Quaker Theology #11 -- Spring-Summer 2005

In Search of Religious Radicalism -- page 2

The next domino to fall was my belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. I have always believed in miracles and to some extent still do. In my life I had significant experiences with faith healing, which still convince me that there is something extraordinary in the power of prayer. However, I have seen too many cases where even the most sincere prayers did not work. It seemed that there were natural limits to the miracle-working power of God. A bodily resurrection seemed to be beyond what I was beginning to believe were those natural limits.

This led quickly to the final domino, my idea of God Him/Herself. If Nature set limits to God’s miracle-working power, perhaps God wasn’t all-powerful, as I had believed. I came to this realization in what can be described as a mystical experience. One day during a moment of physical fatigue, brought on by an illness, I had a strange sensation of a face hovering just inches from me. I thought this must be God. However, the face began to melt and I had the sensation that I, too, was melting. The divine image and I were melting into each other and into nothingness. This experience was something like nirvana mixed with a bit of mystic union.

A New Genesis

With this new set of religious understandings, I no longer had enough orthodoxy to remain a member in good standing in Reba Place Church. I began to seek out a new community. The two that appealed to me most were the Unitarian-Universalists and the liberal branch of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Both denominations had embraced modern ideas over the past hundred years. Since Quakers were pacifists and I still remained one, I attended there first.

Two things solidified my decision to join Quakers: my son found a new best friend the first Sunday we attended and the meeting was hosting a workshop on healing prayer a few weeks later. This meant to me that I was still in touch with important components of my past, while remaining free to pursue my new path, wherever it might lead.

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Deconstructing My Radical Spirituality

Conflicts Seeking Resolution

Looking back at my religious journey, there seems to be a few dominant conflicts. Among these are: traditional doctrines versus freedom to explore new possibilities, rationality versus emotionalism, social versus religious values, and experience versus authority. Resolving these conflicts in various ways resulted in a cumulative reorientation in my religious philosophy to a consistently radical or, more precisely, a consistently progressive perspective.

At stake in this reorientation was a total reevaluation of my religious heritage and experience. Although I cannot now call myself a Christian, I still owe a huge debt to that tradition. Although I have learned that there are many non-Christian pacifists, I first became one under the influence of the Bible, and my personal study of Christian pacifist writings still form a solid body of thought and inspiration from which I still draw strength. In the end, however, that debt was insufficient to justify the persistent conflict I experienced between my social values and my religious loyalty.

Social vs. Religious Values

One of the persistent tensions I felt as I explored radical ideas was the church/world dichotomy that seems prevalent in many Christian churches. "The World", meaning all non-Christians, was at most, a target of evangelism and service, but never genuinely accepted as co-workers in social struggles. Christian radicals tended to view themselves as a sort of vanguard party like the Communists. We knew how to liberate society because we had a divine revelation and incarnate messiah to lead the revolution.

In Marxism, I encountered the most formidable challenge to this Christian exclusivism. Rather than seeing human liberation in terms of personal faith and church community, it pointed to the historic struggle of the laboring classes against their own oppression as the bearer of humankind’s future. I began to question whether I should place less emphasis on religious belief and more on ethical or social considerations in determining the focus of my personal direction.

The Church/World dichotomy not only worked in the present as a barrier to cooperation across religious lines, but it also imposed limitations on the future. Pentecostals are raised to believe in the Second Coming of Jesus in which all the true believers will be resurrected, Jesus will return bodily to the city of Jerusalem and establish a 1,000-year reign as King of the entire world. Christian theology tends to view the Second Coming as a time of judgment on non-Christians, meaning those who have not made a conscious faith commitment to Jesus.

My involvement with, and reading of social philosophy by, non-Christians lead me to a conflicted relationship with non-Chris-tians. On the one hand, I considered many of them my betters in matters of social activism. On the other hand, I considered them to be eternally lost and destined for hell. For example, I believed that I could work with them to abolish warfare and militarism, but when Jesus came back, non-Christian pacifists would have to face damnation, while some of the same militarists I was opposing would be forgiven their sins and given eternal life.

Once I abandoned a literal belief in the final judgment and hell, it was much simpler to embrace non-Christians as worthy collaborators in struggles to end social injustices. The challenge that remained was whether or not I had enough religious values remaining to support meaningful participation in and contributions to a religious community.

Can Religion and Social Radicalism Be Integrated?

However much I wanted to embrace my wholly secular radical companions, I found that I still craved religious community. Many of them seemed to find a satisfying life inhabiting the subcultures of Marxists, anarchists, and other radical movements. While I no longer believed in conventional Christianity, I could not entirely lay down the religious orientation that I had lived with my entire life. Rather than swinging to an atheistic antithesis of religion, I was driven to examine from a new perspective what sort of religious life was possible beyond Christianity or traditional religion.

This meant exploring at a fundamental level the meaning of religion. What do I find still valuable in religious community? How do I define authentic religion in a way that does not reduce it social activism?

I was groping towards an evolving philosophy of integral – religious and social – transformation. This new radical orientation would be world affirming, socially progressive, and religiously experimental. In it, worldliness and spirituality would join hands in triumphing over violence and injustice to embrace an integrated journey of compassion and freedom. It will take life in terms of experience and reflective thought, rather than by forcing that experience into traditional constraints that are no longer relevant.

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Conceiving Religious Radicalism

In order to develop a new synthesis of religious and social radicalism, I found it necessary to answer three questions: what is religion, what is radicalism, and how can they be synthesized? The goal is not merely a theoretical or theological system, but a dynamic vision of how religious communities and social movements can become mutually interrelated.

Obstacles to such a vision include the present state of movements for social change and the persistent strength of conservative religious values. In the 1960s, it seemed that a new dynamic movement appeared every few years and that they built on one another towards a unified transformation of society. A significant number of these movements were religiously based. The conservative retrenchment that occurred in the ‘70s and ‘80s effectively overwhelmed the optimism of these movements and they fell into disarray. Although it is important to recognize that much of this conservatism was the product of economic interests (West, 1988), it is also important to emphasize the role that groups like the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition played in mobilizing grassroots conservatism.

The persistence of conservatism in religion is an obstacle that has led many radical thinkers, such as Karl Marx, to severely criticize religion for its support for repressive social institutions (Marx, 1844).

One of the most comprehensive responses to the Marxist criticism of religious conservatism is found in the philosophy of John Macmurray, a Scottish religious philosopher who lived from 1891-1976. It should be remarked here that John Macmurray became a Quaker a few years after retiring from academia. Early in his career, he had decided that Christianity was so deformed that no denomination was fulfilling what he saw as the rightful development of Christianity. He was later to believe that Quakerism came the closest to the vision he'd elaborated, but with some reservations.

His central contention is that religious conservatism must give way to an experimental and progressive orientation, but it would remain a religious orientation. Developing this contention involved an analysis of the nature of religion, its formations and deformations throughout history, and the shape of a revolutionary reconstruction of the religious dimension of human life.

What is Religion?

According to Macmurray, religion is the primary form of human community and reflection (Macmurray, 1957). In pre-modern societies, religion contains all the cultural, intellectual, and moral achievements of a society (p. 20). In Medieval Europe this unity was manifested in the Roman Catholic Church with its influence in politics, academia, and ethical standards. In more primitive societies, religion as a concept does not exist, rather, there is an unreflective social unity that contains myths, laws, and rituals that govern all aspects of the common life of the people.

This unity has its roots in the personal nature of human life. According to Macmurray, a human person is a unity of feelings, thoughts, and relationships (1936, pp. 13-31). Humans are at once emotional, analytical, and relational. We are driven by our feelings, guided by our thoughts, and integrated with others in families, communities, and societies.

This personal unity has tended to become fragmented in Western civilization as modern society has become more complex and secularized. Humans have advanced the sciences and arts to extraordinary heights, but our relational lives are often fraught with pain, repression, and immaturity (1935, p.140ff). Macmurray maintains that this immaturity is at the root of most modern crises and that it is a deformation of the field of human experience at its widest and most personal, the lived quality of personal relationships.

This field was traditionally the province of religion, but the religious quality of relationships has become dominated by other, less comprehensive and adequate domains, such as politics or economics. When intellectualism comes to dominate the relational field, the result is a dualism in which we view other persons as objects rather than as whole persons. When emotionality comes to dominate, the result is a selfishness that reduces other persons to sources for personal satisfaction rather than holistic relationship.

Macmurray argues that the history of Western Europe exhibits this pattern of religious dualism on a larger scale. He main-tains this is the result of a historical conflation of Roman imperialism, Grecian culture, and Jewish (Judeo-Christian) religion (Macmurray, 1932). He maintains that Judaism, and potentially Christianity, perceives society and human liberation through a consistently religious frame of reference (p 45). The founding event of Judaism, the exodus from Egyptian slavery and the formation of a tribal confed-eration rather than an empire, is the crucial exemplar of this liberatory potential of Judaic religion. Christianity’s founding was a call to re-conceive this liberatory trajectory in terms of the whole world, including gentiles. The argument is not that Judaism or Christ-ianity are relationally mature, but that religion as the unity of human experience is more adequate to the task of unifying and liberating human communities and societies than a purely impersonal politics.

Macmurray views the impersonal character of modern society as arising from the imperialism that Western civilization has inherited from Roman culture. He describes this culture as primarily administrative and impersonal. It needed a religion to buttress its political legitimacy and it first adopted Grecian mythology, then emperor worship, and finally enlisted the Christian churches as an instrument of the imperial order.

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