18 May 2006


A week ago I gave a guest lecture in a college course on the history of religion in the U.S. I had planned to present some extracts from Quaker history as a sample of the changes and influences operating in 19th-century America generally. But as I sat in the college library going over my notes, my heart rebelled against presenting yet another version of Quaker trivia.

Instead I began doodling. I drew a circle based on someone's diagram I'd seen once of the life cycle of a church. At the top of my diagram was the ignition of a new movement by a messiah or a messianic group. After a while, the cycle gets to the stage where the movement begins to gain structure. Eventually, if it survives, it can rest on its laurels or hands and maybe even become complacent, but as it heads up the other half of the cycle it can decay to the point of generating discontent, fragmentation, and, in the best case, new reforming impulses and a rebirth.

At every point of the cycle, people can go off on tangents. To oversimplify absurdly, the technocrats can keep asking "what" and the legalists can keep asking "how," forgetting that the way to keep on the life cycle is to remember the central "why" of the organization.

[Three years later, I made a revised version of the diagram.]

Establishing the central "why" is part of the messianic job description. As I explained to the students that evening, every self-respecting religious messiah has that job description, leading with a powerful enough "why" to motivate people to see him or her or them as providing crucial meaning for their lives. In Christian terms, some of the specifics include:
  • creation: why do we exist; by what cause and for what purpose?
  • "fall": why are things such a mess, and whose fault is it, if anyone's?
  • atonement, reconciliation: does God have a way of drawing us individually and communally back into the original divine intention? ...
  • grace, salvation: ... where's the power to do that, what's God's role, what's ours, where is the threshold, and what does it mean for our ultimate destiny?
  • sanctification, perfection: what would it mean to be empowered to organize our whole lives around this journey?
For me to be part of a movement, I would expect that movement's "why" to tackle these questions or questions of equivalent seriousness, affecting the very reason I exist. But being human and unable to do or think all things simultaneously, I do need the structure of human culture and human organization, which for this new movement are, I hope, shaped by the "why" and serve to model some of its aspects.

But, being human means being subjected to temptation, including the temptation to focus on the what and how of the organization, and lose track of the why. One side of me loves process, so I want everyone to do things just the right way, using the secret handshakes and the lovely jargon consistently. Another side of me is afraid of chaos, so following the rules is important to me. Yet another side likes to be right, so one-upping my rivals with superior knowledge of historical trivia about the founder's hows and whats is what I consider juicy. I could ride any of those tangents right off the cycle, or I could push others off whom I've alienated by my clueless rectitude.

Most religious movements have a life cycle or spiral, with either a death or a rebirth (or transmutation into a new movement) inevitably occurring at some point. We Quakers, however, have a particular take on cyclical historical theories. Our conceit is that we have organized around a central insight: Jesus himself is the only Messiah we require, and he obviates the need for a human messiah whose charismatic legacy flourishes, stagnates, and decays. In other words, we can get off that merry-go-round, because (1) Jesus is himself the "why" and constantly refreshes his people, and (2) those who follow Jesus will always keep human leaders in a functional perspective, never falling for the authoritarian or ranterist shortcuts. So there's a fitness to the "how" of Friends business meeting: If the "why" is Jesus himself, then a non-hierarchical monthly meeting, doing business through prayerful discernment and a drawing into unity, makes perfect sense.

Well, it's a nice theory. But we Friends nevertheless have found lots of tangents to ride, and as a result have too often lost track of the "why." In honor of two of the tangents, here are two Scriptures:

You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you'll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me! And here I am, standing right before you, and you aren't willing to receive from me the life you say you want. (John 5:39-40, The Message)

Believe me, friends, all I want for Israel is what's best for Israel: salvation, nothing less. I want it with all my heart and pray to God for it all the time. I readily admit that the Jews are impressively energetic regarding God—but they are doing everything exactly backward. They don't seem to realize that this comprehensive setting-things-right that is salvation is God's business, and a most flourishing business it is. Right across the street they set up their own salvation shops and noisily hawk their wares. After all these years of refusing to really deal with God on his terms, insisting instead on making their own deals, they have nothing to show for it. (Romans 10:1-3, The Message.)

Some of us evangelicals have ourselves so wrapped in monopolistic claims of supposed biblical loyalty that it can be hard to see the real Jesus instead of the official God-Bless-America Jesus. On the other hand, the people who find more delight in the hows and whats of Quakerism than the original why are sort of like the apostle Paul's former colleagues: setting up their own righteousness in place of the righteousness of God.

For those who don't think we have our little tangents that we're riding, here's a link to a speech given some time ago by Sam Caldwell of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.

There is a lot I love about the ways we do things—our bare-minimum organizational clothing. I have just obtained a minute for service from our monthly meeting at Reedwood for some travel in the ministry I'm undertaking, and I love every bit of the rhythm of that process. I'm not arguing for a disembodied spirituality, just asking us to consider "why" a bit more prominently and persistently.

Hyperfood for thought: recommended interviews

Here's a link in honor of Norway's national holiday, Constitution Day, celebrated yesterday. Christianity Today published a fascinating interview with Henrik Syse, the Sunday school teacher and philosopher who is an advisor to the investment committee for Norway's $210 billion rainy day fund—the cumulative national "profits" from the country's oil wealth.

ALSO: Please read Tom Engelhardt's sobering interview with Tom Davis, author of Planet of Slums. Part one; part two.

Here's a teaser: "Without minimizing the explosive social contradictions still stored up in the countryside, it's clear that the future of guerrilla warfare, insurrection against the world system, has moved into the city. Nobody has realized this with as much clarity as the Pentagon, or more vigorously tried to grapple with its empirical consequences. Its strategists are way ahead of geopoliticians and traditional foreign-relations types in understanding the significance of a world of slums…"

Time for me to lock up this week's entry. I still have a chapter to read in Paul Davies' The Mind of God, for this evening's reading group. I am pondering a theory that God's love can be intuited as a weak force pervading the universe, never decisive in any given instance (per quantum theory) but cumulatively all-decisive, drawing all things eventually into God's loving purpose.


Anonymous said...

Your "fascinating interview" link is to www.blogger.com - doesn't give one the interview.

Anonymous said...

It's here.

Johan Maurer said...

Thanks, Bill. Mysterious—the original tag had image instructions in it, too. Anyway, I fixed it within the post.