Thursday, February 27, 2014

There Are Many Parts, But Only One Body

When I write about being Quaker, I frequently receive some version of the same response. A recent commentator remarked that the Religious Society of Friends is, in his words, the only faith who gets it right. Catholics have their well-documented problems and fundamentalist Protestants their own, but to some, we occupy rarefied air. Those raised in either tradition are usually the first to compliment my own. While my first response is to be proud to be held in such high esteem, upon further reflection, I wonder if it is fair for us to be the sole occupants of this adulation.

Centuries ago, Jesus continued onward with his ministry on Earth, making frequent stops along the way. He’d been performing a series of astonishing miracles, healing the sick and even raising the dead. His disciples were granted a degree of proficiency in this same task. The effect must have been thrilling to them, as nearly all of them had come from humble beginnings. But when they got wind that someone else was having similar success, they felt threatened.
John said to Jesus, "Master, we saw someone using your name to cast out demons, but we told him to stop because he isn't in our group." But Jesus said, "Don't stop him! Anyone who is not against you is for you."
It bothers me when people rank faiths, ascribing some to have great value and others to have none whatsoever. It shows how embittered and critical some are towards organized religion. It benefits my own work to see religion grow, not shrink, as has been the case the past several decades. That a person would feel that every other religion was worthless, in his or her eyes, does not sit well with me.

That kind of criticism could turn on my own faith. I’ve always used the story of Jesus as a graphic representation that the crowds singing your praises on Sunday might well choose a different tune by Friday. As is true with every house of worship, one finds problems everywhere, regardless of where you go. One might be insulated somewhat from imperfection at first, but taking leadership roles removes the scales from the eyes. As the saying goes, law and sausage are two things you do not want to see being made.

Legitimate criticism exists, of course, most notably with the Roman Catholic Church. A phrase once in frequent usage was “Go to the church of your choice.” We still have that decision open to us, if we derive comfort from it. While I strongly disagree with right-wing Christianity, I recognize that many people crave the certitude of absolute rules and laws. The litany and liturgy present have a soothing familiarity with many. My primary concern is attracting young adults to Worship. This problem exists nearly everywhere, but especially so with liberal faiths.

In more progressive houses of worship, a strong emphasis is frequently placed upon ecumenicism and interfaith efforts. It is an excellent opening to educate others about the particulars of one’s religious beliefs, but some are so cautious not to offend that the opportunity is lost. Liberals, religious or otherwise, bend over backwards to grant everyone a seat at the table, which is acceptable, but can be insufficient.

Sometimes, a desire to not silence anyone’s voice means that we are less than forthcoming in anything but surface niceties. Real conversation is what we need, even when it is intense and uncomfortable. One of the fallacies of liberal thought is to acknowledge every minority group that clamors for acceptance, but to not always actively incorporate the diversity. For some, diversity is a coalition affair, but not complete integration.
Yes, the body has many different parts, not just one part. If the foot says, "I am not a part of the body because I am not a hand," that does not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear says, "I am not part of the body because I am not an eye," would that make it any less a part of the body?
As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
I can find little fault with the Methodism of my boyhood. The service on Sunday with its rituals was satisfying to me, not burdensome. My only two criticisms were these. Firstly, I regarded the sermons I heard as usually boring. Secondly, I was provided a simplified understanding of Jesus and the Bible. Overtly controversial passages were never brought up. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized I’d been cheated. It wasn’t until I reached adulthood that I read the Scriptures with fresh eyes. Christ came to teach me himself, not through any intermediary.

Jesus himself can teach us in ways a priest, minister, vicar, or rector (to name but a few) cannot. Self-study is crucial to understanding. George Fox, the founder of our faith, memorized the entire Bible. By the standards of the day, he was uneducated, but his command of Scripture was vastly superior to those who had attended seminary. This was partially what saw him arrested and tossed into jail with frequency. In keeping with the practice of their leader, the Early Friends did not bring Bibles to Meeting for Worship. The implication was that each person had long since memorized it and had no need for the written text.

The reasons why people turn away from religion are multifarious. I don’t begin to understand them, though I comprehend a few things here and there. For some, the weariness of the same rituals and the sterility of worship is to blame. Those who came from blame and shame Evangelical churches never had the right to form their own spiritual interpretation beyond the hard line drawn for everyone. My father left the Southern Baptist church of his boyhood because of its attitudes towards sin and punishment. He was taught that a person could only sin a certain number of times before he or she was condemned to hell forever.

Having noted a few of the deterrents, let me propose a new strategy. Let’s not view most religions as inherently noxious. In addition, let’s not place a few others upon on pedestals. That approach is not fair to any group of imperfect seekers. I certainly would not mind if people tried out a Quaker Meeting to determine whether it was for them, before granting us high praise. There are only around 150,000 of us in North America and we are understandably worried about the future of our Religious Society. We do things very differently, and that difference might be an attractive quality for many.

1 comment:

kfsaylor said...

Hello Kevin,

My experience is distinguishing between faith paths is instructive and edifying. I agree with you that diminishing another's conscience is troubling.