Earlier in the week, I learned an important lesson. The effect was an abrupt about-face that revealed my own flaws and also granted me an opportunity to gain greater wisdom. For over a year, I have been actively involved in almost every aspect of the Young Adult Friend group at my Monthly Meeting. Being so closely invested in the process has provided me a sense of satisfaction and greater purpose. At long last, I have found a way to put my leadership skills to good use and, for the most part, my mental health has cooperated. And I’ve also gotten a chance to see the direct result of my hard work, which is one of the most gratifying feelings I have ever experienced in my life. Many toil for years in similar circumstances with nothing physically tangible to show for it. The ultimate credit, of course, is not mine to take but I couldn’t help but feel pride in the creation.
Jun 15 2011
Jun 01 2011
While riding on the bus here in DC recently, I’ve noticed another in a series of ad campaigns by atheist, agnostic, and non-theist groups. The Freedom From Religion Foundation has been particularly persistent and prominent. Their basic advertising technique displays a quotation advancing an anti-religious view from a series of important Americans throughout time. They seek to best advance a basic message that religion and government have no part. While I agree that a strict separation or wall between the two is necessary, I would not agree to remove moral teachings with a religious focus altogether from the process. Real religion and spirituality, not its watered-down, adulterated, self-serving imitation is never plentiful.
Mar 24 2011
I’ve often been interested in genealogy, and have recently discovered that I have some first generation Quaker relatives. A Friend from my Meeting recently asked about my family history after worship, so I thought I might provide that which I know. The people described here all hail from from a village named Hunsdon, which is in Hertsfordshire, north of London. If you need a point of reference, Hunsdon is in the East of England, roughly 25 miles north of London.
Dec 16 2010
As we move towards becoming a more empathetic society, certain regrettable characteristics must be directly addressed. The eye for an eye sorts would have us believe that we are opting for weakness, regardless of our efforts to establish fairness and equality. The paradoxical ferocity of our impulse for justice would seem to belie these fears, but they still remain in the minds of many. Unless we honestly take stock of how each of us is negatively impacted by a noxious undercurrent of violence, we will only be treating secondary symptoms of a larger disease. In the end, it doesn’t really matter how many degrees separate our complicity.
Nov 15 2010
A year or so ago I wrote a post that referenced the Sleater-Kinney song “Sympathy”. I return to it here for a slightly different reason. Its poignant, profound lyrics are written from the perspective of a mother whose newborn son’s survival hangs in the balance. In her desperation and fear, she calls out to God.
Oct 18 2010
Some have postulated before if there is, in fact, a strictly biological component to faith. For example, many scientists, mathematicians, and left-brain dominant individuals are Atheists. They see no role for a higher power, since the scientific process and deductive reasoning can reduce the unexplainable to mere coincidence or chance. To them, the universe is as neat and orderly as an algebraic equation. Taking delight and contentment in perfection, the same formula or theorem always works the same way and always produces the same result. I never doubt the constant need for people whose ways of looking at the world are so different than my own, but they also present significant challenges. Getting on the same page without confusion is not the least of these.
Sep 09 2010
One of the most famous passages in the entire biblical canon begins this way.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
And yet, wanting more, desiring more, being fearful that what we have will soon leave us, these anxieties are responsible for so much evil in the world. The myth of scarcity influences our decisions in so many ways. The reality is that we live in a world packed full of abundance, both for good and for bad. And yet, when we believe otherwise, then we respond in ways that are frequently irrational and rarely beneficial. Leaders have a knack for making the nonsensical seem plausible and justified, appealing to the worst parts of ourselves. When we are obsessed with our own demise rather than delighting in the gifts laid before us, we neglect an opportunity to build community with others. This conflict is so integral to the human condition that one can see examples of it everywhere, especially where power and acquisition are of paramount importance.
Sep 03 2010
Whether we’re even conscious of it, we need and desire a means of discernment. We seek a measuring stick with which to compare our own individual perspectives with something close to objectivity. We desire something firm and deeply grounded when the world around us is always changing. Increasingly, Americans view science as the final and ultimate say. To qualify my remarks, I don’t caustically dismiss scientific progress out of hand in favor of religious belief. I do know that science is never static, and that it is a field which is constantly evolving as surely as are all living beings. To place complete, unwavering faith in science is to overlook the continual process of human discovery.
Aug 29 2010
Yesterday we sent cameras to Glenn Beck’s 828 rally and Al Sharpton’s rally and march. We posted a handfull of videos from each. But first, a personal comment, if you don’t mind. My parents and grandparents were civil rights activists (not to mention anti-war activists and labor organizers). On the same grass where we stood yesterday, my mother stood 47 years ago to watch Martin Luther King Jr. declare his dream for the world. I highly doubt anyone will remember yesterday the way my mother remembers 47 years ago.
We will begin with Beck’s event::
May 15 2010
So I’ve been away for a couple of weeks, and it’s time to get back to a more demanding schedule…but before I do, I have a story to tell you that is so hilarious that we need to put it on the front burner so we can get the weekend off to a truly great start.
To protect the innocent we’ll leave out all the names, but suffice it to say that this story takes us to the intersection of religious evangelism, childlike innocence, and the idiosyncratic nature of autism.
Some of you are going to think I made this up, but I promise, this is an actual, true, “really, honest, it really happened” story, and every word is as accurate as it could be, considering that it was a tale told second-hand.
And with all that having been said, let’s go to Spokane, where our story has been waiting for us.
Apr 14 2010
Specter recently spoke at the TEDGlobal2010 Conference, held over the course of four days in Oxford, England to explore “the shocking undercurrent of good news just below the surface of today’s troubling headlines — new ideas, new science, new technology, new social and political thinking, new art and a new understanding of who we are”.
While I don’t agree with everything Specter says here and I don’t disagree with a lot of it, one of the things that I cannot deny is that I’m not always wrong in my opinions. I doubt that you can either.
But nor am I always right.
Why Michael Specter is worth listening to:
Michael Specter’s new book, Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives, dives into a worrisome strain of modern life — a vocal anti-science bias that may prevent us from making the right choices for our future. Specter studies how the active movements against vaccines, genetically engineered food, science-based medicine and biotechnological solutions to climate change may actually put the world at risk. (For instance, anti-vaccination activists could soon trigger the US return of polio, not to mention the continuing rise of measles.) More insidiously, the chilling effect caused by the new denialism may prevent useful science from being accomplished.
Specter has been a writer for the New Yorker for more than a decade; before that, he was a science writer and then the Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times. He writes about science and politics for the New Yorker, with a fascinating sideline in biographical profiles.
Spend sixteen and a half minutes with Michael Specter here, and see if he doesn’t challenge some of your ideas that you might be wrong about. Or some you might be right about.
Recorded at TEDGlobal2010 – February 2010
Dec 11 2009
President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize Speech reads to me, in many ways, more like a sermon than a political or ideological treatise. That those who report and announce the news are either commenting upon a very small segment on that which was said, or taking a very minor section of the speech completely out of context like the increasingly malcontent Howard Fineman is regrettably par for the course. Nothing silences more than visionary language and far-sighted analysis, and notably none of it can be spun out into confusion by two split-screen talking heads yammering away at each other on a simultaneous satellite feed. We do a lot of talking these days, but frequently not a lot of listening.
Kathleen Parker and other pundits responded merely to this section, as it is the easiest to pick apart, but much like everything else in the world, full context is crucial to fullest understanding.
“For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”
With those words, Obama aligned himself with conservatives, who believe in the fallibility of human nature and in an enduring moral order. At the same time, he left room for moral conundrum: the difficulty of reconciling two seemingly irreconcilable truths — “that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly.”
As for the former assertion, not necessarily. As a Quaker, I daily navigate this own moral conundrum, as Parker phrased it. No amount of eloquent justification will ever sway me from the belief that war in all forms and for all reasons is morally wrong. Still, I do believe that while evil and good might be indebted to shades of gray, I do not believe in a hierarchy of sin and transgression. Wrong is wrong in a moral context and I leave it purely to the law of humans in a court to determine which wrong is more offensive than the next. Moreover, believing that human nature is inherently imperfect does not necessarily mean that we ought to wrap our arms around this fact and fail to continue working to improve conditions for our fellow person. Though I might believe that direct revelation from the Inward Light of God is a deeply, personal individual one which may vary from being to being, I do not believe that the liberty inherent in embracing one’s own path means one also gets the right to formulate for himself or herself precisely what constitutes good or evil, divisive or unifying. Peace, as Obama mentioned later in the speech, comes with sacrifice and sacrifice is a team sport. We will never arrive at it as a people unless we devote as much common energy towards securing peaceful means as we do when we channel our blood lust in the direction of an enemy who has wronged us.
We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.
Again, I disagree with the President. But to return to conundrums and paradoxes, in this instance I recall the 1927 film version of the famous anti-slavery book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The original novel portrays Quakers in heroic terms, eager to put their very lives on the line by actively transporting slaves by way of the Underground Railroad to Canada. One of the main characters, Eliza, miraculously makes her way across a frozen river into the North, pursued by dogs, and carrying her child with her. After being rescued by a kindly man from an adjacent farm, she finds a settlement of Friends who agree to send her towards freedom. She and her young son eventually escape slavery and settle beyond the reach of the Fugitive Slave Act, which required even Northerners to return runaway slaves under penalty of law.
The movie version, however, modifies the original plot considerably. Eliza makes her way across the frozen river as before, but is this time rescued from the ice and the damp by a particularly dexterous Quaker man. He and his wife eagerly agree to give both Eliza and her child a place to stay for a while, but notably do not stand up to an armed slave catcher by the name of Loker when he knocks at their door the next day. Full of good intentions, naive, utterly helpless to resist, and wholly powerless in the end is this version’s portrayal of Quakers and non-violent resistance. Both renderings have their own bias and both border on propaganda at times. Both, it must also be pointed out, have a degree of truth to them as well.
That aside, to me, the very heart of the speech lay in this passage.
As the world grows smaller, you might think it would be easier for human beings to recognize how similar we are, to understand that we all basically want the same things, that we all hope for the chance to live out our lives with some measure of happiness and fulfillment for ourselves and our families.
And yet, given the dizzying pace of globalization, and the cultural leveling of modernity, it should come as no surprise that people fear the loss of what they cherish about their particular identities: their race, their tribe and, perhaps most powerfully, their religion. In some places, this fear has led to conflict. At times, it even feels like we are moving backwards. We see it in the Middle East, as the conflict between Arabs and Jews seems to harden. We see it in nations that are torn asunder by tribal lines.
This passage challenges me to examine again my own goals and intents. The urge to surrender our individual identities on behalf of progress or perceived progress can sometimes be believed as doing away altogether with the depth and breadth of religious expression. While this is a fear of conservative people of faith more so than their brethren on the left, even I am gripped at times by a similar anxiety. In a desire to keep alive the rich uniqueness of my own faith group, I do not wish to see it incrementally reduced to nothing in the process. In that spirit, I push hard that we Friends might never forget the biblical underpinnings that inspire what we believe and which led to the formation of our Testimonies. Average Americans already, if a relatively recent survey is to be believed, selectively choose the precepts they incorporate into their own individual canon from a variety of religions.
By a three to one margin (71 percent to 26 percent), Americans say they are more likely to personally develop their own set of religious beliefs than accept a comprehensive set of beliefs taught by a church or denomination, a Barna study, released Monday, shows.
Born-again Christians were among the groups least likely to adopt an a la carte approach to religious beliefs, but even most in this group say they have mixed their set of beliefs (61 percent).
In other words, the Barna survey’s findings show that people no longer look to denominations or churches for a complete set of theological views. Rather, combining beliefs from different denominations, and even religions, is becoming the norm.
While tribalism and factionalism, particularly along religious lines has done much to set us apart from each other and has even compelled us to kill others in times of war, I find nothing wrong with separate identities, provided they do not separate us in the process. The Esperanto movement in linguistics, for example, sought to provide a international secondary language. The concept was predicated on the belief that the human race was needlessly divided by language barriers and that men and women could use Esperanto as a lingua franca to be used in conversation with those of other nationalities or those who spoke a different primary tongue. The intent was never that Esperanto would replace one’s native language, merely that it would facilitate diplomacy.
If this process were merely the latest evolutionary step, I would not have reason to be afraid, but I sometimes worry that we are jettisoning not just our religious identities, but our shared sense of purpose and love for our fellow being. The post-modernist believes that all we are these days is that which we ourselves have created and that we are only as deep as our own constructed reality. What a sterile world that would be, were it to be true! Let us not make idols of our own cynicism, too.
One must not forget the paradoxical story of the Tower of Babel as found in Genesis.
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved toward the east, they found a plain in Shinar [Babylonia] and settled there…They said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” But the LORD came down to look at the city and the tower the people were building.
The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel–because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
At face value, one would assume that God’s purpose in this act was to keep people divided, else they find more value within themselves than devotion to a God. In accordance with a literal interpretation, God is a jealous deity who desires no rivals and quickly strikes back against the idea that humanity through collective action might eventually believe that it feels it no longer has no use for God. Perhaps it speaks to the very idea of faith, as well, and with it the assertion that human endeavoring and human construction can never fully explain the divine or rationalize away the need for a higher power. Some interpretations over the years have seen the building of the Tower as a contemptuous and rebellious act toward God himself, in effect declaring war on God’s supreme authority. God does work in mysterious ways, after all.
So are we meant to be divided, else total unity rip our moral fabric and station to shreds? Is division just a part of life that serves as a deterrent, else we get too big for our britches? If one is a Christian, one believes that we are all a part of the metaphorical Body of Christ. Some faith groups or denominations have sought to define it different ways, but the concept itself is more or less the same. Though often used to reinforce this belief in shared Christian fellowship, St. Paul’s words in his first letter to the Corinthians can be read to go beyond just devotion to a particular religion or a particular cause.
Now, dear brothers and sisters, regarding your question about the special abilities the Spirit gives us…There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. God works in different ways, but it is the same God who does the work in all of us. A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. To one person the Spirit gives the ability to give wise advice; to another the same Spirit gives a message of special knowledge, to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, He gives one person the power to perform miracles, and another the ability to prophesy.
He gives someone else the ability to discern whether a message is from the Spirit of God or from another spirit. Still another person is given the ability to speak in unknown languages, while another is given the ability to interpret what is being said. It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have. For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ.
President Obama concluded his speech this way, saying,
Adhering to this law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature. We are fallible. We make mistakes, and fall victim to the temptations of pride, and power, and sometimes evil. Even those of us with the best intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us.
But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place. The nonviolence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached – their faith in human progress – must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.
For if we lose that faith – if we dismiss it as silly or naive, if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace – then we lose what is best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass.