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Marshall Massey on Borg and the Bible

Marshall Massey sent me (Peter) this email last December, in response to my post on Reading the Bible Again For the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally, by Marcus J. Borg, but I had just switched to a new email address so I didn't find it until this week when I went back to sift through all the spam at my old account looking for something else. Hoping that late is better than never, I'm going to take him up on his offer to let me to post his comment here. Though it's in response to an old post, much of what he says is also relevant to the current thread on theological diversity and corporate worship.

Borg, as you quote him, states that "The conflict is between ... a 'literal-factual' way of reading the Bible and a 'historical-metaphorical' way of reading it." While this is literally true, I think it is a shallow and misleading way of looking at what's actually going on. The two sides are not simply quarreling about how to read the Bible; they are quarreling over the much bigger and much broader issue of what is right and what is wrong, and below that, the much deeper issue of how we are to know the difference. The right wing gives its loyalty to one Power, that teaches it what is right and what is wrong in a way that emphasizes moral strictures and tribal values; the left wing gives its loyalty to a rather different Power, that teaches it right and wrong in a way that emphasizes broad tolerance and personal liberty. Each side labels its own chosen Power, God; each looks on the other's as false. Thus it is not a conflict merely between two ways of reading the Bible, but a conflict between two great Powers, each of which controls human perception in different ways.

I would remind you, and others who might read this, that in this conflict, Friends have historically taken the side of the Lamb. That means that, no matter which set of teachings they happen to be personally drawn to - the one Power's or the other's - they are committed to the methods of the Lamb: meekness, gentleness, a readiness to listen, and a strict limiting of what they say to the things that are purely true and loving. This commitment makes it possible for Friends who are drawn to either side, whether it is to the one Power's side or to the other's, to rise above the conflict that Borg describes, to exist in harmony and love together, and to hear each other's measure of truth. And this is oh-so-important -

I quite agree with Bill Samuel when he says there is a lack of a clear spiritual center in liberal Quaker communities. 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. In the absence of that clear spiritual center, much of what draws liberal Friends to one another is their shared affection for the Power that we identify with cultural "liberalism".

I would add that I personally see a similar lack of a clear spiritual center in evangelical Quaker communities. I don't believe that the religious fervor these communities visibly possess, and their shared ideas about what it is they are fervent about, are the same thing as a spiritual center; they are an emotional and ideological center, to be sure, but to have a clear spiritual center, one must lay down one's self-hypnotizing emotions and beliefs, and come to the great and awesome Reality that stands beyond and above such things. The growing division between evangelicals who continue to support the political right and those who now question where the political right is going, is, in my estimation, evidence of a lack of spiritual centeredness that has long been obscured by passion and conviction, but that cannot be so obscured forever. And I think that in the absence of a clear spiritual center, evangelical Friends are showing themselves very capable of being misled by shared affection for the Power we identify with religious and cultural conservatism in this country.

If Friend McCandless used the word "unity" as you represent (you report that he "said something along the lines of 'Unity does not mean we are in agreement; unity means we are girded about by the bonds of love as we labor together'), then I believe he abuses the historical Quaker sense of what "unity" means. Historically, Friends have been interested in discerning the will of God, which is a will towards that which is simultaneously totally upright (the underlying emphasis of the Right) and totally kind (the underlying emphasis of the Left), and then uniting themselves with that will, an act which requires the complete surrender of one's own beliefs, desires and plans. That is something qualitatively different from, and much tougher than, just "laboring together in the bonds of love". One can "labor together in the bonds of love" while still giving one's loyalty to this Power or that one. To truly come to unity requires leaving all that lesser loyalty behind.

As I write these words, I am listening to Ralph Vaughan Williams's lovely Fantasia on Christmas carols (performed by John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers), a composition that embodies an awful lot of the actual agenda of Christianity as expressed by its first apostles. Listen intently as I can, I cannot hear any support in it for the mutually-exclusive elements of the agendas of Left and Right. Have we ceased being children enough to understand the significance of this?

Your blog offers no way for me to post this comment directly, since I decline to open an account with either Google or Blogger. So I am taking the liberty of sending you this by e-mail. If you want to post it to your blog yourself, please feel free.

All the joys of the season to you and Cat,
Marshall Massey


Linda J Wilk said…
Thank you Peter and Marshall, for opening this very important conversation on the nature of what conservative and liberal Friends believe and how they read the Bible. I do agree that the issue of how one uses and reads the Bible is far greater than Borg's observation. Marshal speaks my mind when he comments on Friends' historical commitment to the "methods" of the Lamb.

However, if it is true as Marshall and Bill Samuel say, that liberal meetings do not experience the "ocean of light" and are present more for the cultural liberalism, rather than the spiritual experience of the Light, then I would be truly saddened. Our small country meeting would then become the exception rather than the rule, a possibility I cannot believe.

In fact, in my experience throughout Baltimore and Philadelphia Yearly Meetings, I have not found your observations to be true. Since my early awakening that I was a Friend, some 25 years ago, I have experienced deeply the sense of being embraced by the Light surrounding whatever meeting I have attended, and I have not seen it to be a factor of what leanings to right or left the individual meeting had.

What I have found in my own meeting is that, without adopting a strictly defined doctrine, it is much harder to give voice to the experience and leadings of the light and it is definitely more difficult to teach, other than by example, what it means to be a Friend. This has its positives and negatives.

We of the more liberal meetings have found that all sorts of wayfaring strangers are attracted to our spaces. Some are seeking, some are wounded. Some stay only briefly, some differ so resolutely that they come to feel that they do not belong. But at least equally many prodigal children find in the open space of the meeting a place where they can come home to the God of their understanding, without the trappings of many other churches. Then, embraced by the Light, they are free to grow in the Spirit and learn how to answer the calling they have long felt within their hearts but been afraid or unaware of how to answer.

Admittedly, the resistance to more fully defining a doctrine or theology that is a big part of liberal meetings, makes it harder for one to immediately recognize whether one "fits" or not. I have sometimes wished that I could simply submit to the idea of the inerrancy of the Bible. I wish this most when I am struggling with issues that don't have straightforward yes or no answers, and like a child seeking direction, I am wishing someone would simply tell me yes or no.

In fact, most of life and the decisions called for are not like that. I have had to learn that there is only one sure way to see what direction I might go, and that is to wait on guidance from the Inner Light. Here is where I also lean on the community that seeks the light with me, helps me wait, ands gently point me in a new direction by sharing their leadings with me. I rely on the Bible for direction and eldering in the same regard.

I appreciate Marshall's message on discernment. This I think is the essence of what draws us together as Friends. In this modern world where we are encouraged to multi-task, think on our feet, and move at a lightning speed pace, it is, I believe, increasingly difficult for all people, including Friends, to slow down and take the silence and time that is needed for true spiritual discernment. Add to the the fact that Spirit often calls us to tasks we do not feel equipped for or willing to do, and we find the number among us willing to answer the call diminishing more and more.

My current struggle with this issue is the same as many others within the Religious Society of Friends, to find the place where God calls us to meet rather than to divide. And this repeatedly is the message that I hear in worship when I think about the conflicts between the greater Friends United Meeting and some of its Yearly and Monthly Meetings.

I believe that the God of all of our understanding is trying to work something new among us, that we cannot clearly see yet. When Baltimore Yearly Meeting instituted its intervisitation committee, I believe that was truly a leading. We need to worship together until we can truly feel and see the Truth that binds us together as one Society in the Spirit.
Anonymous said…
More and more, I am distressed by the devotion we show to the idea of "dualism": i.e., that something, or some group, is either "this" or "that" (think left and right, or liberal and conservative). We leap at these dualistic approaches to our faith in a misguided attempt to understand it. But it has been my experience that Faith and Belief do not adhere to dualistic descriptions. I am drawn to the binding one-ness, the at-one-ment which is, in my experience, the end of all worship, where Christ is leading us.

I am grateful for Friend Marshall's persuasive words. But I feel he has fallen too in love with dualism. Perhaps Borg has too, though I've never read him. Here's where I have landed: in a place where I am no longer threatened by the way you worship, and where I rejoice to hear what you believe in.
I don't know, Ben. I'm hardly in a position to speak for Marshall. But my sense is that he's actually urging Friends to be careful not to fall into dualism. I believe he sees the way of the Lamb--what I might more comfortably term the Light--as the way Quakers need to be moved beyond dualism toward a better understanding of what we are meant for.

In fact, I think that's what he's implying with the capital P in "Powers"... I may be mistaken, but I thought that choice was made for its association with ideas like a "prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now works in the children of disobedience" in Ephesians 2:2. As writer, I thought that was pretty slick--to evoke the associations with the corrupt Powers of sinfulness, and associate them with a willful yielding to dualism and resisting the Spirit of peace that allows us to listen to one another.

Now, as a Pagan, I may have an idea or two about associating our error-prone ways with the element of air (or nature, or the earth) but, truly, I don't for a minute think that was where Marshall was going with that.

Instead, I think he was saying that the True path among Friends is going to be the one that comes of listening deeply and humbly "to hear each other's measure of truth."

And, however uneasy I may be, as a Pagan, with listening for a measure of truth to those who are drawn to the Power that "teaches it what is right and what is wrong in a way that emphasizes moral strictures" rooted in the Bible, I am able to say that, in my experience, that "Lamb's way" (oh, how difficult the heavily Christian wording is for me! And oh, how irrelevant that is to the truth of it) can lead to me being able, not to read the Bible in a way that enlightens me or brings me closer to the Light, but at any rate, to listen to and be ministered to by those who do seem able to do that.

It's hard to do. Sometimes I don't feel like putting in the effort, and sometimes my fFriends from a position closer to the other "side" of this divide don't feel like it.

But I'm willing to accept the insight that without the humble and open-hearted listening to one another in the Spirit, we are falling into error, however compatible we may find our chosen "Powers" to be with us.

Mind you, I suspect that I'm far enough off the spectrum to the left that the pole of the duality I might see as "right" would probably strike Marshall as "left." But I think that requirement to commit to the "methods of the Lamb" is unchanged by that.

Mind you, I could be utterly wrong about what Marshall meant. (If so, hopefully he'll have a moment to set the record straight.)
Principalities and Powers! That's what I took it that Marshall was alluding to in his post!

(Whew! Right or wrong, I'm glad the exact phrase eventually came to me. It was going to make me nuts if I couldn't place it!)

I am not, however, Bible-savvy enough to narrow down the reference to any particular passages. Crap. (I guess there's only so much Bible wisdom available from being a student of the Children's Illustrated Bible and LP when I was ten...)
Those interested in this exchange may want to visit David Miley's blog, Silver Maple, where he has just posted his Pagan take on Marshall Massey's post in an essay of his own: Snake Handling, Quakers, Brighid and True Thomas.

Thanks, David, for the link... and thanks again, Marshall, for your words to us.
Anonymous said…
A few small clarifications —

"haven" writes that I "say that liberal meetings do not experience the 'ocean of light' and are present more for the cultural liberalism, rather than the spiritual experience of the Light". No, friend "haven", that's a misreading of what I wrote. What I actually wrote, you might recall, was that "a great many of the members and attenders at liberal meetings do not experience that ocean, and are actually present for other reasons". That's a rather different assertion. Saying that a great many of the members and attenders at meetings are such-and-such, does not equate to saying that the whole of those meetings are such-and-such.

"haven" also states that he has "experienced deeply the sense of being embraced by the Light surrounding whatever meeting I have attended, and I have not seen it to be a factor of what leanings to right or left the individual meeting had." I believe I understand what he is talking about; I've had experiences that I'd summarize the same way. But the fact that he (or I) is experiencing this in a given meeting, does not mean that everyone else there is also having that same experience. I suggest, again, that he ask around, and find out for himself whether other people are experiencing the same thing. I think he will find, as I have found, that sometimes they do, and other times they do not.

As to Ben Lloyd's dualism question, I really don't much care about it one way or another. It seems to me that the real goal is not to embrace dualism, or to shun it either, but to try to understand matters truly and respond to them appropriately.

I do thank both "haven" and Ben Lloyd for their kind comments.

Yes, Cat, my references to "powers" had to do with the New Testament doctrine of powers and principalities. My compliments to you for catching the reference! This is a doctrine that is referred to, very cryptically, at seven points in the New Testament, of which the most noteworthy are Romans 8:38-39, Ephesians 6:12, Colossians 1:16, and Colossians 2:15. There is much modern scholarly disagreement as to what, exactly the author or authors of these epistles meant by these terms. I think, though, that you've understood what I meant in my letter, and restated it very nicely too.

And you and I are both "far off the spectrum", Cat! And I rather suspect, in moderately similar ways —

Thanks for the link to David Miley's blog!

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