Tuesday, January 03, 2017

A Spiritual Approach to Difficult Times

Realizing that I have not written in this blog for years, I have recently considered closing it completely, but today I suddenly realized it is exactly the space I need now to work out my spiritual response to these difficult times.  And perhaps my ruminations will be helpful to others.

In what sense do I find these times difficult?  I know that I am not alone in my concerns.  I worry about global climate change.  I worry about growing economic inequality and the injustice and unrest it brings.  I worry about all of the wars, terrorism, and violence in our world.  I worry about what is happening politically in the U.S., and how political strife has also created deep social divisions.  Like many, I was shocked both by the Brexit vote, and the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, and wonder what all of this will mean for our global future.

I cannot write about all of this at once, but here is a starting point: today I read this Quaker blogger's struggle with finding that of God in Donald Trump.  I read it sympathetically, understanding the struggle.  I too have wondered what it means to search for and try to respond to that of God in him.

The early Quakers realized that not everyone lives true to that of God within them.  They fully faced the dark side of human nature and believed a spiritual transformation was required before people could begin to live true to that of God within them.  But they also audaciously believed that humans could reach a kind of perfection.  Most Quakers I know today are quick to regard such views as old-fashioned.  If they don't already know this history, they are somewhat shocked at these views.  If they do know this history, they are quick to "apologize" for these views and note how most Quakers do not think this way any more.

Here I can admit I kind of like the early Quaker view of human nature.  If you reject those views, then you start with a more optimistic view of human nature than the early Quakers had, probably a post-Enlightenment philosophy view.  And yet you hesitate to believe that humans could possibly reach any kind of perfection -- this just seems way too arrogant and hence dangerous.  So you are left with a lukewarm theory of human nature:  humans are not that bad, but also cannot get much better, really.

For some reason, I like that the early Quakers saw clearly how awful humans can be and took that seriously.  While most people quote the "walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone" passage from Fox's letters (as does the author of the blog post linked above), in another letter Fox actually says, "and be a terror and a dread, answering that of God in everyone" (emphasis added; I'll try to find which letter that was).  When people are not themselves living true to that of God within them, answering that of God within them might not look pretty.  It might be a challenging and even terrifying experience for everyone concerned!  Fox was of course not advocating violence -- he was acknowledging that spiritual power can be terrifying in certain manifestations, especially when someone is living against God but someone else confronts them on this.

And I also like that the early Quakers believed that humans could reach a certain perfection, because I think it is a very worthwhile question to consider how a perfect person might respond to various life challenges.  Maybe Jesus Christ was the only perfect human; maybe this kind of perfection was only possible in him and will not be possible in anyone else -- but even if so, the ideal of divinity expressing itself perfectly through human form is instructive and inspiring to us if we take it seriously and strive as best as we can to manifest perfect divine love through our own lives.

All of this now gives rise to this question:  how would Jesus respond to Trump?

I cannot answer that version of the question.

But how might a spiritually perfected person respond to him?  How might it be possible to evoke and bring forth that of God within him?

The third aspect of the early Quaker view of human nature that I appreciate is that despite their acknowledgement of the dark side of human nature, and their living in a time when many (most?) people believed that not all people could or would be saved, the Quakers did believe that there was that of God in everyone.  Their view was regarded as outrageous and they were persecuted for having this view.  But it was this perspective that allowed them to call people to a higher standard.  It was this view that meant they could not rest content with people living badly and abusing their power.  It was this view that empowered the early Quakers to "speak truth to power."

The message for today is that we cannot just write people off as "hopeless."

"But do you know for sure that there is that of God in everyone?" someone once asked me.  "Maybe there really are evil people."  Today the terms we often use instead of "evil" are:  narcissist, sociopath, psychopath, toxic person.  (Just today I happened across a Forbes article on 10 kinds of toxic people you should avoid!)

I replied to the person who asked me that question, "Maybe it is true that we cannot be absolutely sure, and, anyway, Quakerism is supposed to be non-creedal, and so maybe this is not a belief of Quakers so much as a methodological principle.  I take it as a methodological principle that there is that of God in everyone, which means that I am committed to living in a way of trying always to respond to that of God in everyone, whether I can see it or not!  I am committed to looking for it and trying to bring it out in my interactions with everyone."

This means I look for any glimmer of goodness I can find.  I give people the benefit of the doubt.  I assume that of course above all they are trying, to the best of their abilities in the moment, to do the right thing.

I also admit it is not always easy.

Nor am I likely ever to have a chance to meet Donald Trump face to face.

But when I talk to his supporters, I ask them what they like about him.  When they speak only in negative terms and evoke conspiracy theories I do not think are true, I try to summon deep listening skills to hear beyond these negatives to what deeper positive hope lies buried inside.  I try to employ the discipline not to be baited by my objections to the negatives, and instead ask the kinds of questions that will reveal the buried positives for both of us to see.

But there are also times when I will not let the negatives go unchallenged.  There are times when I become a bit of a terror and a dread myself, pointing out to someone the deep unkindness of their dismissing entire groups of people as "bad" in some way just because they have been hypnotized into being afraid of them.  But I have not yet mastered how to do this well -- by which I mean, how to do this effectively, in ways people can really hear and heed.  Usually they lock down and become defensive.

Currently I am seeking further insight through Walter Wink's book, The Powers that Be, a book I have read in the past but now am reading again more slowly and carefully, because this is a time when powers that have gone bad are quite active.  How do we call them back to their original spiritually good purposes?  That is my question.

3 comments:

  1. Thank you for your fresh post. I've always looked forward to reading your blog, particularly in my more trying times as a person and a Quaker.

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  2. That of God is not about "goodness"...it is literally connecting my shard of God with yours...uncovering and confronting where you fall away from God/Love and calling you back to your place as a child of God... Acknowledging our condition as selfish greedy beings with a potential to the fullness of Love (perfection)...encouraging...beseeching that awareness we have...that ultimately...we are children...stumbling through life... alone, naked, and clueless before the flame of God whether we admit it or not.... prodigal beings... yearning to return to the fold of all encompassing Love.

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  3. Rather than look to some unintelligible Article of Quaker Faith, I approached my understanding of what "that of God" means -- via the realization that God is (among other things) what animates me, what lives as myself yet transcends me.

    From that standpoint, it becomes unimaginable that I'd be 'special' in some way. Hence, what Quakers [today] call 'that of God' is a feature intrinsic to our creation as human beings -- not an optional add-on.

    There's no assurance from this that Trump -- or I -- can be expected to embody God's presence in any ideal way; there's been significant 'falling short' in my own gradual development.

    Sometimes I particularly recognize God working in me, with me, as when I do some good thing I literally would not have imagined myself doing, something I'd be sensibly afraid to try as an isolated, disjunct ego.

    The time that most comes to mind, I'd intervened between a young woman and the large, strong man who'd been screaming abuse at her, so loudly that my wife and I heard him while we were walking by across the street. When he went to get his butcher knife and came down the stairs after me, I was surprised, yet understood the helplessness behind his gesture almost 'from inside', and really was not afraid of him, for myself -- but was, of course, relieved to glimpse his woman friend escaping unnoticed down the back stairs. He kept yelling until I eventually realized that not only couldn't I overcome or even communicate with the guy; it simply wasn't my assignment. So I walked off while he followed after, holding his knife and yelling until Anne & I had passed around the corner, escaping behind one of the many neighbors who'd finally come out to see what was going on. When we detoured back towards our original destination a few minutes later, a police car came to his corner, turned the wrong way at first but with a sudden u-turn rushed off towards the scene of whatever-that-had been.)

    It isn't some ideal Being we need to recognize in Donald Trump, but our common humanity -- despite the fact that he's far from realizing it himself. This doesn't imply that he won't do a great deal of harm, the same sort of harm that GW Bush and Obama's policies have caused, that Clinton II's policies would have continued. We need to oppose that harm effectively (as we somehow failed to do when that nice Mr. Obama was responsible); but if we're seeking God's help towards knowing what we're called to do, that's available within.

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