Monday, July 27, 2009

The God who appears when God disappears...

Yesterday I went to Palo Alto Meeting where I heard an interesting talk about "trans-theism"--the latest hot topic among Friends. This particular word was coined by Paul Tillich, a theologian who had a big influence on me in grad school. I found esp. memorable the last line of his book "Courage to Be": "The courage is be is the courage to believe in the God who appears when God disappears in the anxiety of doubt."

The question raised by the British Quaker David Bolton (and other non-theist Friends) is: do you have to believe in God to be a Quaker? Why can't you be an atheist or non-theist or trans-theist as long as you ascribe to Quaker values, such as peace, simplicity, equality, community, etc.? Why don't we become the Ethical Society of Friends rather than the Religious Society of Friends?

The latest issue issue of "The Western Friend" contains articles by two Friends who see themselves as "non-theists." One regards himself as an existentialist/rationalist and believes that the Religious Society of Friends has no need of the mystical or transcendent; we simply need to be "good" Friends and live ethical lives. Another writer explains that he no longer believes in a personal God who created and sustains the universe. He feels that we can live the Quaker testimonies without believing that we are inspired or guided by a higher or transforming power.

For me, such an approach would dilute our religion and weaken its power. When Quakers come together in silent worship, we come together for a reason. We come together to experience the presence of the Divine--something greater than our individual egos. If we deny the reality of this experience, then the only source of authority becomes the ego.

(If we say that "Reason" or some other abstraction is our guide, then we are turning this into a transcendent value and that becomes our God, or "Ultimate Concern," as Tillich would say.)

One of the major problemes of modern life is that we make a god out of our own egos. This tendency is sometimes called "individualism"--the belief that the individual is the supreme authority.

Many Quakers (like many members of society as a whole) already suffer from individualism/ego-centrism. I consider myself a recovering ego-holic. Ego-holics feel that Quakerism means "doing and believing whatever we feel like doing and believing." This is not what I understand to be our Quaker faith and practice. What drew me to Quakerism was the recognition that I could not trust my ego to make wise decision. I had to go deeper and connect with my Inner Light--the Christ Spirit--in order to make wise choices and to live a life based on love and truth--a life that leads to fulfillment and true happiness. In the silence, I can look at my fears and desires and let go of their hold upon me. I can sense the presence of an inner wisdom that is greater than my conscious mind. The more I practice our Quaker form of worship, the easier it is for me to discern that deep wisdom in others as well as myself.

This is the basis for Quaker theology, not a creed or a set of traditional beliefs.

I believe that all of us have transcendent experiences, glimpses of the Divine, at some point in our lives. It may occur when contemplating the mystery and awesomeness of nature. It may happen when experiencing a liminal life experience--like witnessing or experiening the birth of a child, or caring for a loved one who is dying, or facing a life-threatening illness. At these moments, we realize that our limited egos are not enough. We feel ourselves reaching out to something vast and mysterious that is both within and beyond us.

We can dismiss such moments as subjective, or we can recognize them as glimpses of a reality that is greater than our conventional way of experiencing the world. Otto Rank calls this an experience of the "numinous."

I think children sense the numinous more readily than adults. That's why I enjoy the company of children like my nephew. He is very bright and rational, and at the same time open to the wonder and mystery of life.

Yesterday afternoon I had the delightful experience of taking Edward to the Rosicrucian museum, where there is an excellent collection of Egyptian artifacts. You can even go down into a reconstruction of an Egyptian tomb. This was one of Kathleen's favorite places, and I am glad I had a chance to share it with my nephew.

I spent last night at the home of Stephen Matchett, who is very active in AVP and clerks the board of "The Western Friend." It was good to catch up on his life and find out all the good things he is doing. We also had some time for an "opportunity"--which is what Quakers used to call a meeting for worship in a home or other setting apart from the Meetinghouse. It was very precious to spend time in prayer with Stephen and to connect with him at a deep spiritual level.

He has headed off to Yearly Meeting by bus and bike (he eschews the automobile since he feels it is not part of the Peaceable Kingdom). I plan to drive to Walker Creek by noon so that I can help with registration.

Thank you, God, for the wonder and joy of being alive!

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