Always ethereal, always eclectic, I write as the mood strikes, when there intrigue reveals itself. Usually that means something controversial or adventure of some sort.

I've tried really hard to be unprovocative, but have as yet been unsuccessful.

Monday, 24 September 2007

And behold, the light shines in the darkness.

This past Friday was an interesting experience. I had long looked forward to a progressive Christian Meetup Group, which had regular thought-provoking movies. But it seemed that every month there was a cancellation, or no one was attending but myself. Not so this Friday.

The movie took place at the enigmatic Center of Light. Equipped with the address, I took the bus to the destination on Oswego Place. And I wandered up and down the street, many times, looking for the address. It was a small street, but there was no Center of Light. Actually, it was a rather dark small street under a freeway overpass. I began to think of how my mom met my dad, wandering around a block looking for the party she'd been invited to by the cutest guy on campus, that she could hear, but never find. (She ended up giving up and ran into my dad in a bar.)

The street in front of me ended in a large building that looked vaguely like an insane asylum. I finally stopped at a neighbor's house, who told me Oswego Place continues on, on the other side of the school. (Not an asylum, it turns out.)

From there it was easy to find the location, and I arrived at the Center of Light. I realized what had happened in the past- I was the only one signing up on Meetup, but there were other attendees- they were just a regular part of the church, which evidently Center of Light is. From descriptions, I'd thought it more of a ministry, devoted to Christian mysticism. But it was a complete church, with collared and black-frocked priests- all women. One of the members described the church as the most open and alternative he'd ever been, and therefore a perfect fit for him. I described my own church, North Seattle Friends, as a good fit for me for the same reasons. (This individual had been to two of the non-Christian Friends Meetings in town, and hadn't even realized that there was a Christian Friends church. He was surprised to hear that we were the original meeting and have been here for over a century.)

Yes, the collared priests, all women, was a little different. Also different was when one came and introduced herself, as Reverend Margaret. I didn't quite hear her, so she repeated herself, "Reverend Margaret". As if Reverend was the first name. I made light of it, saying my name was Jedidiah, and I'm not a reverend. She said, "I know."

Then others walked in. They were Brother Paul, and Sister Patty. Deacon Janet and Reverend Linda were already on the couch. Everyone had a title. And so it was all the more conspicuous when Lisa arrived late- greeted without the preformative. Mike also came. Just Mike.

The movie, Peaceful Warrior, was good if you know where you should be coming from. In the genre of Karate Kid, but without the fighting, a wise old sage (Nick Nolte) instructs a young gymnast how to expand his mind. Some of it was a bit off theologically, like that we should empty our minds and stop thinking. It had more of a Buddhist slant to it than the Christian meditative approach of focusing on God. But there were also numerous good lessons in there, that really hit home.

Afterward we had a discussion. Notably lacking in the discussion at this church was any mention of Jesus, or for that matter, God. And throughout the evening, I was getting that prickly feeling that not all was right here- you know, the one you get when you step into the realm of another spirit? When asked my thoughts, I simply shared that I enjoyed the movie, and was appreciating what others had to share. But the discussion was lead in the style of evangelism, like what I've experienced in visiting some cults, like my favorite, the Church of Christ, Boston. (What? You don't have a favorite cult? Everyone should!)

Afterwards I was invited to join them in their Mysticism classes, beginning this Wednesday, but was able to postpone the response, using classic evasive tactics I'd learned from Moroccan culture. They shared their primary books and studies for the classes- devoted to a man and woman I'd never heard of, with no mention of some of the classics like St. Francis, St. John of the Cross, or St. Theresa.

When I got home I wikied the group, with no results. Googling gave me some links, and I finally found them under their primary name, The Order of Christ Sophia. Despite their claim to orthodoxy, they also believe in reincarnation, prayer as magical force, gnostic interpretations of the Bible, and that Jesus was God in the sense that we can all reach the divine. Oh- Mary was God too. Turns out the two people they studied in their classes are their founders, and people progress from visitor to Brother to Deacon to Priest to Master Teacher. And most of the leaders are women, which explains why all the robed people at the meeting were women. They just opened their thirteenth center in various cities in the U.S.

So I won't be visiting again. But what I want to contemplate is the presence of the Light in the midst of such darkness. Nothing I've seen indicates this group is a cult; just a very different religion, in it's nascent form. And yet, I was immensely touched by the film they hosted- a film in itself advocating aberrant religious practices. Two thoughts rose within me as I watched, and continue with me to this day. One was the admonition to live in the moment, to be present in the moment. It brought to mind Paul's command to redeem the moment. I need to do more of that, focusing on the now.

The second thing the guru in the movie said was to realize that we can control nothing. This also resonated deep within me. God is in control of all things, and much of my angst in life is in the thought that this or that event should be controllable, or should bend to my will. In truth, it is not controllable, and often won't go with my will- and much peace is gained in remembering that. This will be my goal to practice in the coming future.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

...I can't stand self-advertising, conceited "wise" women like that (stark contrast to the mother of Jesus they were adopting as one of their own..who espoused humility of spirit...Do agree w the ol Buddist present in the moment thing, tho, and that thought also espoused in by the recovery movements, that God's in control, and we're too much in the way...
l, mom

Omar P. said...

Actually, I believe that God is sovereign, but not that God is in control. The phrase "God is in control" is a sort of theological shorthand for His sovereignty that can lead to all sorts of flawed thinking.

@bdul muHib said...

I appreciate your thoughts Omar.

I would disagree. I think God is sovereign, and that he is in control. I think theology becomes flawed when we don't recognize his control over all things.

Omar P. said...

I couldn't disagree more. :-)

So let me ask you a series of questions, because I would be intrigued to see how your answers fall out.

1. How do you define "control" in the phrase "God is in control?"
2. How does this picture of God relate to the concept of human free will?
3. How does the image of God being in control explain or correspond with the problem of evil?

It may be that you mean something different by the phrase "God is in control" than most people do. The questions above highlight a couple of the areas that seem to be difficult to sort out when measured against the theological shorthand of "God is in control," at least as I have seen most evangelical Christians use it.

I look forward to your continued thoughts.

@bdul muHib said...

Omar-

I'm definitely not evangelical. I go back to the beginning, past the wimpy theology of Calvin, to Augustine. All things are predestined and fallen short of the glory of God. To deny His complete control is to have a weak theology, in the literal sense of the word, and ultimately violates logic. Attempts to circumvent this by turning to quantum mechanics do not actually increase free will, but merely focus on natural randomness and chance- something long considered under the providence of God.

At the same time we have choice and responsibility. For God is outside of time; when he decides something it was decided long ago. I think the easiest way to understand it is by using biology as a metaphor. We know from biology that everything I do is determined by my genes and my upbringing- some combination of nature and nurture. (Yes, there is the random element of chance, but that either effects genes, or is the environment which we respond to, depending on our genes and our upbringing.) This is a fact of biology, making it perhaps the most determinist science. Yet, at the same time, I fully affirm that I often come to a decision, for I go through the decision-making process. Just because I know what causes me to make a decision in no way invalidates that I did so- be that the proximal cause of a Y Chromosome or the distal cause of God. Just because God makes the decision for me in no way invalidates that I made the decision as well.

God is in control for he controls all things. And further, he delights to bring good gifts. This differentiates the theology of predestination from that of fatalism, often found in Islam. You can see this clearly in a random search of verses in the Bible verses the Qur'an. Both good books, but the Bible infinitely more upbeat, for it's the idea of a God coming to serve his people because he loves them. His control is expressed as joyously bringing good to those who love him, and always desiring for good for his creation.

Theodicy is of course a vastly larger topic, and let me touch on it only briefly. There are, as it were, two levels to God's will. For the question really boils down to, not do we have free will, but does God? I call it the higher and deeper will, but greater minds before me have called it the permissive and perfect will. There is that which God wants (that all people might be saved), and that which is necessary because of the nature of reality. For as Aquinas said, "The omnipotence of God does not extend to contradiction." A rock too big for him to lift is nonsense, and remainse nonsense even when applied to God. There are things which are necessary because of who God is, and who we are (not God).

One of these things is evil. Evil allows us to see the good. Suffering allows us to appreciate how much better good is. Indeed at the heart of our faith, more than any other, is suffering. It builds endurance, perseverence, and hope. Just as one can not know how good food is until one has fasted for 30 days, and has the joy of breaking the fast in 'id al f'tur, so one can not truly appreciate good without knowing the evil as well.

Thus some people are destined towards evil, and some towards good. (All of course some of each.) And there is suffering and pain in creation, as we see in the very fabric of it, in evolution, which God created. God could have made a world where we were all automotons, with no conscious thought and ability to discern good from evil. But in that we reached a point where we had conscious thought, we were able to see the difference between good and evil, and seeing that difference, we continued to act as our ancestors did, and therefore acted within evil. That which we did before was not evil, for we did not know good from evil. But when we continued in the same actions, now knowing the difference, we were now responsible for those decisions.

That we were ultimately directed to do so by millions of years of hereditary genes directed by God is immaterial. We still made the choice. This is very different from the action of an Ichneumon Wasp laying it's children in a living caterpillar, or a cowbird laying it's eggs in another's nest so it's offspring receive care at the expense of another. These animals are also controlled, but have no conscious thought. They are not involved in their control and decisions, as we are. God already experimented with this, and wanted a whole nother level- that of a creature who is aware (to some degree) of her desicisions. And when God caused this, then that creature, in it's awareness, was responsible, for it knew good and evil.

Thank you for your thoughts and dialouge.

Omar P. said...

Thanks for your time and your thoughtful, considered response. I still disagree of course, but I like knowing where you are coming from.

I think I would differ with you in several areas of thinking - including probably your definition of evangelicalism, the idea of predestination and the use of the word control. It is not "weak" theology to think that God gave us free will that is truly free - I actually feel it is a more courageous theology and one that most Christians shy away from in favor of a "God is in control" motif that makes them feel safe.

But rather than taking the time to address each of those ideas, let me start with the one idea in your response that concerns me the most. A benevolent God does not need evil. Evil is not necessary. It exists, it is real, but it is a product of our fallenness not some intentional part of God's plan. There is a difference between what God can use to His purposes and what he implements Himself.

On a related topic, how did you feel about Lorraine's sermon addressing this topic a few months ago? She said much the same thing that I did (i.e. that God is NOT in control, He is sovereign). Did that sermon bother you at all?

Cheers and I look forward to further intriguing blog entries.

@bdul muHib said...

You mentioned Lorraine- have I met you before then?

I said previously that I was being very literal in calling it weak theology. That is simply a fact, not an opinion- it is. Theology is the study of God; this posits a weaker god. It says nothing about the strength of the belief itself, but it is a weaker god, and therefore a weaker theology- not a weaker soteriology, Christology, or theodicy.

Safety has everything and nothing to do with it. Everything, for God is Savior, and that's how he wants us to view him. There is nothing negative in recognizing his role, and our lack. Nothing, because it remains a fact no matter how attractive or unattractive it is. I don't get to cherry pick my theology; I must go where the logic leads. And the logic dictates that a God who is not in control is no God at all. A god perhaps, but not a God. But we've got plenty of gods.

You're right. A benevolent God, or a non-benevolent God, for that matter, don't need evil. Rather, it is we who do. Nor is it an intentional part of God's plan, but rather a direct result of his plan. For evil is not the opposite of good, but merely corrupted good. Were it the opposite, it would be equal, and have as much right as good itself would have. But were that so, then it would be a rival for the status of God- leading back to the same conundrum posited within Arminianism.

In truth, I find far more fear in those who advocate Arminianism- the fear of letting go, and letting another take control. I think it no accident that Arminianism is most popular in the West, and particularly in that most Individualist of all nations, America.

Lorraine's sermon I disagreed with it its entirety. I recognize also that it is the belief of the majority of the Meeting. But I think such issues are better not addressed in such a format as a sermon.

Omar P. said...

Dude - yes, we've met before! We attend the same meeting. I may even see you this Friday at movie night, though I don't know whether "Gattaca" is your cup of tea or not . . .

As for your latest response, I continue to appreciate you taking the time to reply in such careful detail. However your logic is either flawed or based on a definition of weak vs. strong with which I wholeheartedly disagree.

Or perhaps I did not explain my own position well enough.

To say that God is not in control is not to say that God could not, if he chose, take control - either for a moment or forever. It is still His created order and He is still omnipotent. But there is a difference between having the power to do something and actually exercising that power.

In my mind it takes far more "strength" to lay down your dominance than it does to take it up. I think the motif we have in scripture (certainly in the N.T.) is of a God who does not stress His physical strength or even His spiritual power, but rather takes on a guise of humility through the Incarnation. That is strength of a different type and one to which I hope we all aspire.

Just my thoughts. Happy to chat over coffee some time about all of this. I hope that you did the same with Lorraine regarding her sermon. It would be unfortunate to not take the opportunity to dialogue with your pastor regarding something you obviously feel so strongly about.

Cheers!

@bdul muHib said...

Yes. I asked Lorraine and she told me who you were. I had understood you to be a Muslim friend.

Gattica is an excellent movie, but I've seen it so many times before, I don't think I'll make it this Friday.

I'm glad to hear that you affirm the omnipotence of God. That is a good direction.

If God has the power, but does not use it, this will work- if you deny God's omniscience. If however, you affirm that he is omniscient, then logically immediately he must be all powerful. For it is not that he knows how to do something, but rather that he knows how to do everything. Then his every inaction would be a conscious choice, and therefore by inaction he acts. He would know what everything will do, and has done, and therefore be unable to remove himself from the causality.

Secondly, if it were possible for God to give up control, to do so would be the creation of a 2nd (or more) deity, and now we merely enter the road of the Hypostasis of the Archons, with a multiplicity of gods. We too often forget, in a post-monotheistic world, what polytheism is like. It's not equally powerful gods, something like Zorastrian dualism, but rather a very powerful top god, powerful under-gods, and a whole bunch of less powerful lower gods. Giving up the power creates a similar circumstance.

A big reason the theological concept of the Trinity was created was to explain the issue of Jesus. Yes, God gave up power in that circumstance. But then it was needed to affirm that God was still omnipotent and in control of all things. In this way only God could be both weak and strong at the same time. If he is undergoing a continuous kenosis in all aspects of him, then there really is no need for a doctrine of the Trinity, or at the very least, a weak Trinitarianism. (Here using weak to refer to the strength of the belief, and not the inherent power within the referrent.)

I think I just responded to the 2nd to last paragraph before I read it, so I'll move on to your final paragraph. Other than to say I agree, there is more strength in laying down, and should be our goal as created beings. But it took the incarnation to take us to that next step, as everything in the last 3.5 billion years of evolution would state the opposite. Now we have a model of how we can advance and be successful through denying ourselves; now we have a God breaking the barrier and entering into humanity so that we can achieve this by becoming divine; now we have a death which is the model and also the type, true symbology, allowing us to know good and evil and yet choose good, through death, breaking the power of death as a negative, and showing the ultimate power of sacrifice to remove sin. Thus the last 3.5 billion years of undeserved suffering becomes fully redemptive through Christ's death on the cross, in the ultimate moment of denial of self and power.

So this is our goal as created beings, of which Jesus was one. But it is dangerous to ascribe the same ethics and goals to us as to God. God kills, and dispenses vengeance- we do not. This is clear from scripture, and is a more hopeful understanding from merely observing the world around us. And let us not forget, Jesus endured the cross, despising the shame, for the joy set before him, and is now sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Thus the ultimate goal was not the denial of power, but the gaining of it, even for Jesus; and he became lower than the angels out of love for us, and so was therefore elevated above them. Being God, that gaining of power was so that he could do good, of course, and act more fully in love.

Lorraine and I have had a number of discussions in the past on this matter, so she knew very well where I stand. I don't think it needs to be repeated with her.

Omar P. said...

Fascinating. Again, I disagree with some of your "logical" conclusions, but I appreciate you taking the time to spell them out. It gives me increased perspective on where you are coming from.

I am short on time today, so can't respond more fully. I'd still be happy to discuss this in person some time.

I see that I also would probably find some differences in our view of the crucifixion and atonement theory . . . but that is a whole other thread that again, Idon't have time for today. :-)

Blessings,

Omar

Eric said...

Your term "non-Christian Friends Meetings" caught my eye. What definition of "Christian" are you using, that it isn't presumptuous or insulting to call them that?

@bdul muHib said...

Hi Eric,

Thanks for your question.

First off, I'd say I'm not using a different terminology than what I hear from most of the universalist Friends meetings- they avowedly say they are not Christian. This is not to say that there aren't Christians in those meetings; there most assuradly are. But the meeting itself does not claim this.

Secondly, I'm being rather broad in my definition of Christianity here. I'm not saying that one has to caring for the poor and having Christ as an ongoing intimate part of your life. In this case, I'm using the easier, wider definition of accepting Jesus as God, confessing him as Lord, acceptance of the Nicean Creed- the standard measures of what it means to be a Christian.

Lastly, it is in no way an insult to say a group is not Christian (even, unlike this case, they claim to be), any more than it is an insult to say a group is not Muslim or Buddhist. It is simply a category that they do not fit into, for as a whole, they do not believe the basics of the Christian faith. This does not imply that those who aren't
Christians are worse people- indeed, some of the nicest kindest people I've met are not Christians, and some of the meanest assholes I've met are. Being Christian doesn't make you a good person. I'd argue that it makes you a better person than you were before you were a Christian, but it doesn't make you better than the next guy. Being Christian makes you forgiven, despite how bad you are, and it makes you on a path towards kindness. It could easily be that the universalist Friends meetings in Seattle, as a group, are kinder than those at North Seattle Friends, as a group. But goodness is not the measure of being a Christian.

Eric said...

Thanks for your reply.

My implication that it might be insulting to refer to unprogrammed Meetings as non-Christian was from the context that they claim themselves to be so, not from any objective value of being or not being Christian. Most Quakers that I know, regardless of their personal stance on Christianity, would categorize Quakerism under the umbrella of Christianity, and by default their Meetings as Christian.

I suppose I'm curious where your claim that arguably-universalist Friends Meetings "avowedly say they are not Christian" comes from. I'm not familiar with mission statements of individual Meetings disavowing Christianity, nor am I certain where I would even find a corporate statement on that topic for any given Meeting.

@bdul muHib said...

Really? That surprises me. Of course, you'd know far better than I, but in every conversation I've had with Friends from --- meetings, they have expressed themselves as Universalist Friends, and I get the distinct impression that they would be insulted to be called a Christian Friends meeting. This was true, the expression of the meeting, regardless of whether or not that particular Friend was Christian or not. Of course, I haven't polled every single person from U Friends that you and I know, but there are a number a number in that group too.

However, I think the use of "unprogrammed" to designate lacks precision, for there are unprogrammed meetings that are universalist and those that are not, like in FUM. I'd use Hicksite, but I have heard that that is seen as a perjorative.

I don't know that any Quaker group, regardless of philosophy, would disavow Christianity. Indeed, if a group was universalist, disavowal of any faith would be antithetical to their beliefs. And yet, there are Quaker groups that, minus forms, I find very little difference in them than I do among some Islamic Sufis.

Yes, Quakerism comes historically out of Christianity, and the majority of Quakers, individually and groups, are Christian. But there was a point when a large minority decided to step out of that and embrace universalism. This belief (not to be confused, as it often is, with universal salvation) is antithetical to the Christian faith, in it's deepest roots. So though I'd still say my admittedly limited experience strongly indicates an embrace of Universalism over Christianity by --- Friends, even if this were not so, I would no more call them Christian than I would the Mormons or the JWs. One may want to be identified with a group, but if you go too far out of the baseline of the group, you are no longer technicality part of it. This was seen by the early Sabellians, the Arians, Marcionites, Gnostics- and the Christians, when, in the cycle of time, they could no longer be called Jews.

Eric said...

Precision in labels is difficult indeed... Hicksite is, I think, less of a useful distinction in this part of the country, not because of any pejorative use (its use as an insult fell away decades ago, if not earlier, as I understand it), but because unprogrammed friends on the west coast are technically (or at any rate historically) Beanite. The Beanites were the last major split from Orthodox Friends, who came out west to subsequently come to resemble most the Hicksite and/or Wilburite branches.

I'm not sure I understand your conception of the distinction between universalist and Christian Friends among unprogrammed Quakers. Are you referring to, say, conservative Friends meetings (Wilburite) such as in Ohio and Indiana, versus the larger unprogrammed body?

I would also offer a broader (and as I see it a literally more accurate) definition of "Christian" than your last one: simply as "a follower of Christ's teachings." It strikes me as an arbitrary line to draw for excluding groups that reject the Nicean Creed. While the vast majority of Christianity may indeed fall under that umbrella, what standing do they have to reject other groups from inclusion in a category of people/groups who worship and follow Christ?

@bdul muHib said...

Excellent thoughts and questions.

Though not historically accurate, if it is not a perjorative, I think I'd prefer the Hicksite use, because it accurately represents the beliefs of this group. (Much like strands of Quakerism are called Holiness, because they were later influenced by this strand of Christianity, but not because of historical roots.)

I wasn't referring to Wiburites- I'm not sure how that related? I was saying most meetings in FUM are unprogrammed, and yet they are also Christian, so the use of the unprogrammed term is not a helpful distinction in this case.

As to your final paragraph, it strikes me how similar that it is to the questions raised against Irenaeus by the Gnostics of his day. I believe it was in Against Heresies that he laid down why the one group, the main group at the time, of Christians gets to lay claim to the title- the Principle of Apostolic Succession. While the concept has been abused in the past, I think, as originally laid out by Irenaeus, it still holds a lot of validity. Namely, that we know these truths to be true, that we know what is Christianity, by looking at the churches that still are in apostolic succession. Such that a church of Polycarp can look to Clement who can look to Paul. That church is then teaching the true doctrine- and any church that agrees in the main with that church is also the true Church.

Certainly, the concept can be abused, and a church can slide away, but in the main, I think it remains an excellent way of understanding orthodoxy from heresy. And since the church met as a group, however flawed that might have been, in those early councils, what they laid down, especially in the first five, especially in the first two, is gospel, in the fullest meaning of the word. It may be that another group comes along and claims something else, and they may even be right- but they are no longer Christian.

Bear in mind, too, we talk here about what is or is not Christian in only beliefs- not who is good, much less who is saved.

Eric said...

Rest assured, I have no interest in debating Goodness in a religious context.

I believe I confused things a bit when I misread FUM as UFM. At any rate, Wilburite Friends, as they exist today, are "conservative" in that they conserve many historically Christian and orthodox Quaker beliefs while also holding to Quaker mysticism and unprogrammed worship. I think they are a fascinating gruop in their practices and organization.

As a cynic when it comes to Christian history and its political squabbles in each time period, I suppose I don't have much to contribute there besides my rejection of Apostolic Succesion as a terribly meaningful or valid way to measure Christianity. I think the formation of the early Church was rather messy and dubious, and the passage of time doesn't grant the successful views of that era any more validity or reverence than they were due in their own time.

@bdul muHib said...

I agree, when politics entered in, things got more messy. Not irreedemable, but still messy. That's why I prefer to look at the early church, before Constantine, for authentic guidance. We're still dealing with fallens, sinful people, sure, but we're a lot closer to the source (Jesus). I find much support in applying principles of archeology and historical criticism, with integrity, authenticity, and reliability of the texts, to the early church, enough to be much more confident on what went on there than I am about Socrates' life.

I'd also pull and tug with you that the definition of a Christian is "a follower of Christ's teachings". I think that makes him into some sort of guru, which he certainly was, but a whole lot more. It also does injustice to his culture and him. For his teachings were to "follow me". A Christian is someone who follows not only his teachings, but Christ himself- and that involves that other teaching- picking up your cross and following him.