MORE THAN A QUESTION OF IDENTITY

What would you be if you weren’t Quaker?

I usually pose it in terms of religious affiliation, skirting the bigger issue of what we’d be without that particular spiritual discipline and nurture.

The question often illuminates an individual’s leanings within the Society of Friends, and it’s one that can be telling in many other denominations as well.

Many of us come to where we are from other religious traditions, and even among Christians the variations can be vast. And then there are yogis of all stripes, Buddhists, Native practices, arcane and pagan seekers, non-theists, agnostics, and much more. Neo-Muggletonians, anyone?

Some Quakers are very drawn to the social activist side of our community; others, the meditative worship. Some are quite Biblical; others, anything but. (Shall we mention the Gospel of NPR?) And that’s before we get to the full spectrum of today’s Friends, from ultra-univeralist to evangelical to alternative Christian to, well, we’re all over the map. And yes, many of us do miss music in our worship.

My own journey rejected the strand of Methodism of my upbringing, plunged into deep doubt through college and then Hindu-influenced yoga before landing in liberal Quakerism that moved increasingly into the remaining stream of Plain Friends abetted by Mennonites, especially.

Admittedly, I’m not one for ecumenicalism, at least not of the variety that looks for a lowest common denominator, but I am secure enough in my practice to appreciate what Douglas Steere has called “mutual irradiation.” There are elements of Judaism, Unitarianism, Anglicanism, and Zen Buddhism, for instance, that inspire and even tempt me – while others I won’t name leave me very much in the cold.

In recent years, I’ve become quite fascinated with Greek Orthodox culture and faith. The exploration stems from two sources, one fairly recent; the other, reaching back 45 years to the ending of my first novel in its initial draft.

There, in a flash of intuition, I had the protagonist finding shelter in a Greek-American hippie household. I saw the five siblings there, in part, as a symbol of ancient Western thought in contrast to his emerging Tibetan Buddhist mysticism. Little did I know at the time of the richness of Greek Christianity as it somehow blended Judaic and mythological Olympian influences that originally stood in stark opposition to each other.

Flash ahead, then, to the local Greek festival where I live, and the larger extended community throughout New England. In my town, the church is a major participant in our interfaith efforts of running a soup kitchen and food pantry, along with the annual Thanksgiving service and similar events. As I’ve ventured into the folk dancing at the festival, I’ve been discovering much more.

I’d already been exploring the ancient Greek philosophical concept of Logos, introduced in the opening chapter of the gospel of John, and its implications in an alternative Christianity, which I believe the early Quakers embraced. (For more, check out Revolutionary Light.) And then, coming across a related quotation by St. Simeon the New Theologian and seeing his dates, I wondered how he’d ever escaped being murdered in the Inquisition. The startling answer, I discovered, was that he was Greek Orthodox, not Roman Catholic. In other words, what dawned on me is that in growing up Protestant in the place I did, I’d assumed – as I’d guess most Americans would – that Rome was always the root of church history. Not so, as I’m finding, and much of the Eastern Christianity appears to be full of nuance missing in the separate branches to the west.

In Buddhism, as I once heard, you could envision an arc with a starting point for Zen at one end and Tibetan at the other. An aspirant engaging in study and practice in either one would move, step by step, toward the middle and somewhere, the two paths would pass each other en route to whatever was at the other end of the arc. I’m sensing something similar in looking at the simplicity of my Quaker ways and the sensuous richness of the Eastern Orthodox.

I’ll leave it at that, for now, rather than going into a checklist of comparison and contrast.

Let me add, though, that one more factor has come into play. As I’ve been considering the impact of the hippie movement on contemporary life, I’ve wanted to write an update, which has led to my latest novel-in-progress. Its springboard is that family of five siblings where my first published novel ended, leaping ahead now another half-century. And that prompted an investigation into the family currents that shaped their dreams and actions. Yes, then, I’ve had to mull the range of identities each of us carries and their impact in directing our lives. So to turn my opening question in the direction of others, let me ask:

What would you be if you weren’t Greek?

Meaning whatever you are.

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