Sunday, November 30, 2008

New doubtfulness

Frida Kahlo, Tree of Hope, Keep Firm (1946)

"He who begins by loving Christianity better than truth will proceed by loving his own sect or church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better than all."
--Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Aids to Reflection, Moral and Religious Aphorisms, XXIV.

By way of Jan over at Yearning for God, I've started reading Harold Loukes' The Quaker Contribution (see quote by Loukes on Jan's sidebar). The Quaker way fascinates me. I've been to one meeting with a former spiritual director who was a Quaker. The silence, the stillness, the absolute assurance of the presence of the Spirit within each worshipper was profound. After the service I confided to my friend that I thought of a particular hymn during the service and played it in my head as we sat in the meetinghouse. She cried with delight, "You could have stood and sung the hymn if you wished!" The outright joy and respect for each individual experience of God was palpable.

In his book Loukes quotes Robert Barclay's Apology for the true Christian Divinity (1676), then offers this reflection (the quotes are from Barclay):

"The significant phrase here is 'unwillingness to enter again into new doubtfulness': the reluctance to start again, experimentally, without certainties or comfort from the tradition.

"The Quaker theme is this extreme statement of the Reformation: that true religion consists not in certainty but in search, not old conviction but 'new doubtfulness'. In
the end there was a 'new certainty' to be discovered, but it was a certainty of a different kind from the old: no longer fixed and hardened into institutions and creeds, but infinitely more powerful because it reached the centre of human being.

"The Quaker story is thus the story of a group of people who trusted to the inward and rejected the outward."

It seems if we are to be honest about faith, we must keep a healthy balance of this 'new doubtfulness'. Faith is about "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen". Our experience of faith cannot be proven to another; the assurance, the conviction is ours alone. To keep our faith pliable and strong, it cannot be a fixed point. Nothing remains the same. We may long for the past but change keeps us moving toward a new day. In fact, change is the one constant (Octavia Butler in her book of fiction The Parable of the Sower created a whole philosophy based on God as Change). Behold, God is doing a new thing; do we perceive it?

On this first Sunday in Advent, we celebrate hope, which is to me is a mixture of faith and doubt. We see this especially in the reading from Isaiah 64, the longing for a God who appears to be absent, yet nonetheless the prophet cries out to this God. The tradition tells us that this longing was fulfilled not in the expectation of a divine rescue but in Jesus, born in poverty, by way of divine intervention in the creation of a human being. But what does our experience tell us now? What is our experience of Jesus? Of divine action in the human story? These questions beg of us a decrease of the ego and the mind, an increase in the imagination, in the capacity for mystery and for joy. The 'new doubtfulness' is meant to lead us to an authentic faith, not a pessimistic, jaundiced view of religious institutions.

In our longing for wholeness, in our search for the holy, in our 'new doubtfulness', may mercy and peace be our companions and may we know the almighty love with which we are already surrounded.

P.S. A link to an editorial by Leonard Pitts in the Miami Herald, posted on the blog The Quaker Agitator, that relates to this reflection. Thanks, Jan.


Jan said...

Cynthia, I read this yesterday and today had to re-read it. Thank you for mentioning that Loukes' quote from my blog. I am impressed that you are reading one of his books. I am strongly attracted to the Quakers, but still like the liturgy of the Episcopal Church, esp. after worship this first Sunday in Advent. I just read something about doubt, which maybe I'll post over at my blog. I am glad you write so thoughtfully, much more than I do.

Cynthia said...

His quote about love not being a failure was so comforting, so non-egoistic, that I wanted to know more.

I too like what liturgy and ritual we have in the United Church of Christ. Perhaps it is integration and balance of the outward and the inward that we need.

Jan said...

I like what you said about the integration and balance of the outward and the inward. That sounds true.

Mystical Seeker said...

I've been away from my blog for a long time, so I'm not actually sure if this is the posting that you left a comment about that you think I would be interested in. Either way, it is a nice posting, and I appreciate your writing it.

I was drawn to many of the things that you mentioned here about Quakerism. I think that I ultimately drifted away from it because I had moved around a lot and never felt at home when I went to a new meeting. I wanted to be part of a community that was a little less insular and self-referential. But Quakerism will always be a part of me regardless. And of course what you write about doubt and certainty is very much in accord with my own feelings.