Saturday, January 26, 2008

In Search of the Gospel

My trip to Ciudad Victoria and Mexico City for Earlham School of Religion’s Theology in Context course has proved extremely challenging for me on a personal level. It was not a difficult trip, not a hard experience at the time. I did not feel unduly challenged while I was in Mexico, beyond getting fatigued at interpreting at one point and getting a little sick in Mexico City. The truth is that this excursion felt closer in flavor to a ministry trip rather than a theology course. It felt almost like an extension of my supervised ministry, which involves a great deal of traveling ministry among Friends. I enjoyed very much our time with Friends in Ciudad Victoria, as well as our few days of adventure in Mexico City, and it was not this experience per se which was difficult. Instead, it was the ramifications for me, as one who feels called to evangelism, of the required reading for the course, Models of Contextual Theology, by Stephen Bevans and the reflection that this book demanded of me in order to attempt an answer to the question, “what is the kernel of the Gospel?” My wrestling with this question, along with at the same time observing various strains of Christianity in Mexico and interacting with an American Buddhist friend (via internet), has deeply challenged my own sense of what the core of my faith is, what is essential in my own life of faith and what is merely cultural, and what it is that I am called to communicate.

Before arriving in Ciudad Victoria, as I read Bevans’ book, I felt fairly confident that I had a basic idea of what the gospel kernel was: An essential Quaker vision of a loving and just God that speaks to us today in our hearts and who revealed Godself in the person of Jesus Christ. It was from this kernel that I felt any culture – religious or otherwise – could be judged helpful or harmful, correct or incorrect, true or false – or somewhere in between. In my interactions with Friends in Ciudad Victoria, I got to think a great deal about the interaction between "essential Quakerism" and the culture in which that Quakerism is expressed. Leaving Ciudad Victoria, I wondered very much, “is Quakerism a cultural phenomenon without any ultimate, universal value for all of humanity?”

As we arrived in Mexico City, I was very much struggling with the question of what the core of Quakerism was and whether that Quaker core was the same as the gospel kernel. At first, I believed that I had found both, and that they were one and the same. I wrote in my journal on 11, 1st month, 2008: “For me the most interesting and fecund part of our conversation [that afternoon, in Chapultepec Park] was discussing whether the Quaker expression of Christianity was universal, or whether it was not essential. That is to say, is the Quaker bare minimum (in my mind, sense-of-the-meeting decision-making, waiting worship, and a witness to the presence of Christ guiding and teaching us today) the universal Gospel, or is it a cultural “husk” that is not essentially true for all peoples, times and places? If it’s not core, then I as evangelist need to let go of proclaiming a Quaker vision and instead ‘know nothing but Christ and him crucified.’ If, however, the core of Quaker experience and testimony and practice is the everlasting Gospel – if Quakers’ experience of how God relates to communities is true for all people at all times – then I have a responsibility as evangelist to proclaim those core Quaker experiences and practices.

Of course, these core experiential-practices might look extremely different in different cultural contexts. For example, in an African cultural setting waiting worship might take place in a drum circle with those moved to give ministry shouting or singing out of the drumbeat, instead of out of the silence. Meeting for business might look much the same way. And Christ might be understood in ways that would seem very foreign to North American Friends. But those cores, the way the Friends experience God’s covenant with humanity, would be an essential reality of the Gospel: sense-of-the-meeting decision-making, waiting (not necessarily ‘silent’) worship, and the testimony that Christ has come to teach his people himself.” This very basic mix of orthodoxy (or “ortho-testimony”) and orthopraxy seemed to be the core not only of the Quaker faith, but also of the Christian Gospel, more broadly conceived. But this was not to be the end of the story. Though it was not a part of the course, I was not going to stay within the Christian, or even a theistic conception of Truth. With all of these questions still percolating inside of me, my engagement with my Buddhist friend from Boston was heating up.

The fact that the Light is shining in my non-theistic Buddhist friend in Boston made it impossible for me to restrict my search for the gospel kernel to the monotheistic faith tradition. It was the certainty with which I felt that I perceived in my friend the Seed of Christ - not as imprisoned Truth crying out for liberation, but as a sprouting branch of God testifying to Truth - which forced me to engage non-theistic Buddhism as a place where Christ is alive, at work, and proclaiming the Gospel even in the absence of any mention of God or Divine Intention. As I returned from Mexico City to Kansas and prepared to make a ministry trip to visit Friends at Hominy Friends Meeting in Osage country, I experienced a crisis of faith. I was unable to justify why Jesus – or even a conception of a God with intention – was essential to the universal Gospel. Any assertion I would make about the centrality of Christ or the importance of God as Lord and not as “emptiness,” would be easily dismissed by my friend, who seemed to be speaking from Truth, but simply had no use for the words I was using, nor for the concepts I was employing.

I am still wrestling with the question: What is the kernel of the everlasting and universal Gospel if even the concept of a God with intention is unnecessary for salvation/enlightenment/liberation? I feel deep inside of me that there is a Divine Center that is beyond words and forms and theologies. Is there nothing that can be uttered that can be universal for all humans? While the Gospel is universal, are all words ultimately limited and, to some extent, futile? What does the Religious Society of Friends have to say to the world if the Gospel is beyond all words? More specifically, what is my mission as evangelist if the evangel is beyond any human expression or conception? Is there any meaning to proclamation of the gospel if the gospel is unutterable?


Philosoraptor said...

Perhaps our evangelizing needs to be in action, not in words. Because words are so limited. As for the theology, you know I don't see God in a Christian context, so I don't think I can provide feedback on that without seeming biased. All I can think to express to you are the words of a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who only said: "Being Is"

Martin Kelley said...

Oh lovely, losing your Christianity at ESR. Religious doubt is natural--and perhaps essential as one's circles and experiences expand--but I continue to think the Quaker message of the gospel is needed in the world and would hate to lose an articulate exponent of that.

Well, all I can to your doubts is that it's my experience that Christ is available to all, even those who don't use his name, and he's accessible everywhere, even in the midst of the most cacophonous liturgy. He is never lost, but can be confused and there's a lot of people walking the roads of spiritual dead-ends.

Martin @ Quaker Ranter

Anonymous said...

I don't always qualify questions as doubt... I think that they make faith stronger, and often help people reach higher truths that aren't limited by titles.

I don't call myself a Christian, or a Friend. I call myself a friend (little f) and I happen to follow Jesus, which means I hang out with whoever is around. That's what works for me. It's the theme of my blog. Someone I know whose light shines very brightly says, "I don't want to be a Buddhist, I want to be a Buddha. I don't want to be a Christian, I want to be a Christ." And I can testify that she is doing a damn good job of it.

Good luck in your searching.


Anonymous said...

I grew up cross-culturally and have wrestled mightily with that question, too. The temporary stepping-stone I'm on - I hesitate to call it an answer - is based on John 1:1-9. The core of Christianity and Quakerism - to me - is the Word. And the Word has taken many forms: It is God, it took human form in Jesus, it took the form of the Spirit after Jesus' death, it is Christ, it speaks through us in worship today. And it is in the Buddhist non-theist and in people who have never heard of Jesus. Being in right relationship with God isn't dependent on anyone having heard of the Word in any of its forms. We know where words "come from", though, as John Woolman reportedly said.
The Word in my life is Christian myself, and Christian language is my faith language. But when I speak to non-Christians, I speak of the Word in whatever form/language the Word has revealed itself to the person with whom I'm speaking.
My thoughts, for what they're worth.
(P.S I graduated from ESR in 1995.)

Thorny Quaker said...

Micah, why do you make everything so hard? The gospel kernel can be summed up in these four simple statements which apply universally.

God loves you unconditionally.

If you don't hear about it, God kills you.

If you hear about it, but don't believe it, God kills you.

If you hear about it, believe it, but don't accept it, God kills you.

That's why its called the "Good News"

How hard is that?

Seriously, you're asking some great questions. I'd like to explore some of you questions later. Actually I am interested more in the assumptions behind the questions. (ex. does the fact that the gospel kernel is unutterable make all utterances futile?) Stuff like that.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Micah!

I think you may, perhaps, be looking for the unique thing that Quakerism has to offer the world in the wrong place.

Not that the things you focus on — "in my mind, sense-of-the-meeting decision-making, waiting worship, and a witness to the presence of Christ guiding and teaching us today" — are less than wonderful! But I think they are not truly the basic uniqueness of Quakerism; they are secondary derivatives of that basic thing. And as secondary derivatives, they are not necessarily as appropriate for everyone all around the world as the basic uniqueness is.

Obviously, different people have different opinions about this matter. But it seems to me that the basic — and unique — thing about Quakerism is the realization that the whatever-you-care-to-call-it that shows us, in our minds and hearts, what is right and what is wrong, what is kind and what is cruel, what is nurturing and what is destructive (Penn called it a "principle"; later Friends called it the "Light"; I call it the inward Guide), is God Himself breaking through to us ("Christ come to teach us"), and is therefore worthy of our attending to it carefully, day after day, and rebuilding our whole lives around it.

Other religions all around the world do have glimmerings of this truth; indeed, I cannot think of anyone I've ever met, religious or otherwise, who has not, at the very least, instinctively trusted that whatever-you-call-it when it has told him what was wrong with other people.

And I really don't think the words and names are essential, although surely Christ was the clearest teacher and exemplar of the path of suffering servanthood, the path of the cross, as an ultimate revelation of the nature and power of that thing, whatever you care to call it.

But what is unique to Quakerism — true Quakerism, as distinct from the debased and degenerate thing that exists in so many places today — is its clarity and focus regarding that whatever-you-call-it — including its clarity that Christ was that whatever-you-call it incarnate in human form. (John 1:14!) And of course, the clearer one becomes about the divinity of that Guide, and the more focused one becomes in one's obedience to it, the better the fruits one's practice bears.

This is precisely why the whole world needs Quakerism: the real, original Quakerism, rather than the modern degenerate thing.

As I understand it, we are silent in our waiting worship, rather than doing drumming, because we find it helps us focus on that whatever-you-want-to-call-it. It improves our clarity. It's a purely pragmatic thing. Should drumming prove more helpful to clarity, I suppose we'll all figure that out in due time, and switch from silence to drumming; but the reason to adopt drumming should be, not that it's what our culture is accustomed to, but it's what we find helps us hear that Guide cleanly and truly.

I personally have high regard for Buddhism, having studied Zen for many years, and having read a fair chunk of the essential Buddhist scriptures and realized what gold is in them. But Buddhism does not build itself around that inward Guide; what Buddhists call "Buddha-nature" is in fact something substantially different, something less concerned with doing good than with acting naturally. Buddhism does teach that one's inner moral instinct is something important, but it teaches that one's moral decisions should combine that instinct with respect for the expectations of one's culture and with the lessons of the suttas. That is a stance more analogous to the position of the Methodists and the UCC than to the position of the early Christians or the early Friends, both of whom defied the expectations of their respective cultures in many significant ways.

If the gospel of our religion is truly the idea that the moral sense (however named) is God breaking into our world, and is therefore worthy of our rebuilding our whole lives around it, then yes, it is something of tremendous significance to the lives of people all around the world. I believe that's a part of what Fox was driving at in the Carolinas, when he called a native chief to join his argument with the local English governor, and asked the chief whether there was not something within him that reproved him when he did wrong and approved him when he did right.

And helping people learn how to rebuild their lives around that Guide is indeed a labor in which words can be very useful — although, much like Benjamin who has already commented on your essay, I think words are worthless unless their true meaning is dramatized by our personal example.

All the best,

Anonymous said...

Hey Micah,

I am glad to hear that you are wrestling with these issues. I want to affirm you seeing that of God in your Buddhist friend. I believe that God works through all good in the world. This can show up where we expect it most or even where we least expect it.

Indeed, I believe that folks like Jesus or Sddartha Gautama were less interested in developing a personality cult than preaching a way of life and viewing the world.

I also appreciate your search for the universal. I feel that so-called evangelism has far too often been a vehicle priomarily for cultual imperialism. Out in Nevada there is a weed that is variously called goat head and tackle wort among other things. Local lore says that It was brought in by folks who wanted to force the Indians to wear shoes. I just don't think shoes was Jesus' core message.


Hopeful Pilgrim said...

There is no doubt in my mind that God can and does speak to people of all religious persuasions, including non-theist religions. God is much bigger than religion and theology.

Jesus said that God is a spirit and they who worship him must do so in spirit and in truth. It seems to me that what matters most is our sincere desire for truth, love and whatever else we consider to be truly good. the theological stuff is not so important, and may at times even blind us to the really important truths God would like to communicate to us.

I have been a full-time evangelist for the last ten years, and I have often wondered, "what is the point of sharing the truth if God can just speak directly to everyone?"

If we are honest, we can recognise that we do not always follow the Light (or the "whatever-you-care-to-call-it" as Marshall put it). There is a lot of pressure from our environment to constantly compromise on our values, and sadly, we often give in to those pressures.

Many people are 'lost', in the sense that they long for something more but they don't know where or how to find it. They hunger and thirst for the truth, but all around them they see conmen and scams. Enter the Evangelist... someone who is living proof of conciously striving to live up to the light they have, and suddenly the 'seeker' is filled with hope and inspiration.

That is our jobs as evangelists: to find the 'lost sheep' and help them find their way back home. We cannot convert anyone but ourselves. All we can do is be an example of someone who strives to follow the Light and encourage others to do the same.

Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!