Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Gratitude, Justice, Mystery

Earlham School of Religion Assistant Professor and Ministry of Writing Program Director Ben Brazil delivered the following message in ESR worship on Thursday, November 21

Let me begin with a surprise:  On the last programmed worship before Thanksgiving, I have opted to speak about  … wait for it … gratitude.

Creative right?  No, creative it’s not.

But it is current.  The word gratitude has kind of an old fashioned ring to it, but among writers on spirituality and scholars of human happiness – or, scholars of positive psychology as it’s also known – gratitude has made a come back.   

For example, I was pretty sure I’d find something when I Googled “Oprah” and “gratitude.”  And, sure enough, there it was - I found a page on Oprah.com explaining “what Oprah knows for sure about gratitude.”  In this post, Oprah describes how she used to keep a gratitude journal, where she listed, daily, things for which she was grateful.  

So, here is a partial list of things Oprah was grateful for on Oct. 12, 1996:  “sorbet in a cone,” “eating cold melon on the beach in the sun,” and Maya Angelou calling me to read a new poem.”

And I get it.  I mean, I always feel grateful when Maya calls me.

But after 1996, Oprah became even more successful and became more of a mega celebrity.  But  - yes, you guessed it – she let her gratitude journal slip.  So you know how this is going to go:  Oprah ultimately realized she was more successful, but not nearly so happy.  So Oprah tells us what she knows for sure:  I quote:

“I know for sure that appreciating whatever shows up for you in life changes your personal vibration. You radiate and generate more goodness for yourself when you're aware of all you have and not focusing on your have-nots.”

Gratitude makes us happier. Oprah knows it for sure.

But it’s not just Oprah that thinks so.   The University of California at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center funds research that “ studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being, and teaches skills that foster a thriving, resilient, and compassionate society.”

Want to guess one of the core themes of the Greater Good Science Center?  Yes, I’ve got another surprise: one of them is gratitude.  And what they’re finding is striking – that people who practice gratitude consistently report benefits.   These include:

         Stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure;
         Higher levels of positive emotions;
         More joy, optimism, and happiness;
         Acting with more generosity and compassion;
         Feeling less lonely and isolated.

So they’ve put $5.6 million into a three year project to “expand the scientific database of gratitude” and “promote evidence-based practices of gratitude” throughout society.

So let me summarize where the trends are for this Thanksgiving 2013:  Discontent is out, and gratitude is in. 

So, naturally, I’m suspicious.  I’m suspicious of a lot of things, including trends and style.  But I’m also suspicious of happiness and, well, happy people.  Are you happy all the time?  You might make me suspicious.  Sorry, just saying.  So if someone tells me gratitude makes me happy, I start to wonder if maybe I should consider being more ungrateful – just, you know, to be on the safe side.  As kind of a hedge.

Also, all this talk about gratitude puts my bad theology sensors on high alert.  Are we really being grateful so we feel better about ourselves?  Is this just another way to ignore all the structures of sin in the world and feel better about our own narcissism?  Is this just an addendum to our self-satisfaction?  “Not only do I have mine,” we crow, “but I’m also happy, because I’m grateful.

Like I said, I’m kind of a suspicious person. 

But here’s the problem, at least for me:  I have a ton to be grateful for.  I have a happy marriage and two healthy boys.   I have a level of financial security.   And at a time when lots of my grad school friends are in deep, existential despair over the possibility of never getting a job despite 10 years of school and a ton of debt, I am here doing what I want at a school I love and whose mission I believe in.

Of course, there are sources of gratitude other than family, security and work.  That’s obvious.  But if I can’t be grateful, I’ve got problems. 

I know it.  People, including me, have described these turns in my life as blessings.  And they feel like blessings.  To consider them anything else feels – well – ungrateful.

But then the suspicious guy, the cynic, the theologian chimes in – why a blessing for you and not for others?   If you consider yourself blessed by God, must you consider others cursed by God?   What, exactly, are you grateful for.  Why are you grateful?

So, somehow, instead of meditating on gratitude, I end up pondering theodicy, more popularly known as the problem of evil.  In its classic form, it runs something like this:  How can a God who is both all-powerful and good permit – even cause – all the suffering in the world?

 If God causes blessing, doesn’t God also cause suffering?  And then we’re into the much larger question of how God relates to God’s creation.

So, in a really informal way, I started playing with options.   Disclaimer:  These are not academic theology, but my own back of the envelope, mulling-things-over-in-the-shower thinking.   But here they are:

First, maybe I was just lucky.  Maybe what I call blessings are nothing more than dumb luck.   As I was considering this option last night, Jason Griffith emailed me a quote from Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker’sGuide to the Galaxy.  Adams says this:

What to do if you find yourself stuck in a crack in the ground underneath a giant boulder you can't move, with no hope of rescue. Consider how lucky you are that life has been good to you so far. Alternatively, if life hasn't been good to you so far, which given your current circumstances seems more likely, consider how lucky you are that it won't be troubling you much longer.

It’s funny, but it points to something.    In a world driven only by luck, with no purpose, does gratitude make any sense? To whom are you grateful?  After all, your luck may be about to change.

Or here’s a second option:  maybe I have these so-called blessings only because of structural inequality.  I was born a white guy, to a doctor, in our modern American Empire, at something like it’s peak.   Maybe what I called blessing was simply injustice in a thin disguise.

Now, this one I really have to think about.  After all, understanding blessing as injustice is not a bad read of the American mythology of Thanksgiving, is it?  God provides, and pilgrims and Indians sit down together for a bountiful Thanksgiving feast.   All is well, all is providentially provided.

I don’t think I have to explain, to this group, that there are other ways to tell the story of Pilgrims and Indians.

So maybe structural injustice explains my blessings.  But if I have the life I have only because of injustice, does it make any sense to feel gratitude?  Isn’t guilt the appropriate response?

So, Happy Thanksgiving !  Go eat turkey, be with family, and feel really, really guilty.  Then have another glass of wine.  Or two.

No.  I still think the Christian tradition calls us – calls me – to gratitude.  I think the Holy Spirit calls me to gratitude, and I think scripture does the same.  I’m not willing to trade gratitude for guilt.  It feels wrong.  And – what’s more important – it just utterly saps the energy I need to resist those same structures of oppression.  Even if guilt were appropriate, I’m just not convinced it works. 

 In my experience, hope, community, and even anger are what bring me to protests, what encourage me to get involved, what motivate me to fight (non-violently, of course).   Yes, we need a moment of conviction, of seeing things anew, and that may involve a recognition of guilt.  I think of Jesus appearing to Saul on the road to Damascus, and asking “Saul, why do you persecute me?”  Now, there’s a moment for guilt, right?   But Paul, somehow, moves past that into hope, passion, and action.  

And – as much as it makes me suspicious – the gratitude researchers also find that gratitude makes us more generous and compassionate.  And I DO believe those are fruits of the spirit.

So what do we do?  How do I – do we – reconcile with gratitude in good faith?   Now, some people don’t need a metaphysics or a systematic theology to embrace gratitude.   They just do it.  God bless them, I wish I worked that way.   But if I did, I wouldn’t have ended up teaching at a seminary.  I have to think things through.  Maybe you do, too.

So, in the time I have remaining, I am going to put forth my own, systematic theology of providence.  Naturally, doing so will also require me to describe how God creates, sustains, and relates to the world.  I think I can do it.  We have like 15 or 20 minutes before Peace Forum, right?

No.  Obviously, I can’t answer my questions or calm my doubts about blessing and providence.  That would take nearly an hour, and we just don’t have it.

So I’m going to continue to think, and read, and ponder.  But I do think it’s important to say, at least in passing, that there are interesting theological answers to this problem.  Sallie McFague, for example, has argued that we focus too much on the whys and hows of God’s creation and governance of the world – which are theoretical questions -- and not nearly enough on the “where” – on the creation right here, in front of us.   That’s a practical question.

So, to shift our focus, she asks us to consider all of creation God’s body.   We don’t try to explain God’s body – which includes us – we just know we need to care for it – all of it.   No part of the body can be healthy if other parts are sick, neglected, or starving.  Gratitude means loving where you are -- linked, as it is, to everything else that is.

Many, many other theologians have taken on the question of how God relates to suffering, blessing, and everything else that goes on in God’s world.

Of course, we could also try something novel - listening to scripture.  Let’s listen again to Philippinas 4: 4-7:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

If we listen carefully, we hear Paul linking thanksgiving to prayer, to joy, and to gentleness,  Paul does not say that giving thanks means you – or your world – has everything it needs.  He says give thanks as you continue to ask, as you continue to pray, as you continue to trust, to hope against all evidence that the Lord is near.

This attitude is an antidote to anxiety, Paul tells us.  But I think it’s also an antidote to another vice Paul writes about – pride.   To be grateful is to acknowledge that whatever you have, you did not get it by yourself.   Gratitude has a direction – it points outside of you.  If you have blessings, something outside of you provided them.   Maybe it’s God, maybe it’s others, maybe it’s even structural injustice.  But surely the very fact that gratitude suggests our dependence – our interdependence – on creation and on each other makes it a virtue.  Certainly, it can be a counterbalance to the heartless version of capitalism that currently structures our world.

So, I can’t explain how providence works.  Who knows?  One of the theologians could be right.   Some theories are probably better than others.  But, as a good Catholic – or as good a Catholic I can be in this job – I am drawn to an explanation we Catholics use all the time – mystery.  We don’t know how God reconciles blessing and suffering, but somehow God does.  But we do know we are not self-sufficient.  So if we are alive, if we are not in pain, if we have some source of joy, we can and should say thank you.  It leads us beyond ourselves.

And, again, I think that’s key – it leads us beyond ourselves.  Here I am, a member of the American Empire’s most privileged group, at something near that Empire’s Peak.   That means I am one of the most privileged – blessed? – people ever to live on this planet.  So are most of us here.

So, living with mystery, I am grateful.   And I pray that that gratitude does lead me outside of myself, does give me the hope and energy to cast off anxious concern for my own security and instead to live generously,  to live justly.  I pray that I  -- we – can care for the rest of God’s body – the sick part.  I pray that we can use our luck, or fortune, or blessings, or unfair privilege not in a way that guiltily frets, or that anxiously hordes, but in a way that insists on spreading blessing.

So, I do not understand.  But I am grateful.  Thanks be to God.

Monday, November 18, 2013

More Words Will Not Work

ESR alum and current Richmond First Friends pastor Derek Parker delivered this message during worship there on Sunday, November 3, 2013:

          When I served the Friends meeting in Irvington, I had 3 different occasions to travel to Washington, DC for programs run by the Quaker ministry center named William Penn House.  Each time that I traveled, I traveled overnight by train.  And because I didn’t want to park my car in the somewhat disreputable, downtown, Indianapolis parking garages…  I would park at the Irvington meetinghouse, and call a taxi-cab.  Every time I did this, the same thing happened.
          The cab driver, seeing that he was picking me up in front of a house of worship, would look at the sign in front of the meetinghouse.  And each driver said to me, “So this is a Quaker church.  So what do Quakers believe?”
          This is a common question.  Many of us probably have faced this same question.
          Its not an easy question to answer.  And I wonder if it is perhaps not the most helpful question to ask, but it is the question we often begin with. 
          And how do we answer the question, “What do Quakers believe?”  The diversity of opinion can be staggering.  I’ve joked that if you ask 4 Quakers the question, “What do Quakers believe?”, you will get at least 5 answers.  One person will present one list of beliefs, and somebody else will present another list of beliefs.  If we are lucky, those lists will have some overlap.  Others among us will be even more nuanced and say, “Well on one hand this, but on the other hand that.”   
          Sometimes I’ve been tempted to answer the question by resorting to bibliography.  I’ve wanted to hand the person asking the question, about 20 Pendle Hill Pamphlets, a copy of the Jounral of George Fox, and a few Parker Palmer books.  But that would not be helpful.  Most sincere seekers don’t know where to begin with all those writings, and more casual seekers are demanding an answer that is concise.
          Then there is the historic phenomenon that Friends as a faith community have largely avoided using creeds and written formulas of faith.  In the Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican traditions there are creeds named the Nicene Creed and the Apostle’s Creed; which consist of lists of things those Christians are supposed to believe. 

For example, the Apostle’s Creed says…

I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.  I believe in Jesus Christ his only son our Lord.  He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.  He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.  He descended to the dead.  On the third day he rose again.  He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  He will come again to judge the living and the dead.  I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

Those are a lot of words about a lot of beliefs.  And in my opinion not a bad list, but perhaps not the list that every faithful Quaker would write down if asked to speak in our own words.  So our community doesn’t use the Nicene Creed nor the Apostle’s Creed – and so we don’t have such creeds to hand to people who ask us the question.
          What do Quakers believe?  I wonder if that question leaves out something important.
          How a question is asked, can frame the answers, and thus limit our answers.  If somebody asks you the question, “Wouldn’t you be happier with a different job?” … the natural answers are yes and no.  Either “yes” you would be happier with a different job, or “no” you would not be happier with a different job.  Issues around quality of supervision, fairness of compensation, and scheduling are all left off the table because of how the question is asked about your job.  And it then takes a lot of work to move those other issues on to the table.
          What do Quakers believe?  The question is common, but it won’t take us very far.  We need to reach for those things that have been left off the table because of the limitations present in the question we’ve been asked.  We could begin with a belief that God is at work in all people, whether or not we know what that work is.  But then, what do we bring from elsewhere onto the table?

          People of many ages have demanded religious formulas that would make understanding Christianity very easy.  In the time of Paul, the formulas were not always about what one believes, as it was about who one followed as your pastor.  At the church in Corinth some people would say “I am a Christian because I follow Paul”…  “or because I follow Apollos”…  “or because I follow Cephas.”  And Paul told the Corinthians to set aside the formulas that were based on who your pastor was.  Christ was the only pastor that mattered.  Paul then asked people to reach beyond the wisdom of their age, with its focus on who your leader was.  What they needed to reach for was the Spirit that searches everything: that searches the inner thoughts of people, that searches the depths of God, and that searches our relationship with God.  And these things can not be taught by mere human words.  They can only be taught by our first-hand experience of the Spirit.
          Formulas are not enough.  They can be intellectually interesting, but are not compelling across the long run.  They may give us a place to begin, but each belief we begin with needs something more.  It isn’t enough to say we believe in peace, nor to hand somebody a Parker Palmer book.  We could begin there.  But something more is needed.
          BenjaminFranklin once asked Michael Whohlfart (an obscure German Pietist who converted to Quakerism) why his sect did not publish a creed.  Michael replied in words strikingly familiar to modern Quakers…

We are not sure that we have arrived at the end of this progression.  And we fear that if we should print a confession of faith we would feel ourselves bound by it, and confined to it, and perhaps become unwilling to receive further improvement.

Franklin replied that this degree of spiritual modesty is perhaps “singular” – almost unique - in a world where the wisdom of Franklin’s age demanded that one Christian sect had to be the sole owner of the truth. 
          There is good news here for you and me.  Beliefs matter, even if truth has no singular human owner.  If any of us believe in peace, or God, or forgiveness…  it does make a difference.  But simply creating a list of religious ideas, and saying they are true, is not enough.  No more sufficient than Paul’s Corinthians, who felt satisfied by claiming Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas as their pastor.  They also needed something more.  And that something more is a very good thing.
          Christian faith is not a set of ideas we simply stand on top of.  Christian faith is a response to the experience of the God of Jesus Christ.  We have experiences that inform beliefs.  And from those experiences and beliefs, we respond with the whole of our lives.  And this is the additional very good thing.  Quakers and some others have known that faith is not a belief to stand on top of, but that faith is a spiritual practice that compels us forward as we are moved by the Spirit.
          If again I find myself on a cab ride, and the driver asks me “What do Quakers believe?”  I’m going to do something different than I did in the past.  No nuanced statements about “some say this, and others say that.”  No history lessons or book suggestions – at least not to begin with.  No formulas of beliefs, beyond saying a basic sentence about my belief in God, peace, integrity, equality, and simplicity. 
But I will quickly move onward from my beliefs, to also say this.
          The Quaker experience is that God is at work in every person (Christian or not, Quaker or not).  And so we believe that the most important questions all people should ask are…

·        What is your experience of the Divine?
·        What do you believe about that experience?
·        Based on those experiences, how will you live your life?

To paraphrase Paul…  What human knows what is truly human, except the spirit that is within.  Receive not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.

Derek is a former geologist, and 2004 ESR graduate.  He previously served Friends meetings in Muncie and Irvington; as well as ministries with the Episcopal Church, Unitarian Universalists, and the United Church of Christ.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Preaching Truth and Listening for Truth: Early Quaker Mary Fisher and Prospects for Interreligious Dialogue

ESR Geraldine Leatherock Professor of Quaker Studies Stephen W. Angell delivered a version of this essay as a lecture for the Gathering of Adult Young Friends in Plainfield, Indiana, on November 8, 2013.

This essay proposes to examine the life of first-generation Quaker Mary Fisher as a lens to examine issues relating to Quaker engagement with interreligious, intercultural, and intra-cultural dialogue, as well as issues relating to God’s progressive or continuing revelation over time. Let’s distinguish, at the start, three different kinds of interreligious dialogue: (1) ecumenical dialogue – i.e., dialogue between Quakers and other Christians; (2) interfaith dialogue – i.e., dialogue between Quakers and Christians, on the one hand, and non-Christians on the other; and (3) dialogue between different types of Quakers. I’ll attempt to deal with all three kinds of interreligious dialogue in this essay.
So, who was Mary Fisher? She was an unmarried servant in her late twenties when she first heard Quakers preach in 1652 (the first year of mass Quaker convincements) in the north of England. Convinced along with her master and mistress, she rushed out to prophesy. Admonishing the local parish minister to “come down, come down, thou painted beast, come down. Thou art but a hireling, and a deluder of the people with thy lies” occasioned her arrest for what was to be the first of many imprisonments. Her broader point, whatever her particular disagreements with her local minister, was that the Christian churches had declined significantly in fidelity of witness to the original Christian vision of Jesus and the first generation of apostles. Christianity, in the manifestation of the Anglican church, had lost its simplicity, had perverted the teachings of Jesus, and, most importantly, had lost the ability to search for God’s leading as manifested by the inward teacher, Christ’s Spirit. Quakers stated that the Christian Church was in “apostasy,” having fallen away from the Truth – indeed, they had claimed this had happened after the first Christian century – and they aimed to reinvigorate Christ’s witness within a supposedly Christian church and Christian nation.
There, in jail, she met older Quaker women, such as the fifty-two year old ElizabethHooton. She also became acquainted with persons sentenced to hang, as convicted horse thieves. She wrote a letter of protest to the judge, telling him that what he had done was “contrary to that in thy conscience which tells thee that thee should not put to death any creature. Lay it to heart and let the oppressed go free.” She signed her name as “Mary Fisher, prisoner” and “one who desires the good of all creatures.”
She was imprisoned for more than a year, and then traveled south in England with Elizabeth Williams, another other woman and unmarried, to witness to scoffing scholars at Cambridge. Young adult Friends were routinely paired with older Friends of the same gender as pairs of ministers left to preach the “everlasting gospel” (Rev. 14:6); mentor relationships were prized. In seventeenth-century England, one woman (or two) presuming to preach the Word of the Lord was immensely offensive, not to mention the fact that she was spreading the message of the despised Quakers. As with the parish minister in the north of England, she addressed the Cambridge students directly and harshly, calling them a cage of unclean birds. Cambridge students stoned the women. Then Fisher and Williams were arrested and treated brutally, stripped naked to the waist and whipped savagely in the marketplace, until “their flesh was miserably cut and torn,” according to the chronicler of Quaker sufferings, Joseph Besse. They were treated “far more cruelly than is usually done to the worst of Malefactors.”
The intrepid Fisher was determined to continue with her ministry. After two more imprisonments, one in York and one in Buckinghamshire, Fisher again traveled with an older woman, Ann Austin, married with five children, and this time, they booked a passage across the Atlantic (via Barbados in the West Indies) to declare the word of the Lord to the inhabitants of Boston. When they arrived, they were denied permission to land, their books were confiscated, they were kept in solitary confinement, and they were stripped naked in order to search their bodies for signs that they were witches. One English Quaker, George Bishop, compared the Boston magistrates’ treatment of Fisher and Austin to the Spanish inquisition.
Eventually, they were deported to Barbados, where Fisher worked in order to gain money to return to England. One Barbados Friend wrote of her ministry there, “Mary Fisher is a precious heart, and has been very serviceable here.” Fisher addressed Friends in Barbados as her “dear babes,” and advised them to “love not your lives unto the death” but rather “give up freely, soul and body as a living sacrifice.” All of our righteousness “is of God”; any other kind of righteousness is “an unclean garment, which is a shame to be warm.” Historian Phyllis Mack elaborates that, for groups of Quakers to whom Fisher had already preached, she “acted as a pastor, not a social critic.” Fisher was well acquainted with both the pastoral and prophetic forms of ministry. She encouraged George Fox to send more Quaker ministers to Barbados, assuring them that they would be “serviceable” there. In 1671, Fox would come himself to Barbados.
Eventually she did return, but then, in 1657, in her early thirties, she set out on her most ambitious missionary journey of all. With four other Quakers (two men and two women), she set off for the eastern Mediterranean. They may have desired to minister in Jerusalem, but they got as far as Greece and Turkey. The English envoy in Turkey opposed the Quakers and managed to force them to leave, but Fisher was not clear to leave Turkey, and became separated from her companions, traveling overland by herself to visit the Ottoman emperor Mehmed IV at Adrianople, or modern-day Edirne. (It is still a part of the country of Turkey, and is located on the continent of Europe.) He was known to English people as the “Great Turk,” and he was greatly feared. His military campaigns conquered much of eastern Europe, and his armies later reached the outskirts of Vienna before being turned back. It was not easy to get an audience with the emperor, but Fisher was diligent in her attempt, and eventually was able to gain an audience with an important assistant to the emperor, the son of the grand vizier, Koprulu Fazil Ahmed Pasha. Pasha was able to get Fisher a meeting with the emperor.
Fisher’s account of her meeting with the emperor is the only one that survives. It must have been an impressive spectacle, as she was received in the emperor’s court, with all of his “great men” around him, along with three interpreters. The emperor asked her whether she had something to say to him. Fisher affirmed that she did, but stood silent for a time, waiting on the Lord. The emperor supposed that she might be afraid of him, and so he spoke encouragingly, bidding her to “speak the Word of the Lord to them, neither more nor less, and not to fear, for they had good hearts, and could hear it.” At that point, Fisher did find that it was given to her to speak, and she said what she had to say. She did not record her own message, but she asked the emperor whether he understood everything she had said, and he responded, “Yes, every word.”  He affirmed the truth of her statements, and asked her to stay in Turkey, and when she declined, offered her a guard, to bring her to the seaport of Istanbul. She declined that offer as well, “trusting in the Arm of the Lord, which had brought her thither and had prospered her work, to bring her back.”
Then some in his Court asked her a question that she hadn’t anticipated: “What do you think of our prophet, Mohammed?” Cautiously, she replied that she did not know Mohammed; “but Christ the true prophet, the Son of God, who was the light of the world, and enlightened every man coming into the world, him she knew.” She ventured to add that, concerning Mohammed, her hosts “might judge of him to be true or false; according to the words and prophecies he spoke.” If his prophecies came to pass, then they should know that God had sent him as a prophet. This answer pleased the Turks.
So she left as she had come, unaccompanied, and returned to Istanbul for passage back to England. It had been an arduous journey: Fisher recalled she had met with “many trials such as I never met with before.” Still, she was left by a favorable impression of the Turks and their emperor. “He was very noble unto me,” she recalled. “He received the words of truth without contradiction, they do dread the name of God, many of them.” On an even more optimistic note, she affirmed that “there is a royal seed” among the Turks “which in time God will raise. They are more near Truth than many nations; there is a love begot in me toward them which is endless, but this is my hope concerning them, that he who hath raised me to love them more than many others will also raise his seed in them unto which my love is. Nevertheless, though they be called Turks, the seed of them is near unto God, and their kindness hath in some measure been shown toward his servants.” She had certainly been treated more kindly in far-off Turkey than she had been in her native England, or in New England. It’s also likely that she did not call the Ottoman emperor a painted beast, nor his court a cage of unclean birds, as she had various of her fellow English. To state the obvious, the level of insult in one’s rhetoric does matter. And she did more listening in Turkey than she did among the Anglicans in England.
So the “interfaith” part of Fisher’s witness was much gentler than what I will misleadingly term the “ecumenical” part of her witness. In fact, there was little of what we would now call the ecumenical spirit in the way that different groups of Christians confronted one another in the seventeenth century. But there was a great deal at stake for Quakers in their interfaith contacts with Jews, Muslims, and Native Americans. Alone among English Christians, they believed that the inward teacher could bring these groups of non-Christians into saving contact with the Truth. Consequently, there was every indication that, with these folks, they adopted a respectful approach. Early Quakers tended to have an admirable interfaith outreach.
Perhaps as a result of Mary Fisher’s experience, at least in part, Quakers were more likely to have a generous assessment of Turks, or Muslims. For example, the later Quaker writer William Penn’s references to Turks were almost invariably positive, as he meant to convey an honest non-Christian who had some degree of religious understanding beyond his or her own religion of Islam. (By contrast, Penn’s most important teacher, Moses Amyraut, a French Huguenot scholar, had a highly negative view of Islam.) Furthermore, Penn believed that the Turks were superior in morality to hypocritical Christians. Penn, unlike Fisher, never traveled to Turkey and thus had little or no acquaintance with actual Turks, but he could easily have come to this conclusion by meditating upon Fisher’s story.
Fisher, unlike many seventeenth-century Quakers, was relatively long-lived. After her return from Turkey, she married a Quaker ship captain, William Bayly, who was also an important Quaker preacher and writer. She stayed close to her Dorset home while married to Bayly, although she was arrested once in London in 1662 and roughly treated, despite being pregnant at the time. She bore three children, two boys and a girl, while married to Bayly.
There were several Quaker schisms in the last four decades of the seventeenth century. Mary doesn’t seem to have been involved in this aspect of seventeenth-century tumult. But one of the issues at hand was whether women should be involved in Quaker business processes. Until George Fox and Margaret Fell regularized Quaker business process in the late 1660s, Quaker men handled all of the meeting business, but Fox and Fell set up separate Quaker meetings for business for women at that time. William Mather, a Quaker dissenter, objected: “Can there be greater imposters, than those that judge all people, not to be of God, for not submitting to a female government in marriage? A thing never heard of, except the government of the Amazons. Was not that eminent man, William Penn, ashamed to mention this frivolous government of women, fearing the world would laugh at it, as indeed well they might, having never heard before that a meeting of women must be advised with, before marriage. We are not against a woman’s declaring in a religious meeting, what God has done for her soul, by silently waiting at the feet of Jesus, as Mary did. Nor are we against women meeting by themselves, upon a particular occasion, but not monthly for government.”
While we don’t have documentation, it is not hard to imagine that Mary Fisher would have vigorously opposed Mather’s perspective. Phyllis Mack writes, “When we learn of Mary Fisher, an illiterate serving maid, instructing Muslims, Puritans, and pagans on the other side of the world, it is difficult to ‘read’ her experience as anything other than a quest for personal freedom and autonomy.”  But Mack goes on to observe that Quaker women also embraced a collective identity of Quakerism that made space for this kind of freedom for women. Fisher would not have embraced, however, the more rigid constrictions for women’s freedom that the Quaker separatist Mather sought.
Bayly died at sea in 1675, and three years later, she married a second time, this time to John Cross, a Quaker shoemaker. With Cross, she emigrated to South Carolina, with all of her children. She outlived her second husband, too, dying in 1698 aged about 75.  She was a very active Quaker in South Carolina, with Friends there addressing her reverently as “Mother Cross.” While her children remained Quakers, her grandchildren all married out of the Meeting and became Anglicans. One of her granddaughters, Sophia Hume, subsequently experienced convincement to Quakerism and became a minister (or “public Friend”) like her grandmother had been.
In her last years, she owned ten slaves, both African and Indian. Her prophetic ministry as an adult young Friend involved proclaiming the injustice of the death penalty for theft to a judge in England; as an older Friend, however, she never protested against slavery, neither in Barbados nor in South Carolina; indeed she became a slaveholder himself. While prophesying against some forms of injustice, she became ensnared in others. We might recall that George Fox, while ministering to Quaker slaveholders in Barbados, admonished them to include their slaves in their meeting for worship, and suggested that they free their slaves after some “considerable” period of years. It is unclear how closely slaveholding Friends in America followed Fox’s advice on these matters, but it seems likely that many, or most, Quaker masters during Mary Fisher Bayly Cross’ lifetime generally excluded slaves, i.e.,  human beings denied fundamental aspects of humanity, from Christian worship of any kind. Following anti-slavery activists such as eighteenth-century Quakers John Woolman and Anthony Benezet, we perceive a continuing revelation that causes us to abhor holding any of our fellow human beings in bondage.
We can be confident that we have identified one of Fisher’s blind spots, one for which we would criticize her in retrospect. But let us also recollect historian Barbara Tuchman’s comment that one of the uses of history is that it can serve as a “distant mirror.” When we gaze back several centuries, we just possibly might be startled to find our own faces staring back at us, in what we have found. Along these lines, I or we, might ask: What are my blind spots, what are our blind spots, for which I, and we, will be criticized in the future? Where is the Holy Spirit nudging us, and telling us that we need to grow?
In conclusion, we should note that, while Quakers, to this day, are inspired by Mary Fisher’s interfaith witness, the ecumenical vision of Quakers (and also that of the Anglicans or Episcopalians, the Quakers’ nemesis three centuries ago) has changed and broadened considerably. Today, very few Quakers of any branch of the Religious Society of Friends would uphold the early Quaker view that other Christian churches had been apostate from the second century forward. Instead, Quakers often embrace the modern ecumenical tenet that all Christian churches preserve some vital aspect of the Christian vision, and there is much for any Christian denomination to learn from the witness of other denominations, as all manifest the light of Christ. Fisher, and others influenced by her like Penn, were fascinated by honest, sincere Muslims, ironically finding more virtue in the non-Christian Muslims than in many of their fellow Christians. The modern-day ecumenical movement, including Quakers, is a steadfast witness to the honesty, sincerity, and inspirational quality of a wide variety of movements of faith and spirituality. The light of Christ shines in all, and we have grown to appreciate and cherish our close community with even more people of faith as we discern more closely how Christ’s Light is shining through them – and through us, too.

Sources: Stefano Villani’s article in the Oxford dictionary of national biography; Randy J. Sparks, “Mary Fisher, Sophia Hume, and the Quakers of Charleston: Women Professing Godliness,” in South Carolina women, their lives and times:volume 1, ed. by Marjorie Julian Spruill, Valinda W. Littlefield, and Joan Marie Johnson (Univ. of Georgia Press, 2009); Phyllis Mack, Visionary women: ecstatic prophecy inseventeenth-century England (Univ. of California Press, 1992); George Bishop, New-England judged, by the spiritof the Lord (London, 1703); Hugh Barbour and Arthur Roberts, Early Quaker writings, 1650-1700 (Eerdmans, 1973); Stephen W. Angell, “William Penn’s debts to John Owen and Moses Amyraut on questions of truth, grace and religious toleration,” Quaker Studies, March, 2012; QuakerFaith and Practice, 2nd ed. (Britain Yearly Meeting, 1999), Sect. 19.27.

Monday, November 11, 2013

I love to feel where the words come from

ESR Professor of Peace and Justice Studies Lonnie Valentine reflects on an early Quaker experience of multifaith dialogue:

"I love to feel where the words come from."

These words were spoken to John Woolman as he was traveling during the French and Indian Wars.  Papunehang, a chief of the Delaware tribe who said this to Woolman, did not understand English and Woolman did not understand Papunehang's tongue. So Papunehang heard something deeper than words in what was said to him by Woolman.  It is this deeper level of communication, through and yet beyond words, that many involved in multifaith “dialog” seek.  Across traditions, there are those that want to hear “where the words come from” in being with those of other cultures and faith traditions. 

One problem that can arise in dialog across faith and cultures is that we get stuck on the words. The stakes are raised when those words are reaching for things of fundamental importance to who we are. If I use Quaker or Christian language, then others may hear such language as intending some sort of exclusivity, as if I am saying: “If you do not agree with my words, then you are wrong.”  If we recognize that words are limited, then we can speak and listen to each other in a way can carry communication beyond words.  In the tradition I live in as a Christian Quaker, there is a long stream of those who argue that when we use symbols such as religious language and ritual actions, we can be carried beyond the limits of our symbols even as we must use symbols to try to relate to that which is beyond our symbols.  That is, the symbols participate in the larger reality even as they cannot fully capture that reality.

Woolman used the Christian Quaker language of his time in talking about his encounter with Papunehang.  Woolman wrote in his Journal (chapter 8): “I told the interpreters that I found it in my heart to pray to God and believed if I prayed right (God) would hear me, and expressed my willingness for (the translators) to omit interpreting; so our meeting ended with a degree of divine love.”  In his account of his travels among the Delaware, Woolman used terms like God, Father, prayer, divine love, Holy Ghost, blessed Redeemer, heavenly Principle.  We do not know what words Papunehang would have used.  Though someone skilled in these different languages and cultures might do a fine job of translating, what Woolman and Papunehang present is that there is something more than the words within the words. 

Woolman said that “love is the first motion” as his way to express what was fundamental in his life, beneath the many words. For him, the motion of love had to do with those promptings from beyond ourselves that guides us to connection and care and concern for justice for persons and other life.  Woolman went on his visit to the Delaware tribe in the midst of war.  At one point, a warrior came up to Woolman with a tomahawk in his hand. Woolman spoke to him “in a friendly way” and then this warrior joined Woolman and for food and conversation.  Perhaps here is something of a query for us to consider, as Quakers would say.  In this multifaith world with much heated rhetoric and violence justified on religious grounds, we can ask ourselves:  “What place do our words come from?  Is love the first motion?”