30 October 2006

The Geography of Belief

Due to a recent discussion with Marshall, I was thinking about George Fox and how his witness relates to my life. Fox lived in a very different world than I do,and he was shaped by it as I have been shaped by my world.

As I thought about this, one of the things that struck me was that Fox lived in an almost exclusively Christian world. He might never have met a Jewish person, let alone someone who practices a non-Abrahamic faith. I, on the other hand, grew up in one of the more multi-cultural corners of the United States. As a child, I was exposed not only to many different flavors of Christianity, but also to Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism. My friends practiced these faiths, and I was taught to respect diversity.

I was also taught to be humble about my own religion and cultural practices. Christian practices were not better or more right than Jewish or Buddhist practices; they were just different. Indeed, the assumption that Christianity was right and Judaism (or Islam) wrong had caused a whole lot of suffering and evil in the world.

I was raised Universalist, in the same way I was raised to be sensitive to social and economic injustice. Growing up in a racially and culturally diverse city was one of the more precious gifts I have received in life.

Fox received his messages in a Christian frame. An exclusively Christian frame, however, seems too small to me. When I read the writings of the early Quakers, I re-frame them in more Universalist terms. With my life experience, anything that excludes human beings of other faiths won't work. God would not be so short-sighted and cruel as to leave out Buddhists and Hindus. I cannot believe in a God who would play favorites that way; slipping the truth to children born in Christian households and denying it to children born in other households.

If I had grown up in another sort of community, in a lily-white town where everyone was Christian, I don't think I would have the same feelings about the exclusivity of Christianity. I wouldn't know Jewish and Moslem and Hindu and Buddhist people as friends and individuals. I wouldn't have learned how to sing "Happy Birthday" in Farsi (a much better and livelier song than our English "Happy Birthday"); I wouldn't have contemplated the meaning of Rosh Hashonah; I wouldn't have learned about the great Ramayana myth cycle; I wouldn't have thought of working a Ramadan-like fast into our celebration of Thanksgiving. I think I would be more sure that the way I and my friends and neighbors do things was the Right Way, and that people who do things differently are just plain wrong.

Continuing revelation is both a tremendous opportunity and a great challenge. We are asked to listen continually for revisions to the expression to the truth. What past expressions of the truth are still true and which ones were part of the fabric of time and place? I wonder whether there are things that are true for this time in Marshall's place but not true for this time in my place.

I am shaped and called to be a Universalist. Christianity is part of that Universalism, but not all of it. I am called to recognize truth wherever I see it, by whatever name it is called. I can accept that other people are called in other ways; they might be called to go deeply into Christianity or Islam or Judaism or Hinduism or Buddhism or Paganism. I think it's important to stay in fellowship with all of them, to recognize that truth goes far deeper than words and symbols.

Mostly, though, I think that what God really cares about is how we treat one another. "Love your neighbor as yourself" is a recipe for the kingdom of God here on Earth. Our greatest challenge as human beings is to learn how to live in harmony with one another.

28 October 2006


...or Belief and the Nature of the Divine.

I'm staring at this blank white screen knowing that whatever words I type will create a form that is smaller than I imagine God to be. My idea of God, in turn, is just a small part of what God actually is.

Maybe I should quit while I'm ahead and delete this post.

I don't believe in God. I don't believe in God the same way I don't believe in rain or cinnamon toast or integrated circuits. I also don't believe in God the same way I don't believe in numbers, or geometric points, or the calculus.

My training is in mathematics. It was fortunate for me that I wasn't asked to believe in the concept of number, or the existence of points and lines and circles, or the reality of the mystical zero, or all of that dancing around with deltas and epsilons. At the heart of every mathematical system, there are a few concepts that are accepted without proof. The proof, such as it is, rests in the beauty and utility of the resulting system of mathematics.

God is like that for me. I don't believe in God. I posit God and then test the beauty and utility of the resulting system of religion. I accept that God, rather than being a sort of anthropomorphic entity that sits in the clouds, is an abstract idea that sits in the human mind. Once we posit God, however, we have access to a tremendous realm of human thought and spiritual practice.

When I'm doing math, it looks exactly as though I believe in the concepts I've posited. In casual conversation, it might sound as though I believe in the concrete existence of the mighty Zero. Likewise, when I'm doing religion (praying or sitting in silent worship or trying to discern God's will for my life), it looks exactly as though I believe in God.

And I do believe in God, in the same way that I believe in Beauty or Truth or Justice. I believe in whatever underlying truth that the human concept of "God" represents. I accept that there are many different notions about God, and that those notions more or less accurately describe whatever it is that actually exists in the Universe.

I have to face facts, though: when human beings talk about God, we're talking about something we don't know very much about. I imagine us throwing sand at an invisible object and trying to describe the object by the patterns in the sand. Sometimes we mistake the patterns in the sand for the object we're trying to describe.

One of the truest things in Quakerism is the rejection of outer forms. It dovetails nicely with Godel's Incompleteness Theorem and the idea that the map is not the territory. When I read Fox, I hear a warning against taking any human system of thought too seriously. A true Quaker (or a true scientist) delves deeper. When the map doesn't match the territory, the wise human changes the map, not the terrain beneath her feet.

In the case of God and me, the terrain is my life and my inner guide. When an idea about God resonates with my own experience, I toss it in my God-box and incorporate it into my map of God. When an idea about God contradicts my experience (or offends my sensibilities), I set it aside. With humility, I hope, as my own human understanding of the Divine is limited.

Polytheistic systems delight me, as they seem to give God more prancing room. Humans have a richer picture of God when God includes such varied faces as Isis and Horus and Osiris and Nut. The ancient Hawaiians (who have a pretty impressive stable of Gods of their own) had an idea that there were not only many Gods, but an infinite number of Gods, an uncountably infinite number of Gods. It tickles my mathematical mind to think that the set of Gods has the same cardinality as the set of real numbers. It gives me some idea of how big and varied God actually is.

I was shocked and disappointed when I first read the whole Bible at age 11, and disappointed again when I read the holy books of various other faiths. The box that each holy book created for God seemed far too small for the reality of God that I experienced and imagined. I wanted something bigger, less parochial, less human. I wanted an idea of God big enough and generous enough and loving enough to cover, not just all of humanity, but all other life that shares this sphere with us, and everything else in the universe.

There is a Pagan notion that God cannot be worshipped in any structure made by human hands. I try to keep that notion in mind when I sit in the box of the Meetinghouse with my community of Friends. We can worship in that box, but we can't put God in a box. God is bigger than any structure made by human hands. God is bigger than we can imagine.

13 October 2006

Is There in Truth No Beauty?

I've found myself thinking of the idea that the Inner Light and the original Quakers were focused on sin and redemption. And certainly they made their blog posts decrying the sinful natures of towns and churches and politicians.

There's plenty of fuel for modern Friends who want to blog on the errors of others, on the moral decadence of our culture, on the failings of our Meetings, and so forth. Criticism is an easy game, and self-righteousness such a comfortable trap.

I find myself thinking, though, of George Fox's charge that we walk cheerfully over the Earth, answering that of God in everyone. That does not sound, to me, like the voice of a man eager to find fault in his fellows. Instead, it sounds like a person who sees the good -- the God -- in everyone, and speaks to what is finest in them.

I find myself thinking of the letters that early Friends wrote, reminding one another to hold to the Seed of God, to treasure it and to abide by it. They don't write as if they're engaged in a grim duty, but as though they are drunk on the beauty of the Holy Spirit.

Often, after Meeting, I am drunk on the beauty and love of the Holy Spirit. In my Joy, I am one with the Divine. Ecstatic with the mystic touch of God.

In that space, there is no room for semantic games. No place for one-upmanship. No room for sin. The Spirit has filled me up, and the Light has left no room for evil.

The word "surrender" comes from the French se rendre -- to give one's self up. It seems to me that the early Friends were talking about giving themselves up to God, that they were talking of the ecstasy that comes of walking in the Light and surrendering themselves to the Truth that comes inwardly from God.

They wanted to be Christ's disciples, the Friends of Jesus Christ. Not the followers of the words written in the Bible or of the path set forth by the church, but comrades who eat with God and sleep with God and wash dishes with God. Right now, this minute, in my mundane existence, what is it that God asks of me?

In the blogosphere, we must use words, but words are great deceivers. They can lead us from unity into semantics, from the living flesh of God to the empty icon used to represent him. It is too easy to mistake the symbol for the reality, to cleave to the empty shell rather than the living Light.

Let us sit together in silence, Friends, and welcome that which is eternal.

09 October 2006

Recognizing the Parched Soul

A few weeks ago, I started a new full-time job. My energy has been consumed by the job and parenting my four children, and I've had to scale back my Meeting activities.

I feel guilty about not being able to give as much as I would like to my Meeting. I'm concerned about letting down folks who have come to depend on me, and not living up to my dear Friends' needs and expectations.

On hearing of my need to put Outreach activities on the back burner, one Friend sent me a sweet personal email. She assured me of the rightness of doing what I needed to do to handle the stress in my life, and that Outreach would grind on even without my assistance. She also reminded me to come to Meeting for Worship even if I felt like I didn't have the time or energy, for it is surely at times like these that I need Meeting most.

I had just decided not to go to Meeting that Sunday. I was feeling exhausted, missing my children, and wanting to curl up under a blanket and knit and listen to my young ones. I didn't want to have to get up on yet another morning, make myself presentable, and drive to Meeting. I also didn't want to face the potential disappointment and disapproval of Friends who think I ought to be doing more.

When I made it to Meeting, I discovered that I was the only one who thought I should be doing more than I am. My Friends were all supportive of my need to care for myself and my family. They were, in fact, eager to support me through this transition in my life.

I realized again how much easier it is for me to give than to receive. I want so much to be of service. When I can't be, I have a hard time letting go of my expectations of myself and an even harder time accepting the help and support of others.

As I was getting ready for Meeting, I was thinking, "I don't want to go to Meeting today. I don't know what good it will do me. I have so much to do these days, and I don't see how sitting in silence and stillness is going to help me get them done."

Uh-huh, Heather, you've just demonstrated how much you need to worship. You're becoming so spiritually parched that you don't even recognize your own thirst. If you go on, you'll start doubting the existence of spirit, as well as your own need for it.

It was a lovely, soft, nurturing, and mostly silent Meeting. Two people got up to speak in appreciation for the light in the room provided by the new windows. I sat in worship and allowed myself to receive. By the end of the Meeting, I had transformed from a spiritually dessicated being into a spiritual fish. I was swimming in the Well, totally refreshed by the communion that God showered on our Meeting. I felt connected to distant Friends as well as the ones sitting in the room with me.