10 July 2014

Some cautious thoughts on enthusiasm

We're in the USA! Specifically, at the moment we're enjoying the air-conditioned hospitality of the Raymond Village Library in Raymond, Maine, with its helpful staff, high-speed Internet, and, in four days, its annual book sale. Timing is everything.

Last week I wrote about Friends and enthusiasm. My main concern was that our emphasis on hospitality for those wounded by bruising encounters with Christian legalism or authoritarianism might cause us to forget another equally important potential audience: those who are ready to make a wholehearted Christian commitment and are searching for a trustworthy spiritual home. By "trustworthy" I mean a congregation that will honor that commitment without exploiting it.

I identify with this second audience. Certainly I'd inherited a deep suspicion of the religion industry from my atheist parents, but I had no personal experience of oppression or thought control in the name of Christianity. The Bible was new and interesting unexplored territory, not something I'd ever been beaten over the head with. Most importantly, Jesus had told me that I could trust him, and I was eager to meet people who had experienced the same assurance. Quakers, with their lack of organizational overhead, seemed to be the most obvious place to look for that kind of simplicity and directness.

It wasn't long before I realized that not all the Friends in Ottawa Meeting--my first experience of Friends--had been drawn by the same need for New Testament simplicity and directness. Not all were as fascinated by the Bible as I was. Some were--for example, Anne Thomas, who brought a very high level of intelligence and scholarship to her fascination. However, other Ottawa Friends seemed far less fascinated, although they were certainly tolerant. And, not surprisingly, I got to know some Friends who were there precisely because fascination with the Bible didn't seem to be a requirement to be in that fellowship.

I now look back and feel very thankful that, given this variety in the meeting, I found enough mentors and attachment points there that my youthful search for a more "pure" and direct Christianity was met by a congregation that would probably not have agreed on this definition of itself!

Last week, Bill Samuel commented, "If folks in a faith community aren't enthusiastic by what they're finding, why should anyone join them?" That set off a train of thought in me: What about people who are enthusiastic about finding a spiritual home that doesn't require enthusiasm? What if comfort or safety are higher priorities? Or shared skepticism, or congenial temperaments and personalities?

It's not as if Friends of the calm persuasion don't do outreach and don't want to grow, it's just that this outreach sometimes seems designed to attract people who are equally averse to enthusiasm. It's like mating calls to others with the same socio-economic and intellectual anxieties as those already there. BUT to be fair, a lot of evangelical Christian outreach also strikes me as having unacknowledged cultural and intellectual filters, rather than emphasizing an unconditional invitation to become learners in the school of Christ.

Is enthusiasm dependent on certainty? A few years ago, I wrote a review of Chris Hedges' thoughtful book, I Don't Believe in Atheists. Hedges treats certainty with a great deal of caution, and by and large I agree with him. In my review, I argued that we can have relational certainty--the kind of certainty that supports joyful participation in a faith community as well as enthusiastic evangelism--without having operational certainty. Is this true in your experience?

Is enthusiasm dependent on emotion? I'm pretty sure it's not. In fact, it's obligatory emotionalism, compulsory cheerfulness, that probably give enthusiasm a bad name. In his book How to Be Pentecostal Without Speaking in Tongues, Tony Campolo argues that we can have the spiritual freedom often attributed to charismatics and Pentecostals without being trapped by requirements of prescribed behaviors. This is really important to me, because I almost never clap, raise my hands, or repeat cliches on command of a worship leader unless I have inward permission to do so. I will happily attend worship gatherings where those things are practiced, and where 99% of the rest are doing them, if I sense authenticity and integrity in the fellowship, but rightly or wrongly I won't conform simply because it's expected. I will try to resist making a judgment on others' behalf about precisely where the line is between healthy obedience and unhealthy conformity, but I was brought up in a family that was immersed in a cult of obedience, and I'm simply allergic to anything that smells of compulsion. Sorry about that.

"It takes more than a swank coffee shop to reach millennials." An interview with Naomi Schaefer Riley.

"Before we appeal to Hitler as the ultimate argument against Christian nonviolence, we first have to ask how Hitler was able to amass a following of Christians in the first place." Brian Zahnd, via Danny Coleman.

A delightful surprise: Chicago Reader links to Eduard Artemyev's score for Solyaris.

Primarily addressing liberals agonizing over the recent U.S. Supreme Court "Hobby Lobby" decision, Winnifred Fallers Sullivan expresses some of my own concerns in addressing "The impossibility of religious freedom." How can we expand the conversation beyond culture-war constraints to include, for example, Friends United Meeting's longstanding refusal to collect war taxes from conscientiously dissenting employees, or make them prove they are U.S. citizens in ways that contradict their conscience?

Blues dessert, from the nostalgia menu: the Kinks cover Slim Harpo....

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