19 January 2023

Pure intention, part two

Part one: The ecstasy of worship is connected to pure intention. March 26, 2015.

Quaker Ridge Friends Meetinghouse, Casco, Maine (Judy Maurer); original Good Shepherd of the Hills Episcopal Church, Cave Creek, Arizona (Johan Maurer; building is now part of the Cave Creek Museum).

Last week I linked our church's word of the year (curiosity) with the theme of deconstruction. Then, this past Wednesday, Camas Friends continued our weekly online discussion of the book Do I Stay Christian by Brian McLaren.

As I hinted last week, I'm curious about whether my own Christian chronology (conversion as an adult after growing up in an anti-religious family) helps explain why my faith and my doubts haven't yet led me through a deconstruction experience. If I wasn't socialized as a Christian in my earlier years, maybe that helps explain why I'm not disillusioned now. After all, I didn't have any experience of church politics, religiously-driven culture wars, pressures not to ask awkward questions, biblical malpractice, or most of the various alienating factors mentioned in McLaren's book.

However, this doesn't really let me (or the church) off the hook, because a church that teaches you unsustainable things is not really a trustworthy place for you in the long run. And if it's not trustworthy for you, then it's not trustworthy for me, even if I don't go through the same disillusionment.

Did it help that my very first experience of more or less organized religion was among Friends? Here's what I said in my first "pure intention" post:

As a Quaker, I cherish our low-overhead approach to worship and church life, as I experience it in Ottawa Friends Meeting and Reedwood Friends Church, and in just about every other corner of the Quaker world that has been my extended family ever since I became a Christian. Whatever my role in a particular meeting for worship, or in the church structure, and whatever I'm going through in my own life, when worship begins, I'm in a very special zone of reality, for which the word "ecstasy" is not too strong a word. I would like to think that this experience is linked to my faith that I'm there, with my co-worshippers, to meet with God. Nothing more, nothing less.

It is this pure intention that is the center of Quaker simplicity in worship, but isn't it also at the center of every other worship tradition that has integrity? I may worry that too many rites and procedures might weaken this pure intention, or that a corrosive skepticism may discourage those who are actually hungry for this meeting with God, but it is not for me to say that your tradition (liturgical or militantly unprogrammed) does not allow you to express that same intention that fuels my life.

I don't mean to say that Friends—particularly those born into Friends—never feel a need to question! After all, my corner of the Quaker world may not be strong on dogmatics or hierarchy, but we are centered on Christ and we (undogmatically) cherish the Scriptures, and there may be many reasons why people question or abandon both attachments. I claimed in that earlier post that we gather for the simple reason that we want to meet with God, but what happens to those who don't find God there at all?—It happens, however we might explain it away.

Deconstruction is a healthy response to betrayal or disillusionment, or disappointment with the promises made by religious people. Any assertion we make about God, Jesus, the church, worship, or discipleship may be found unsupportable in someone's experience. However, not every desire to deconstruct faith comes from disillusionment; people may simply need to incorporate new experiences or insights into their faith. For many of us who are happy in our faith, the biggest issue is not internal disillusionment, but external pluralism. The world (the universe?) is objectively full of different religions and different ways of explaining ultimate reality; why and how do we insist on a special status for our own?

I'm always curious about how Christians deal with this question, but here's where I find that Quakers have a reasonable path—not deconstruction-proof, but relatively uncluttered: we simply tell people what we have learned, and invite them to experience God working among us. We do not make claims or tell stories that we ourselves have not experienced. It is not for us to say that God doesn't have other flocks than ours, but it is our responsibility to speak honestly and faithfully of what we ourselves have learned. That is what makes a trustworthy church: the pure intention to worship in spirit and in truth, in joy and love and mutual support that requires no hedges or exaggerations.

For some reason, this Vineyard worship song that I first learned at Reedwood Friends Church has been going around and around in my head:

Be The Centre

Jesus, be the centre
Be my source, be my light

Jesus, be the centre
Be my hope, be my song

Be the fire in my heart
Be the wind in these sails
Be the reason that I live
Jesus, Jesus

Jesus, be my vision
Be my path, be my guide

(By Michael Frye; source. Song on YouTube.)

There is no guarantee that this song will convince anyone of anything, and I don't intend to load it with theological freight, but for years I've carried it with me. For me, it expresses pure intention.

Now that I've brought up Christianity's conceit of a special status among religions, I might as well go further and link to one of my favorite explanations of that status. Alexander Men' was a Russian Orthodox priest who died in the last year of Soviet power, and who was, among other things, an evangelist among Moscow's intellectuals. He believed that Christianity as a religion, was not necessarily better than any other religion. Our art, our architecture, even our ethics, are not demonstrably superior. The unique element was Christ. Men's last lecture, delivered the evening before he was murdered, explains what he means.

Among Friends, Francis Howgill's account of being gathered by God "as in a net" is an example of speaking of what we ourselves have experienced.

Tatarstan doesn't "want to leave Russia, but..."

Two more interesting articles about ChatGPT: one in the Washington Post, the other in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Here's a teaser from the second article, by Christopher Grobe:

Even with all that human intelligence at its back, ChatGPT still struggled to make an argument compelling to folks who had actually studied the subject for a semester. For instance, it made interpretive claims about podcast history that sounded right but, on reflection, didn’t square with the facts we knew. Such errors were usually caused by its helpless repetition of thought patterns acquired from other arenas, which simply didn’t make sense in this context.

Karl Forehand believes that the church cannot fix itself. Is he right?

From our Yearly Meeting's newsletter: a conversation with Adria Gulizia, part one. (And Adria's blog post that began the conversation, Anti-Racism and the War of the Lamb.)

Shari Lane in Shark Reef writes about her love affair with words. "It likely comes as no surprise that an editor of a literary magazine believes words and stories matter."

I've linked to this video before, but it somehow seemed suitable again for today: René Wermke's version of "John the Revelator."

1 comment:

Tom Smith said...

Having been brought up in Friends as the child of a pastor and missionary, I learned to question and distrust much of the "Friends church's" outward manifestations to the point that as Clerk of West Branch Quarterly Meeting's last official meeting before regionalization I delivered a "speech" entitled "The Myth of Midwestern Quakerism." To me the central question of Christ and the Bible was far too restrictive and exclusive as practiced by many of the "proclaimers" of the word. However, from a loving and empathetic father who cherished both his close relationship with Christ and Scripture, I learned what it meant to be a Quaker.