NORWEGIAN POLKA

a violent angel atop an apple in the solitary tree set in a meadow between blue ridges or the stream bounding over boulders it’s important to dream a dandelion amid violets marigolds blooming against gray tree trunks or swim trunks the stone arch at the bottom of the Cocheco Falls millworks to be sharing a […]

ON STONE CLEAVED FROM RAMPART

however elegant, talisman bowsprits cast gelatinous shadows along shoreline and then blackened wharf grappling irons of the hull or side gateway expertly, the customs master inspects postgraduate credentials in each captain’s script and assesses the excise due the crew, returning well-off in some dividend of dexterity, superstition, and chance fathoms contempt at the helm some […]

RECONSIDERING THE NATURE OF TRUTH

Contrary to the opinion of many contemporary Quakers, theology among Friends did not cease developing after the death of George Fox. While I have argued that early Friends had their reasons for not fully articulating their radical vision publicly, they left us enough dots to connect to rediscover their revolutionary line of thinking. As I’ve written, this is built on three central metaphors: Light, the Seed, and the Truth.

Of the three, I’ve found Truth to be the most difficult to grasp. Metaphor typically builds around an image, but just what works for Truth, no matter how many layers of meaning and experience we compress into it? Moreover, metaphor rarely settles into something as comfortable as a noun. In other words, just how do we turn Truth into a verb?

I was delighted to see Douglas Gwyn pick up on in his book Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experienence, with his own elegant turns. He begins with a concept of  spiritual formation: “The Quaker truth-stance was constituted by four distinct aspects, or ‘moments,’ … that can be related to four standard philosophical accounts of truth.” He addresses this from the psychology perspective of individual experience as a reality. Among them:

Powerful catharsis of being “convinced of the truth”

Gwyn begins with the sensation early Friends reported in their encounter with the Quaker apocalypse:

At that moment, the light of Christ gave them a searing, unmistakable knowledge of themselves. They were confronted as never before with their alienated conditions (including overt sins) and by the power of God to redeem them.

Yes, they were shaped by earlier teachings and beliefs:

The first moment of truth, therefore, was one of correspondence between propositional belief and lived experience. … The insistence on a lived experience of Christian beliefs … was an important breakthrough at the culminating – and self-defeating – moment of the English Reformation.

Coherence

Making sense of the experience presents its own challenges.

The truth of any proposition is established by its consistency or harmony with a larger body of previously established truths. Coherence, then, implies a framework within which one interprets either ideas or the data of experience (spiritual or empirical). But simultaneously, new experiences, while corresponding to elements within that existing framework, may also alter the framework (“shift the paradigm”), sometimes drastically.

Verification

Gwyn notes that Quakers could be more orthodox, especially in their insistence on moral accountability or the behavioral codes, which

not only expected outcomes of the convincement process but also the necessary means of conformity with Christ. This strong “process” aspect of Quaker truth has affinity with operationalist philosophical theories, which posit that a hypothesis must be verified by appropriate procedures of investigation. Here, the emphasis is upon the active means of testing the proposed idea or action, in contrast with the static framework of established truths suggested by coherence theory.

Pragmatism

But truth’s fourth moment is still rightly called pragmatic. … Like operationalism, pragmatism is concerned with action, but judges truth by end results, rather than means.

~*~

Gwyn delves deeply into the workings of these, and more, but as he observes,

these comprise the framework within which early Friends found, served, and remained faithful to the truth. The truth itself remains a divine reality, defined by God’s loving faithfulness to humanity and all creation.

Here, then, is Gwyn’s breakthrough key in approaching this Truth – it’s active, as love, allowing him to present us at last with a requisite image: Jesus himself!

While not all metaphors have to be visual – the ringing of a bell, for instance, might be a richer connection than the bell itself – I’d simply overlooked the idea of using a person itself. But why not? The English can speak of the Crown, after all, and in our times, a picture of the Queen comes to mind. Americans have long spoken of George Washington as the Father of Our Country and Gilbert Stuart’s portrait springs forth, along with statuary in parks and other public places across the land. We even have a major city and a vast state named in Washington’s honor, which simply magnify him as a metaphor.

To continue, Gwyn turns to the gospel and letters of John, who

portrays Jesus in conversation with a variety of individuals who take different positions in relation to him. A Christian dialectic emerges from these conversations. … John’s dialectical universalism contrasts with the syncretistic universalism of Hellenic culture, where various deities mixed and matched for the masses, while philosophy served the more refined pastime of the privileged. … The Gospel of John called various peoples into service to the one true God. … Again, this God who sent Jesus is less “true” in the sense of opposition to false gods, than in the Hebrew sense of faithfulness. … One did not choose Jesus from a long list of seeking options. Rather, “I choose you” (John 15:16). That call of truth was enormously energizing …

Gwyn’s insight certainly opens John 3:16 in a fresh light: “I am the way, the truth, and the light.” Look at the compression of metaphor!

~*~

More of my own reflections on alternative Christianity are found at Religion Turned Upside Down.

THAT LAST WEEK OF SUMMER

The mind dances here and there, rarely in a linear fashion. So what’s on my mind these days? How about counting on these fingers?

~*~

  1. As she says, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
  2. Still many sailboats out, their sails looking soft, dreamy. Other boats, on their moorings, rock endlessly. Listen to the incoming tide.
  3. With the sea haze is pronounced, we can barely see the Isles of Shoals from the mouth of the Piscataqua River. Other times they’re crisp, five miles away – the hotel and conference center/retreat, avian observatory, and White Isle lighthouse, among them. Soon, everything will be deserted for winter.
  4. Asked what makes me run, I could easily answer: COFFEE! Actually, it’s often a mystery to me, too.
  5. Without a big project going, I feel lost, adrift, directionless.
  6. Sometimes that sensation of feeling lost is a fog. When I’m not relating to music, what I hear is mostly noise.
  7. One help in revising a long work of fiction, especially, comes in finding its “emotional zipper” – and then everything falls into place as you move along it.
  8. Where’s the center of gravity? That is, the central identity or overall impression.
  9. Will she realize it’s our anniversary? (She almost always has the date wrong.)
  10. How I love the cool, clear days of late summer and early autumn!

~*~

Somersworth, New Hampshire.
Somersworth, New Hampshire.

It’s a common real estate question, I suppose: what do you do with an old church? In my newest novel, the family turns one into a rock concert venue, not that unlike the Stone Church in Newmarket, New Hampshire, not all that far from us. Others around here have been turned into homes or apartments. And still others are art galleries or retail spaces. Parking, of course, can be a problem.

MINDING THE DOOR

I’m grateful for each person who is led to enter the meeting room and pray that more will follow. The paradox of inclusivity is in assuring that it encourages each of us to fulfill and express our potential, rather than settling safely at the lowest common denominator of experience. If we cannot meet that potential, then we guarantee that spiritual depth will be found only in exclusionary bodies, which is not the way I want to respond to the Great Commission!

Cross-fertilization can be helpful, especially when it involves profundity reaching across to profundity, or from depth to like depth. You know how my sojourn among Mennonites in Rehoboth sustained me when I was confronted by similar difficulties with Quakers in that city. Let me note here, too, that the pastor at Durham Friends is a Italian-American Mennonite whose degree is from Andover-Newton – a wonderful and tender hand among us. I see that in your own Quarterly Meeting there are pastors at China, North Fairfield, and Winthrop who would, no doubt, enjoy meeting you. Now what was your question about hymns? The importance, I believe, is in substance rather than form (and, yes, “Magic Penny” could do with more substance, musically and theologically).

You were rightly appointed to be clerk of Ministry and Counsel. It’s a valid endorsement of your gifted abilities, and an invitation to grow in them. The fact that you are aware of spiritual baggage as well as the snares of ego and personal agenda is healthy. Within your baggage, too, is much that will find rightful application, more of that cross-fertilization that can help. The rest can go on the compost heap, which has its own spiritual metaphors. Either way, never fear being a “fool for Christ,” as Paul so aptly put it.

Your challenge likely involves a roomful of religious refugees yearning for the warm fellowship of church while fearing – often because of their own negative experiences with Bible-thumpers, proselytizers, smarmy priests, pedophiles, or whatever – the very goods that are essential. (In psychological terms, this involves looking directly into the Jungian shadow, at the places we were wounded; in Bible structure, it’s the reason we see the Tree of Knowledge early on but don’t see the other tree growing next to it until late in Revelation: the Tree of Life, with healing in its leaves – or, closer to home, the cure for nettles growing next to the nettle plant.) To use an old Brethren expression, “Bible words for Bible things,” meaning that sooner or later you have to face up to sin, repentance, atonement, Father, LORD, Holy Spirit, grace, rest, faith, prayer, and all the rest, often learning to retranslate as you go.

One thing about this group is that no one in it has much tolerance for being preached at – they’re just too independently intellectual for that, even if some of them earn their livelihood by lecturing! Lay out information for examination, and it’s a different matter.

~*~

For more Seasons of the Spirit, click here.