Thursday, November 1, 2012

Can Friends develop a heterotopic praxis?

ESR alum Scot Miller recently shared his thoughts on Quakers and the apocalyptic, utopia, and heterotopia on his blog. Below is an excerpt from that post:

In terms of sacred spaces, I am intrigued by the garden stories. Quakers may easily identify gardens as particularly meaningful “set apart” spaces because, qualitatively at least, Friends have a love for natural beauty, creation and creativity, and nature as a simple, perhaps whole, reflection of the divine. Gardens as “set apart” or “sacred” space are what Michael Foucault called heterotopias. While utopia may be a “future perfected place,” or the building of perfected place, those on the outside only observe unrealistic expectations and often, exclusion but are often excluded unless one is willing to accept the normal behaviors and boundaries of utopian groups.

Foucault considers utopian places as separate, but unrealistic in their goals of harmony or perfect space. In fact, they serve as heterotopias, or separate places that serve as voluntary spaces that affirm identity or ideas about the sacred. They are also involuntary, spaces like prisons and mental health facilities.

The main point of heterotopia, or separate space, is that they are defined by difference, or, peculiarity according to those who enter the space. Prisons act as a space that separate a people who have not found the means to operate within the norms of their community. Mental health facilities serve the same purpose. Yet, separate spaces also have more positive purposes, and I think that Quakers can not only identify with certain aspects of separate and sacred spaces, but might carry “otherness” as a corporate identity that adds meaning to worship, sacramental living, the way we speak about ourselves and the culture, and how we contribute to the world around us.

Can...Friends, who have learned to thrive within the heterotopic space of waiting worship, further develop heterotopic space into heterotopic praxis?

Quakers had their apocalyptic moments, and have necessarily lost the characteristic. To self-marginalize is to die before one’s time, and martyrdom can only make sense in the worst of unjust circumstances, or specific responses by individuals as an act of self-sacrifice for a greater perceived good. Yet, apocalyptic or utopian thinking is still an important aspect of human participation in changing the scope of history. Without apocalyptic action, change might not occur, but more importantly, it might not be remembered. Suddenly, history and justice become void of genesis and viewed more or less as nothing but the onward thrust of history that is driven by the unique capacity to reason.

However, Friends can no longer justify apocalyptic thinking as the marker of our communities. Friends serve as valuable components of our communities in a variety of capacities. Yet, Friends have little to say about the ways in which Quakerism(s) are meaningful outside of individual interpretations of testimonies (not representative of heterotopia due to individualistic nature of authority) and our fact of worship (heterotopic in that we are an alternative space of sacredness due to the communion, and not the building or otherwise). Outside of worship, and likely a few other practices that are increasingly viewed as archaic or unimportant, Friends have nothing to offer as a faith community other than our “faithful participation” in liberal democracy, electoral contexts, and participation in ecumenical strategies that focus on unity, indeed, at the expense of diversity. Utopias, as I perceive them, are intentional in eliminating diversity by seducing others into a coerced vision of justice of all regardless of differences. Yet, in utopias and apocalyptic communities, the first action of self-marginalizing ‘heretics” is often to weed out subsequent heresies.

Heterotopic communities, however, have an ability to continuously avoid the loss of meaning and identity, continue a critique of culture, violence, and degradation, contribute to their community at large with a attention to meeting the obligation to love one’s neighbor, and, plant and water future apocalyptic or utopian movements that bring about a sense of urgency that is necessary to achieving justice and self-determination. I believe that Quaker heterotopia can achieve such a balance, but the balance can only be achieved when Friends become willing to serve our communities according to our testimonies, but refuse to attempt to control outcomes.

Our separate space, set aside for worship and the living out of testimonies, can only be maintained over time if we reassess our role and participation in liberal democracy, and how such participation serves as a barrier to our youth maintaining a role in among Friends, attracting new participants by offering an true alternative, and watering the hedges of faith by giving rise to apocalyptic interpretations of the faith that will promote change, with our support, until those utopians grow exhausted and return to the heterotopic existence of identity maintenance within a context that can never really be made just, or even whole, but can continuously serve as a voluntary alternative space that refuses to hold a stake in political or economic outcomes.

A community can never, or should never, force an ethic onto the rest of the world. I believe Quakers will agree with such statement as it presents. However, in order to achieve preferred outcomes, Friends will often find themselves engaging in actions that tend to make testimonies unintelligible. Two examples readily come to mind. Vote exchanges in the Bush-Gore election, and the recent support offered by Friends to the LGBT community concerning the right to serve openly in the United States Armed Forces. I perceive the above actions as fully representative of the manner in which Friends failed to preserve identity and “otherness” – or a valuable critique of war and power – in order to accommodate the pressures of controlling political outcomes that favor the ever-present myth that there is a “lesser of two evils.”

A commitment to expression of Friends values, not only within the heterotopia of worship, but within the context of corporate expressions of testimonies, is not only a means of identifying ourselves as a peculiar people, but indeed, as identifying ourselves a people who need not control outcomes, but provide an example of possibilities – possibilities that can only occur when we step outside of the perceive as real, but truly chaotic world of management, power and control, coercive behaviors that even extend to voting, and perhaps most of all, disengaging from confronting political opposition through ballot box or debate, and instead working on developing that separate space. We can work for our communities and be a valuable part of those communities – and show our commitment to healing and non-violence by being a presence, and not a force.

Scot Miller is a 2008 graduate of ESR. He offers the following update: "I am continuing my work with Georgetown United MethodistChurch as the Director of Adult Ministries. I am also starting LGBT support groups at the church with another Quaker for individuals age 14-21. Along with the farm, which continues to be a great experience, I am developing a program for Well House, a former emergency homeless shelter that will soon become, with funding, a residential program for mothers who are in danger of losing custody of their children, or are working to regain custody of their children who have been place in foster care. I have just accepted an position with Pine Rest Christian Health Services, working as an MSW Street Outreach therapist and program designer. On top of it all – I still teach as an adjunct instructor of social work at Kuyper College, and am applying for admission to the Michigan State Ph.D program in the social work department."

You can read the rest of Scot's post on his blog here:

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