Tuesday, April 19, 2011

God Is Alive, But Not Where You'd Expect

The arrival of Holy Week always finds me in an odd place. Quakers don't formally celebrate holidays. This is a residual aspect of the Puritanism that shaped some of our beliefs. Though Friends would seem to be as far away from radical Calvinism as possible, it nonetheless formed the backdrop of our formation. We were, in the beginning, another radical Protestant sect straining to be recognized. In keeping with this tradition, as the thinking goes, every day ought to be sacred and holy. Even worship on Sunday, or as we often call it, First Day, is not intended to be the pinnacle of the week. Worship should not be relegated to the walls of the Meeting house and exists even in the yawningly banal. Nevertheless, I still miss the pomp and circumstance of the Church calendar and the progression of each holiday. As I've written before, I was not raised a Friend.

And on that note, I find today that I am actually in partial agreement with Joe Scarborough. Though his latest op-ed column in Politico has an understandable conservative slant, I find it difficult to disagree with several sections.

Thoughtful leaders like Keller, Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner believe that politics should be left outside the doors of the church so spiritual leaders can focus on preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ instead of sponsoring glorified political rallies. At the same time, they are moving away from defensive doctrines and instead focusing on the things Jesus said would assure his followers a place in heaven: antiquated concepts like feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and bringing hope to the hopeless.

It is a powerful message that may stem the decline of religion in America. While religious attendance in the United States has been down over the past few decades, the long-term trends are positive.

I would also argue that as religion has been less valued by some on the left, other aspects of belief have been substituted. An issue I have with my own Meeting is that certain controversial political issues are routinely advanced by members with a kind of religious zeal. The passion and indignation are present, but instead of condemning Pharisees, they'd much rather condemn the Republican Party or its latest polemicist. Even spiritual refugees cannot escape the formative issues of their past. Nor can we, really.

Scarborough notes,

I have personally been heartened by what I have seen in churches like Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the heart of Manhattan. Keller keeps showing up on the Times’ best sellers list while filling his Upper Westside congregations with young believers every week. (When I attend Redeemer, I am excited to see that I am one of the older members in the congregation.)

It is important to note the contributions of young adults of faith and I am thankful that Scarborough does. George Fox, the founder of the Religious Society of Friends, was younger than me when he first began his ministry. He was my current age, thirty, when his frequent preaching began to attract a following. Fox felt that no church, nor religious leader spoke to his condition, and for a time wandered across England in search of what he so desperately sought. His example reminds me of my own struggle to find myself and my religious identity.

...Fox left [his hometown] in September 1643, moving toward London in a state of mental torment and confusion. The English Civil War had begun and troops were stationed in many of the towns through which he passed. While in Barnet, where he was torn by depression (perhaps from the temptations of this resort town near London), Fox would alternately shut himself in his room for days at a time, or go out alone into the countryside. After almost a year, he returned to Drayton, where he engaged Nathaniel Stephens, the clergyman of his hometown, in long discussions on religious matters. Stephens considered Fox a gifted young man, but the two disagreed on so many issues that he later called Fox mad and spoke against him.

I do not invite a comparison here, for obvious reasons, but perhaps a parallel is warranted. Jesus himself was thirty when he began his own ministry on earth, eventually perishing by way of crucifixion three years later. Regardless of how we view faith, religion, or belief, it is important that we note the contribution of passionate visionaries who are very often young adults. From my informal discussions with others, many similar names are often mentioned who also qualify. Our Western perspectives about age and maturity complicate this realization. We have a love/hate relationship with the concept of youth, and our reservations on the subject, I find, are usually personal rather than philosophical.

My own calling lies along similar lines. Bringing community and faith to others in my age group has been a labor of love and a successful one. When I moved here to Washington, DC, some two years ago, my spiritual insecurities suddenly were no more. No longer was I seeking, seeking, seeking. Though this revelation contained no burning bush, nor roadside conversion, nor walk up Pendle Hill, emulating Fox I nonetheless knew that God intended that I might bring people together. In all that I write, do, and organize, I draw strength and guidance that never once wavers. I did not choose the path. The path chose me.

God could not be more alive for me. Unlike Scarborough, however, I am naturally not going to characterize the divide between belief and unbelief in ideological terms. The wounded often have good reason to be suspicious. If I am critical, it is merely because many people have lost an ability to contemplate mystery, Divine or otherwise. I think, therefore I am? Not really. God continues whether or not there is a me involved or not. I may be able to judge the impact my words make on someone else, but do I really? Each of you who read this column will respond in a slightly different way. It is slightly egotistical to assume we have total control of other peoples' perceptions or that ours are unique and different in every possible way. There will always be overlap somewhere, for all of our belief in individualism.

The statistics cited in the Politico column are helpful to a degree. My own skepticism lies with how numbers are frequently manipulated to supplant an argument. Without understanding the methodology behind them, I'd be reluctant to cite them as basis for any larger conclusion. But like the author, I do think that religious leaders need to be less concerned with outward appearances and more concerned with inward purity. One of the reasons I believe that the Church and State should be separated is that, to me, their intentions are fundamentally at odds with each other.

A Christian model applied to the business world, for example, might win the label of radical socialism, and might well prevent the spread and greater growth of Jesus Christ, Inc. When individual profit is far less important than using financial assets to fully fund needed efforts to end poverty, then this does not bode well for anyone's bottom line, at least in the beginning. Driving the moneychangers from the temple doesn't make good business sense. And then there's that problematic passage about how difficult it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. But this doesn't mean that these lessons can't be or shouldn't be applied to our secular lives.

My own existence is split between what I do for this world and what I do for the next. It would seem then that focusing on the teachings of Jesus Christ, should we be so inclined, would involve a kind of personal understanding that we've often called morality. Without morality, we have, at best, an intellectual rendering of the world that satiates our brains but neglects our heart. Brains are important, but hearts even more so. Though we may have been hurt or injured, we cannot disengage from the greater dialogue. If we do so, we will break ourselves down into smaller and smaller groups. Most world religions came to be in times of strife and uncertainty. We have a phenomenal ability now to gain understanding, while the world lain before us feels unsettled, uncertain, and uncomfortable.

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