Thursday, 12 June 2008

Further reflections on The Whole Banana

posted by Rhiannon

Now that I've had some more time to think and process the material, I wanted to come back and write in more depth about The Whole Banana. For the background, please read my previous post on the topic if you haven't yet done so.

(image by Alex Wildwood)

As you can see in the picture, the 'banana' is the 'Quaker Way', stretching from Christianity on the left to 'participatory spiritualities' on the right. One of the most important things I think I've taken away from this weekend is the need not to underestimate the real differences between Quakers at different points on the 'banana'. To simply say “we're all...”, whether that is “we're all pacifists”, “we're all universalists” or so forth, is to generalise and hence to ignore some people. We may all tend towards pacifism, but there are different understandings of that; we may all tend towards universalism, but there are different understandings of that, too. Importantly for our purposes here, some see universalists who tend towards the right-hand side of the banana as—in the terms of a New Foundation booklet—“anti-Christian”.

I don't think I know any universalists who intend to be anti-Christian. But in discovering the riches in other faiths, we can sometimes be disparaging towards Christianity: we talk about 'moving beyond' Christianity, about 'leaving behind' Christianity. For those who have been wounded by Christian churches, this can be a very attractive conception of Quakerism. However, there is a need to respect our roots and our current members who find riches in Christianity—to accept the whole banana, and not to focus on one end to the exclusion of the other.

Trying to understand this, I sought both reasons why I might be failing to accept riches from Christianity, and analogies to the experience Tim described of feeling that some people in what he is attempting to make his community were not fully respecting his beliefs. Warning: this next section is deeply self-centred, as I seek to speak from my own experience.

I find two blocks to accepting spiritual insight phrased in explicitly Christian language. The first is the associations I have with those terms: talk of the need to accept Jesus, of believing Gospel truth, of the love of the Lord, always recalls to me encounters with Christians which have been bitter, unwelcome, or painful. In the group, I spoke about an occasion when—while trying to appreciate a celebration of the books of the three Abrahamic religions at the British Library—I was accosted by Christians determined to have me accept their view of reality. I was fresh from a New Testament module at the time, and stood my ground: they finally left me alone when, once one of them had told me that if I did not accept Jesus's word that he was the Son of God, I doubted everything, I looked her in the eye and say firmly that yes, I doubted everything.

I came away with a guilty sense of triumph and a bitterness towards them for spoiling what was meant to be an celebration of their religion alongside others. There have been other incidents of this sort; sometimes I ask for it, by attending Christian Union meetings and the like, but I always go with the intention of listening openly, and find myself being told what to believe. It is notable that other strong religious groups on campus say 'this is what we believe' (the Islamic Society has a very strong line in this), while the Christians say 'this is what you should believe'. Those interactions leave a sense of discomfort around Christianity. Before anyone jumps in, I know that not all Christians are like this—while I was working with the Iona Community, I met many very open-minded, welcoming, non-pushy Christians, who respected my individuality and took me as a friend with (often literally) open arms.

Even on Iona, though (where I felt so much part of the community that I took Communion!), there were things which gave me the clear idea that I could not be a Christian. There are things some Christians hold to which I disagree with intellectually—the historicity of Biblical stories, for example; the idea that one only comes to God through Jesus (odd, because Jesus clearly came to God through Judaism; there is also a debate here within Christianity about whether one needs faith IN Jesus or the faith OF Jesus, but to me the problem is the idea that there's something uniquely special about Jesus: either you only know whether you have the right faith by knowing about Jesus, or you weaken the terms so much that the faith OF a given other person is identical with that of Jesus, and then you might as well just follow that other person and you've lost the Christianity bit); and so on—not to mention the sometimes horrible (occasionally, to an outsider with a twisted sense of humour, hilarious) infighting over homosexuality and the history of fighting bloody wars in God's name. I've been reading up a little on Jews in Spain during the Inquisition recently, and that's enough to put you off your lunch, let alone the Church.

More than all that, though, there's the part I react to on an almost entirely emotional level, and that is the view of women within the Church. Can they be ordained? Yes or no, depending who you ask. Can they be bishops? The yes group are getting smaller. Can their experience be represented in the liturgy? Yes, but only very recently, and never, it seems, in the songs or passages people treasure.

That might be changing. Give the generation who are now singing John Bell's 'She Sits Like a Bird' time to grow up, leave the church, and become Quakers, and perhaps some of the “quote a meaningful passage from the religion of my childhood” ministry will become easier for me to accept with an open heart. For now, though, it's all too often 'Dear Lord and Father of Mankind', or something equally exclusive (a shame, because it's good after the first line). I understand the hesitation to try and change the language of one's spiritual experience, but, I keep wanting to say to people, perhaps I can meet you halfway. I'm not, at the moment, quite sure where that is, though.

So: I can comfortably talk about Quakers moving beyond Christianity, because I do not want us to be limited to a tradition which has these flaws, but that doesn't mean I want us to lose it entirely. I can see that there is much good and useful and inspiring in Christianity—one of the things identified over the weekend was the cost of doing what God wants, the need for sacrifice, as a strong theme in Christianity and a weak or non-existent idea in 'new spiritualities'. I'd add to that the undeniable beauty of the physical arts and music created in Christianity—my personal favourites include some of the Taize chants (Ubi Caritas, for example) and church carvings (even if I favour faintly-pagan images like the Green Man).

I can also see that to have people casually say that your community has moved beyond your deeply held beliefs is uncomfortable. To understand this better, I looked for an analogy—accepting that it's far from the same, but hoping to gain some insight. The best I've come up with so far is that it is probably close to the experience I have when, having made some feminist point, major or minor, someone (and it's usually a man, though not always) says to me, “you shouldn't let gender matter”, or, worse, “there's no gender inequality these days”. When someone says that to me, I know that I can't, at that time, trust them to support me in issues which are important, or to be accepting of my position. There are ways in which people can disagree and still accept my position: to respond to “x seems to be caused by gender inequality” with “I'm not so sure; x could be caused by factors y or z as well” is respectful. To merely deny the existence of gender inequality without debate is not.

Thus, I'm imagining that to say 'Christianity is not useful' or 'Christianity is not part of the Quaker Way any more' is hurtful in much the same way. I'd love it if someone from the Christian end of the banana who has felt this would give me feedback on my analogy, as it's based purely on my own imagining at the moment.

This post is already far too long, but I want to discuss one last thing (I can see that there may be more posts in future): the skin of the banana. We need something to hold us together, or we are nothing more than a set of unrelated people using a single name. Suggestions include 'having a sense of something beyond' (but what about the humanists and atheists, who have much to offer but no sense of something beyond humanity?), 'finding worth in Meeting for Worship' (but what about those who, despite regular attendance, claim to feel nothing?), 'living a Quaker life' (but where then is the 'religious' part of 'Religious Society of Friends'?), and 'commitment to openness' (anyone who says that they're right and you're wrong, is wrong: perhaps akin to the militant agnostic position).

I am left with a deepened sense of something studying philosophy often alerts me to: all my answers are inadequate. Perhaps that's the skin of the banana: being okay with questions.


cath said...

I am sorry that you have had such unfortunate experiences with Christians who have deeply held notions of how to behave with those who are different (even just a little different).

I have a friend who belongs to the Churches of Christ, an American denomination of the "restoration period" (i.e., "our creed is the New Testament; if the NT says it we believe it to be utterly true.") She and I get along quite well, despite the fact that in her religious world, I am headed straight for hell. (I suppose she is praying for me to accept Jesus as Lord of my Life and become baptized, but she doesn't mention that to me).

I think it's also important to remember that bringing others to Jesus is a tenent of faith for some religions. If you don't attempt to do that, you are slacking off, possibly sinning. Far be it for me to stand in the way of someone else's belief system--I wouldn't want them to do that with me.

When I encounter people who ask me if I have been saved, I "save" us all a lot of trouble by saying yes.

Then I remember an appointment I must keep before the conversation can go much further. :)


bookgeek:rhiannon said...

cath, thanks for your comment. I too have know people with whom I could agree to disagree on such matters, and those friendships have been important to me.

You make an interesting point about it being the religious work of some people to attempt conversion. I find this very challenging, in interfaith work as a whole, not just this specific area. On the one hand, I agree with you that I don't want to stop people from doing what they feel they should, and certainly I don't want people to stop me doing what I feel is my religious work; but on the other hand, I do want to be able to say that there are things which are unacceptable, even if religiously motivated. At the extreme end of the scale, I'd put murder, for example: it isn't ok even if you really believe God wants you to do it. Approaching people to try and convert them is a gray area but I think there are ways to do it which are acceptable and ways which are unacceptable--perhaps Kathy's recent post about cults relevant here. This is the liberal's paradox: we tolerate everything except intolerance!

I'm glad that you have a way of escaping encounters which you are unwilling to extend. I don't think it would work for me, though: I can't say 'I'm saved' with any honesty without finding out what that is going to mean to the person I say it to (saved from what?). Usually, upon discussion, I have to say that I don't accept enough of the surrounding beliefs to be considered 'saved' in any sense meaningful to them.

I do occasionally ask myself why I go on replying to such people, why I don't simply walk past. I think it's because I'm hoping that one day one of those conversations will be valuable.

jandrewm said...

In response to this portion of your excellent post:

"I don't think I know any universalists who intend to be anti-Christian. But in discovering the riches in other faiths, we can sometimes be disparaging towards Christianity: we talk about 'moving beyond' Christianity, about 'leaving behind' Christianity. For those who have been wounded by Christian churches, this can be a very attractive conception of Quakerism. However, there is a need to respect our roots and our current members who find riches in Christianity—to accept the whole banana, and not to focus on one end to the exclusion of the other."

I have experienced, to an extent, the feeling you describe here-- that Christ (or even God) language is not welcome (by some Friends) at Meeting. Your reasonable and loving words here speak to my condition as one who still identifies as a Christocentric Quaker.

bookgeek:rhiannon said...

jandrewm, thank you for your comment. I'm really pleased to hear that my post reflects your experiences, as one of the important things about the course was our attempts to understand others.