Sunday, November 08, 2009

Lost in Translation

This morning I spoke at meeting to deliver a vocal ministry that, once it had fully formed in my consciousness, I knew would likely not be received with accolades. Because I believe that the only way to keep forward progress and to foster growth is to at times make light of hard truths, I did not sugarcoat my message. Having been raised in a Christ-centered tradition that was decidedly not Quaker, I recall many sermons over the years designed to call out the congregation when they had gone astray. As such, I am a firm believer that criticism can be constructive and is not uniformly destructive in nature, even when the words themselves make waves and challenge assumptions. This may have been my background, but I came to understand that it was not the reference point that many fellow Friends in attendance understood. I fault them not for this.

Perhaps I should qualify that I use as my guide the words, wisdom, and intent of Jesus. They are, as I understand them, rarely, if ever, composed of feel-good platitudes or self-congratulatory statements. Some of them were highly inflammatory in their day and when one contemplates the sum of their impact, one can hardly fail to recognize why Jesus was eventually crucified. He had quite a knack for enraging the powers that be and making absolutely no attempt to smooth over his lessons and teachings with anything resembling tact or diplomacy. Though we, in my humble opinion, ought to consider him a hero, he was a rabble-rouser in his day and in our time, those who threaten the establishment enough usually pay for it with their very lives. Jesus did not coddle anyone and neither do I.

What spurred me to speak this morning is a phenomenon that I see in liberal, often unprogrammed Quakerism. I suppose if I were to be completely honest, I could expand the scope to include many people I have known who are members of religious liberal faith groups who place a particular emphasis on social justice. Specifically regarding the Young Friends I often encounter in my own life, far too many often qualify as trust fund hippies and believers in a kind of masturbatory idealism. I have noticed this same basic principle and result among the graduates of blue state, ivory tower elite institutions, many of which proceed from Quaker schools beginning at the elementary grades through high school (schools rarely known for providing inexpensive tuition) then directly to the activist liberal arts college or university of their choice. The irony in their thin-skinned perspectives is that we know that politics and social justice movements lob criticism and righteous indignation salvos from all sides at a multitude of worthy targets, and yet they themselves are often so hyper-sensitive that they cannot distinguish criticism as a means of growth and development from criticism clearly designed to wound and eviscerate. This sadly includes many movements from within progressive circles, whose inability to make badly needed change and whose indebtedness to basking in the afterglow of past victories render them more and more redundant with every passing moment.

There are often vast difference between those of us who are Convinced Friends and have converted from other faiths versus those who were born into the faith. In short, converts like me take the particulars very seriously and devote much time towards learning them. I have noticed an often depressing trend of Young Friends whose devotion to the faith of their birth peters out at high school and rarely returns. Likewise, I have noticed that those fortunate enough to have wealthy parents or to achieve a scholarship to a Quaker school may have fond memories of the experience, but they seem to rarely share it openly with the rest of the world. One would hope that schools bearing our name might instruct those who attend with all the particulars that go along with the Religious Society of Friends but I find that many retain only the most basic of Quaker tenets while placing more of an emphasis upon liberal virtues like environmentalism or multiculturalism. If one attends a Catholic school, I know for a fact that one learns the ins and outs of Catholicism. Why don't we insist upon the same thing in our own institutions?

This was my implication, but to say it did not go over well would be an understatement. By the end, I wished I could have stood again to recite a few pithy passages from T.S. Eliot

“That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.”

My words were taken to mean that I was hectoring or guilt tripping fellow Friends for being lazy or not doing enough. While I did take particular care to mention that these were my own opinions, of course, but part of me couldn't help but ask, rhetorically, how born Quakers could manage to take the gifts given them for granted. After all, I had lived years of my life without these spiritual blessings. Now that they were in my life and I recognized their fullest benefit, I pointed out that it made me sad to observe those who could take their faith or leave it so cavalierly. Additionally, and I concede this might not have been wise to mention, I also stated that now that I live in a very blue city, I am struck constantly by all of the amenities I benefit from now that I simply did not have in the red state of my birth. When one observes many people who appear to take completely for granted the feast set before them with every meal, particularly when one learned to live with so much less as I did, resentment can easily build. I recognize that everyone's spiritual path is different, but I have seen with my own eyes how many young people who grow up in liberal religious faiths rarely return. If it were a matter of finding oneself in the wilderness, I could accept it, but drifting away forever without any inclination to come back is something different altogether.

I know that faith is a personal decision and indeed, two or three stinging rebuttals to my remarks refused to let me forget it. One cannot, however, disregard existing trends. Secular humanism, with the emphasis on secular is the course and setting upon which young progressives are heading. My own personal belief is that church, meeting, temple, mass, masjid, or whatever one calls a place of meeting in a religious context has a necessary role and function in everyone's daily lives. Though times have changed, I find that we are all desperate to find a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose in something greater than ourselves, and a sense of community. I do not want to stand idly by as we lose more and more membership by not confronting directly, even painfully, the reasons why our youth do not feel a compulsion to participate and participate frequently. As much as I appreciate the Sierra Club, the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and the Peace Corps, to name a few, I simply do not believe that membership in any or all of these fulfills a spiritual requirement. One might achieve a sense of spiritual satisfaction in what one achieves as a members of them, certainly, but their expressed purpose is man-centered, not God-centered, and in that area none of these worthy organizations are uniquely equipped.

Are we J. Alfred Prufrock?

Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

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