Languages of belief
As my spiritual life has matured and deepened over the decades, I have come to understand that no religious language, whether in scripture, in doctrine, in written or spoken ministry, or in personal testimony, describes the ultimate Reality in any objective way. Rather, at its best such language can only describe the human experience of interaction with that Reality.
This is not because the Real is unknowable, but because human language is limited. Even at its most articulate, the human brain is not able to abstract its intimate experience into concepts and symbols which are at once fully nuanced and also wholly unambiguous to others.
How can we share with each other our common experience of this one Reality, and yet allow that our individual relationships with it are idiosyncratic and, in their inmost core, inexpressible?
I point at the moon saying, “Don’t look at my finger.” Yet is the moon a round outer-space object reflecting sunlight, or a goddess, or the mirror of my emotions, or the clock of the tides, or…?
Part of my goal with The Empty Path is to become more articulately multilingual in describing to others my real faith and practice as it happens. Hence, I am very grateful to Zach A of The Seed Lifting Up for his gentle bravery in describing his process of moving away from belief in God and that movement’s interaction with his longing for real spiritual community. Though the belief crisis of my 20s was very different than Zach’s, I recognize kindred longings and seekings in what he describes —ones which persist for me to this day.
In this post and others which follow, I am borrowing Zach’s language to shine light on my own concerns and openings, not to debate with or try to persuade him or other readers. I apologize in advance if I misunderstand or misrepresent what Zach intends to communicate.
Zach has published a sequence of posts upon which I am drawing:
- “A post-Quaker vision of the Society of Friends” (March 27th)
- “Carrying the Society as long as you can” (August 26th)
- “The post-religious destiny of Quakerism” (September 2nd)
- “A note on being constructive” (September 2nd)
He describes two concerns which are interwoven throughout these posts.
The first has to do with a quest for belief “based on evidence” rather than on doctrine or superstition.
The second has to do with a desire to be part of a spiritual community which, to use the classic Quaker distinction, is centered in authentic practice rather than in outward profession of “right belief.”
I intend to address that first concern in a later post.
For now I am focused more on the tension Zach describes between two compelling internal forces related to that second concern.
One is a deep desire to be part of an intentional community of believers who are committed to serious, mutually supportive practice of their faith in the day-to-day world.
The other is a strong discomfort with the sort of unreflective “profession” of Christian orthodoxy which seems to assume agreement on the part of all listeners.
Both of these forces have been active in my own life, ever since I left Lutheran seminary during my first year there, back in 1973. I went to seminary fully invested in not just the profession but the practice of Christian life. However, I also went there while I was still deep in the closet as a gay man.
When I realized that personal and spiritual authenticity demanded I come out, I was confronted with what seemed an irresolvable conflict. The real presence of God, of Christ, in my inner life did not condemn but affirmed my orientation toward loving another man. Yet the orthodoxy of my church—and of most other religions—did condemn that core part of my personhood.
For a long time I was a refugee from the “christian” world, even though I had no doubt that Christ went along with me in my exile. I will write more of my own questing later, but here I want to generalize about exile and the seeking of refuge.
In his post “Behind the Hedge” back in April, Richard M of A Place to Stand expressed very well the dilemma now facing Quaker meetings—and, in fact, almost any religious group which opens its doors to spiritual refugees:
Being among people who share and affirm our values is uplifting. Time spent among Friends can be time to repair the damage done to our psyches by the world.
This is why some Christian Friends long for a purely Christian meeting. They would feel safer and more protected there. Hearing ministry spoken in their own Christian language sounds dearer to them. They feel especially wounded when someone within the meeting criticizes them for being Christian. They feel as exposed and attacked as they do in the world, here in the one place where they long to feel safe.
But there are many Friends who are refugees from abusive “Christian” churches for whom Christian language is threatening and not comforting. These Friends would feel safer and more protected if the word “Christ” were never spoken in their presence.
This is a problem in many meetings. Love and unity are hard to maintain among us when some Friends are hurt by neutral “Light” language and other Friends are hurt by ministry that explicitly speaks of Christ.
All the advice I can offer is for Friends to be brave. If someone’s language feels like a slap, turn the other cheek and try to respond lovingly to this Friend. Listen to them carefully for signs that Love speaks back through them.
Remember that others quite different from you are also looking for a place of love and shelter behind a hedge guarding them from a hostile world.
I came to Quakerism for refuge. I was drawn by the willingness of Friends to worship deeply together and to make authentic spiritual commitment to each other, without first requiring confession of “right doctrine.”
I began attending my first meeting in 1987, and I became a recorded member and then clerk in the early 1990s. My spouse Jim and I were married under the care of this meeting in 1994. Though we moved to another state seven years ago and attend another meeting, we still have our membership there.
What I remember of this meeting is its weightiness and diversity. In retrospect I know that the members range from Christocentric to Nontheist. They all seemed to be deeply involved in real witness in the social and political challenges of our community and nation, as well as in genuine caring for and ministry to each other.
Yet when Jim and I moved away in 2000, Friends were only just beginning to acknowledge in meeting that we needed to become able to talk with each other about what “Jesus” and “Christian faith and practice” might mean to each of us—whether or not “Christian” was our chosen language.
The meeting I attend now is smaller, more political, perhaps less ready to lift the cover of “Christian” language in order to talk about what inner, secret languages we each use. Again, the people are active and caring. Yet the awkwardness and uninformative silence are there.
So, at least until I stumbled into the Quaker blogosphere, I have been puzzling over my approach/avoidance reaction to “Christian” on my own.
Which leads me back to the question with which I titled this post….
(To be continued)