Sunday, July 16, 2006

Finding love in all the wrong places

At, during, and after our post-Gathering gathering last night, several additional moving moments from the Gathering came to my mind. In remembering them, I realized that they came during parts of the Gathering that I have usually found to be among the most disappointing, and that part of why they feel so important is that they surprised me, coming from the last place I usually find anything worthwhile. (This is somewhat comparable to the "oh no" experiences that turned out to be blessings Martin Kelly describes.)

Plenary sessions. To my surprise, I enjoyed and got a lot out of two of the plenary sessions I attended.

The first was a talk by Sallie McFague, a theologian Vancouver School of Theology. I have a prejudice about so-called "earth-centered" theology that often makes it difficult for me to listen very seriously to anything so-labeled. I also have a prejudice about non-Friends addressing the Gathering -- especially about religious topics. I won't defend either prejudice, I'm just acknowledging that they're there and may taint my reception of what I hear, as well as reinforcing the prejudice.

But McFague curiously drew me to her message. Her main point, as I recall it, is that when God declared creation to be "good", he meant all of it, from the smallest bacteria to the blue whale and Sequoia tree. Therefore, man's dominion over creation has to be understood as involving a responsibility as well as a prerogative. It denotes the office of steward rather than overlord, and that our failure to recognize this is a direct cause of the environmental crises we face today.

I can't say why she touched me, exactly, but it had something to do with her affirmation of her Christian identity and her willingness to fight the good fight from inside that narrative rather than going into self-exile, and her ability to do so on Christianity's own terms.

I also appreciated her drawing the distinction between "pantheism" -- everything is God (or God is everything) -- and "panentheism" -- God is imminent in everything, in active relationship with the universe but nevertheless maintaining a transcendent and distinct identity from it. In other words, God is not Creation any more than a mother is her child, but rather is involved with and cares about creation the same way a mother loves and cares for her child; they are distinct but inseparable. I learned and accepted this distinction in a Lutheran college theology class years ago, but haven't heard it as simply expressed in a long time. I found this a refreshing correction to the pantheism I think I hear in a good deal of Friends' talking and writing about our witness on the environment.

I also appreciated her frankness during the questioning, especially her response to a question asking, If human beings are simply one organism among zillions and has no privilege over any other, how can we justify fighting diseases like small pox and HIV-AIDS? May not they be the Earth's way of rebalencing or protecting itself? As I recall, she simply acknowledged that that was a hard question and that she didn't have a ready answer. I found that refreshingly candid, though I did think it was funny she hadn't developed her thought on this obvious question.

And, I was impressed with how long she continued to answer questions after the talk -- to the point that Bruch Birchard had to call it to an end because he was exhausted. I then got involved in a conversation with Friends Journal colleagues, and a half hour later turned around and Sally was still talking with Friends in the front of the room. This to me was a sign that her message was a genuine ministry and not just a stump speech.

I was also deeply moved by Sue Williams. She had a solid, peaceful presence, and her message of hope in desperate situations was inspiring. I loved the way she gave concrete examples, stories of how people in different circumstances -- many of them horrific -- simply did what needed to be done with what they had at hand. They didn't wait for permission or a grant. They simply went to the prison and asked questions, or discovered the one house in a village where the fugitives came for surreptitious help at night and got supplies to those houses. It reminded me of the workshop I attended last year about La Chabon, the French village that sheltered and protected Jews during the Second World War and whose residents described what they did as nothing extraordinary, they just did what had to be done.

This message gave me hope.

Do Quakers believe in evil. One afternoon, I attended an Advancement & Outreach Committee program called "What do Quakers believe?" I didn't know what to expect, and found what I expected. I didn't find it to be particularly inspiring or enlightening. But there was one moment.

The leader had been asking us to align ourselves on a continuum on several questions about belief, from "absolutely yes" on one end to "absolutely not" on the other. One question was "Do you believe in evil?" Most Friends (surprisingly, to me) clumped more-or-less near the "Yes" end of the continuum. But one young woman stood far at the other end, indicating that she did not believe in the reality of evil at all. The leader asked her to explain herself, and she gave what sounded to me to be a niave, almost Pollyannaish answer about the good in everybody.

But then an older Afro-American woman Friend who was observing the exercise looked at her and asked with astonishment, "Haven't you ever faced evil?"

The question answered itself.

Closing worship. Finally, I found the closing worship on Friday morning to be unusually deep and meaningful. Though it was nearly as talkative as most closing worship meetings I've attended at the Gathering, I found nearly all of the ministry pertinent and connected. I remember three messages in particular.

The first was from a disabled Friend in a wheelchair who said, with great difficulty, "I felt very welcome at this Gathering. But I will not rest until everyone feels welcome."

The second was by a Friend who called upon Friends to reclaim the prophetic Power that the apostles and early Friends had, and that without that Power all of our good ideas would do nothing but gather dust alongside all the other good ideas of history. His ministry was with a powerful and fervent voice that told me that he was speaking what he knew. I also noted how he removed his ballcap when speaking, in the manner of previous generations of Friends.

Most unexpectedly, I was touched by the epistle read calling on Friends to take concrete action to reduce emission of greenhouse grasses. It was read by members of a workshop, all of whom stood as a body. Again, my prejudice against explicit calls to political action in meeting for worship was initially at work, and again it was overcome. I found the statement to speak directly to my condition as someone who had not yet actually accepted the urgency of the crises and who has discounted the value of individual efforts to reverse it; perhaps influenced by Sue WIlliams' message the evening before, while hearing the epistle I felt compelled inwardly to examine my individual contribution to the problem and to find ways to reduce it, not because it will have any discernable effect, but as a matter of faithfulness.


I was glad to rediscover that, even though I am a man of many opinions and prejudices, I still have the ability to be surprised and to modify or abaondon them when necessary. I've always known this about myself, but sometimes have evaluated it as an unfortunate inability to take a stand or sustain a commitment. This time, I'm seeing it as a good thing.


Contemplative Scholar said...

Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and perceptions so vividly and thoughtfully! I was not able to attend the Gathering, but am enjoying reading your and others' accounts very much. I love learning what moves and inspires others, and feel reassured when others' interests and concerns connect with my own! Thank you again.

James Riemermann said...


Are you able to reconcile a belief that all of creation is good, and a belief in the existence of evil? I myself cannot, and reject the first belief.

Paul L said...

Yes, by allowing for free will.

I don't think that the fact that Adam and Eve wanted to know good & evil and ate the fruit contrary to God's warning of the consequences meant that they were not "good" as created. They were given the capacity to choose and made their choice, thereby causing the separation and their inability to obtain eternal life from the Tree of Life.

So the existance presence of Evil is undeniable, but it isn't because God created it.

Every newborn human baby is "good" and perfect, even if one of them grows up to be [name your favorite evil-doer here].

But I find most of this discussion pointless. I think I've shown you my New Yorker cartoon of Satan talking to one of his assistants, overlooking smoking pits of brimstone chock full of people. He looks over them smiling and says, "You know, we do pretty well when you stop to consider that people are basically good."

That's how I see it.

Martin Kelley said...

One of the neatest things about this well-blogged Gathering is seeing how others were moved (or not) in shared experiences. I'm one handed, cradling a falling-asleep baby in my left arm, so I won't elaborate other than to say thanks. Your Friend, Martin

Mark Wutka said...

Thank you for sharing this, Paul. I wasn't able to attend the Gathering this year, so I appreciate Friends sharing bits and pieces of it.

I think it is important to recognize a religious basis for Earth-care, because I believe that it opens up other avenues for speaking to people. That is, someone might be more open to listening to you if you speak to them using the language of their faith instead of speaking to them from a political standpoint.

With love,

Paul L said...

Oh, I do recognize the religious basis for Earth care. It's just that I find much of the religious talk about that basis to be shallow and sloppy. But not all of it, not by any means. See Wendell Berry & Gary Snyder, et al.

And your point is exactly right: I was able to listen to Sally because she spoke using the language of faith that we share, rather than making a political speech dressed up in religious clothing.

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Dear Paul,

Thank you for sharing your reactions to Sallie McFague. I found it very helpful to me as I continue to grapple with the challenge of addressing Baltimore Yearly Meeting next week.

I share your distress about the shallowness and sloppiness of most environmental theology, and in particular about the alienation of so much liberal Quaker environmental theology from our Quaker roots in the Bible.

Since you mention the issue of "man's dominion over creation", I might point out that the Hebrew verb used in Genesis 1:26-28, when God talks about giving humanity "dominion" over the creatures, is the same Hebrew verb used in Genesis 1:16-18, where God talks about giving the sun "dominion" over the day and the moon "dominion" over the night. And yet the sun and moon have no power to exploit anything, or use anything for their own profit; they don't even have freedom to stray from their divinely-appointed course. So clearly the gift of "dominion" did not mean what so many eager Creation-exploiters want it to mean! Its true meaning, in Genesis 1, must be something more like "to have the place of honor, to be the star of the show".

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Self-correction. The Hebrew verb mashal, "to have dominion", used in Genesis 1:16-18 to describe God's gift to the sun and moon of dominion over the day and night, is the same as that used in Psalm 8:6 to describe God's gift to humankind of dominion over the creatures. The verb used in Genesis 1:26-28 is a synonym, radah.

The parallel subject matter and grammatical construction of Psalm 8:6 and Genesis 1:26-28 suggests that the two texts are intended to convey the same message -- which would be, not a message of freedom to exploit, but one of being given the critical role in the cosmic drama of salvation.

Paul L said...

Thank you, Marshall, for these enlightening explanations. My dictionary and thesaurus doesn't give any synonoms or etymology for "dominion" that convey the sense of the Hebrew as you do; "dominion" comes from "dominus" for "lord, master" which today conveys to us a sense of control over and omits the older sense of mutual responsibility (i.e., the lord has obligations to his vassels, to protect them, for example).

I wonder what English word today would better convey what the KJV renders as "Dominion"? The other translations I have checked all use "rule" or "subdue", which is not the concept of mashal, is it?

What would be more accurate?

Marshall Massey said...

Paul, mashal and radah covers a wide range of meanings, due to the way they evolved.

Hebrew ideas on kingship, government, rule, and so forth co-evolved with the thinking of their neighbors, and seem to have been particularly influenced by the Hittites and Egyptians. And concepts of "dominion" for the Hittites and Egyptians were of course very exploitive, very abusive.

But the Hebrews put their own spin on how government and rule and kingship should be, from a very early stage in their cultural development.

Look, for example, at Deuteronomy 17:14-20, which outlines the duties of a king in the Hebrew system, at the formative moment when the Hebrews first began thinking about having a king. Such a person would be required by God to be "one of your brothers" -- that is, limited by kinship obligations. He might not multiply horses for himself (i.e., build up a power base, a personal army). He might not multiply his wives (self-aggrandize) or his gold (plunder the nation). He must make his copy the Law in his own hand (a good way of learning its details), read it absolutely every day, and keep it faithfully (i.e., be limited in his actions both constitutionally by the terms of the Law and spiritually by the righteousness the Law points to).

A king of this sort was still charged, as David was charged, with the administration of justice, and the leadership of the army in time of battle. But by making these sorts of requirements, the Hebrew religion kept the name of dominion, while totally altering the contents, until it was transformed from the Hittite & Egyptian idea of having-the-power-to-exploit, to a new idea of modeling-righteousness-for-the-nation-as-a-whole.

Thus, too, in the environmental field. You will recall that the verb in Genesis 1:26-28, where humanity is given dominion over the creatures, is radah. As the theologian Ted Peters observed in his 1984 essay, "Creation, Consummation, and the Ethical Imagination", (in Joransen and Butigan, Cry of the Environment):

"The verb radah appears in Psalm 72, along with these passages describing the Hebrew king:
'May he judge thy people with righteousness,
and thy poor with justice!
(vs. 2) ...
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor!
(vs. 4) ...
For he delivers the needy when he calls,
the poor and him who has no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence
he redeems their lives.
(vss. 12-14)'"

Thus the one who has dominion as God meant dominion to be is not free to exploit, but, on the contrary, reverses the harm done by exploitation. He is the star of the drama of salvation within his particular arena.

And one might say that the sun and moon model dominion in the sky in the same way -- shining and moving only in accordance to God's will, upholding harmony in the sky, being a visible testimony to the goodness of God. Certainly Clement, the first bishop of the church in Rome, drew this conclusion, for he wrote in his First Epistle to the Corinthians (which only narrowly missed being included in the New Testament), "Sun, moon, and the stars in constellations roll forward harmoniously on their appointed courses, according to His arrangement, transgressing not at all.".

And notice, in respect to humanity's dominion over the Earth (Genesis 1:26-28), the proviso that humanity shall be vegetarian (verse 29). Again, this is a forbidding of any kind of abusive exploitation.

I would also point out Christ revives this way of thinking about dominion in his instructions to his disciples in Mark 10:42b-45 / Matthew 20:25b-28.

My conclusion, then, would be that "dominion" is indeed the right translation. What is lacking is not correct translation, but correct exegesis and hermeneutics. People are not taught to read the Bible in the Spirit that gave it forth.