Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Talking About Jesus, part 1: the powers and perils of naming

I've always been a Christian--that is, my relationship with God has been interpreted and enfleshed through Christian scripture, practice and community, with an emphasis on Jesus.  In the years when I worshipped with unprogrammed Friends my experience of God and the understandings and practices that engendered remained fairly constant, but we didn't use Jesus' name regularly and frequently as a group.  Now, while I still practice Quaker worship daily at home, my Sunday worship is with a little nondenominational church where we talk and sing a lot about Jesus.  I find a gift and a challenge in this naming.
Some of my Christian friends speak of the importance of naming the God we serve as Jesus, reminding ourselves and others of the particular challenge, peace and guidance found in Jesus' life and teaching.  Some parts of my relationship with God are most readily and precisely described through Jesus-language.  Some other Christian friends and some friends from other faith traditions speak of the dangers of using Jesus-language in a world where so much harm has been done by people who claimed to worship and follow Jesus.  I think all my friends are articulating important truths.  I am trying to find my way between them.

This post is about the challenges of talking about Jesus in groups that include non-Christians.  The next one will be about trying to talk about Jesus with fellow Christians without getting stuck in assumptions, and the one after that will be about my own relationship with/understanding of/attempt to follow Jesus thus far.
Years ago I brought a message about my experiences with Jesus-following, economic justice and integrity to a Quaker gathering.  I was told afterward that some people were upset with me.  I invited those people to meet with me.  Some did.  I expected them to have problems with my economic message.  Instead they felt hurt because I had reminded them of Christians they knew who spoke against or violently mistreated Jews or gays and lesbians.  They agreed that my message had not discussed Judaism, non-Christian religions, sexual ethics or sexual orientation, but I had used Jesus' name and had spoken in tones of exhortation and that had reminded of something that had hurt them.  Some of them had assumed that I was trying to convert them. 
My reaction was split.  There was frustration: I found myself thinking "Quakerism is originally a Christian movement, many of us still are Christians, you don't have to be what we are but you do need to let us freely describe what we have known of God."  There was also sympathy and concern: I understood that these people had experienced deep hurt in their own lives and had seen harm done to people they loved, and that I had reawakened the memory of that hurt. I regretted that. 
I listened to their hurt.  I acknowledged that great harm has been done in the name of my religion and expressed sorrow over some of that harm having been done to them and their loved ones.  I told them that I had been describing my own faith journey, which does centrally involve Jesus, but that I was asking other people to integrate their lives with their religious beliefs, not to modify their God-language to match mine.  I tried, also, to point out that the tendency to attack People Who Aren't Like Us is fairly widely distributed across humanity, and shows up in many religions, races, classes, orientations and ideologies...that Christians are neither immune to it nor unusually prone to it, though I thought if Christians followed Jesus more faithfully, and if people of other faiths deepened their communion with God, however they name God, we would all be healed of this tendency.  

I see two challenges here: a psychological one and a philosophical one.  The psychological one has to do with responding to genuine painful experience that has prompted a distorted overgeneralization.  This doesn't happen only around religion.  Once a friend voiced vehement disapproval of same-sex couples adopting children.  I spoke to X about some women I knew who were very capable, caring, generous and faithful, and also married to each other.  X responded with a very painful personal story of same-gender child sexual abuse.  I listened and sympathized with the great harm that had been done to X and others whom X loved.  I also tried to point out that child abuse is a terrible thing which is done by some people of all sexual orientations, and that self-restraint and faithful, healthy love between adults are also possibilities open to people of all sexual orientations.  Another friend who was present shared a very painful personal story of cross-gender child sexual abuse.
         I left that conversation and the conversation at the Quaker gathering in considerable doubt about my response.  I thought that trying to make a counter-point might have seemed dismissive of the hurt my interlocutors were carrying.  I thought it wrong to respond in a way that they might take to suggest that I agreed that Christians or gay and lesbian people really are abuse-prone and should be avoided.  I still don't know what the right response would have been.  

Then there's the philosophical problem.  We humans have misused and desecrated many--perhaps all--of our names for the holy and the good.  We have used them to justify unjustifiable actions.  This is true of many names of God, but avoiding religious language does not avoid the problem.  A guest once spoke about talking about Love instead of God because God-language has such a problematic history.  I told her I didn't find Love any less problematic.  I'd heard the word 'love' used in troubling ways in the fantasy play of kids who'd been sexually abused. I'd heard "If you really loved me, you would.." used to manipulate people destructively. "But that's not really love, that makes people behave like that," she said.  "No, and it's not really God who makes people abuse each other, either," I said.  It's not just God and love, either.  Most of us can probably think of atrocities and injustices which have been committed in the name of truth, justice, freedom, peace….
So when we use these good words they are subject to ambiguity, and they trigger pain and fear in some people.  But I think there are at least two good reasons for continuing to use them.
One is reclamation.  If we don't use these good words when we are trying to be sensitive to our neighbors, we abandon these words to thoughtless use, and the stigma and the hurt around them deepen.  If we use them carefully, lovingly, humbly, we may make it possible for some people to see the goodness in them.  (Pope Francis seems to have done this for some people's understanding of Catholic, or general Christian, language and practice.  I am very grateful.) Using them in this way we are reminded of the 'great cloud of witnesses', of all the people down through time who have invoked these good words as they healed sick people, taught children, reconciled enemies, forgave persecutors, cared for the earth, loved God and their neighbors.
The other is focus. If we don't use these good words an essential part of our lives and souls remains mute. If this muteness was part of a general context of silence it might have a different kind of strength.  In a very talkative society, we're apt to think largely about what we talk about, and if we refrain from talking about what is essential and keep talking about peripherals our focus is apt to be skewed.

I have also had good conversations with people of different faiths and with people outside any formal religious tradition, in which I was able to name my experience of God and Jesus and to hear the other person's names for the sacred without tension.  I have been helped by contemplation of the experiences and principles we hold in common.  Sometimes the other person's different language and images have helped me to get a fresh and vivid look at truths which had become so familiar to me in my own tradition that I almost stopped noticing them.  Often the other people in these conversations also say they have experienced them as blessings.
It's not a matter of being nice and non-challenging.  I want and need to be held accountable as well as supported in my attempts to follow Jesus.  I think God sometimes requires us to speak hard truths.  If we duck this in an effort to preserve group tranquility our lives become shallow. I'm still trying to figure out how to speak in a way that is both bold and humble.  I have figured out a few things to start with:
I need to remember that we are members one of another--all of us, all the living creatures that God made.  When I speak of what is right and good I need to remember that that goodness is available to everyone, not only My People.  When I speak of what is wrong and harmful I need to acknowledge the roots of evil in my own people and my own heart, rather than denouncing evil Out There as though it had no part in me and mine.  
I need to remember that God is greater than any of our words, names, concepts, images or practices.  We are creatures and we need all those things to help us ground our little lives in the Life, but we must not mistake them for the Life entire.  I think there is a way of using particular language that can actually foster this recognition.  If I try always to speak in a way that I think everyone can hear and agree with, a way that doesn't leave out anyone's experience of the sacred, I become vague and anxious and I still am bound by the limits of my assumptions.  If I speak of Jesus--who for me is, among other things, the bearer of the human face of God, God born in us, broken in us, working in us, suffering in us, dying in us, raising us to new life--and if I remember as I speak that what I meet in Jesus is met by other people under other names, I am more able to enter into communion.

If any of you have made it to the end of this long post, I would appreciate hearing about your experience with using your God-language and hearing other people's, and hearing how you decide which names to use, when to speak and when to keep silent.

Link to part 2


Kate said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Craig Barnett said...

Dear Joanna,
Thank you for this post, which is very timely for me as I am wrestling with just these questions at the moment. I consider myself a Christian (according to a traditional Quaker understanding of what it means to follow Christ) although I rarely describe myself in this way. Usually I just say I am a Quaker, as the language of Christianity seems to have become toxic to most people in the UK, including many liberal Friends. I have found my language becoming increasingly secular in an attempt to communicate clearly with my Quaker community, but am not convinced that this is entirely helpful, as there seems to me to be a depth of experience that purely secular language does not reach to.
I find your thoughts above very helpful and look forward to your next posts. With thanks and in Friendship,
Craig Barnett

broschultz said...

It's impossible for me to share my spiritual journey without sharing my relationship with Jesus. I try to be one of His disciples and instead of quoting some philosopher or some other historical figure on the reason for doing what I believe is the right thing to do, I quote Jesus or some other biblical text that I believe is on point. There is no one else that I believe knows the human condition as well and walked his talk as well as jesus. When the members of the meeting I attended made it plain that they were not comfortable with that position I left and found a meeting that could accept me as I am. I am still friends with them and look to them for advice on certain Quaker matters but I can not fellowship with them without feeling a tension that hinders our communal worship.

RantWoman said...

Thank you!

Much here resonates with themes on my mind in the middle of the festive season of holiday restimulation / reflection. Maybe threads will get woven into a more elaborated blog post. In any case, thank you.

Andrew Lane said...

Jesus is often mentioned in my unprogrammed Meeting in the UK, (usually in the context of his life, example and ministry). But in order for this to happen everyone needs to respect the diversity of Quakers and hear 'God' by whichever name is used by an individual Friend. You spoke my mind when saying:

"I need to remember that God is greater than any of our words, names, concepts, images or practices."
Most commonly in my meeting I hear God or Light, but also The Divine and a range of other words. I was recently reminded of this when at a Christian service in an Arabic speaking country - which of course referred to Allah (pbuH) as the Arabic word for God in all prayer and worship.

You said "I want and need to be held accountable as well as supported in my attempts to follow Jesus. I think God sometimes requires us to speak hard truths. If we duck this in an effort to preserve group tranquility our lives become shallow. I'm still trying to figure out how to speak in a way that is both bold and humble."

I find myself in a similiar place. We may not find our desire to be held to account in a Meeting-wide setting because of the diversity of Quakers, but I hope we will have the confidence to continue to use 'Jesus' whilst that name still reflects our relationship with God. One option would be to find other Friends (dont have to be local) who profess Christ and form an Accountability Group. I've not been part of one but I think these tend to meet quarterly over many years.

Many Friends are refugees from other Christian churches and many will have been hurt before they came. You mentioned sexual orientation which is a great example of where people have come to Quakers after not finding a Jesus-like response in another faith community. Craig described Christianity as being 'toxic'. We have to share with each other what is at the root of our faith with more open hearts and minds.

Much is said about Christianity having been used to justify harmful acts in the past. But it is not just in the past these things go on now (e.g. damage to the planet caused by materialistic celebration of Christmas). But there are many creative, tender, loving acts also done in the name of Christianity - and we should not dismiss Light that comes from the Christian tradition. I hope Friends will speak the name of Jesus in ministry whenever they feel spiritually led to do so.

Diane said...

Dear Joanna,

I too am a Christian Quaker and have encountered hostility towards using the word Jesus in liberal Friends Meetings, and have sometimes found myself reduced to a stereotype, not seen as human being because of my faith but as some sort of brainwashed fundamentalist, which I am not. I too have experienced the frustration that Quakerism is a Christian religion, and listened in some amazement at times to people trying to rewrite history, to, say, turn George Fox into a Buddhist. I do find over many years, seminary, etc, that I use Christ language more sparingly in audiences that are not receptive to it--and that includes the academic circles I am increasingly part of as an adjunct instructor. At the same time, when push comes to shove, I hold my ground --and that can offend people, but I assume they can live with it. I think, as you say, it's very important to note that inclusion and tolerance of different faiths means tolerance of Christianity too. I have often wished that people who lash out and say ugly things about Christians to me would realize that's as hurtful as saying ugly things about blacks to blacks or gays to gays, but I also realize that pain motivates these speeches.

Joanna Hoyt said...

Wow! Thank you, all of you.

Thanks for the reminder that the problems of Christianity are not safely in the past. Nor, I think, are they all safely in some other, nastier group of Christians--I know I have done and said many things by which I would not like Christianity to be judged.

I hear you, also, about not always being able to find accountability in a whole-meeting setting. I've been both held accountable and supported by people who didn't use Jesus language, who were following God deeply in another way; but it did help if they were willing to hear me when I spoke in my native God-language. (My inability to find that kind of shared accountability in some Quaker contexts has had more to do with different economic practices than different languages...)

Joanna Hoyt said...

I'm sorry you've felt stereotyped or marginalized for speaking of your faith in terms of Jesus. That sounds hard.

I have sometimes had that experience--not just with Quakers--and found it frustrating. But overall my sense is not to much that I am in a group that is being squashed as that I am in a society (and a Society) full of people who have been hurt, many of them more seriously than I have ever been, and that i am trying to figure out how to speak and live in a way that is honest and also no more hurtful than necessary.

And I think, on balance, I would rather have people who feel hurt by/angry at/shut out of Christianity talk to me than about me. When we talk about our hurts across dividing lines it can be messy and painful and confusing, but it can also move us toward healing and clarity; when we bunch up with People Like Us and talk amongst ourselves about the other folks I think it narrows us more damagingly.

Rene Lape said...

It's never been easy to be one with Christ. We just need to be faithful and show people what being Christian really is.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Joanna, for this post. I think this question is one of the most important for Friends today, especially liberal Friends, but not only.

I was raised in a fairly pious evangelical Lutheran family and religion played a big role in a long-standing alienation from my father (which has long-since been reconciled). So I am one of the wounded.

And I am not a Christian anymore by any of the definitions I have come up with (five). I really like your definition, by the way. I have felt it necessary to be this—obsessive, I guess—about the naming because I believe that the Religious Society of Friends is a Christian community, and thus I have had to reflect pretty hard on what I’m doing here.

I believe that even the most liberal, post-Christian meetings should consider themselves Christian. Why? Because of our prophetic origins: those early Friends were gathered as a “peculiar people” by Christ and the movement has looked to him ever since as their Teacher, until perhaps the middle of the 20th century in some pockets of the Society. And still, the majority of Friends are Christian. And because it is out of the Life and just plain disrespectful to naysay the testimony of all these Friends, throughout our history and across our now vast geography. Who are we to say that they are wrong about the Source and Center of their religious lives?

Thus I believe that Jesus Christ is still the Source and Center of the Religious Society of Friends—at least where he is so named. So it does come down to the naming, for me.

I cannot name him as the source and center of my religious life because I have no sense of his presence there, no calling to be his, a la John 14 (or is it 15?). I cannot accept the testimony of others on this, nor the testimony of the Bible; I need experience of the Christ within me to to claim him. I have had no such experience, so I don’t.

Therefore, I consider myself a guest in the house that Christ built. I am exceedingly grateful that I have been let in the door. And I constantly feel a little—or a lot—out of place. I feel that my condition calls for the greatest respect and sensitivity on my part. Thus, I welcome Jesus language and biblical language in meeting.

But I have not always. I used to harass Christians just as you were harassed. I used to block the teaching of the Bible in First Day School. How wrong I was!

Nobody ever asked me, let along told me, to get a grip, to take responsibility for my behavior. I guess they were afraid of hurting my feelings or driving me away. So, as often happens in Quaker meetings, they protected the perpetrator more than they protected their own worship and fellowship.

And many of us are wounded, yes. And these wounds are inward, they are invisible. So it’s not hard to touch someone’s wound. But the responsibility for healing is not the speaker’s; it is the responsibility of the person in pain to find their peace. A Quaker meeting does not exist to protect its members from anything that might challenge their baggage. It exists to bring people to God and to bring God into the world. It exists for worship and fellowship, for mutual support in the life of the spirit. And that should include laboring together to heal each other, when we can. The Friends who want Christians to keep quiet so that they can be comfortable should, I think, turn instead to elders they respect or even their meeting’s pastoral care committee and ask for help in unburdening themselves of their pain and their hurtful behavior.

And the meeting should create an environment that encourages this. I feel that every Quaker meeting should proactively, repeatedly, and clearly welcome, not just Christian Friends to speak as they feel and feel led, but that all of us should enjoy this freedom—unless we’re hurting someone or quenching the spirit, as I did, and as those Friends who eldered you did. And those of us who are not Christians should get out of the master bedroom consciousness and ask Jesus, whom they’ve pushed out onto the couch, to reoccupy the center of the house that he built.

Joanna Hoyt said...

Hi Steven,

Thank you for writing so openly about your experience.

My own sense is not that I have been harassed as a Christian. I am trying to discern, when I upset people, whether I have acted inappropriately or not.

I don't believe that Meetings must consider themselves Christian. I have been greatly helped in following Jesus by a Meeting that would not, en bloc, have identified as Christian, as well as by individual Friends who were growing into God under other names.

I think that our faithfulness matters much more than the brand of our faith, and that the God whom I know largely through Jesus can be in the center of a fellowship that is not bound by the worship of Jesus. . . that the question of whether we are personally or corporately centered in God or in ourselves has little do to with the names we use. But sometimes speaking freely in the names that hold truth for us can help us to remember where the center really is.

Anonymous said...

Well, I agree with you actually, about faithfulness mattering more than brand, so perhaps I have overstated what I really feel. And ever since reading a passage in Doug Gwyn's Covenant Crucified, I have felt that perhaps the Christ continues to work at the center of our worship and fellowship without a name tag, as it were, that he is (and probably never was) bound by the "in my name" theology of some passages in the gospels.

Susan Furry said...

Dear Joanna,

Thank you for articulating these complex matters so clearly, and thanks to all who have commented. I am fortunate to be in a liberal Friends meeting which is truely liberal and open to all forms of spiritual expression, whether Christian or not.

As you say, all words are inadequate, No words can fully express the beauty of a sunset, nor of music, nor the life-changing experience of the love of God. It occurs to me that a different interpretation of James 3's condemnation of the tongue -- not the physical organ, not gossip or slander, but the idolatry which imagines that any words can define spiritual reality. "Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom."

Susan Furry