Thursday, March 20, 2008

What Am I To You?

Two roads converged in my life this past year, and as a result, I've been doing a lot of thinking about my religion and what it means and what my relationship with God is like. My family is Quaker, I'm Quaker, and I am pretty happy with it. This is my first experience with Catholic education, and definitely my first Theology course I've had to take, and it's really a unique experience.

I am taking a class called "The Bible," which I bitched mightily about and did not want to take, mainly because I was concerned that there was an invisible subtitle that read "and how it says you should be Catholic." However, I got to the class and it was exactly about the stuff I think is cool...the historical context and symbolism and all kinds of good stuff. The professor also has a realistic approach to the Bible, i.e. "the Bible is a thing that was written by people...people who may have ganked some stories from elsewhere." For instance, we read the flood story from Gilgamesh recently, and drew comparisons between the Gilgamesh flood and that other flood story people talk about. The professor pointed out that likely, whoever was jotting down the Bible took the Gilgamesh story and co-opted it, and added a twist to make it more about God being merciful than the gods being jerks. To me, that kind of realistic attitude adds VALUE to the Bible, though I know some people would think it gives it less credence.

I feel like religion - all religion - is at its core about living a good life before you kick off for parts unknown. Once you die, you're no longer calling the shots, but when you're on earth, you have free will to do whatever you want. Religion comes in to give some guidelines, which vary to a certain extent but in many cases are similar. To quote one of my favorite movies, "Do not kill. Do not rape. Do not steal. These are principles which every man of every faith can embrace." There are basic principles that hold true throughout the vast majority of religions, and they all mostly boil down to "don't be a jerk." Good concept, one I think everyone can subscribe to. Now, beyond that, moving into the minutae of specific religions, there you have some disparity...once you leave the standard "no killing/raping/stealing" area, you get into direct deity-pleasing territory, and that varies. I personally think it's fairly cool to see the similarities and differences between the religions.

So, as I said above, I'm Quaker. This causes a lot of confusion for people, so the easiest thing to begin with is a list of things I am and am not. (Sadly, these are all things that people have asked me if I am or declared me to be.)
  • I am not "just like" an Amish person.
  • I am not "just like" a Shaker.
  • I am not "just like" a Jehovah's Witness.
  • I am definitely not "just like" a Mormon.
  • I use both electricity and the Internet.
  • I do not "dress like that."
  • I do not know any one who "dresses like that."
  • I am not atheist.
  • I do not say "thee" and "thy," though my mother does (more on that later).
  • I believe in Jesus.
  • I have read the Bible.
  • I went to Sunday School.
  • I go to Meeting, not Church.
  • Oatmeal is not somehow relevant to my religion.
  • Meeting is not the same as a meeting at work.
Here's the basic deal on Quakers. Quakerism is also referred to as the Society of Friends, which derives from John 15:14, "You are my friends if you do what I command you." We refer to each other as "friend," though normally it's just first names. We ain't fancy, at least at Worcester Meeting. We believe that the "tiny voice of God" speaks to all of us, and that it is our duty to listen and try and live in accordance with God's guidance. You also hear people speak about the "light of God" in which we live (or endeavour to live)...whether it's proper or not, I hear these two concepts used interchangeably. There are two kinds of Meetings, programmed and unprogrammed. I attend an unprogrammed Meeting, which means that we sit, for one hour, in group silence. There is no intercessor, priest, pastor or otherwise. If someone has something that they think will help people better focus their thoughts on what God is trying to say, they will stand up and say it. Sometimes Meeting is very talky, sometimes very quiet. Programmed Meetings have more structure, often a sermon, etc., and are more frequently found out in the Midwest.

QUAKER TRIVIA ALERT: There have been two Quaker Presidents (....I KNOW!), one of which was Nixon, who attended a programmed Meeting and did not attend a DC Meeting at any point during his tenure in office. Let me tell you that the DC Quakers are still actively pissed off about this. The other Quaker President was Herbert Hoover, but as far as I know no one is holding a grudge against him. Not surprising, since he was really a kind of fabulous guy, and as Close Personal Friend (in an "I wish" kind of way) Bill Bryson said, "perhaps the only man in history for whom attaining the White House was a retrograde career move."

Quakers are also huge into pacifism, which is one of the places I have minor difficulty with the feeling of the group. The feeling is (which I think makes sense) that you should revere God's creation, and obviously if you're killing God's creation, you're not respecting it. Though I am a huge proponent of diplomacy and am a dirty, dirty hippie in many regards, I also acknowledge that some situations cannot be solved through diplomacy. I refuse to accept any form of "-ism" that involves me standing back and letting someone kill me dead. Sometimes you need war. You just do. This war? Largely crap, and diplomacy was not exhausted first. But there are some cases where you have to engage and you have to defend yourself. I don't know that all Quakers disagree with this, but many do (like for instance Mormor, who is not having it with war).

The key thing that keeps me in the Society of Friends is the personal responsibility and lack of an intercessor. I don't feel that I need a specific building to honor God in, nor do I feel that only some people get to talk to God. The beauty of creation is all around us, there for us to touch and mess with and think about, and that, to me, is an indication that God wants to have a chat every now and then. Right now, I'm at work, and there is a little garden on the way in. No one put up any markers to delineate the garden during winter, so these poor little bulbs have been shoveled into and snowblown around all winter. Many of them are exposed and look pretty sad. But when I came in today, almost all of them are sprouting little shoots. They've been kicked around and the earth around them eroded and snowed on and naked...but they're growing. How can you look at that and not feel the hand of God just as much as you would sitting on a pew in a glorious church? Those bulbs should be all rotting and dead. Not so. Come on! That's fantastic! I like being able to just be still and listen and know that He is there if I need him, and that He provides support and advice. That is a pretty good deal to me...when I'm having a rough day or am confronted with a difficult situation, I like not having to think about calling or going to a priest or pastor to "truly" communicate with God.

Obviously, other denominations feel that they can communicate directly with God - see bedtime prayer, for example - but I enjoy the entire communication being independent of a third party at all times. It's a good fit for me.

It is interesting, though, to be on a Catholic campus and take Theology classes, and just generally be on someone else's turf. Gives you a lot to think about.


  1. Being on "someone else's turf" is quite interesting. I enjoyed my time at Cross for just that reason sometimes, though I think they did a better job at recruiting people than do the folks at Assumption. ;) Just a Jesuit thing, I would guess. Anyway. I've thought about my stance for a long time and STILL don't know where I sit with the church in general other than that I am a Christian. The Quakers have a lot of good things going, though, I will say that.

  2. [Shrek]What a great and thought provoking do know that am now forced to bring you some oatmeal at some point, right? ;)