Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Living As If

[People] are told they ought to love God. They cannot find any such feeling in themselves. What are they to do? The answer is the same as before. Act as if you did. Do not sit trying to manufacture feelings. Ask yourself, 'if I were sure that I loved God, what would I do?' When you have found the answer, go and do it. - C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, pg. 132

In the past few days, I have been reading C.S. Lewis, and these lines really stuck out for me, because they uncover a real difference in emphasis between my own background as a Quaker and Lewis' heritage as an Anglican. One of the distinguishing marks of the Friends tradition is a strong - almost bull-headed - emphasis on inward, spiritual experience. The Quaker focus on the primacy of theC.S. Lewis reading Spirit has often bordered on Gnosticism. That is to say, the spiritual nature of the world has been so emphasized that at times it has been a temptation for Friends to deny the goodness and reality of God's physical creation.

This is an understandable slant for Friends, who found themselves up against a seventeenth-century religious establishment that placed all of its emphasis on ritual, written statements of belief and submission to human authorities. If the Church of England was as corrupt as the early Friends made it out to be (and I believe that it was), the Valiant Sixty were right to denounce the empty formalism of the state Church.

Nevertheless, I wonder whether some baby got thrown out with all of that bathwater. Have Friends gone too far in stripping the Christian religion down to its essence? Are some of these outward forms, if not necessary, at least helpful in the development of inward spirituality and Christ-like living?

Lewis sure seemed to think so. His suggestion that, to put it rather crudely, "we've got to fake it to make it," probably makes old George Fox spin in his grave. On the contrary, the traditional Quaker position would be that we should never try to substitute the inward motions of the Holy Spirit with "outward forms." If we do not feel the immediate presence of Christ, then we should wait inGeorge Fox stillness until we do. Then, out of that sense of presence and power, we must allow God to move us to whatever action it is we are to take.

I want to confess: This quietist party line has not been consistently true in my own experience. Most of the time, I experience God as leaving me plenty of room to be self-starting. It is true that there are many times when God intervenes clearly in my life and shows me in a variety of ways how I am to move forward. But it is also true that there are many other times when I do not experience God's immediate presence in a palpable way. Yet, even in these times, I am often required to make decisions. In such cases, I do my best to make a faithful decision, based on my prior experience of God. Relying on my present level of understanding of God's character and will for my life, I chart my course and pray that God will correct me as soon as possible if I am wrong. And God has a tendency to do just that!

My need for trust - faith - without the benefit of an immediate sense of God's presence is most clear in times of spiritual crisis. There are times when the darkness in my life is thick and almost overwhelming. Much of the holiness that I have experienced seems overshadowed and God feels distant. I have two choices in times like these. I can make the decision to despair, surrendering myself to the darkness and cursing God, or I can choose to respond in faith. If I respond in faith, I must respond as if. In times when God seems so far away and evil seems so much more real, I must persevere in willful confidence that the power of the Lord is indeed over all - even if my immediate experience indicates the opposite.

Even in less extreme cases, I believe that there is an argument to be made for living as if. On a day to day, week to week basis, I do not always feel God's presence with me. There are many moments,Darkness in the Metro not just in times of intense crisis, when I must rely on previous experiences of God's power and love and carry on in trust that God is still present, even if I do not feel particularly in touch with the Spirit that day.

It has been my experience that the Light of Christ is a refiner's fire, purifying us and changing our very natures. Over time, as we yield ourselves to the working of the Spirit in our lives, Christ transforms our natures, restoring our personalities to the state that God intended. As this process moves along, is it possible that God gives us opportunities to exercise the increasingly redeemed natures that are being re-created within us? It seems from my experience of this process that God periodically removes our training wheels. God gives us the freedom to experience the full possibilities of life in Christ.

This makes sense, doesn't it? As Christians, we believe that God desires us to freely choose relationship with God. It seems that the Lord is truly pleased with our free choice to love God and to imitate his Son, Jesus. It would be very difficult for us to freely choose to love the Lord if the Spirit were constantly overriding our faculties with states of ecstasy and connection, just as it would be very difficult for a child to truly love their parents if they were smothered with gifts and attention morning, noon and night. It seems that God gives us space so that we can love God for who God truly is, not merely for the gifts that God bestows.

While all of this seems very clear to me, I recognize that it presents some complications for Friends. Our emphasis has always been on complete submission to the Spirit. Indeed, at certain points in our history it seems that Friends felt they needed an inward motion of the Spirit to go to the outhouse! I will admit that I doSeth Hinshaw displaying an old Quaker text not have that kind of relationship with God. While God is very active and present in my life, there are many times when I simply do not feel the Spirit's presence. What am I to do in these times?

Is it sometimes appropriate to live "as if" we loved God? As if we felt his presence? As if we believed the teaching and example of Jesus as we find it in the Scriptures? The very thought of putting belief first and finding inward experience afterward is, at least at first glance, an affront to traditional Friends doctrine. But what is that to us? Are we looking for Truth, or will we only accept the opinions of our Quaker ancestors? What canst thou say?

15 comments:

Music City said...

While I value our Quaker heritage, I find that how we hold Meeting for Worship or even live our day to day lives, is not exactly like how they met or did things back in 1652. My wife is a concert violinist who primarily uses her gift these days as a musicianary. God's spirit flows through her music as she ministers. I think we as Friends need to be open to what the Spirit is telling us as long as we keep everything in check with Scripture.

Samuel said...

The scriptures certainly can have a place in Quaker practice, especially in serving a useful function to those who need to live as if. However in my own personal experience when times have grown dark I have found myself thinking too much. Stopping to smell the roses is truly a valuable adage, for it can be in the smallest things in life that we find the abundant love of creation. So while scripture should be available to all, should it be enforced as a structure on those it does not aid? In my opinion that limits our search for truth.

Margaret Katranides said...

I don't believe we can start from the "as if," without direct experience of truth. But when we have received a truth, we don't need to have it repeated every day in order to act on it. When I don't feel the Presence, I can think back to what I knew at some time in the past when the Presence was with me.

PamelaDraper said...

I am in agreement with you, Micah! My faith has been challenged in this same way. It was a harsh awakening to come to accept this reality. I was waiting for a long time to feel God always, in everything, all the time. And even blaming/hating myself for this not being true! And maybe it will be true someday, but I've come to realize, like you, that much of our time really is spent waiting. And it is the nature of that experience of waiting that currently defines my faith journey. I always thought of it like a "long distance relationship" - you don't stop loving your partner just because you're separated from them. Neither do you throw away their belongings, return their mail to the sender or hide in a closet while they are gone. I know Spirit will return and light up my heart - and I know I'm in relationship with it, even when it's not here. (is it weird that I don't like referring to God as an "it"?? still don't have a good pronoun!)

Paula said...

There have been times that I wait for discernment, and conclude that the Spirit is not "with" me. But the Spirit is not absent, either! There is simply no response.
I realize in those moments that any decision I need to make must rest on my understanding of God's love during those intense times that I have felt it. And, usually, I find later that the decisions I have had to make have turned out to be correct. An occasional mistake sends me back to those intense times, and waiting on God again usually reveals where my choice was wrong.
It never occurred to me that this might be living "as if," though. It is simply how I must live, engaged with God.

Simon said...

I'm not sure that "living as if" is that dreadful a challenge.

First, it seems that pretty much everyone has acknowledged "dry" periods. Lewis' advice seems completely appropriate in those times. ("Do not sit trying to manufacture feelings" is probably always a good idea.)

Second, while Quakers do focus on the primacy of the Spirit, I don't think we demand constant divine prodding even to ensure that we love our neighbor as ourself, much less eat, sleep, etc. Waiting is critical, but I've never taken "pray without ceasing" to mean "you can do nothing until you've waited."

Lewis' advice doesn't seem to me to set up the size of conflict you suggest, and it echoes advice I've found in past Quaker readings. (Wish I could find it now!)

Jim714 said...

Dear Micah:

Your post raised a question for me, one that I have been grappling with. It is this: isn't the practice of gathered silence 'doing something'? One of the difficulties I have with the critiques of quietism that seem prevalent among Friends these days is that these critiques tend to construct a dichotomy; the quietist withdraws and waits, while the activist engages and does something. I don't see it that way. Suppose I am feeling estranged from God, or do not have a sense of Divine Presence. Making the decision to enter into silence and stillness is an activity and in that sense I think it is one form of Lewis' 'as if'. After all, there is no guarantee that silence and stillness will prove fruitful. In fact the Quietist authors specifically talk about long periods of 'dryness'. It is on the basis of faith that I choose to go the route of silence and stillness.

I would be interested in your response to this; my thoughts are tentative and perhaps you would have some clarifying observations.

The second observation I'd like to make is that the early Quakers lived in a culture which was overwhelmingly Christian. There were intense disagreements among Christians, but not about Christianity itself. At this time we live in a very different cultural situation. I am a good example of the difference as I was not raised in a Christian household. I was raised in a secular household as are a large number of people today. Others are raised in religious, but non-Christian, contexts.

The forms of Christianity that Quakerism rejected might be meaningful in our different cultural context. That they had become mere forms in the 1600's is probably true. But at this time, some of those forms could take on new meaning.

Best wishes,

Jim

Bill Samuel said...

Throughout scripture there are reminders to remember what God has done. As you have indicated that is part of the living "as if."

The Lord's Supper picks up that theme with its injunction to "Do this in remembrance of me." Most of the church of Christ finds it useful to remember that time - and through it Jesus' life, death and resurrection - in the sharing of the bread and the cup. Today, much of the church does not view the ritual/sacrament as essential, although it practices it as helpful.

Some Friends today view the institution of the potluck (a ritual in a large number of Friends meetings) - and other shared meals - in that context. Whether or not we use particular symbols and ritual in our remembering, the remembering is important. And God's decision to incarnate as a human indicates that it is helpful if this be material as well as spiritual.

Anonymous said...

I worry, Micah, that you set up the beginning of a false dichotomy when you assert that Friends are to be distinguished from Anglicans by their "strong - almost bull-headed - emphasis on inward, spiritual experience." Lewis was writing out of a tradition enriched by Anglican Evangelicals as well as the Wesleyan movement. Both emphasized direct experience of the Holy Spirit as the crucial element of Christian faith. And while the Oxford Movement was ascendant in Lewis's day, many writers associated with it regarded personal experience of the Spirit as no less important. Lewis himself, in *Mere Christianity,* writes at some length on the role of the Present Christ in the life of the believer. You've written a very valuable post, and I enjoyed it immensely, but I find it increasingly troublesome when Friends claim this status for themselves.

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

“On a day to day, week to week basis, I do not always feel God's presence with me.”

That seems to me to be the key scandal (in the biblical sense) in this essay, and the reason why you, Micah, have been drawing so many comments.

I cannot agree with Bill Samuel that the Bible’s many injunctions to remember what God has done for us, and Jesus’s injunction to his companions at the Supper to “do this in remembrance of me,” are injunctions to live “as if” when we have lost touch with the presence of God.

I think we need to understand that the God of the literary prophets and of Christ and the apostles is never truly absent from us because, being God, He is everywhere in His creation (“omnipresent”). If we are not actively experiencing Him, that is because we have forgotten how to notice Him, not because He has withdrawn.

Understood in that context, we need to take another look at those biblical terms for remembering and remembrance. If we do so (and I have done so), we may see that they may all be rendered, with equal validity, as injunctions to be conscious, to be mindful, of God’s work, and of Christ.

What God has done for us is visible simply by looking at the creation that surrounds us: the evidence of his eternal giving is right there. When Christ spoke to his disciples at the Supper, he did not need to be remembered because he was sitting right in front of them. He only needed to be looked at.

So these are not injunctions to think about the past; they are injunctions to reconnect with what is here and now. God is not teaching a religion that is dependent on memory, for all that the memories contained in the Bible are precious and wonderful sharings.

The question is, how do we reconnect here and now. The turning to God’s works all around us is one way. The turning to the living, risen Christ is another, better way. Prayer is essential, because in prayer, as we address the Christ and the God who are with us here and now, we reawaken the mental pathways within ourselves that know the way back home. It is very significant that Paul advises us to pray without ceasing.

The New Testament also makes several references to the breath as a pathway to God: “Spirit” means, among other things, breath, and, to mention just one of those references, Paul tells us in Romans that when we do not know how to pray, the Spirit prays for us, with sighs too deep for words. I think that this is a better way than the way C. S. Lewis describes in the quotation you have selected. Don’t behave as if you had faith, but rather, let the faith that your breath already has — the breath that God breathed into Adam to make him a living soul — the breath that God also breathes into you to make you one — let it speak to God as you might be speaking if your faith were fully present, and live by what its speech reveals.

My experience is that faithfulness in seeking the living God is rewarded by a growing connectedness over time. I think an awful lot of Friends could say the same!

Anonymous said...

Dear All,

My experience is that there are many times in our lives when we forget God’s goodness & saving Grace, and perhaps even slip into places of despair. It’s times like these when we have lost our sense of anchoring or become fearful about the future that it’s helpful to “remember” God’s goodness to us or others in the past. I have personally found it helpful to look to Scriptures to remind myself that my own suffering is not unique and that I have God’s presence as a constant companion, along with the presence my fellow human companions on life’s journey.

When F/friends slip into despair, into painful depression or “forgetfulness,” sometimes simply going to those places in our hearts where we are reminded of God’s love & help for us in the past can help us to trust again. Even in those places where we are so lost, depressed or frightened that trusting seems too hard & far away. Sometimes I find this in silent worship, although there have been times when I’ve found even those doors closed to me in the present state I have found myself in. I sense what those “places of remembering” might be different for each of us based on our own experience. For me it could be returning to the memory of God’s overwhelming love & holding when I was very, very ill in my twenties.

I love the father’s tearful plea to Jesus in the story of the man with the possessed son – he was in despair, and cried out, “I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” How many times have I had to cry out to God in this way! I’m not sure this is the same as “living as if,” or “fake it ‘til you make it. It might be more of, “Help me, God – this is all I’ve got right now!”

I’m also reminded of the friends of the crippled man who lowered him through the roof to Jesus. What despair this man must have been in living in a time when to be paralyzed was a sure death sentence. Jesus did not say, “because of *your* faith you are healed.”

Instead, “When Jesus saw *their* faith [his friends], he said to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Sometimes we need our F/friends to pull us out of places of despair, our communities love and faith is what brings us back to God when our interior rooms become too crowded.

Forgetting is natural, and re-membering not always so easy. This morning someone reminded me that one possible origin of the word “re-ligion” is “re-connect” or “re-bind.”

My experience is that reconnecting inwardly is a daily action – God doesn’t go away, but we forget, turn our backs and stand in our own shadows with our backs to the Light.

Whatever helps us to remember to turn around again to God’s Holy Light seems good and right to me. It’s probably wise not to judge ourselves or others when we fall into places of forgetting and despair, or to judge the handholds (or the hands!) that help us to find our way back.

In Loving Care, Eric Evans, CPMM

Jan said...

The Empty Church

They laid this stone trap
for him, enticing him with candles,
as though he would come like some huge moth
out of the darkness to beat there.
Ah, he had burned himself
before in the human flame
and escaped, leaving the reason
torn. He will not come any more
to our lure. Why, then, do I kneel still
striking my prayers on a stone
heart? Is it in hope one
of them will ignite yet and throw
on its illuminated walls the shadow
of someone greater than I can understand?

(R.S. Thomas, Frequencies, 1978)

Micah Bales said...

@Music City I agree! If we follow blindly the lead of anyone - whether it be the early Church or the early Friends, we're headed back into the legalism and empty forms that George Fox railed against. We have to re-discover the gospel for ourselves and contextualize it for our time, place and community.

@Samuel I think that there are better and worse ways to use the Scriptures as we seek to be faithful to the ongoing teaching of Christ Jesus in our communities. As long as we stay focused on being responsive to his living presence, following him rather than making idols of human traditions, I think we'll do alright.

@Margaret What you say is true. At the same time, is there ever really a time in our lives when we do not have any direct experience of God's love? Even if we deny it and pretend it does not exist, Christ's presence is available to everyone. It is good to remember that every good thing we do is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit within us, even when we are not consciously aware of that fact.

@Pamela God is certainly mysterious, and I do not understand why we should experience God as absent at some points. Yet sometimes, even when we can't see any reason why, God feels far away. Perhaps "it" is an appropriate pronoun for God in some ways, as God can feel so "other" at times. Nevertheless, I also experience God as intensely personal. All the more reason for us to develop a gender neutral personal pronoun in English! :)

@Paula I resonate very much with what you say.

@Simon I agree with you that Lewis' writings don't necessarily set up a conflict. If there is a conflict, I believe it is in emphasis, rather than in fundamentals. Friends have tended to emphasize the need for immediate guidance at all times, while other traditions have focused on the need to continue to faithfully act out the faith, even without a sense of immediate connection. Both, I believe, are true - though I do myself lean towards emphasizing immediate revelation and guidance!

@Jim I think that waiting in expectant silence is definitely a positive action, a doing. Nevertheless, there have been many times in my life - like those that Paula describes, where I have felt I needed to take action even without a clear sense of God's guidance in the matter.

I strongly agree with your sense that things that the early Friends rejected could be re-contextualized in our time. Some of the old ways are probably worth dusting off and giving another look.

@Bill Though I do not think that the use of bread and wine in ritual or the ritual of water baptism are necessary for our life as Christians, I do agree that remembering together is helpful. Most Christian communities find those two rituals in particular to be an aid in that remembering. While I hope that they might take special care to acknowledge that Christ is received in ways other than these rituals, I see no necessary harm in other communities using those forms. We Friends have our own forms that we give preference to, however.

Micah Bales said...

@Anonymous Please don't misunderstand me: The only thing I've claimed for Friends is that we tend to emphasize immediate guidance, while many other traditions emphasize other aspects of our life of Christian faith. I hope this isn't taken as offensive, because I certainly intended no offense. Quite the contrary!

I like Lewis' writing a lot, and agree with him in most cases. In fact, a part of my purpose in this essay was to point out that Quakers don't have a monopoly on truth. We have a lot to learn from other Christian communities, such as the Anglican Communion.

@Marshall I agree with your comments on the nature of remembrance. I also agree that as we grow in our life with Christ that our depth of intimacy and connection with God will grow in many ways. Nevertheless, if I understood you correctly, you also seem to suggest that when we do not actively experience God as present, that we have simply forgotten God. I do not concur. While this may sometimes be the case, I have also experienced times where God has fallen silent, and does not seem to be giving me any direct (see Paula's comment).

I don't know why God behaves this way, so to speak. I'm sure that it serves God's purposes in some way that I don't entirely understand, and I seek to submit myself to that process. I will confess, though, that it is a cross to bear each and every time it happens.

@Eric You seem to agree with Marshall that a lack of a sense of God's presence comes from forgetfulness on our part, rather than from any action on God's part.

I think that perhaps we are talking about two different experiences. Paula mentioned an experience of having a lack of guidance, which I have also experienced. While these times can be frustrating, I do not normally experience them as accompanied with despair.

However, there are other times where I feel I am in darkness and despair. Perhaps these would be the times when I have forgotten God and gotten lost in the wilderness. These times could be, perhaps, avoided by a person who was perpetually fixed on Christ within.

Even for such a person, though, I suspect that there would still be times when they were left without immediate guidance from God on how to proceed in a situation. In such a case, even this perfected person would be forced to act "as if" in that sense.

@Jan Thanks for this poem!

Anonymous said...

Lewis' response is very much a Jewish one. While the Jews do geenerally believe that holding a right mindset is the best thing, they maintain that right action is the best way to get that mindset when you don't already have it.

This is also borne out by science which has shown that people instructed to smile, even when they don't feel like it, report that they began to feel happy. This works even when they are alone, so it isn't just that people smile back.

There are two kinds of "faking it" that should be distinguished. There is the person who fakes having a trait they don't have for some benefit, such as impressing others, while they don't really value that trait. That's hypocrisy. The other kind is where the person acts like the person they hope to become...that's fallibility.

I have never felt that Lewis was talking about ritual here but behaviour...that we should give, even grudgingly, in order to become generous...or stand quietly in line and treat the clerk kindly even while we're inwardly fuming at the delay, in order to learn patience.

I don't see that Quietism is against doing that..but only about taking care not to get caught up in our egos and make a mess of things. It's more about the taking on or starting of big projects. It doesn't mean if you meet a homeless person begging you should just walk by if God doesn't personally direct you to dig out a few quarters.
In personal experience I don't always feel the Presence or any direction and like thee said, One does one's best. Even when I do feel it sometimes the response is a pointed silence which I take as "Figure it out thyself!"

In the Light,
Karen