Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Born again, the Living Presence, repentence, and other Christian jargon

Apparently, at least one FGC Yearly Meeting has restored the practice of asking for written replys to Queries from its monthly meetings. I admire the effort and hope it spreads. But if the following response is typical and indicative of the state of our Society, I must confess some disappointment.

The first query was:

In what ways has the Living Presence awakened my faith and turned me around?
Set aside that his query is clearly addressed to individuals and not to the meeting as a whole, which is another issue. Here is one large monthly meeting's written response. (I should note that I have a personal and affectionate relationship with this meeting, and have the utmost love and respect for the reporters who summarized the meeting's response.):
Although a few Friends were able to speak of personal experience of a Living presence or of remarkable changes in life direction, a number shared that [this] query did not speak to them or describe their experience. The "turning around," while commonly described in the journals of early Friends, is not a comfortable phrase for some because it feels to them like born-again Christian "jargon," outside their sense of credulity [sic]. In fact, for most of us, the awakening of faith can be described as more an experience of gradual maturation than a sudden "road to Damascus" whammy [sic]. Thus . . . Friends didn't have much to say on the topic and so the sharing quickly departed from the query and focused more on the personal experiences of coming to Friends and on the life of the Meeting. Some spoke of making progress in dealing with personal problems, such as growing through their anger or past feelings of homophobia where the Meeting community has been supportive and non-judgmental. Others spoke of the value of meeting for worship as a place to experience the Living Presence through the examples and spoken messages of others. Listening in that setting and being open and vulnerable has led some to valuable openings.

Some Friends have no experience of God and do not share the "beliefs" that are professed in Christian churches. They come to meeting for worship because in that respectful setting, they are encouraged to listen and ponder, experiencing "belief" as a personal journey. Also, it is the "social gospel" of friends -- the living practice of service that many find makes them feel comfortable in our midst and want to come back.

Finally, the "turning around" metaphor reminded one Friend of those rare times when unbidden feelings of love an come quite suddenly from a source outside ourselves and provide the energy to go beyond our fears and relate to another in an open state of grace.
The unregenerated part of me was tempted to only post the first half of the first paragraph to emphasize how far afield modern liberal Friends have come from their ostensible heritage.

But then I realized that wouldn't be fair to the meeting since some of the subsequent comments showed some apprehension of the experience of convincement and conversion that is so central to the Quaker understanding of how things are. And the reference to the "experience of gradual maturation" accurately describes my experience of being born again, and I believe is consistent with how Friends have generally understood this experience.

And I give it points for sincerity. No cheap grace or false professors here. No goody-Quaker-two-shoes who know what the answer to the query should be. For this honesty I admire and respect them.

But still.

Do the concepts of the Living Presence, repentance, of turning around, really sound to modern Quakers like "jargon?" Do we really expect a query to make us feel "comfortable?" Do we feel free to recast an uncomfortable query in terms of experiencing the meeting as "supportive and non-judgmental?"

I would understand if they would say, "No, I haven't experienced a Living Presence that has turned my life around. But I'm still looking for it" or "We feel ourselves being turned around, but gradually." Either would be pretty close to my own answer.

And I'm all for Friends meetings serving as safe havens for seekers and doubters. That's one of the most imporant ministries I think we provide, and one that is too often overlooked.

But to write off the experience of convincement as "born-again Christian jargon" as if being born again were alien to Quakerism just p-----s me off, frankly.

I guess I still have a lot of repenting to do.

Note: Beppeblog has a lengthy comment on this post here.


anonymous julie said...

I understand your frustration about their rejection of jargon. And I understand that they want to shy away from it. Words are very tricky things, and when something becomes 'jargon' or a catch-phrase, it takes on extra meanings that tend to be understood a certain way by a certain group of people, and the original flavor or other meanings can be obscured. I am not sure if they are rejecting the idea of a turning-point so much as the typical 'evangelical' words used to describe it.

For myself, there are sometimes definite turning-points, points of rather violent spiritual reorientation or refocusing.

For myself, it is rather like a long sailboat race. A destination, where the most direct path may not be direct at all, where conditions change and the path constantly evolves. A process with phases that may blend together or be distinctly separate; progress that seems fast or slow, rough or smooth. But that's just me. How people percieve their experience is, however, individual.

Paul L said...

Julie says: "I am not sure if they are rejecting the idea of a turning-point so much as the typical 'evangelical' words used to describe it."

You might be right. If the Inner Light is indeed universal, then it would be unlikely that it wouldn't lead even self-professed atheists or humanists to radically change their lives away from self worship -- whether all at once or over time -- even if they don't recognize that as being what Jesus referred to as being born again, or what Quakers would call being convinced.

The reason they don't recognize the experience may be as much the fault of the church's lousy job of teaching as it is their own shallowness and ignorance.

My frustration, though, is that by rejecting the vocabulary of the Christian church -- and of evangelicalism -- because of its misuse by other self-styled Christians, they are giving up one of the church's rich and powerful tools to a bunch of unChristian emperor worshipers; it's like throwing your pearls before swine. Furthermore, after having surrendered the Christian lexicon, they haven't come close to creating a "new" vocabulary to express the same concepts and shared experiences.

And your sailboat image is a good one. Someone once told me that being saved is more like being given a compass than a map. While the Bible and other spiritual books and witnesses may provide some useful information about landmarks, traps, pitfalls, dead ends, etc. along the spiritual journey, if you follow your compass you'll always be heading in the right direction, no matter how you may wander.

Rich in Brooklyn said...

This is a great post, and a great discussion. One point that puzzles me is the assertion made by Julie (and/or the responders to the query) but seemingly accepted by Paul that the language of the query is "typical evangelical". It is not, at least not if by this one means typical of the churches and movements that call themselves "evangelical" today. I don't think "typical evangelicals" call God "The Living Presence" very often. It's the kind of phrase that makes them suspicious of wishy-washy liberal tendencies. And while sophisticated evangelicals may recognize that "turning around" is the real meaning of the word translated as "repentance", the far more typical evangelical rhetoric would be to use the word repentance with all of its baggage, or to speak of being "born again". (Of course, "born again" is a wonderful and very Biblical phrase quite apart from its use by evangelicals, but my point here is that the words actually used in the query seem to be quite different). Maybe I would understand the reaction if the query had asked something like "Have you accepted Christ as your personal savior and have you been saved?"

I think some Friends who call the lagnuage like that in this query "evangelical" or "fundamentalist" tend to lump any language that owes anything at all to Christianity or even to garden-variety theism with the most fundamentalist, Bible-thumping, evolution-denying, homophobic, preachers they've ever heard of. The inability to make such distinctions does not seem "liberal" to me. It smacks of stereotyping and prejudice.

Larry said...

What bothers me about the "rejection of jargon' that you mention is that it expresses a fundamental alienation from the Christian community. I think that's wrong, shortsided and frankly tribalistic "we're better than they are".

Quakers historically have been ecumenical is the highest degree, and any Quaker not threatened by someone's language has no need to reject it.

Paul L said...

Rich: I think we are really in agreement.

I do think that the query was evangelical inasmuch as it was asking in modern (coded, perhaps) language whether you've been convinced (in the older sense), but it may not have been a "typical" evangelical query, depending on the evangelicals you're talking to. (Careful readers may detect that I've been reading a lot of John Punshon recently.)

I was intending the word "evangelical" in its positive sense of spreading the good news. I think it is a good term and that Quakers are, at heart, evangelical (just look at our social and political activity, even if most of us in our branch are less so with regard to religion); there is no question that the Valiant 60 and their contemporaries wouldn't have denied the term.

"Evangelical" is another word that I'm unwilling to surrender to the fundamentalist, Bible-thumping, evolution-denying, homophobic, preachers as you so nicely put it. (Actually, I'm more inclined to label them emperor-worshiping blasphemers and idolaters as Chuck Fager has done recently, but yours is equally descriptive.)

earthfreak said...

Paul -

thanks for this post. It resonates for me with an earlier post of yours about qualifying every line of the 23rd psalm.

I think that we can lose magic and insight by worrying too much about avoiding "loaded" language.

I think at the same time it's important to recognize what "baggage" language might carry, and to address it in some way (not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but also not to keep the baby sitting in fetid, stagnant, putrid water, for fear of doing so)

oops, maybe I got a bit carried away with my metaphor.

"born again" is actually a wonderful example of this - it is, by itself, a phrase of much power. I dont' think that one even needs to be christian to be "born again" in spirit. It is a beautiful metaphor for any spiritual renewal or awakening, which I tend to assume all of us long for and cherish when they happen.

But our culture, and certainly my own vocabulary growing up have the phrase so entwined with a certain (variously described here) faction of "christianity" that for me the statement "I've been born again" is roughly equivalent to "I sold my mind and soul for fear of hell" but it doesn't mean that. How important is it to fight for the words that describe spirit?

Paul, the thing that is most important for me in what you said here is about the failure to come up with different words if those presented don't work.

I think it's fine (though I might not agree) to surrender "born again", "evangelical", "turning around" if the phrases seem tainted.

But to give up on what those things can point to - on transformation, renewal, spiritual aliveness because the scary preachers have stolen your words for it is



I don't have words, but I think it's a demon facing quakers (and perhaps other liberal christians, and folks like UUs) today. And I hope we find ways to face it well, and together.


Johan Maurer said...

Hoping that I don't become an asterisk commentator, always seeking to glue on a balancing observation to very good exchanges, let me say the following: there are fewer and fewer "typical evangelicals." I am grateful for the observation about tribalism, but I also want to say that the face of evangelicalism that is obnoxious to some liberals is also obnoxious to some evangelicals. Furthermore, it is in part a generational phenomenon, and as the old fundamentalist-modernist controversies fade into history, it will be harder and harder to assign facile categories to evangelical Christians.

We still have the phenomenon of the overlap between Christians and right-wing politics, but that is also partly a generational phenomenon. Furthermore, it is peculiarly North American and white.


PS: Lewis Benson, author of Catholic Quakerism, would not agree that Quakers have a long history of ecumenism. We began by announcing in no uncertain terms that, while other Christians might individually be on track, the Christian movement had gone into apostasy until the appearance of Friends. Substantial sectors of Friends, including both the most conservative and the most liberal, avoided much contact with other Christians for most of the first two centuries of our history.

Paul L said...

Your comments don't get an asterisk here, but an exclaimation point, Johan!

James Riemermann said...

I don't exactly disagree with your central points, Paul, but I question the emphasis. Honestly, I don't see a whole lot of value in rallying around traditional expressions as if those expressions were the object of our faith, or the center of our religious experience. Study them, yes. Try to understand them, yes. Wrestle and argue with them, yes. Intone them as if they could possibly carry the weight of our faith and experience...sorry, not for me. If we really want to express our experience--individual or corporate (as if those were two different things!)--we're going to have to go much deeper than shopworn terms that mean a thousand different things to a hundred different believers. We're going to have to use all the language we have, with all its descriptive and poetic power, and struggle to tell how the world seems to us, and how we should live. Even then we will fail to capture it--of course! But without such full-blooded searching and wrangling, we're just parrots squawking in rhyme, calling it unity.

What I'd like to see more of is Friends asking Friends, what do you mean by God, unity, living presence, inward light, Christ, Jesus, discernment, faith?

Another approach, just as valid, is to simply seek to live right, and leave the discussion to others. But I like words and thought and trying to understand, so that's got to be a part of my journey.

I suppose I have experienced a living presence, or something like it, and it is turning me around. We differ as to its origin, I think, and we have points of similarity and difference as to its nature. I think that unveiling those differences and similarities is of the utmost importance, if we are to be Friends in the deepest and most genuine way.

Paula said...

Hi Paul,

I've enjoyed your thoughts and am very glad for your writings. Except for my own blog, I act on-line as I do at meeting; I sit and listen but don't say very much. I'm quaking here a bit as I rise to speak so bear with me, I'll be brief.

As so often happens, my first thoughts go back to my own experience. I was the first person in both sides of my family to go to college and when I was home I tended to go off on issues using whatever jargon and high-priced language I had recently picked-up. I "educated" them on thier oppressive behavior and thier bourgeoise ways; they told me I was getting too big for my britches. It often came down to language and very often the same exact words. I now agree with them. When one of them ask me why I'm Plain, I explain I'm a Convinced Quaker and I have a different relationship with God. They sometimes ask if that's like being saved, I say yes, it's like that. I see no reason to waste precious precious connection time with another human being over definitions.

Precision in language is a useful thing and I'm glad we are a group that looks deeply into the value and meanings of words. I guess I'm more of the type James mentions, I wish to live right and let others do the talking. I do have to ask however, what is the harm in extending the uncomfortable words to ourselves and others and say, "some folks call it that, what do we call it?" Just as I borrow Spanish to speak with those who do, I borrow apparently unpopular terms to speak with other Christians. Some of them I think, are very simple and do quite nicely.

I'll sit down now, so to speak. Thanks for visiting my husband's blog, Green Prudence. As you have probably guessed if you visited mine, I made the shirt. :)


Liz Opp said...

A few thoughts, as I'm playing catch-up.

Earthfreak writes: But to give up on what those things can point to - on transformation, renewal, spiritual aliveness because the scary preachers have stolen your words...

I agree that it is sad when we let go of traditional words because of the misuse or distortion of those words by those who have power over others (politicians, clergy, etc.).

I also believe that it's a shame when we let our own personal baggage and wounding get in the way of discovering new life, new meaning in those same words and phrases.

This point also relates to the practice that we as Friends are called to listen to the spirit that is behind, beyond, underneath, and between the actual words we hear (or read). I fear we do a disservice when we stop listening...

Similar to part of James' remarks about asking one another what we mean by certain words and phrases, as we Friends speak more openly about our spiritually transformative experiences and about our openings, we can reclaim the deeper meaning of these words and concepts.

We can help us be patterns for one another.

Liz, The Good Raised Up