13 October 2005

Atlanta shorts

Friends United Meeting deserves your support. This past weekend, at the board meeting of Friends United Meeting, Friends faced FUM's underfunded financial performance and imposed a four-day work week (and consequent 20% salary reduction) for nearly everyone on staff, except for the development director; one valued core member of the program staff was laid off.

I hope this action shocks Friends into a response. Don't take this irreplaceable Quaker resource for granted; don't use it as your proxy arena to vent spleen about differences between "your" kind of Friend and those "others." Don't assume without investigation that the sins of the past are today's reality. (By "sins of the past" I refer especially to a paralyzing need to placate those in its diverse constituency who did not even have a commitment to FUM's future—universalists and cultish aren't-we-special-because-we're-Quaker liberals on one hand and judgmental pseudo-evangelicals with self-assigned hero status and license to slander, on the other hand. That era is emphatically over. The group containing the highest number of permanently dissatisfied right wingers left under an ethical cloud in 1993, and the clearness minute and purpose statement of 1992 filtered out the theologically uncongenial on the left, although within their yearly meetings some of the latter still like to hold FUM financially hostage in an impressive imitation of Bush foreign policy.)

No association of Quaker yearly meetings has the capacity FUM does of putting together the discipleship resources of so many diverse Christ-centered Friends from so many different cultures, all directed toward providing access to a genuine Quaker Christian message for a world that badly needs it. And doing all that with an inclusive, prayer-based governance process.

In the not too distant past, denominational organizations were able to survive based on loyalties, connectional myths, and licensing powers (ordination, for example). Those factors are weak everywhere, and more so for FUM. Now our associations must earn their way by the merits of the ministries they enable us to do together. On that score, FUM deserves far more visibility and support than it is getting.

More about evil. Last week I mentioned that I was writing a chapter on evangelical Friends' understanding of evil for a book on Friends and questions of good and evil. Last Sunday, the Forum class at Reedwood Friends Church was kind enough to welcome me for a discussion of one specific aspect of the question: the personification of evil. I began by summarizing Friends' beliefs about depravity and original sin. Although we may be born with a universal vulnerability to temptation that we cannot resist unaided, we cannot be called sinners until we actually sin.

Then: To the extent that moral evil can be caused or encouraged by factors external to the originally innocent evildoer, can those factors be characterized as having demonic personalities and intelligences of their own, perhaps as agents of an intelligent master such as Satan? I summarized the writings of C. Peter Wagner, and read a few choice bits from Churches that Pray and Prayer Warfare. Or are the "principalities and powers" mentioned in the Bible, and the demonic influences illustrated there, actually the increasingly dense and powerful accumulation of evil decisions and evil consequences in the culture, the behavior patterns, of clans, organizations, institutions, even nations? I likewise read some selections from Walter Wink.

One of my sources of hope in recent years has been the willingness of such leaders as Wagner and Wink to acknowledge each other as siblings in Christ and to engage in courteous public exchanges. Sometimes their constituencies don't do as well.

How have you dealt with these questions? Which author has the better approach, Wink or Wagner, or are both partly right, or both completely wrong? Do you secretly long to label some people "totally depraved"?

Are you a mystic? Another Reedwood happening: The Center for Christian Studies is conducting an eight-week course on Christian mysticism, taught by my successor in adult ministries, Carole Spencer of George Fox Evangelical Seminary. I enjoyed last week's class and was sorry to be in Atlanta when this week's class came along. I'll be home well in time for the next one.

Last week we touched on mystical commentaries on the Song of Songs, a Bible book that is so powerfully erotic that some traditions tell believers not to read it before attaining sufficient spiritual maturity. Although those mystical commentaries relied heavily on metaphor and allegory, and that is clearly not the whole story with the Song of Songs, their insights ring very true to me. God's love for us cannot be any less passionate and whole-life and self-giving than the model of the Song.

In the class, I reflected on the fact that I've been a mystic of a minor variety for as long as I can remember, starting before my conversion. When I began to understand that there was a language for my experiences, I began reading. One day I bought the book Mysticism by F.C. Happold. As I was riding the bus back to Carleton University, I looked at the table of contents. I distinctly remember the feeling of disappointment I had when I realized how much of the content was Christian. To that point I'd always assumed that mysticism and Christianity were like oil and water. How little I knew!

Radio Yerevan. Somehow the subject of humor came up on my Web forum on Evangelism and the Friends testimonies. For some even more obscure reason, my mind went to Radio Yerevan, the mythical Soviet-era radio station whose advice program served as the hook for a form of humorous commentary on current events, politics, and other topics that were best not to address directly. I decided to see if anyone had collected some of those jokes online, and good old wikipedia did not let me down. The main article is here; there are more lists of jokes here (with duplications). A few of my favorites:

Q: Was comrade Lenin a scientist or a politician?
A: Of course, a politician. If he were a scientist, he would've first tried his theories on dogs.

Q: Is it true that there is freedom of speech in the Soviet Union the same as there is in the USA?
A: In principle, yes. In the USA, you can stand in front of the White House in Washington, DC, and yell, "Down with Reagan!", and you will not be punished. Just the same, you can stand in the Red Square in Moscow and yell, "Down with Reagan!", and you will not be punished.

Q: What is the difference between the Constitutions of the USA and USSR? Both guarantee freedom of speech.
A: In principle yes, but the Constitution of the USA also guarantees freedom after the speech.

Q: What is a Soviet musical duet?
A: It's a musical quartet after a trip abroad.

To me, there is a special sweetness to see answers start with "in principle," a filler phrase that some Russian-speakers use to start almost any answer to almost any question. In my experience, "In principle, yes..." usually means "no."


Aj Schwanz said...

Evelyn Underhill is one of my absolute favorite writers and a Christian mystic. Some of her writings really resonate with what I love about Quakerism.

Bob Ramsey said...

Two comments:

A friend of mine who grew up in Leningrad (as it was known at the time) tells this joke: What would be left if an earthquake struck Leningrad? St. Petersburg.

On evil: I'm glad for you citation of Walter Wink, and I think his diagnosis of evil best corresponds to what the Bible calls "the World". I especially like the specific quote in which evil exists as the "accumulation" of bad acts.

I think that both good and evil actions have a cumulative effect, and we make a great mistake when we view evil actions one at a time or in sequence, but not in aggrigation.

Johan Maurer said...

Aj (and anyone else) -- who is writing on mysticism these days? (Maybe I'll answer my own question a bit later.)

Thanks, Bob. I find it personally hard to conclude that there is no supernatural element to evil, but I also find a lot of danger in emphasizing the supernatural.

Bob Ramsey said...

A couple of follow on comments:

- despite evidence to the contrary, I do know how to spell "aggregation", I just don't like to do it too often.

- and on the personal nature of evil, I agree with you that there is both a supernatural and personal element to evil. But in the circles I frequent, this is usually the only accounting for evil, so I chose to address the other.

The problem in understanding evil is that it requires a sophisticated balance of several factors. The binary choice of "personal/supernatural" vs. "institutional/collective" misses the point and perhaps even misleads us.

It sounds like your talk/discussion did a good job of maintaining both of these sources of evil. We are foolish to ignore either. And even more foolish to insist it must be either.