By James Riemermann
Here's a thought-provoking comment that James left a few days ago on the "We're All Ranters Now":http://www.nonviolence.org/Quaker/ranters.php piece. It's an important testimony and a good challenge. I'm stumped trying to answer it upon first reading, which means it's definitely worth featuring!
There is much expressed in these pages which I can heartily support. Certainly, if Friends are reluctant to speak of God or Christ in the Religious Society of Friends for fear of disapproval or censure, something needs to be corrected. We cannot build deep, loving community in an atmosphere of anxiety and mistrust.
I also discern a sense that the author and many visitors to this site feel that many Friends are more interested in an easy, comfortable, unchallenging social and political club, than a place for serious spiritual growth and challenge. If you wish to call that being "convicted in our sin," so be it. The phrase does not speak to me, but I think its meaning does.
At the same time, I discern a sense here--rarely explicit, but frequently implied--that what liberal Quakers need is a good purging, a removal of those Friends who don't believe what "we" think Friends should believe. Who "we" are, and precisely which beliefs are acceptable and unacceptable, is very much in question.
I don't believe in God, and have spent the last 15 years among Friends trying to understand, among many other things, why I feel so irrestibly drawn to a community and religious society in which the central term is God. My relationship with that community is at the center of my life, and has transformed and improved me in ways that make me deeply grateful and reverent for whatever it is we experience or create together. It has not made me a theist.
In my large and very liberal meeting, a fair number of messages in meeting for worship invoke the name of God or Christ or Jesus. Perhaps a larger percentage do not, including many from Friends I know to be Christians of various sorts. That a message does not invoke the name of God, does not prove or even suggest that God is not present in the message. If I am mistaken and God does exist, surely he is manifest in all creation and humanity, and not merely at those moments when we invoke his name. If I am mistaken and God does exist, surely he is manifest in me, and in what I bring to my meeting, and what my meeting brings to me. Surely your conception of God is not that he is only present in the lives of those who hold certain theological propositions to be true. Or am I mistaken about this as well?
I do experience something mysterious and profound and life-changing in my religious life among Friends. I have a hard time describing it, though I occasionally try in my flawed and halting language. Perhaps the experience I have is the same as, or deeply similar to, that which you call God. For me to use that term would be misleading, even dishonest, because, mysterious as my experience sometimes is, nothing about it strikes me as unnatural. It is something beyond me, naturally, as it springs not from my own doing, but from the encounter or relationship between me and others, between me and the world. It is neither here nor there, but a living bond that comes from being alive in the world with other living beings. There is something sacred in that bond, and acting in ways that tend to violate it is not righteous. I depend on my community for many things, and one of those things is to keep me honest to that bond. I submit myself to that discipline freely and joyfully, and my willingness springs from the faith I have in the goodness of that community. I do not and cannot, however, submit my mind, my beliefs--my measure of the light--to any authority. To do so would be a violation of my integrity, and it is not in the tradition of George Fox or the founders to demand this sort of obedience, nor to deny the blessing of our community to those who will not state agreement with certain theological propositions.
I am confident that Fox and his followers would have been shocked to see the theological diversity that is the reality of modern liberal Friends. He also would have been shocked, I suspect, to learn that the creation story/stories of Genesis, taken literally, would soon be proven by science to be clearly and absolutely false. Given his unshakeable integrity, given the radical nature of his ministry, given 300 more years of light and learning, I think his beliefs would have changed in many ways that are hard to imagine. Should we have not changed during this period?
My goal is not to change Friends, though my presence among them will probably have some small effect. Like Popeye and Luther, I am what I am. At the same time, I applaud and honor the Christians and others whose faith in God is utterly central to everything of value in their lives. It would grieve me deeply if you were reluctant to speak your faith in worship to avoid offending me. Sometimes your language about God speaks to me very deeply, though on a metaphorical level. Other times, not so much. In any case, your beliefs are important to me. I want to know you. I would like for us to remain Friends.
Either way, I'm here. I'm not going anywhere.
This piece originally appeared as a comment on "We're All Ranters Now":http://www.nonviolence.org/Quaker/ranters.php.