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?”


  1. This is the crucial issue for American Friends in our time. When we ask people to tone down their language, we are asking them to suppress their hearts. We need to ask another question when we are puzzled about another Friend's religious identification like, "I wonder what you mean by that?" Then listen and not interrupt. Try to hear where the words come from rather than criticize the words themselves. Love should be the first motion.

  2. Words are one thing, recorded historical fact another. Lest Earlham be implicated in attributing to Woolman what is recorded as coming from a Native American, and only related by Woolman subsequently, this clarification offered. As desire(love is much more difficult) is the impetus for human relating, so delight is its wordless realization. Peace out!

    1. To clarify, A.M.Gummere's "The Journal Of John Woolman"(Pennsbury Series,1922) p.260:"So our meeting ended with a degree of Divine Love,& before the people went out, I observed(name provided in "Memoir of John Woolman",Dublin 1815 as "Papoonal")the man who had been Zealous in Labouring for a Reformation in that Town being then very tender Spoke to one of the Interpreters, and I was afterwards told that he said in substance as follows, "I Love to Feel where words come from."