16 May 2024

Barriers revisited (partly a repost)


THE Truth of God, being received into the inward parts, is found to be of a living, powerful nature, working mightily there for the cleansing and redeeming of the hearts. Yea, this is certainly witnessed, that as the mind joined to deceit is thereby defiled, so the mind joined to the truth of God is, by its power and virtue, purified.

Now, having felt this, and being filled with the love and good-will of God to the souls of others, how can we but testify it to others, who stand in need of God's truth (and its cleansing property and virtue) as well as we; especially being thereunto moved and drawn by the Spirit of the Lord?

— Isaac Penington, published posthumously in 1680; source. (My italics.)

In our meeting, we're frightfully private.

— Member of an unprogrammed meeting in Britain Yearly Meeting.

Yesterday I had my second cataract surgery this year, and I'm still getting used to the results. To reduce screen time on blog night, the solution is obvious: repackage an old post. So the second half of this post is an item I published back in 2016, near the beginning of our last academic year in Russia.

What reminded me of that post, "Barriers," was a conversation just a week ago with a British Friend. We were talking about whether Friends in her meeting felt freedom to reveal their faith. From her comments I gathered that, whatever the reasons, this kind of sharing rarely took place.

It may have been small comfort, but I replied that this sort of diffidence was not unique to unprogrammed Friends. (For a brief definition of "unprogrammed," see the sidebar here.) I particularly remember our beloved First Friends Meeting in Richmond, Indiana, forty years ago, discussing how to grow their rapidly-shrinking congregation. "What we need are young couples," someone said. (I'm sure I've told this story before!) My internal reaction was, "No!" What they needed was more confidence in their identity as God's people. It was a congregation with many mature disciples who had done amazing things with their lives. We found out accidentally that one of the harmless-looking older members had been a worker for racial justice in the South in the late 1940's! We were in great sympathy with the Sunday school teacher who asked those older Friends, "Some of you have been Quakers for 60 years—why can't you tell us more about why you became Friends and what you've learned about God in those years?" One of the answers she got was, "Our generational culture is very private."

In the first generation of the Quaker movement, there was little or no social incentive to be among us; you'd be risking legal danger and possibly mob violence, and you'd certainly earn the disapproval of the religious establishment. Either direct experience of God's power, or the desire to be among people who persuasively testified to such a direct experience, might overcome those dangers and lead you to throw in your lot with those despised Quakers.

What attracts people to us now? I've known Friends who reflect this same power, joy, and convincing conduct, but in my experience, our most attractive feature for many is a social atmosphere of gracious idealism and doctrinal vagueness that draws in seekers who are much like the people already among us. There are variations, of course; some of our churches echo the cliches of the (American) evangelical culture, but however pointed the preaching may be, the ethical consequences of that preaching (discipleship, or if you prefer, the Quaker testimonies) are often weak or absent altogether. If this seems unfair, let me know! (And what drew you?)

One explanation for our reluctance to testify to a powerful faith might be that we simply aren't experiencing the spiritual outpouring that shaped the first generations of Friends. The torch has been passed to others in the Christian movement who are living out a reality that we'd rather read about at a safe distance, for example in quaint ancient Quakerese.

But there's another explanation that may be less pessimistic. We have developed a barrier, an inhibition, that keeps our mouths shut. Maybe, if we dared, we might be free to share words and deeds (according to our gifts and temperaments, and always subject to the discipline of knowing when to speak and when to listen!) that would convey the love of God and the demands of justice.

I'll leave it at that. Here, with some minor edits, is that original "Barriers" post.

"How can I explain something to you if you don't even watch TV?"
A meme found on vk.com (original scene from late-era Soviet film Heart of a Dog, which I recommend).

When I was around eight years old, the subject of God came up one day in my grade school classroom. (There weren't the same restrictions on God-talk in public school then that there are now; that's another discussion.) Our teacher said, "Why should we be afraid to talk about God?" I was startled and panicky—in fact I was afraid to talk about God, and couldn't even imagine making my mouth emit the word.

I made a mental note of this reaction, but didn't analyze it at the time. Later, I connected it with the fact that, in my family, any mention of religion was absolutely forbidden, along with any mention of disease or death. Whatever the roots of this barrier, it blocked me from communicating with anyone about a huge part of what it means to be human.

Obviously, something happened between grade school and my decades of working for the church! But I'm glad that I remember that block. These memories came back to me the other day when I was talking with some colleagues about expanding our students' access to informal English-speaking opportunities. "Some of my students do a great job with grammar and vocabulary," said one colleague. "But when it comes to speaking in a group, they just can't open their mouths. There's that old psychological barrier."

These young people aren't exactly facing the same barrier in speaking English as I encountered in talking about God. (Or, rather, not talking about God.) There's no actual danger in overcoming the language barrier, but there are several hazards in crossing into God-talk territory. For me as a child, there was a safety issue within the family. But, on another level entirely, do we want it to become too easy to talk about God? Is there a place for some reluctance to become glib about the Ultimate?

We Quakers have a number of indirect ways of referring to divine realities—terms such as the Inward Light and the Seed, used generations ago to avoid an unseemly familiarity with holy realities, much as biblical Hebrew and its readers made substitutions for the Name. In my early years as a Friend, I remember hearing vocal ministry that referred to "the Author and Finisher of our faith" rather than naming Jesus explicitly. Nowadays Quaker terms such as Inward Light can mistakenly be used in the service of weakening our ties with Christianity, but that old impulse to curb our verbosity when referring to God still seems valid to me.

Even so, "faith comes from hearing the message," so there is something to be said for not letting psychological barriers get in the way of that communication. Part of our evangelistic task might be to confront the false barrier of cultural piety. Are we marked by a gooey sentimentality, a cloud of goofy cliches, or any other signals that you must, to gain entrance, turn off your critical faculties?

In John Updike's novel Rabbit Is Rich, there is a fascinating scene where the Episcopal priest, Archie Campbell, attends a family meeting to discuss Nelson's and Pru's intended marriage. The minister mildly defends "our brand of magic" while everyone else is trying to negotiate how much or little churchiness is necessary to accomplish the desired outcome—a respectable wedding. Rabbit's own defense of faith is not exactly zero ("Hell, what I think about religion is ... is without a little of it, you'll sink") but the church-wedding discussion is mostly about appearances, not reality.

As long as it seems that the religion industry is just selling one or another form of respectability, people will find their "magic" elsewhere. And rightly so. Maybe it's not a psychological barrier that blocks the audience from yielding—maybe it's a healthy boundary!

What exactly is the alternative that evangelists with integrity are offering? I think that there is no formula, no doctrine, no scare tactic, no magic that equals meeting someone who looks at you with God's love in their eyes, who offers access to a community that is shaped by trust in God. Some people in that community will know how to communicate this invitation quietly, with an assurance that doesn't depend on using loaded words. Others will know how to communicate with contagious enthusiasm, with generous love that covers a multitude of incautious cliches. There are infinite variations on this spectrum, and somewhere in God's economy, they probably all meet some blocked person's condition.

Along my own route, several people and incidents helped me overcome the barrier. Studying Asian civilizations in high school introduced me to whole cultures not shaped by the assumptions of Western materialism. The anti-war movement brought me physically into churches for the first time in my life. (It wasn't as weird in a church as I thought it would be. Specifically, it was the Ebenezer A.M.E. Church in Evanston, Illinois.) My high-school fascination with writers such as Dostoevsky and Alan Paton played their part. But I remember a much earlier crack in the barrier: a tract I happened to pick up off the floor of our apartment building's lobby, not so long after the incident with the teacher. This tract described someone's conversion. In the process of getting to know God, this writer would walk way outside of their normal routes to pass a church that had Christ's name on it. That Name had such an attractive power for the writer. Hmmm, that's interesting, I thought. Even though I didn't understand or respond to that tract's invitation at the time, I somehow understood even then what the writer was feeling.

If I have any ability at all to represent the Gospel effectively, I believe that in part it's because I still vividly remember being a non-believer who couldn't even say the word "God." But I am not permitted to define my path or emphasis as the only one. I'm glad to share the responsibility of communicating God's welcome with many others, some of whom have very different approaches to removing barriers.

(Originally published on September 7, 2016. To date there's one comment, from the late Vail Palmer, referring to Adria Gulizia's then-new blog: "That blog about suffering and God's suffering with us is so profound. What else would a God who truly loves us be up to?")


Right Sharing of World Resources has a new mailing address:

PO Box 2102
Richmond, Indiana
USA 47375-2102

Catch up with Right Sharing's latest news here. And learn more about the search for a new general secretary here.

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Jason Ricci, "Scratch My Back"—2024 (below) and nine years ago.


Patti Crane said...

Thank you, dear Johan. I hope your cataract surgery blesses you as much as mine has! Patti

Johan Maurer said...

Patti, hello! Twenty-four hours after I wrote about the surgery, I have spent the whole day without glasses! ... for the first time since early childhood.

-- johan@canyoubelieve.me