05 July 2018


From Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations Hokkaido episode: a screenshot from the visit to Shiraoi.
Mary Dyer's memorial at the Massachusetts State House, Boston. Source.
I've always been fascinated by "dignity" and "reverence." Dignity describes our behavior when we restrain our own actions and reactions in favor of a quiet expression of respect for the others around us, maybe for our own inner audience, and for some event or observance we're all experiencing together. The inward attitude of deep faith and respect that is often linked with this behavior is what I mean by "reverence." Although you can have dignity without reverence, and maybe even reverence without dignity, the two things seem to go together. (Please argue!)

Ever since Anthony Bourdain's suicide, I've been watching reruns of his television programs. Although I wince occasionally at the cross-cultural risks he takes, mostly I appreciate his boisterous curiosity. In Bourdain's program on the island of Hokkaido, Japan, one image that arrested me was the Ainu elder caught by the camera in an apparent ceremonial chant. Without any knowledge of the context of that brief segment, I was struck by how universal our need is to have such occasions of particular dignity.

It also reminded me that, whatever special claims on truth we might have in the Christian family, we cannot legitimately prove nor reinforce those claims with the costumes and rites our several branches have set up for occasions of public dignity. We have no monopoly on powerful symbolism, nor on impressive ceremony.

The Quaker legacy is an unusual variation on this theme. Although contemporary Quakers draw, almost at will, on a variety of ceremonial elements, mostly Protestant, our classical practice is unadorned silence. We sit, either in ranks of benches (with "facing benches" for ministers, elders, and visiting ministers), or on chairs or benches arranged in hollow squares or circles. If no benches are available, we can use logs or just sit on the ground.

Usually there's no altar, although tables (in unprogrammed meetings) and lecterns are popular. In place of the physical altar, all of us participants can mentally approach the Presence of God in the silence. Out of that experience can come something that we may feel convicted to say to the others in that place and time. In any case, I believe there's an innate dignity and reverence that pervades such a group exercise, whether or not everyone is at the same level of reverent attentiveness at any given moment.

The Quaker approach to ceremony does have its advantages. When you don't have architecture, furniture, and expensive special clothing and hats to reinforce dignity, you may be less tempted to enlist the forces of political and social control to guard the stuff and maintain order. Furthermore, you might be able to reduce church politics because you don't need all the licensing and quality control mechanisms that are the delight of the church bureaucrat.

On the other hand ... in many traditions, the tension between social control (dignity and the mechanisms that reinforce it, such as disciplined ceremony, ancient symbols, a spiritual aristocracy of one kind or another) and powerful spiritual content is a drama all its own. That was part of what made Michael Curry's sermon at Meghan's and Harry's royal wedding so fascinating. All the scripts and trappings of tradition cannot contain the revolutionary potential of love. When we Quakers minimize the container, do we risk dissipating the content?

I really don't think so, but here I want to recall some observations from another viewpoint. In the fall of 1995, Friends United Meeting invited Kenyan Friends Meshack Mudamba and Eileen Malova to travel among American Friends to conduct revival meetings. (We explicitly called them that.) At the FUM board meeting following their extensive itinerary of visits, they made several observations, which I summarized in a blog post about ten years ago, and which I'm about to repeat now:

(From 2007.) Reporting to the board of Friends United Meeting, [Eileen Malova and Meshack Mudamba] observed, among other things, two disconnects between faith and practice that deeply concerned them: the lack of racial diversity among Friends and the lack of reverence.

The lack of diversity is something I've discussed before and will again, but just now I was thinking about the lack of reverence. Is this observation a temperamental bias, perhaps a cultural filter that says as much about the observer as the observed? Maybe there's some of that; and I think I'd get a little defensive if some authority said that Quaker piety had to include some prescribed ideal level of gravitas. Even though everyone knows how well I maintain dignity and decorum at all times, I wonder whether I would make the cutoff. We Friends were born with an elemental resistance to the religion industry, with all its curlicues, folkways, special voices, and the power structures that are required to keep all those things up to standard.

But the slappy casualness and the boozy conviviality that has sprung up in some quarters among us, perhaps especially in Europe [I was in Russia when I wrote this], cannot be what the Valiant Sixty put their lives on the line for either. Once you have put your life in the hands of the Eternal One, can you (I) be so glib about holy things, holy topics? Can you settle for what seems almost a purely social quakerism whose spiritual temperature is firmly limited by the most skeptical participants?

I doubt that anyone ever made a deliberate decision to abandon old-time reverence. More likely it was drift. In the quietist generations of Friends, we substituted formula phrases for the names of God and Christ and the Holy Spirit, and I suspect that the reason was not theological vagueness but reverence -- not wanting to trifle with these precious references. However, several generations later, the "Inward Light" became less a metaphor than a license to relativize the faith. Is a similar drift occurring with our sense of awe before God? Having become skeptical of canned piety, have some of us lost all sense of piety altogether?

I'm sure there's really no simple answer to this question. But the issue is important--particularly when we communicate across cultural lines. I think people in many cultures intuitively understand (however they personally relate to God) that this relationship should be treated with depth and respect and not made the subject of purely cerebral speculation, still less of new forms of intellectual self-gratification. I know that over the years some of us have shocked Russians with our casual individualism, just as some of us shocked Malova and Mudamba.

Since I first wrote those words, we've had the Pussy Riot controversy in Russia, and the more recent Pokémon Go scandal, both of which touch on another aspect of reverence: the outrage (genuine or false/manipulative) generated by aggressive irreverence in holy places, and authorities' choice to respond with severity rather than humor or some other mild option. On a Russian-language talk show, I tried to argue that compulsory reverence is a spiritual contradiction and an abuse of power.

Dignity, on the other hand, is a reasonable expectation ... isn't it?

Related posts:

Pussy Riot,
part one, it is impossible that no offenses should arise;
part two, prayer and place;
part three, is Christianity under attack?

Pokémon GO to church!

Worship seeking understanding. (Four parts altogether.)

A post-Quaker take: Alan Rutherford on evangelism and worship.

Do we need Advent?

Gathering to meet with God.

Photo essay on Quaker places in North Carolina. (So we do have some physical evidences of concern for dignity and reverence....) Thanks to Margaret Fraser for the link.

How we treat immigrants, refugees and their families defines us as Americans. If you agree, follow the link and sign.

Rebecca Florence Miller on July 4 in the USA: ... I plan to celebrate with a bit of sobriety in my heart.

More research on why Russians are so stingy with their smiles. (Some earlier observations here; scroll down....)

Junior Wells could have had religion.
I don't want to fight because I'm black.
I don't want to fight because you're white.
I just want to do one thing, baby,
Just fight for just a little bit of love.

Sixthman Sessions at Pilgrimage - Larkin Poe - "Preachin' Blues" from Sixthman TV on Vimeo.

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