02 August 2012

Cynicism and truth

Back home, opening the door. "Where have you been?"
If you've been reading this site for a while, you've probably noticed that cynicism is one of my fascinations. I spent my college years studying political science, a discipline where cynicism is a constant vocational hazard. The whole history of humanity seemed to me to be a struggle between idealists and cynics, and so, so often, the idealists seemed to dominate the field of vision and rhetoric, and cynics triumphed at the implementation stage, resulting in such well-known cliches as "the devil is in the details," "all politics is local," and "follow the money."

I interrupted graduate school to begin a long career as a denominational worker. Again, I found the same general pattern. One former member of the Evangelical Friends Church Eastern Region yearly meeting told me the best way to get your ideas implemented on yearly meeting boards: "Get there first with the holy words." Generally, the first person to quote scripture in favor of their viewpoint had an awesome advantage.

As someone who liked many people who didn't like each other, I've been in some interesting situations, such as the time one of my friends got a leadership post at one of our largest Quaker agencies, at the time I was considering a job at that very agency. Someone in my desired department called me in an obvious effort to dig up dirt on his new boss. I can think of at least two other times when I was in a position to gain if I would only provide compromising information on people whose possible subsequent failures would probably make my life easier. (Friday P.S. On reflection, maybe three such episodes in seventeen years isn't too bad.)

I'm tempted to get all righteous when I am confronted by other people's cynicism. Once I based a classroom exercise on my dislike of lazy cynicism in grassroots politics. (See this post and scroll down to the dialogue.) But of course my biggest struggle is against the temptation to succumb to it myself. In the world of political commentary and punditry there's no lack of temptation to slip into hopelessness and cynicism. Today's examples include this: "See it like Putin," by Maxim Trudolyubov. A sample:
'The folk wisdom is that "he who pays the piper calls the tune" and that’s a fact,' as Putin said to the head of the Presidential Human Rights Council Mikhail Fedotov. 'No one throws money around just like that.' Fedotov had expressed doubts about the fairness of branding non-commercial organisations receiving funding from abroad as 'foreign agents.' Putin didn't agree with him, and the law has already been passed: any civil society organisation in receipt of foreign funds now has to call itself an 'agent.'

Putin is very fond of this folk wisdom and often quotes it. Moreover, there is a degree of truth in it: people are employed and, yes, they receive money for the services they offer, especially if they’re lawyers or lobbyists.  But the formula 'he who pays the piper calls the tune' cannot be used to encompass all types of human relations.

For Putin and his cronies, the piper principle is a universal truth. In their world there's no such thing as genuine independence: if they are not paying, then someone else is. That’s the way of the world.
On one level, it's not hard to believe that this "way of the world" really does reflect the worldview of some at the top of Russia's power vertical. But (here's level two) is this attitude confined to Russia? I remember an interview with Putin about press freedoms in the West compared to press freedoms in Russia. Putin correctly pointed out that the biggest Western media outlets are often owned by very wealthy corporations and can hardly be considered independent. Can we honestly argue that it's totally coincidental that social criticism and independent viewpoints are so rarely reflected in mainstream USA media?

A related point: Various American governmental and nongovernmental funders pour huge amounts of money into Russia to encourage and educate civil society, while, simultaneously, American politicians love to point out Russia's political imperfections. Can we really blame Russian politicians when they notice these phenomena and challenge whether the millions of dollars of donations to Russian organizations are politically neutral? Personally, I believe that the intentions behind the American donations are often honest and transparent, but what would Americans say if millions of dollars flowed from Russia or elsewhere into the USA to support the League of Women Voters, the American Civil Liberties Union, or similar organizations?

On yet another level of potential cynicism, I'm waiting to see how Russians cope with the new restrictions and requirements facing local organizations who receive financial aid from outside Russia. Actually, I'm pretty sure that at least the most tenacious organizations will cope. How many of them will find or invent interesting new channels to receive that money? And will others respond by working to reframe the hated "foreign agents" label into something cool?

Speaking of reframing, let's turn to the Quaker world. "Whoosh! Is British Quakerism ready to take off?" asks Craig Barnett on the Web-magazine nayler.org. It's really important (Johan says sternly to himself as he writes this!) to read the whole article and the linked materials, and to read Barnett's thoughtful articles "Radical Welcome" and "The Soul of Quakerism" on his own blog. I'm envious of a vision that sees 600,000 Quakers in Britain as a reasonable goal, but I'm also trying to figure out how to cope with my sense that this "quakerism" is a new religion that has almost nothing but historical links with me or my yearly meeting or with the majority of Friends on the planet.

The major feature of this reframed quakerism is perhaps revealed in the epistle of the Woodbrooke "Whoosh!" workshop that Craig Barnett attended. He writes:
The final epistle recorded that 'we discern a growing confidence within the Religious Society of Friends that our experience-based religion is increasingly what many people are looking for. Growing numbers of people have rejected all claims to absolute truth, but are hungry for a path of personal and social transformation. This could be a "transition moment" for British Quakers, as we discover a new radicalism in response to turbulent times.'
It's not for me to gainsay the excitement that Barnett records for his own Sheffield Meeting or that was evident in the Woodbrooke workshop. But my struggle with cynicism is part of the conversation I'm having inside myself about all these various linked documents: What is the difference between a genuinely radical message (Jesus: "Repent and believe the good news") and out-and-out pandering to a congenial market?

British Friends have for decades been pouring significant resources into marketing--to an extent that puts most American Friends to shame. However, having worked in Patti Crane's marketing shop for four intense years, I'm totally sold on the proposition that ethical marketing is the best marketing. Ethical marketing creates the conditions for prospects to convince themselves (i.e., no exaggeration, no manipulation) because they are equipped to see a match between their values and the values of the proposed goods or services. Part of the value of the ethical marketing process is a strong link between what we at Crane called "internal coherence and external fluency."

Here, in the form of questions, is why I struggle with the Britain Yearly Meeting vision as expressed in Craig Barnett's materials:
  • What are "prospects" (or in Quaker terminology, "seekers") actually being offered? Is it something that, worldwide, has internal coherence, or does it practically conceal historical and worldwide Quakerism in order to promote a new religion, almost cut off from the radical Christian discipleship of the Valiant Sixty? Does Britain Yearly Meeting have the right to undertake this radical reframing and label the result "Quaker," or is any accountability at all owed to the rest of the worldwide family of Friends, including its evangelical majority?
  • Ethical marketing seeks to understand the audience's language and culture, not in order to mold its product or its producer to that culture, but to reduce communication barriers so that those who would benefit from that product are able to find it and evaluate it. I have no doubt that there are many people who have, a priori, rejected "all claims to absolute truth" but who are nevertheless "hungry for a path of personal and social transformation." As you communicate Quaker faith and practice to them, what does integrity require? Should you not reveal that, at some point, they might be transformed to the extent of making a commitment to an Absolute? (Better yet, do we tell stories, a.k.a. "testimonies," of people who have been led into such a commitment? Or does that never happen?!)
  • What is in fact radical about molding our spiritual message around the allergies of a generation that has been shaped by the pervasive prejudices of the surrounding culture? Isn't this simply the path of least resistance?
  • Another word for "transformation" is "conversion." Can we expect those representing the "Whoosh!" approach to understand the awesome responsibility of inviting people into a conversion? After all, we are not forming mutual admiration clubs, but multi-generational communities where people are born, form life-long attachments, become changed in vital ways, and die in the loving arms of their friends with the knowledge that this earthly life is not all there is. Or is this assurance not a part of the newly reframed message? This is not trivial stuff!
  • Do you and your radical welcome have anything to offer people who are in fact not confirmed skeptics, or are you deliberately or unintentionally filtering out anyone who is actually ready for passionate Christian faith lived out in a trustworthy setting? Such people exist, too, and Quakers ought to be doing ethical marketing to this segment as well, but so much in contemporary British Quaker outreach seems to presuppose antipathy to the idea of Christian commitment.
  • Can you build a radical hospitality (including a vision of ethnic and economic diversity and a firm commitment against elitism) on any basis other than shared spiritual power?
  • For that matter, what do you do with the ongoing strong presence of Christians in your yearly meeting? What role do they have in this reframed quakerism and its promotion to seekers? What if newcomers find out about them?
  • How would you feel about being in partnership with evangelical Friends in developing a parallel but unapologetically Christian Quaker movement in Britain? Evangelical Friends are at work in Ireland, in (at least tentative and sporadic) collaboration with Ireland Yearly Meeting. Would you welcome such a partnership or would you prefer to have a lock on Quaker identity in your territory?
Having outlined my discomforts with these developments among British Friends, I must say that, even so, 600,000 such newcomers to Friends would nevertheless make the world a better place. So this vision is also a challenge to evangelical Friends worldwide, including those already in Britain and those who might arise there: what are we doing to be more accessible to seekers? What can we learn from the research conducted by British Friends and from the conclusions they might have drawn? How are we ourselves drawing upon (or ignoring) our Quaker legacy of discipleship? Do we even know how to distinguish between real whole-wheat Quaker Christianity and the tired cultural-evangelical counterfeits that are too often intellectually lazy and backward-looking? Is the radical Quaker discipleship that we don't see in the "Whoosh!" vision also missing from our own meetings?

More on the ongoing heartbreak (in a spiritual sense; I'm not now referring to politics) of the Pussy Riot trial in Moscow. SummaryNews sample. Commentary. More commentary. A Western view. A caution. UPDATE: The trial ends. Is Christianity under attack?

Indiana Yearly Meeting: Michael's "Deep Thoughts"; Doug Bennett's recent recap; comments from Bill Wagoner; Pam Ferguson's plea.

"The Nature of the U.S. Presence in Africa": An exchange between Nick Turse and Col. Tom Davis.

U.S. election season: "Don't blame us for being cynical...."


Friendly Mama said...

This post recalled to me one of my favorite early XTC songs Cynical Days:
Mary Linda

Johan Maurer said...

I have it on now. The lyrics are making me smile!

Jeremy Mott said...

Johan, your questions about British are completely loaded questions, as I'm sure you realize. That does not mean that the questions should not be asked or answered. Besides, many American liberal Friends might well ask themselves the same or similar questions.
I would add a few things. Mainly this: there are not just evangelical Christians, but also liberal Christians, with the Society of Friends. Don't we also deserve a place? Of course, all Christian Friends must speak up for themselves, if they wish to be recognized. If British Friends will not recognize their those who believe in Christ as the Light, the true God Within, these folks must take up their own cause. Is there any reason to think that with persistence they will not succeed?
I think you have good reason to be pleased with Northwest Y.M., especially in light of developments in Indiana Y.M. It seems to me that Indiana Y.M. never came to a true sense of the meeting on what to do.
Sometimes coming to a sense of the meeting on something important can take a long time----maybe even 15 or 20 years---and at the end of that time, God might put a solution in front of us (or maybe not). In the meanwhile, there is nothing to do except to wait upon the Lord. Decisions like this should be made on God's schedule, not ours.
Peace to all Friends, Jeremy Mott

Jeremy Mott said...

Friends, I'm not a betting man, but if I were, I would make a few bets about Indiana Y.M. is it keeps on its
present course. First, the mission and service programs will not be "restarted" after a one-year gap. This just can't be done. Second, some monthly meetings are likely to be internally splintered. Third, disputes about the yearly meeting property are inevitable. As I said before, why not wait for sense of the meeting before deciding? It seems to me that Indiana Y.M. is deciding what to do as a political body, not as a body of Christ.
Sometimes we humans simply don't have the answers to problems.
Can't we admit that? Jeremy Mott

Howard Brod said...

Your comments regarding Britain Yearly Meeting (and perhaps all liberal Quaker Meetings) leave me with the feeling that you have decided that they have abandoned Jesus' vision for humankind.

As a liberal Quaker who also identifies myself as a Christian, I believe liberal Quakerism is fulfilling Jesus' vision. This vision sees the spirit of unity, peace, and love that was so evident in Jesus, spreading to the hearts of all humankind. I can't imagine Jesus caring whether people who accept his way, call themselves "Christian" or not.

My very liberal Quaker meeting is welcoming to all. We have very Christ-centered Friends, and we run the gambit of every other label that's out there. But there is a unity of Spirit among us in that same vision of a world transformed one heart at a time through the original message of love and forgiveness exemplified in Jesus.

Liberal Quakers do see the Inner Light that Jesus possessed as progressive and able to reach all in a form that they can grasp. Yet, the result within the heart is the same. It brings us together into the truth of our Oneness and will transform this world one day.

Johan Maurer said...

Jeremy: You're right, they're intentionally loaded questions, but they're honestly intended to provoke a response. I'm really really concerned that there is both error and unacknowledged elitism in some of what's being represented as Quakerism--but as I've said before, I don't get to decide who owns the Quaker brand, so I'd like to provoke a conversation.

The heart of my concern about honesty is the claim that marketing to the skeptical is actually "radical." Most of Western Europe is fashionably post-Christian. I would love for Friends to find a new equivalent of the "provocative innocency" with which early Friends evangelized a nominally-Christian society. Now at last the post-Christian environment allows us to present Jesus and his good news stripped of societal privilege. The discipleship of nonviolence, simplicity, leadership based on spiritual gifts rather than social status, and Spirit-driven church governance--all of what we call the "testimonies"--can now win converts on its own merits. These are signs and wonders, arguably miraculous in this scarred world. Why would we now run scared from the Savior who empowers us to live like this, and timidly assure people, in the words of a banner displayed at a Quaker event, "You can be Quaker without being Christian."

It's the "...without being Christian" that I'm pointing to as symptomatic of the unradicalness of this approach. Friends originated with a movement to separate Jesus and his good news from the religion industry. We chose Jesus. What breaks my heart is that some now prefer their own new religion industry, tastefully enhanced to be as inoffensive as possible. The word "radical" itself has become cheapened in the service of this enhancement.

But all of us Friends are descended from that same original passionate movement, so we have a claim (I hope) on each other's attention. My vision of Christian Quaker community worldwide is that some of us in every corner of the Quaker world will continue to advocate for genuinely radical faith and practice as a crucial part of our prophetic vocation in the larger Body of Christ. Others will focus on our connections with people who are tentative, less certain, skeptical, experimental, and perhaps especially those wounded by authoritarian religiosity of all varieties. The conversations we continue to have with each other will continue to be important, as long as space remains for those who are focused on the needs of the 99% of the world who've never heard of us and have no stake in our internal debates. There is still a Lamb's War to fight, and for that struggle we need people who recognize the relationship between all bondages--spiritual, social, economic, political. I can't imagine how we engage in that struggle by denying the Lamb.

Johan Maurer said...

Howard: Thank you for your helpful comments. My overheated rhetoric aside, I've not actually decided anything, and haven't concluded that Jesus's vision has been abandoned. I think the conversation between those who claim to follow Jesus as a visionary and those who claim to follow Jesus as the living head of the church is never a vain conversation. I hope that our service to each other is, at least in part, to keep each other honest. Liberal Friends and liberal Christians probably tend not to understand how secular intellectual fashions can quietly subvert faith; evangelical Christians too often fall in love with their own cliches and forget the substance.

British Friends used to sell an outreach poster that said something like "Tired of institutional religion? Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater." Liberal and evangelical counterfeits alike tend to figure out how to improve the bathwater, and end up forgetting the Baby.

Howard Brod said...

I guess I am saying that the "baby" is the transforming power of the Spirit that consumed Jesus of Nazareth. Every other notion is the "bath water". To understand this is to understand liberal Quakerism and the important place it could have in carrying out the work of the living Christ in the modern world.

Jesus said "by their fruits you will know them". In Matthew, Jesus also identified as "sheep" those who had those "fruits" - yet did not know him by name.

I say three cheers for British Quakers. God is like water. He will seep into the hearts of those who respond, through whatever vehicle provides an opening.

Jeremy Mott said...

Like Johan, I cannot say three cheers for British Quakers, for I think that some of their marketing may indeed be dishonest. I am more concerned with dishonest marketing of liberal Quakerism right here in North America, my own part of the world.
To be blunt, I do not believe that one can be a Quaker and mot be, at least in some sense, a Christian.
I remember my first Sunday school teacher. the late Dean Yingling, a liberal Christian Friend if there ever was one (and a convinced former Baptist). He taught the Bible, especially the
gospels, so well that I can remember it to this day. To his mind, I'm sure, there was no difference between being a Friend
(of Jesus) and being Christian.
They were two sides of one coin.
I think that this kind of thinking might well replace our verbosity.
Jeremy Mott

Alice Y. said...

Thanks for this comment Johan. For me, your questions about "filtering out anyone who is actually ready for passionate Christian faith lived out in a trustworthy setting" and whether folks are serious about being communities ready to receive and nurture people in faith for life are really exciting and challenging, because that is exactly what I have been struggling with as someone who is passionately christian amongst Friends.

I haven't quite left British Friends yet, and perhaps I
won't, though I feel more at home in the world Family of Friends than in Britain YM at times. I hope that stories of those who like me have gained a lot of help from the world family and scripture will be included. I think I am almost mature enough to have got over some of the worse experiences I've had.

I'm excited by the vision of these 'whoosh' Friends. A hopeful feature amongst British Friends at the moment - I've been favourably impressed by the Equipping for Ministry programme at Woodbrooke, which I graduated from at the beginning of this year. I think it has the potential to provide a healthy foundation for discipleship - Tim P. Ashworth's and Helen Rowlands' contributions to the teaching really stood out for me.

British Friends went through a big shift in the last century. I was told that in 1950 80% of Friends were born into Quaker families, and in 2000 only 20%. There's real work to be done in learning how to articulate the lessons that still ring through in the lives of those deeply christian, gently joyful Friends (and now mainly elderly) who led me towards Jesus among Friends.

I have come across vocal new-comer Friends - certain that Quakers are all about "spiritual diversity": because I thought it was the opposite - human diversity drawn together in one Holy Spirit, towards God. I am hoping, and praying, that we might be led rightly. Thanks for your input. :)