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The Presence in the Midst (Peter)

I’ve been reading Will Taber and Liz Opp talking about corporate vs. individual worship, and I’m seeing a few things a little more clearly as a result. I think I’m seeing (better) what I look like through other eyes, and I think I’m understanding (better) what the forces are that are “corrosive to community”—what the liberal problem is and how it relates to—but is not the same—as my problem.

First of all, Will and Liz both talk about something that seems to be a very common concern among Quakers—that we are, as Will says, “afraid to discuss religious beliefs because we do not want to infringe on anyone’s individualism.” Where does this fear come from? It comes from our history of conquest and imperialism. Native Americans are not afraid to discuss their spirituality. Buddhists are not afraid to discuss their spirituality. Because nobody (at least nobody in America—I can’t speak for Buddhists in Asia) is going to think that they’re trying to lay their spiritual trip on anyone else. The Buddhists aren’t interested in convincing you to become one of them, and the Native Americans wouldn’t let you if you tried. But Christianity has a long loooong history of saying Our Guy is the Door and none may enter Heaven save through Him and then waging genocidal war against anyone who disagreed.

My friend J-, when she was setting up a discussion group for Christ-centered and Biblically-based Quakers at Mt. Toby, talked about how so many people show up on the doorstep of a Quaker meeting having been wounded by their Christian upbringing, but nobody ever comes here who’s been wounded by a Hindu upbringing. And she’s right when she points out how that makes it harder for Christ-centered Quakers to access their own spiritual heritage.

It’s also hard in our society (I mean society with a small s here, not the RSoF)… it’s also hard for the same reasons to do any meaningful work around men’s spirituality, and absolutely impossible to identify at all with “white people” in a positive way. There is no such thing as white pride, and anyone misfortunate enough to have “white” as their only cultural identity will never be able to shake themselves loose from the racist rhetoric of the neo-Nazis circling that particular bandwagon.

I could talk for pages about the dilemma of trying to teach diversity to a high school student a couple of years ago whose grandfather had actually been in the Klan. That was your basic oh fuck situation. But it’s off topic this morning.

We were talking about Christianity. And, say what you will about rich white guys or about poor white trash, Christianity is definitely not an unmixed evil.

How’s that for damnation with faint praise? Let’s try again.

Christianity shares the imperfections of all human endeavors, but Christian myth and the Christian spiritual tradition is a source of inspiration, meaning, and support for many people who are really striving to find G*d, to experience G*d’s presence, and to do G*d’s will.

So my job, first of all, when I’m worshipping alongside Christians, is to set aside my allergic reaction to the exclusivist, imperialist language in the Bible. Let it go. They didn’t know any better. They found a door and it made sense that they thought it was the only one, and conquest was just what empires did back then. We each paint pictures of G*d with images taken from our own lives.

Liz Opp asks,
Whose responsibility is it to "translate" what it is we say to one another—the listener, the speaker, or both?

One practice I draw on from time to time is that of shifting my ‘translation’ of what a Friend has said. When I catch myself in judgment—which I don't always do—I shift my thinking and begin to question, ‘If I trust that this Friend is speaking from a place of Great Love and with a burden to speak, what might I understand this person to be saying...? What is the piece of Truth that here that I can see?’
Benigno Sanchez-Eppler, in a Bible Half-Hour at NEYM Sessions last summer, told an incredibly moving story about acting as an English/Spanish translator for a bilingual meeting. The role there is very different from the analogous role at, say, the U.N. In a meeting for worship, the interpreter’s job is not just to translate the words but rather to wait until the same Spirit that has inspired the original message comes to him and then deliver the message—the same message, but coming from Spirit rather than from the original speaker—in the other language. And one of the messages Benigno was called upon to translate in this fashion was along the lines of, It is unfortunate that so many Quakers are tolerant of homosexuality, because it seems that many gays and lesbians are otherwise good people who would be able to live Godly lives if only they were encouraged to put aside this vile sin. Benigno is a passionate supporter of gay rights, and would have experienced the words of this message as hateful, yet he was able to open himself to the Spirit, to find the place of love from which the words had come, and to deliver the message, translating not just the words but the deeper meanings about finding the good in people and helping each other to open ourselves to G*d.

Benigno’s example here is deeply challenging to me, and probably to most of us. “We are tolerant of everything, except intolerance,” says Susanne Kromberg at Quaker Musings. Benigno shows us that true tolerance is possible, but also just how deep a concept it really is.

So Liz Opp also talks about corporate practice vs. shared individual practice.
Sometimes among Friends, we fall unawares into a shared spiritual individualism: We each practice our own spiritual discipline on First Day during worship and appreciate how we can come to meeting and worship together, despite our differences of belief and even practice.
OK, first of all, there’s a tendency to conflate beliefs about G*d with the experience of G*d. We’ve all seen that painting of the 12-foot tall transparent Jesus standing in the middle of a gathered Quaker meeting. As art, it sucks, but people still display it because it’s probably the only visual representation that’s ever come close to conveying the feeling of a gathered meeting. I have my own metaphors, but they’re more tactile and if I were to try to paint a picture, I certainly couldn’t do any better. The question that nobody’s asking—not even me, until I read Will Taber’s post and then re-read Liz Opp’s—is whether two worshippers with different beliefs about G*d can still be experiencing the same G*d. If I don’t see the Light as Jesus, am I still in the presence of the Light?

OK, well, duh. Of course all experiences of the G*d are ultimately of the same Divine source. (OK, some would disagree, but most Quakers—even the ones that are the most Christ-centered and Biblically-based—are universalist enough to accept that in principle.) But Quakers seem to be almost unique in being universalist in their beliefs while still very particularist in their practice.

Southern Baptists (at one extreme) have a vibrant and rich spiritual life and a deep personal connection with a loving and involved God, but they can’t maintain that without denying the validity of other paths. To them, all other religions worship false gods, which are really just Satan in disguise.

Unitarian Universalists (at the other extreme) simply don’t worship. They have interesting academic lectures every Sunday morning, and when Quakers worry about our tradition getting watered down by our openness to diversity of belief, the UU’s are what we’re afraid of becoming.

Most Christians probably occupy some sort of middle ground, believing that we are saved because Jesus died for our sins, but also that God must have made some sort of provision for the “virtuous heathen,” but we don’t know what it is and it’s not really our concern as Christians.

But Quakers are almost unique in being passionately universalist—there is that of God in everyone—and passionate about practicing our own tradition. This is our witness of the Light, and by worshipping corporately, we will deepen it and we will allow it to deepen us. At least, that’s what it’s like at Mt. Toby. That seems to be what it’s like at NEYM Sessions. But when Liz Opp talks about needing “a narrower experience of Quakerism … to grow as a Friend, not a broad diversity of belief,” I begin to wonder how unusual Mt. Toby is among Quaker meetings.

When I say that I worship alongside Christians, I don’t mean, as Liz said, that “some of us may engage in meditation that is borrowed from one discipline or another; others simply let the outer world slip away and enjoy the meetingroom's stillness; still others may pursue a form of therapeutic self-talk.” I mean that when the Spirit comes and covers the gathered meeting, my Christ-centered friend J- and I both feel it. As Will Taber said, “We respond to an inner prompting to speak or act, but we are also speaking and acting in the context of a community. A message in meeting may be inspired by the Spirit but at the same time it is also drawn out by the quality of the listening for the Friends assembled and worshiping together.” Messages in meeting will also sometimes rise simultaneously in several people in a gathered meeting. I’ve sometimes compared speaking in meeting to drawing down in a Wiccan circle. They’re very similar experiences, at least as I’ve practiced each of them, but one important difference is that in a Wiccan context, I’ve generally been “the High Priest” with sole responsibility for carrying the God, while in a Quaker context, it’s a shared burden. The quality of listening that Will talks about is vital in both Wiccan and Quaker worship, but among Quakers, we also speak corporately, filling in each other’s gaps. I have had the experience of sitting down after speaking in meeting and realizing, oh crap, there was more, but then seeing someone else stand up to give the second half of the message.

Liz Opp says,
The nature of explaining a corporate faith, even to those of us who practice it, is very slippery. I often fall into language that betrays my own personal preference, rather than weigh my preference with God's guidance or test my preference against the practiced discernment of the group.

But I very much lean on the truth of my experience of the quality of worship when I am worshiping with Friends who believe there is a Living Presence among us, and we rest in that Presence and open ourselves to that Presence together, as a body, each First Day.
Maybe it’s because I’m Pagan that I often think about spiritual matters in sexual terms, but it seems to me that the relationship between the individual experience and the corporate experience of worship is an awful lot like the relationship between the individual experience of sex and the couple’s experience of sex.

Sex at fifteen is all about spontaneous erections, overwhelming urges, and obsessive fantasies. Sex at twenty-five is about learning how to be in relationships and how to communicate. Sex at fifty is about sharing depths of intimacy and love that are simply unimaginable to a horny teenager. But at every stage, sex is BOTH about listening to the self and listening to the other. Try to deny either one and sex becomes something destructive. If we cut off our feelings for our partner, the consequences are obvious: sex becomes selfish, exploitive, or even coercive and violent. But to deny the positive lustful energies of one’s own body doesn’t just cut off the possibility of good, loving, mutually rewarding sex; it also cuts off the possibility of real compassion for others in any context as well as openness to G*d. If my lover—my wife—worried about falling into language that betrayed her own personal preferences rather than weighing her preferences and testing them against our practiced discernment as a couple, she’d be an awfully uptight lover. I like it that she very much leans on the truth of her experience of the quality of lovemaking when she is having sex with me.

Simon Blackburn, who wrote Lust in a series of books on The Seven Deadly Sins, described sex at its best as being like a musical duet, where the musicians are neither deferring to one another nor running roughshod over one another, but where both are allowing themselves to be caught up in the music. That is perhaps a good metaphor for corporate worship as well. We have ourselves, and we have each other, and we have the music, which is its own thing and carries us both away.


Anonymous said…
Wow, Peter, so many good points! Having grown up Southern Baptist, the last thing I want to do is seem like I'm forcing my beliefs on anyone. You're so right in that our past experiences can lead us to hold back, however, even with fellow pagans or other open-minded folk. Somehow we have to get past the fear, don't you think? Or maybe it's just being prudent, cautious.
Julie B said…
It is risky business to make blanket statements about a religious community as you may reveal your ignorance.

Unitarian Universalists would disagree with your statement that they don't worship. I think you find a high percentage that consider themselves attending a worship service. The humanist UU with the academic type lecture is a declining breed.
Anonymous said…
Hi, Peter!

You quote Will Taber as saying that liberal Friends are "afraid to discuss religious beliefs because we do not want to infringe on anyone’s individualism." You then ask, "Where does this fear come from? It comes from our history of conquest and imperialism."

I'm not persuaded this diagnosis holds water. For in the first place, we Friends have no history of conquest and imperialism. We are adherents to a religion of peace and have historically held ourselves apart from such misdeeds. The contrast between ourselves and the Catholics and Southern Baptists here in the U.S. is quite sharp; most of them identify far more closely than we do with ideas like patriotism and the political rule of Christianity; most of their grassroots members alive today are people who have at one time or another supported the adventurism of the United States in places like Viet Nam, El Salvador and Iraq — and most of them have less shyness than liberal Friends do about discussing religious beliefs.

And in the second place, the rise of liberal Quaker shyness about discussing religious beliefs has been a twentieth- and twenty-first-century affair, arising at about the same time that old-style community life began giving way in the liberal Quaker world to a pattern of atomized, frequently academic or professional families living in suburbs or apartment buildings and relocating as their careers demanded.

If you go back to the Quaker writings of the early twentieth, nineteenth, and earlier centuries, as I have done, there is no evidence that Friends in those days were the least bit shy about discussing religious beliefs; they took seriously Peter's admonition to "always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear; having a good conscience, that when they defame you as evildoers, those who revile your good conduct in Christ may be ashamed." (I Peter 3:15-16)

You also write about how Southern Baptists "can't maintain" their "vibrant and rich spiritual life" "without denying the validity of other paths". Please allow me to point out that the Buddha denied the validity of other paths, too, and so did the Taoist sages. It's right there in the scriptures of those religions, which I have read. And while you write that "the Buddhists aren’t interested in convincing you to become one of them", the historical fact is that Buddhism has always been a missionary religion. Tibet, Mongolia, China, Japan, Korea, Viet Nam, Bali, Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka are all Buddhist because of Buddhist missionaries, and there are Buddhist missionaries at work here in the United States today. The historical Gautama Buddha, in fact, seems to have invented missionaries; at any rate, there is no record of any religion sending them out before he sent out his monks, two by two, to bring the Dharma to a benighted world.

On the other hand, quite a number of the born-again Christians I know are far more courteous in their words about other religions, than you have been here regarding Christianity. So in my experience, at least, your generalizations about Christianity-versus-Asian-religions do not ring altogether true.

My apologies for contradicting you this way — but I think there is some value in keeping the public record as accurate as possible.
Anonymous said…
So Peter, I wrote this sermon on Unitarian-Universalist worship awhile back that speaks directly to your assertions about UUism:-)
I still strongly believe that it represents the UU tradition at its best.

One small question. Is there any skill involved in connecting with Spirit or is it a matter of Grace?

I'll let Peter speak more directly to the comments here--especially since this is his post, and not mine! I would, though, like to respond briefly to David Miley's post, if only to provide a link to his sermon on the subject of UU worship. He, and Julia, are right in noting that Peter was not entirely just in how he wrote about the place of worship among Unitarians...though I think he was spot on in identifying fear of "Unitarian-Universalistication" (to coin a nicely silly-sounding word) as something part of liberal Quakers' reflections on our worship amid diversity.

My own experience among UUs has been pretty much as Peter generalized UU worship to be as a whole. (I do have some experience of UU worship services, and Peter has more.) To my mind, the problem isn't with the intention of what UUs get together on Sundays to do, so much as with how it gets done--very in the head. And, to be fair, it's not the lack of mention of God that is the issue for me. I feel that virtually all mainline Protestant churches suffer from this issue, whether their theology is coherent and intellectually satisfying, or not.

It's the Presence of Spirit, and the experiential component of worship that I find both among Pagans and Quakers that I myself, at least, have never found among Unitarian Universalists. Perhaps its a pews-face-forward issue? That bare-bones Protestant worship structure of music, sermon, music, etc. has seemed barren to me all my life, whether or not the word "God" has been spoken.

Until I found Quakers, I thought that Pagans were the only people out there who believed you might actually encounter a god during the course of worship! I have been delighted to discover my error. Could my error extend to encompass some Unitarian Universalist services?

Sure. I am talking about, and I'm pretty sure Peter was talking about, a slightly different issue than the academic lecture, though.

In his sermon, David quotes Emerson, who wrote, ""There is a deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is accessible to us. Every moment when the individual feels invaded by it is memorable."

And in this, you speak to my condition. This is worship, to me--the heart of it, at least.

Jumping the gun just a bit--because I think Peter will want to talk directly about the whole question of whether or not "skill [is] involved in connecting with Spirit or [whether it] is...a matter of Grace," I'll just say that I need to caution myself a little here. I think it's both skill and Grace--the skill to open ourselves to the Light, the discipline not to settle for less than that clear Light speaking in us (in other words, to our own inward voice, rather than that of the Light Itself), and the Grace that we do not control, but that visits us. One mistake I made often as a brand-new Quaker, and still slip into, is trying to "technique" my way into the Light... and it doesn't work that way.

A further caution to myself: I have seen some pretty weighty Friends, Friends in some cases who seem to give off a strong reflected Light of their own, who talk about not hearing God's Voice, experiencing that Spirit directly, or going through spiritual dry spells where the experienced presence of God just isn't there. It is clear to me that frequency of bliss is not a good measure of spiritual well-being. If Mother Theresa agonized over not hearing God's voice, does that make her less in unity with Her will for her? Not necessarily, surely. (Though the obverse is also true: the sheer volume of good outward works is no sure measure, either.)

I try to remind myself of this, because someday, soon or late, I may cease to feel that direct Life and Presence during my worship. And there are lots of reasons why that may happen, many of which I may not understand. Where Quakers have a clear advantage over Pagans, with their highly individualistic ways of worship, is in the corporate dimension to Quaker worship. If I can no longer directly sense the Presence during worship, I will still have around me, to the left and to the right on the bench, other worshipers who will minister to me as led by that Spirit.

I need, should the time come, to accept that with--another Pagan hot-button word--humility, and heed the Spirit however it may speak. As a Pagan and someone accustomed to taking leadership in spiritual circles, that is likely to be hard for me. But it does occur to me already that it may be that I am fortunate enough to experience the Presence of God as clearly and as often as I do because She knows I'm such a bloody egotist that I need that. It may be that at some point, she'll think I've grown, and decide to take the training wheels off.

I imagine that will be a painful moment, if it comes. I try to protect myself from that maybe-someday pain a little bit by reminding myself not to be a complete idiot today--not to think I made the Light, or can take credit for its Presence, let alone feel smug about the times I feel close to that Spirit when another may not.

Hmmm. So much for brief.

I know Peter has been waiting all week to get back to these comments. Hopefully, he'll add his two cents worth tomorrow.

Blessed Be.

And, Marshall, should you have the time and inclination, I am sure you will add comments to clear up any distortions I've introduced here in my comments on worship and the experience of the Light! Please know that your comments are always welcome here.

Know too, that, though I did not write about the full spectrum of Quaker disciplines relevant to worship, I know there's more to it than I've written here. (Not to say, don't comment--I really am striving to accept and grow through the disciplines Friends have developed together, though they differ from branch to branch. Learning is good, and our dialog often teaches me good things.
Anonymous said…
Friend Peter,

This post speaks to my condition.

I have not yet read the Will Taber piece to which you link, though I will now.

However, Liz's pieces on individual vs. corporate worship gave me the inspiration for my latest The Empty Path post, "Being with."

For me the core question right now is not "Who is or isn't listening to and being led by the Divine Presence?" but "Am I?"

Hence, the part of Liz's posts which resonated for me were the ones which cast more Light on my own experience of private and public worship.

In any case, I share the concern voiced in your query:

"The question that nobody’s whether two worshippers with different beliefs about G*d can still be experiencing the same G*d."

I would also respond as you do:

"When I say that I worship alongside Christians, I don’t mean, as Liz said, that 'some of us may engage in meditation...[etc.]' I mean that when the Spirit comes and covers the gathered meeting, my Christ-centered friend J- and I both feel it."

Yes. And hear it, and listen to it, and are given more Light by it.

If that is not the case, if that is not possible—as the orthodoxies of many religions insist—then there is only the fallen Tower of Babel.

Then there is, perhaps, no Divine Presence which can unify and nurture all Creation.

As my posts in The Empty Path describe, I am one of those refugees from Christian orthodoxy.

Thank G*d, I am one who has through grace been able to embrace my exile, transcend my hurts, and return to being the "Friend of Jesus" I was as a child.

Yet part of what sent me into exile to begin with when I left Lutheran seminary was my rejection of orthodoxy's "this way only" doctrines.

When I hear Jesus' parable of the separation of the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:31-46), I don't hear it, as Matthew presumable intended, as a story about excluding "non-believers."

What I hear is one of Jesus' masterful paradoxes.

He says to the "righteous," when they don't remember taking care of him: "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." (25:40)

The "unrighteous" ask: "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?"

His reply is: "Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me." (25:44-45)

But remember, Jesus the storyteller is speaking to the "righteous" (that is, his followers), not to the "unrighteous."

I think he is presenting them with a paradox: "If you do not welcome the unrighteous into the kingdom, then you don't get in either."

Everybody goes or nobody goes.

That's my sense of it.

Blessèd Be,
Liz Opp said…
Hey, Peter.

WoW, it's clear you've taken quite a while to sit with your own reflections and those of Will T and myself. Thanks for taking the additional time to shed the Light you have on a very complex but important issue.

I don't know that I would write the same post today that I did back in 2005, the one about the slippery nature of our corporate faith. We write about what we know, in the moment. Since around that time, though, I've been worshiping more regularly with a different group of Friends at the same monthly meeting, and that experience has been more... grounded and more settled for me, personally. (That worship is in addition to participating in the worship group, fyi.)

I do however still affirm that my experience is quite different when I worship with a mix of atheist-Quaker, Buddhist-Quaker, humanist-Quaker and Christian-Quaker worshipers than when I worship with a mix of theist Quakers, whether they are Christ-centered or nature-centered.

I also believe, as you do, that "two worshippers with different beliefs about G*d can still [experience] the same G*d." The distinction that I make, though, is that two worshippers with different ideas of how to use that appointed hour of worship will not necessarily result in a corporate experience of worship or of the Living Presence among us.

I won't say that it never happens; just that it has happened less frequently, in my experience. ...It frustrates me to even think about it!

(On a side note, I chuckled at the sentence, "Nobody ever comes here who's been wounded by a Hindu upbringing." Just for the record, I came to Quakerism because I was wounded by my Jewish upbringing. I have no Christian baggage, other than not having a relationship with Jesus. smile)

Anyway, thanks for continuing the discussion. There's a lot to it, isn't there?

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

P.S. As I've mentioned to Cat, I'm sorry that the trip to western Mass. didn't work out back in January. I often value meeting fellow bloggers in person, and I've enjoyed your reflections here. I hope Way will open some other time... --Liz
Anonymous said…
Hi, Cat!

I thought you expressed yourself and your experience very well. You were quite careful not to speak for others when you weren't sure of their experience (a high art!). I have nothing but praise for how you handled it.

You wrote, "Until I found Quakers, I thought that Pagans were the only people out there who believed you might actually encounter a god during the course of worship!" I would add that there are others: Hindus and Buddhists, most definitely; and shamanists, both Old World and New. Hasidic Jews believe you might actually receive a sending from God during the course of worship; this is a careful distinction from saying you might encounter God Himself, but it seems to me to be a reference to the same sort of experience, just intellectualized differently.

Among Christians, not only Friends but also Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, charismatic/pentecostal Protestants, and many "mainline" Protestants also believe that God may actually be encountered in worship.

Liz's repetition of the sentence, "Nobody ever comes here who's been wounded by a Hindu upbringing," brought it more fully to my attention. I myself know several former Hindus who came to Christianity after being wounded by their Hindu upbringing, and one former Hindu who became a Friend after such a wounding. For whatever that's worth. (I also know people who went in the other direction, from Christianity to Hinduism.)

All the best,
Anonymous said…
Hi Cat,
I would probably agree with you that, in general, UU worship is too head oriented. There are moments that work, but they are too infrequent. My sermon tried to point out what was possible through personal witness - one very strong point in UUism.

I also deeply appreciated Marshall Massey's two Power's discussion. This brings up a thought that perhaps worship is the wrong word altogether. Perhaps worship is about Power number 1 or Power number 2 and that what goes on with Friends and pagans, at our best, is something different.

One of the most mysterious laws of magic involves the exchange of gifts. Asking for a gift and yet not expecting to receive anything. Giving a gift in the spirit of love and respect but not subservience and without expectation. Receiving gifts with love and respect, but not gratitude. Like a good friendship or marriage.

Is there a corollary law of gifts between Friends and the Light?

kevin roberts said…
Lots of bad energy, Peter, no disrespect intended. I've often found that non-Christian Quakers spend more time worrying about Christianity than Christian Quakers do.

Have J- ask a bhanghi cleaning the Calcutta sewers whether he was ever wounded by Hinduism. Or a widow rescued from a suttee ceremony. Or the elderly Brahmin member of my meeting whose Hindu family disowned him after he joined Friends and refused to speak with him for thirty years.

You've asked "...whether two worshippers with different beliefs about G*d can still be experiencing the same G*d. If I don’t see the Light as Jesus, am I still in the presence of the Light?"

May I gently suggest reading Robert Barclay's "Apology for the True Christian Divinity" as a starting point for that question? The Fifth and the Sixth Propositions cover it extensively: "Concerning the Universal Redemption by Christ, and also the Saving and Spiritual Light Wherewith Every Man is Enlightened."

Thank you for a thought-provoking post.

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