Where to start

On Easter of 2006, I began making my way, chapter by chapter, through The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version, that 1994 publication of the Jesus Seminar which gathers together new translations of the canonical gospels, the reconstructed Signs Gospel and Sayings Gospel Q, the Gospel of Thomas, and fourteen others from the first three centuries of the Common Era.

It was as I began reading the second century gnostic Christian Secret Book of James, just this past week, that I reached clearness on why I have always been wary of either the “right doctrine” of religious orthodoxies or the “secret knowledge” of ancient or modern gnosticisms.

My bone-deep conviction, arising from my childhood apprehension of the witness of Jesus, is that every human being has an intimate, unmediated and salutary relationship with what many of us call God.

That relationship cannot be one which depends upon living by right doctrine or secret knowledge. It is implicitly familial, a birthright which no human agency can grant or deny. Wherever there seem to be rifts or torments in the relationship, those arise from the misperceptions of human beings, not from the reality of God’s interrelationship with us.

This conviction seems to me also to be at the very heart of Quaker faith and practice. When those seekers in seventeenth century England lay aside scripture, liturgy and sacrament to “wait upon the Lord,” it was because they had come to recognize how finite and fallible any forms of human concept and language are when it comes to representing the living Truth of that divine interrelationship.

In effect they were saying: “If God is real, then only God’s own direct mediation with us is real. Anything else is transient, mortal.”

In a recent comment in response to Cat Chapin-Bishop’s piece about “Moving Beyond the Cool Kids’ Table,” Marshall Massey voiced this core faith in a somewhat different way:

Christ was very much engaged in teaching his disciples to see a new face of God, one they’d never dared let themselves see before, and to enter a new relationship with God, in which fear is no longer even conceivable. The face of God that Christ pointed to was characterized by the fact that this God could be addressed as “Abba,” “Dad.”

(To be fair, there was precedent for this in the ministry of the Old Testament prophet Hosea, who predicted that when the faithful were finally reconciled to God, they would cease addressing him as “Boss” and begin addressing him as “Husband.”)

This speaks to the heart of what I have learned in the thirty-some years since I “dropped out” of Lutheran seminary, the heart of what I have returned to in returning to that childhood apprehension of Jesus.

The day-to-day reality of faith and practice, what sustains me in every private grief or joy, in every public conflict or celebration, is not grounded in belief or knowledge.  It is grounded in the immediate experience of relationship with the Divine Presence,

Nearer than breath,
Closer than hands or feet.

And so it is.

Blesséd Be,
Michael

4 comments On Where to start

  • quakerpagan

    “Nearer than breath,
    Closer than hands or feet.”

    I like this… very close to the words that often run through my mind in MFW: “…closer than my own skin.”

    It is interesting to me how there seem to be common currents, both in the blogosphere and in meeting for worship. Last week, for instance, a Quaker Pagan friend of mine was telling me, after meeting, about the way images of water, of Spirit as water, have been crowding his mind through worship. I laughed and agreed with him, adding one or two of those images that had been on my mind, too.

    Of course, water as Spirit is a very old figure of speech. Less traditional, though, was the next turn of phrase that occurred to us both.

    “In fact,”I said, “I’m sometimes reminded of those commercials from my childhood. Do you remember Madge, and the Palmolive ads, and—”

    “–You’re soaking in it!” my friend burst in, excitedly.

    God… you’re soaking in it.

    OK, OK… not exactly dignified. But utterly amusing that, week after week, the two of us had been sitting in meeting, hearing the same still voice… the voice of Madge, the Palmolive theologian.

    Congratulations on the new blog. Blessed be.

  • Michael Austin Shell

    “God… you’re soaking in it.”

    Thanks so much for this marvelous image. It suits my sense of sacred humor…and reminds me of my own story from back in the early 1980s.

    Throughout my 20s, I had been questing on Pagan and Buddhist paths, finding much that “spoke to my condition.” Now I had returned from some years overseas (literally and figuratively) to keep household with my gay friends Randy and Jim (who later because my spouse).

    I would go with them to St. Jude Metropolitan Community Church, which served the queer community of our city, and struggle to reintegrate myself into a faith community which spoke the Christian language.

    The pastor was an ordained Lutheran, which lent familiarity to some of the liturgy and much of the preaching. The congregation was mostly “recovering Southern Baptist,” which lent an unfamiliar, evangelical, sentimental, “Thank you, Jesus” tone to the worship and singing.

    I had already adopted silence as my form of worship (though, I suspect, more in misguided self-defence than in the deeper manner of Friends), and I struggled to “translate” every hymn or faith affirmation into something I could “subscribe to.”

    The crisis always came as the congregation prepared for Eucharist.

    As a boy I had routinely gone through the typically Lutheran inner struggle before “going up for Communion”: “Am I really worthy? Do I really believe this? What is it about?”

    Now I would find myself in a similar struggle: “Do I really believe this? Do I offend God if I go up when I’m not confessing the Creed anymore? What is it about?”

    But always, at some point when half the congregation or more would be gathered in a circle around the altar, a voice within would say in a mock-exasperated way, “Oh, get on up here, silly witch! I’m not that picky. Join my children!”

    Joy would burst forth in my chest and I would go up, almost with tears in my eyes.

    I just don’t think God is that picky.

    Bléssed Be,
    Michael

  • quakerpagan

    Word.

    Not to mention that that joy thing is, I’m coming to believe, a kind of a sign of Something. 🙂

    In case you are interested, my daughter recently wrote a blog post on her own blog, where she talks about why she is not Pagan and not polytheist (both things I do consider myself to be) which I agree with wholeheartedly. She said what she did so well on the subject of many gods/one God so well that it may be some time before I attempt the subject again… you can read it at Endangered Species of One.

    The ideas can be so complex… but the experiences can be so simple and joyful.

    Thank you also for sharing so much of your journey here. I really, really appreciate the chance to read about it.

  • Hi, Mike! I hope you’ll continue to find blogging–no matter where or what you blog–fruitful. I look forward to reading more of you, as Way opens for you to write and for me to read!

    Blessings,
    Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

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