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The Conversation Continues (Peter)

Good blogger's etiquette would have me reply to each of the comments that come in after my posts. As a schoolteacher coming into the final month before my students face their AP exam, that's just not happening. I usually take the hours right before Meeting to write about spiritual matters, and while I'll read on weeknights, I'm just not available to hold up my end of the conversation in more than fits and starts.

The recent thread of posts and comments around theological diversity seems to be focusing in on three intertwined questions:

  • What is G*d?
  • What is worship?
  • What is a "spiritual center"?

Big questions--questions that we spend our whole lives answering. But there are a few small things I've learned through these conversations, and I want to pull them together here.

I think Liz Opp was right on when she said,

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.

Worshippers with very different ideas about G*d can still share an openness to being touched by the Divine, and thus still nourish and sustain one another's worship. Our spiritual center as Friends isn't so much in our doctrine as in our corporate practice. I have often wondered how typical the practice at Mt. Toby Monthly Meeting is. I haven't done nearly enough intervisitation to have a sense of the larger landscape, so I was very interested to read Marshall Massey's comment:

You may be experiencing sitting in an ocean of light - in fact, I'm sure you do, since otherwise you'd never have brought the matter up - but if you ask around, I think you'll find, as I myself found, when I asked, and as Michael Sheeran found and recorded in his book Beyond Majority Rule, that a great many of the members and attenders at liberal meetings do not experience that ocean, and are actually present for other reasons.

Sheeran's book sounds interesting, and I'm going to order a copy of it. Thanks, Marshall!

I knew that my comment about Unitarian Universalists not worshipping would annoy some UU's like Julia, but honestly, to put it any less bluntly would have failed to communicate. The UU Church was one of the places I tried to reconnect with G*d when I was a disillusioned ex-Christian, before I found Paganism, and for me it was awfully thin soup. Julia, I'm sorry I pissed you off, but if I did, I hope that your anger will make you think about what it is that nourishes you in UU worship and hold it that much more dearly.

David Miley knew exactly what I meant by the comment, and sent me a link to a sermon he wrote on the question of UU worship. He concludes,

The witness of our path is the true Unitarian-Universalist worship. It transcends niceness and is beyond doing the right thing. Our worship, at it's best, connects us to our deepest spiritual Power and midwifes that Power's entrance into our heart, mind and soul. That love spreads out to our community and the world and makes change. This is what distinguishes us from an ethical society or service club. There is a Light at the end of our tunnel. Our worship services, at their best, connect us to that Light - for when we are at our best, we recognize that Light within ourselves and within each other.

I love the poem with which David concludes his sermon.

There is a Sound

There is a Sound,
That supports the World.

It is tree dance
And brook babbling.
It is summer storm and volcano.
It is in us and apart.
As loud as sleigh bells -
Still, you may not hear it.

Touch tree.
Face fear.
Light fire.
Dance in moonlight.
Make love.

The Sound is silent
Til you sing it.

The poem speaks to my condition. It sums up really well in one collage of images what I experience as the heart of both Quaker worship and Pagan practice.


Anonymous said…
Thanks for the kind comments. The thing about UUism, is that its always becoming and always changing.

Anonymous said…
Dear Peter, from what little I've heard, Mt. Toby is not a typical Friends meeting. I'm not sure there even is such a thing as a "typical" meeting. But Mt. Toby appears to me to be well on the left of the Quaker spectrum.

Only a minority of Friends meetings nationwide would, for example, feature participation in a local gay rights parade as part of their practice, or embrace as radical a responsibility to nature as your meeting's "Full Moon Group" did in 2000.

For that matter, only a minority of Friends meetings nationwide would elevate mindfulness as a practice, as the "Full Moon Group" did. (Mindfulness is, after all, originally a Buddhist practice.)

The participation in the gay rights parade seems to me to indicate a factional attitude that would tend to drive off many people on the rightward end of the spectrum. For that reason, in many meetings that in fact support gay rights, the members simply would not participate in such a way of advocating it. And as you possibly know, there are other meetings, particularly on the pastoral end of the spectrum, that do not support gay rights.

Traditionalist, Christ-oriented meetings would be wary of terminology that does not come from Christian roots. They would probably shy away from "Full Moon Group" and "mindfulness". They would spontaneously come up with other terms, terms that inspire other sorts of ways of approaching and resolving issues, other sorts of practices, that do derive from Christian roots. They might speak of prayer, for example, or of the path of the cross, rather than of mindfulness, and that would give a different color to their efforts afterward.

I've noticed that some traditionalist, Christ-centered meetings also have stronger traditions of active oversight of the members by ministers, elders, and overseers than more liberal, free-form meetings do. This can be an important aspect of practice in such meetings.

None of this is meant to tear down your own meeting and its practices. It is meant to call attention to some of the differences between meetings, and to provoke some honest and constructive thought about learning from these differences.
Marshall, though clearly Mt. Toby is on the politically left end of a spectrum of Friends' meetings, I think it oversimplifies the situation to describe Friends in terms of left or right at all. The term "Conservative", for instance, as you well know, refers not to a Friend's politics so much as to their approach to Friends' practices--being Christ-centered, unprogrammed, and preserving many (some would say most, but I'm not historian enough for certainty on that) traditional practices. Liberal Friends, likewise, though generally politically liberal, cannot be presumed to be more so than Conservative Friends, or even unprogrammed Liberal Friends more than pastoral ones. The spectrum is not two dimensional in the ways we're used to thinking of in political terms--and my impression is that this is part of what is fueling the Convergent Friends movement, where Friends from very different backgrounds still find they are able to practice together and learn from one another in ways that speak to all their conditions.

You are of course aware of this, even if you would disagree with where I would place an emphasis here or there. But I think it's important to point that out, because many readers of this blog may not be as aware.

More seriously, I take some exception to your description of Mt. Toby's participation in the local gay pride parade as showing a "factional attitude." I think it reflects an attitude that is reflective of the leadings, not just of individuals at Mt. Toby, nor of the monthly meeting itself, but of our Quarterly Meeting at least (which has, as you may be aware, minuted support for same-sex marriage since 2005).

Further, despite the potential divisiveness that dealing with the issue of sexual orientation and the personnel policies of Friends United Meeting (with which NEYM is affiliated) is causing among Friends across the country, Mt. Toby's attitude toward FUM, in my experience, reflects that of NEYM as a whole. And that attitude is not factionalist, but willing to reach out and engage and listen to those whose views different from the ones many of us in New England are strongly led toward. I refer you to the 2007 Epistle of NEYM:

We were given unity to affirm that the Holy One loves all people equally, regardless of sexual orientation. We have confirmed this truth through careful study of scripture and searching for the will of God. We prayerfully and respectfully ask that the worldwide community of Friends open its heart to this knowing.

We also need to attend to the beam in our own eye, by talking with each other about sexual ethics and the deepest meanings of family, marriage, and committed relationships. We ask our monthly and quarterly meetings to continue seeking Divine guidance on same-sex marriage. In this process, we have committed ourselves to love and forbearance, and tender care for one another. We acknowledge great pain in our community over these issues. We seek healing, wholeness, and God's blessing as we move forward.

In keeping with this spirit of love and forbearance, the members of Mt. Toby are called to active participation in both the local Pride march and in attempts to deepen our relationship, as Friends, with the body of Friends United Meeting. My husband and I were among the many Mt. Toby Friends present to welcome the FUM Board when they met at Woolman Hill this past October. I'll refer you to Will T's description of the event for more details. I'll just say that many of the faces present that night--including mine and Peter's--scrubbing pots and serving supper--were the same ones you will find at the Pride march in two weeks' time.

I don't think that smacks of factionalism. In fact, I think a better way to describe the attitude of Mt. Toby Meeting of Friends might be "laboring together lovingly towards Unity with the Divine Will." It's easy to reach out to those with whom one agrees or where differences are small; to reach out with openness and trust where differences are significant is not easy at all. In fact, I believe it is possible for us to do so only because it is what we are being Led to at this time, and it may be a good guide to the fact that the politics at Mt. Toby are not driven by secular concerns, but by something far deeper, that we are laboring as we are. We are allowing love to be the first motion

Liberal we may be, in every sense of the word, Quaker or political. I could wish we were more open and nurturing of Friends among us who use Christ-centered language and experience the Light in more traditionalist ways (and I do everything I can to promote that possibility, Pagan or no).

I know that you were not intending to "tear down" our meeting or it's practices. But it's worth saying it directly: Based on what I know of Friends, I believe Mt. Toby is, however Liberal (in all senses of the word) a meeting actively seeking the guidance of the Light. However our language may differ from the language of other meetings of Friends, and however novel some of our actions may seem, I believe that there are important ways in which Mt. Toby reflects the heart of Quaker practice.
Anonymous said…
Hi, Cat.

I agree with you when you say, in your first paragraph, that the Quaker spectrum is not two dimensional. However, it is an established convention in the Quaker world to speak of Hicksite/Beanite (FGC and related) forms of Quakerism as being on the "left" of the Quaker religious spectrum, and Orthodox (pastoral and related) forms as being on the "right". It makes for a handy shorthand, it has pretty good grounding in the standard socio-political meanings of "left" and "right" (the "left" tends to be more inclined to radical innovation, the "right" to be more conservative and more comfortable with scriptural and hierarchical authority), and it is a convention most Friends seem to understand pretty well. I am honestly sorry if you found it confusing — I certainly had no intent to mislead you! — but your quarrel in this matter is a quarrel with common usage.

There is also a fairly good correlation between the religious left/right polarity in Quakerism, and a political left/right polarity. For instance: Hicksites and Beanites generally tend to be "pro-choice" on abortion; Orthodox Friends generally tend to be "pro-life". Hicksites and Beanites tend to be in favor of gay marriage; Orthodox Friends tend to be against it. Hicksites and Beanites have not, historically, been anywhere near as alarmed by socialism and communism as Orthodox Friends have been. These are documentable facts; one need only look at the output of minutes and published essays from different yearly meetings. Friend Bill Samuel reported a case of a pastoral Friends church that, after the September 11 attacks, paraded a U.S. flag round and round the sanctuary during the Sunday service. Such a thing would be unimaginable in an FGC meeting. In my personal experience and observation, your statement that "unprogrammed Liberal Friends cannot be presumed to be more [politically liberal] than pastoral ones" is simply not true.

I cheerfully acknowledge your right to take exception to my statement that Mt. Toby's participation in the local gay pride parade shows a factional attitude. And for the record, when the paraders start laboring with the people they disagree with in private, which is the setting where people are most inclined to listen to someone with a differing opinion and least likely to grow rigid and combative — and let me note here that working out one's differences with others in private was the approach taught by Christ in Matthew 18:15-17 and practiced by John Woolman in his dealings with slaveholding Friends — when the paraders start doing that, instead of publicly confronting the people they disagree with the in-your-face, potentially inflammatory display of a parade — then I, too, will happily say that the paraders don't display a factional attitude. And I don't say that such a transformation cannot occur!

I don't recall saying that Mt. Toby was not seeking the guidance of the Light. I don't recall thinking it, either. I'm not sure what I said that gave you that impression, but I hasten to say that it was not what I was trying to convey.

All the best,
Hi, Marshall,
We seem to be talking across one another a bit today. Put it down, perhaps, to the fact that I wrote my earlier comment over my lunch at school--a very hurried time for trying to be articulate.

To clear up a few misunderstandings: You say that my "quarrel in this matter"--left/right as a useful way of describing Friends meetings "is a quarrel with common usage," among Friends. I wasn't trying to challenge the way that Friends use the terminology so much as to footnote it--because this blog is written for a double audience, Quaker and Pagan, and I wanted my Pagan audience, and perhaps those parts of my Quaker audience also, who may be less familiar with some of the history of Friends, to realize that we're not talking in quite such simple terms as the words "left" and "right" may call to mind. For instance, though you are yourself a Conservative Friend, I think that few neo-cons would recognize much of _their_ idea of conservative in your own!

Yes, on the whole, pastoral meetings are more _likely_ to be conservative in the way that most of the country uses the term... but what I was attempting to warn against was making any sweeping generalizations to that effect. I'm familiar with the story of the paraded flag within the Friends' church, too... and it's significant that it was a Friends' _church_, not a pastoral meeting. There's Friends and there's Friends, even among those who are led by pastors, and an EFI Friends Church and an FUM Friends Meeting may or may not have a lot in common. Likewise, things Friends in the US take for granted may not be commonplace ideas or practices in Kenya, to name an obvious example.

I know you know this. I also know many of my readers may not.

I also feel that it is important to speak to my experience as a member of one of the dual-affiliated Yearly Meetings, not just FGC (and therefore "Liberal" as most Friends would use the term) but also FUM (and therefore "Orthodox", at least as I understand that term to have been historically applied to Friends).

I know that one of the things I have had to learn, as I have become more active in my yearly meeting, and got to know a few Friends from pastoral meetings, is not to presume from the fact that someone attends a pastoral meeting that they will disagree with me on topics such as gay rights, to name to most recent hot-button example in the Quaker world. I've learned to be sensitive to the experience of Friends like Peterson Toscano, who spoke within a small group discussion about what it is like for him, a gay man who is also an Evangelical Christian Friend, to face the way both groups are his people, and see them too often stereotyping one another and turning away from each other.

I'm learning to listen hard, and not assume that labels capture attitudes, let alone the complexity of experience and concern behind them. Throughout the last two years, as Peter and I have held the concern around the FUM personnel policy in our hearts, we've worked hard to stop saying "them" to mean FUM, as opposed to saying and thinking "we" in response to FGC. Both Friends United Meeting and Friends General Conference are we to us. We slip, yes--and correct one another, and really try to take that in. And we have brought this attitude with us into discussions with individual Friends at Mt. Toby... and breathed it in from individual Friends there as well.

Last note. I didn't have the impression that you were saying Mt. Toby is not attempting to mind the Light. Sorry if I implied it. Likewise, perhaps you did not mean to imply what it sounds as if you did, in your comment that

when the paraders start laboring with the people they disagree with in private...instead of publicly confronting the people they disagree with the in-your-face, potentially inflammatory display of a parade — then I, too, will happily say that the paraders don't display a factional attitude.

It is my experience both that the Pride Day parade is celebratory in tone, and not particularly inflammatory: the lesbian moms with their kids in strollers, the rainbow balloons everywhere, the music and food and generally joyful crowd are pretty welcome in Northampton, by gays and straights alike. (And may I just put in, as a word for my adopted hometown, how delightful it is, as a straight woman, to live in a town where it is not dangerous to be an out gay or lesbian? I feel--and believe I really am--infinitely safer in this setting than in almost any other place I have ever lived. The local police seem, based on my conversations with them in the course of my duties over the years, to agree.)

But more than that, I think that any implication that public advocacy precludes private, genuine, loving laboring with those who differ with us is simply wrong. I won't cite my own example or Peter's in this case--we're just chicks new hatched in a lot of ways. But I will say that some of the faces I recognize from the Yearly Meeting are also familiar to me from Pride events, and little in life has been as humbling to me as watching some of the gay and lesbian Friends I know making themselves open and vulnerable again and again and again, patiently laboring with Friends who have difficulty accepting some of the most important, central aspects of their beings. It is surely very, very difficult to go on laboring lovingly year after year. And yet they have.

I want to have a heart that large, a spirit that open to God, when I grow up.

Again, you may well not have been implying any contradiction between those roles. John Woolman, after all, did not keep his conviction on slavery to himself, however lovingly he labored with slave holders as individuals. That's not news.

But I'm so moved by the faithfulness I have seen among many gay and lesbian Friends in NEYM that I think it's important to speak of it here.

As always, thanks for your comments, Marshall. Blessed be.
Anonymous said…
One of those moments I'll always remember in UU worship was the moment a member of the congregation said "I've told you that I'm a gay, wiccan man living with AIDS. Now I'm going to do the hardest thing I've ever done with you. I'm going to tell you that I'm a Republican"
By the law of averages, Marshall is probably correct (although I know nothing, really, about Friends). But, the exceptions are there to keep on building bridges.


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