in case of poor weather... A more antagonistic relationship, as anyone who has ever had a promising garden wiped out overnight can attest.

But then, in our post-industrial age, where most of us do not do battle with nature in order to win our daily bread, but where we do need to cling forcefully to our humanity in our man-made and maybe soulless environments, nature becomes again the source of refuge it may, in fact, have seemed prior to the advent of agriculture. We go to nature for recreation, to reconnect with something missing from our industrialized lives, and for spiritual nurture.

That's the outline of the idea, as I am remembering it. I wouldn't say I'm convinced of it--it's simple enough in its outline to be elegant, and elegant ideas in the area of culture, history, and religion are so often wrong in important ways. But it is satisfying and interesting in at least some ways.

Of course, we can't be confident of any theories around pre-history. Perhaps that's part of why, Marshall, your historical context for the life of Jesus doesn't quite overcome my hesitancy around any religious truths set too deeply in the soil of history. To say that prior to the life of Jesus this or that spiritual thing did not happen is to leap the gap of pre-history with great confidence and aplomb. I just don't know what the relationships were between humans and God/Spirit then. But I do believe God (whatever the term means) was there, and that whatever is universal today, was universal yesterday, in terms of the willingness to be in relationship with us.

Pre-history...there's such a lot of it, after all. And then, where do we draw the arbitrary line, and say, on this side, we are Man, and on that side, Creatures. I can't see the line when I peer closely through the scrim of my assumptions. I can't know what "God" was, to humans before Christ, to my two dogs, or to another human being today, I suppose. But I look to nature and see the cup of life filling and refilling, year after year, and that's what I understand how to impose over my ignorance of the past.

I guess the whole of this post of mine is really a kind of response to Michael York's comments about panentheism, made at MerryMeet. There's a lot I don't understand, but there's also an experience I have which, at least for me to express it, really requires words like "panentheist" to describe it. I'm sure my understandings will shift as my experiences deepen...or, come to think of it, maybe not, if my fFriend J. is right, and it's not so important to God that I believe or understand certain things of Her, as that I listen and try to be faithful in a relationship with Her.

After all, if I were to try to define Peter (never mind God, for the moment!)I'm sure I'd make a mess of that, too! Doesn't seem to get in our way too much, though. And maybe that's a decent metaphor to go on with...
Anonymous said…

I'm currently reading Larry Ingle's biography of George Fox, First among Friends.

Though I don't have the book handy to quote from directly, I remember a key passage describing Fox's pivotal point in all his challenges to the religious "authorities."

For Fox the crucial things was not belief, but faith.

I take this to mean: not the words about the relationship with the Divine, but the relationship itself.

This is what I myself have come down to myself in my grief and struggle in recent years.

I don't have the time... or the emotional fortitude... to puzzle out the words of belief.

I depend daily, moment by moment, on the blesséd relationship.

This past First Day, a dear Friend in our meeting related a story of Mother Theresa, who had been asked whether she prayed.

A: "Oh, yes."

Q: "To whom?"

A: "God."

Q: "What do you ask for?"

A: "Oh, I don't ask. I listen."

Q: "What does God say?"

A: "Oh, God just listens too."

Blesséd Be,
Michael BrightCrow
Hey, Michael,
Thank you for this! "Oh, God just listens, too." When the worship is very, very good, I think sometimes that is how it feels...

I have trouble with the word "faith"--maybe because it has been used to mean so many things over the years.

But "faithfulness" works, as a hope for my own actions in relationship. And "trust" works really well, somehow. I'm not sure I know how to have faith--but trust I know.

An image that kept coming back to me in worship this past week was of the experience of learning to float, of being taught by my father, patiently reminding me over and over to trust him and to trust the water, and lean back--relax. Of course it is so hard to overcome the body's panic, and not just thrash around.

But I remember his arms under my five-year-old self, ghosting me from below the water, and the patience and sweetness of his coaching. Even after all these years, a template for a relationship with God... Trust. Working to perfect a trust that will allow me to float.

What a triumph it was to both me and my father when I finally mastered it in the chlorine-scented water of my memory! How wonderful it would be to share that kind of happiness with God. Do you suppose it works like that?
Tania said…
This spoke to me, Cat. Thanks for posting it.
Anonymous said…
Nicholas of Cusa, said something along the lines that every human face is a finite reflection of the infinite face of God. I see the the finite reflection of gods infinite personality, in the same way. I think the same about all the attributes of creation, and mythical symbols as finite embodiments that point towards the "ineffable Ground of All Being."

I have no doubt that in your Quaker meetings you are experiencing the same spirit as your Christian friends. And it's not really a problem if some of them view Jesus literally as God incarnate. Christianity is a wonderful belief system, with its emphasis on ritual (well perhaps not so much in some traditions), the central mythic and mystical theme of death, resurrection and rebirth, and the teachings of Christ (even if some are not actual sayings of Jesus himself).

Christianity is a lovely belief that harvests much spiritual fruit in the lives of those who dedicate themselves to Christ. I've met many beautiful Christians (mostly those who have practiced their faith for the greater part of their life), and I seen such love beaming from there eyes, and a spirit you know is just filled to the brim with love. Incidentally, my step grandmother who died a few years back was a wonderful spirit filled women, with love shining in her eyes. She was also a devout Muslim (even made the pilgrimage to Mecca from Algeria twice. Both times in her final years.).

I've been thinking about this post for a number of days, and I'm not sure if what I've said is actually relevant or not. But I just wanted to let you know I enjoyed it, very much and it got me thinking more about Mythological symbols, gods, spirits, everyday people, nature and cosmos, as finite embodiments that all point towards the infinite.
Hi, Mahud,
"...every human face is a finite reflection of the infinite face of God..." I like that. And thank you for sharing your memories of your step-grandmother, too.

I was once asked, by a Pagan friend of mine, if I didn't find it sometimes difficult to maintain a sense of deep connection to the Pagan gods when I was in between gatherings and festivals.

I was working as a psychotherapist at the time, spending large amounts of every day listening as deeply as I could to the men and women who came to me to work through their deepest fears and conflicts. I realized that, though it would be hard to put into words exactly how it worked, that communion with men and women who were struggling towards growth and clarity was somehow bringing me into communion with the gods.

I think that current has only gotten clearer in the past few years, as a Friend. I know that it is often when I look around my meeting, holding the Friends who are present in my heart and taking a moment to remember what I know of their lives and struggles, that God breaks into me most strongly and joyfully. Something along the lines of, it's through embracing and cherishing That-of-God in the other members of my meeting (and elsewhere) that I begin to see God Him/Her/It-self?
Anonymous said…
I know your struggle, but find, perhaps, we give too much importance to words ... they are too limiting and narrow for what I know deep within. I’m not sure we can define mystery. I’m not sure I want to trap it in our humanness. As an artist and writer, I go back and forth between words, images and feelings/experiences. Words seem weakest at capturing what I know.

For me, it seems because we are all so very different, we are reached by that source (whatever we chose to call it) in different ways. I have a twin sister and we are so very different in our religious beliefs ... she is fundamentalist and I am more liberal. I find her church over the top and she, perhaps, finds my meeting too plain. Yet, we were raised the same. I think she prefers a clear path and being directed. My nature is to question, listen, explore and be present in the journey. We each are firm in our trust and we respect how the other gets there.

I’ll never forget what a wise Quaker (Marty Grundy from Lake Erie YM) once said at a spiritual-nurture retreat: “The burden of the translation is on the listener.” Our hearts speak the same language even if our brains do not. We must listen from the heart. Perhaps that’s what drew tears when Christian Friends spoke.

Thank you for your thoughtfulness and openness.
Anonymous said…
I am so pleased to have stumbled upon your blog.

I consider myself a "renegade Christian"---to borrow a term from Annie LaMott---but I cherish and revere the insights of my Pagan and neo-pagan brothers and sisters.

I attended Quaker meeting years ago in Slippery Rock, Pa and also attended Yearly meeting for several years when hosted there....

I am pondering and appreciating your thoughts and sending prayers and blessings as you care for Nora.
Yewtree said…
This is such a helpful discussion.

I re-read John ch 14 and I think, as Marshall says, that Jesus was speaking as "the Christ, the eternal and omnipresent Teacher, Exemplar and Sacrifice" and not as his time-bound self.

But what if the Messiah figure is an archetype which has been manifested more than once? There were many mystery religions around the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, of which Christianity was the most successful. (What kind of discussion would we be having in an alternative reality where, say, the Eleusinian Mysteries were adopted by the Roman Empire? "But was Persephone the Kore, or only a Kore?")

The Master Yeshua is my ishta devata - my Way to the Divine Source - but I know that others access the Source via a different ishta devata. I wasn't expecting Yeshua (and nor was Dion Fortune when he chose her) but you get what's good for you, not what you thought you wanted or needed.

Faith and belief are indeed two different experiences, and we conflate them at our peril. Faith is trusting even when you don't know. Belief is thinking that you know.
Anonymous said…
I know this is an older post, but I felt the need to chime in and say how much I enjoyed it.

I initially agreed with the metaphor of the tree, but then one of the comments about hierarchy made me rethink that.

I think what you said about an ocean of light might be closer to the 'truth.' :) It could be unpacked that we are all facets or rays from that Divine Light.

Perhaps some rays are a little brighter than others? I dunno. I do think it's a beautiful analogy.

Popular posts from this blog


(Note: there were so many thought provoking comments in response to this post that it generated a second-round of ideas. You can read the follow-up post here .) I have a confession to make. I want to be famous. Well, sort of. I don't want to be famous, famous, and ride around in a limousine and have to hire security and that sort of thing. I just want to write a book, have it published by somebody other than my mother, and bought and read by somebody other than my mother, and maybe even sign a couple of autographs along the way. Mom can have one autographed, too, if she wants. It has to be a spiritual book. A really moving and truthful book, that makes people want to look deep inside themselves, and then they come up to me and say something like, "It was all because of that book you wrote! It changed my life!" And I would say, no, no, really, you did all that, you and God/the gods --I'm a little fuzzy on whether the life-changing book is for Pagans or for Quake

Peter on Grief and Communities

Well, that was unexpected. For the last year, ever since my mom's health took a sharp downturn, I've been my dad's ride to Florence Congregational Church on Sundays. That community has been important for my dad and the weekly outing with me was something he always looked forward to and enjoyed, so I didn't mind taking him there. It meant giving up attending my own Quaker meeting for the duration, but I had already been questioning whether silent waiting worship was working for me. I was ready for a sabbatical. A month ago, my dad was Section-Twelved into a geriatric psych hospital when his dementia started to make him emotionally volatile. I had been visiting him every day at his assisted living facility which was right on my way home from work, but the hospital was almost an hour away. I didn't see him at all for three weeks, and when I did visit him there, it actually took me a couple of seconds to recognize him. He was slumped forward in a wheel chair, lo

There is a Spirit Which I Feel

I was always a "rational use of force" gal. For most of my life I believed that the use of force--by which I meant human beings taking up arms and going off to war to try to kill one another--was a regrettable necessity. Sometimes I liked to imagine that Paganism held an alternative to that, particularly back in the day when I believed in that mythical past era of the peaceful, goddess-worshipping matriarchal societies . (I really liked that version of history, and was sorry when I stopped believing in it as factual.) But that way of seeing reality changed for me, in the time between one footfall and the next, on a sunny fall morning: September 11, 2001. I was already running late for work that day when the phone rang; my friend Abby was calling, to give me the news that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center in New York. So? I thought to myself, picturing a small private aircraft. Abby tried to convey some of what she was hearing--terrorists, fire--but the mag