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[A chapter selection from  Quakering Theology]

The most penetrating sound of September 2001 came not on Tuesday the 11th but on Sunday the 16th.

In November of 1963, only two days after Kennedy was murdered in Dallas, gridiron warriors assembled on one hundred yard fields and pushed, and tackled, and punted, and passed. Near capacity crowds were somber, but nevertheless cheered on seven NFL games; Pittsburgh tied Chicago 17-17, Cleveland trounced the Cowboys by ten points. On a Sunday afternoon in late January 1991, while soldiers were engaged in a Storm in the Desert, the most creative television commercials of the season were shown during breaks from Super Bowl XXV. Allied troops fought Saddam; the New York Giants beat the Buffalo Bills 20-19.

The most penetrating sound of September 2001 came not on Tuesday the 11th but on Sunday the 16th; in stadiums across the country there was no football, there was only silence. The silent stadium was a more truthful witness to the moment than were the immediate demands for war; the silent stadium spoke more poignantly than the immediate calls for peace.

It was the simple-minded naiveté of both the hawks and the doves that first made me uneasy. It was all so simple. Too simple. “Steer clear, dear Odysseus, steer clear and save your life!”

On one hand, there was the immediate response to “kill them,” “retaliate with everything we have,” “unleash the dogs of war.” We are victims, they are the enemy! On the day after, Lance Morrow wrote in Time magazine, “A day cannot live in infamy without the nourishment of rage. Let’s have rage. What’s needed is a unified, unifying, Pearl Harbor sort of purple American fury—a ruthless indignation.”[1]

At the same time, another chorus of voices sang a dirge of national self-loathing. Here the model of blame is inverted…they are the victims and we are the enemy. “Our foreign policy has alienated and disenfranchised and, therefore, the actions of the terrorists, while horrible, were certainly understandable.”

It was all so simple.

But it was precisely the simplicity of the solutions that convinced me of their impossibility. From the “war on them” to the “war on us” everything had the ring of sanctimoniousness and superficiality.

Blaming clogged the internet, but empty football stadiums spoke more truthfully.

Each year in the liturgical rhythm of the Christian calendar a little noted day is lodged between two more celebrated days—Holy Saturday. It is often neglected, but it speaks to this moment in our history. Our time is a Holy Saturday. The horror of the crucifixion is over; the image of the embodiment of our hopes broken and bleeding and dead still lingers fresh and raw. In the liturgy, Holy Saturday reenacts a waiting for something we know has come. Our waiting is different. In agony and in fear we want to rush into the tomb and rescue Jesus, to save him from the chill of the tomb. But when we remove Jesus on Saturday we have nothing but a corpse. Easter has not yet come. And who knows, maybe Easter will never come. But, if it does, who can know what form it will take?

Plato spoke of metaxy as an in-between place, a place where humans meet God. We are standing now between horror and hope in a chasm of betweenness, uncertain, messy, dangerous, ambiguous. Yet, this metaxy is the place where God is. On the lengthy Holy Saturday following September 11th I did not stand with chattering academics nor with military advisors nor with spin doctors nor with resolute pacifists; I chose to stand in-between, beside the padded shoulders of a silent line backer.


[1] Lance Morrow, “The Case for Rage and Retribution,” Time (September 12, 2001). http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/ 0,8599,174641,00.html (accessed January 5, 2011).

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[There has been a lot of talk this week about the coarseness of public conversation. Here is a selection from my book in progress (*Quakering Theology*) about the importance of learning the language of blessing to counter the language of curse.]

The language we use in our conversation concerning peace and social justice (tone and intention) may be as critical as the actual content of our conversation. Combative, vitriolic language characterizes the left as well as the right. Public conversation is becoming more coarse, increasingly aggressive, even violent. If language is viewed primarily as a vehicle whereby experience is articulated in a descriptive fashion, then the language used to speak of our world, ourselves, will be violent. In fact, we could conclude that our speech must be aggressive in order to “speak truthfully” with integrity.

[However] … language does not simply describe reality, it evokes reality. Our speech may actually create new and inhabitable worlds, not simply describe presently existing ones.

Rooted as Friends are in the narrative of Christianity, the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus—our discourse ought to be the language of and practice of blessing. The aggressiveness of societal discourse speaks a curse—so much easier to utter in many ways; one that condemns, that dismisses, that diminishes, that sends away. “Send the children away, the Lord is tired.” How ought Friends to respond to groups whose demeanor is aggressive, belligerent, bellicose, dismissive, or even violent (even when—especially when—those groups are activists whose social agenda many Friends share)?   Shaped by this narrative and inspired by language birthed from the experience of a violent world, we may well follow suit.

In blessing the children Jesus speaks a language of a “less traveled vocabulary.” Perhaps the language of evocative, world-creating vision is more properly the language of poets and artists, musicians and lovers. If so, Friends may have some difficulty entering such a practice, schooled as we have been by the sentiment of William Penn, for example, who dismissed the arts as distractions from the pursuit of things spiritual: “These were never invented, but by that mind which had first lost the joy and ravishing delights of God’s holy presence.”[1] A distressing lack of imaginative incarnational vision.

We may enter with wobbly knees, hobbling on crutches, but it is into this place we should enter. Speaking blessing rather than curses, the blessings of a new covenant, the blessing of a vision of a new heavens and a new earth. In so speaking, we may even give birth to a new world.

[1]Penn, No Cross No Crown, 236-237 (XV.7).

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I will spend six weeks in Mexico this summer on a writing retreat. This won’t be a formal retreat connected to an organization or something put together by a particular writer’s group. This will be me, a notebook, and some pencils. I write all the time–in the office, at home, sitting in the car waiting at traffic lights. Why go to Mexico to do something I generally do no matter where I am?

First, I must confess that I love Mexico. If I said anything overly spiritual about my reasons for writing there those who know me well would rightly call me out and press me to be honest. So, up front, full-disclosure: I love Mexico. I fell in love with the country after my first visit in April 2007 and I have returned several times, led two student groups there, and even spent the summer of 2008 as a Friend-in-Residence at the Casa de los Amigos in Mexico City. So, I confess–love of Mexico is clearly one of the reasons why I will spend six weeks there. (For those who know me, this love of mine is not a overly romaticized love–when I was robbed in October 2008 in Cuernavaca with a pistol to my forehead that took away any glamorized view I might have possessed!)

But the reasons extend beyond this. I am working on a project about disorientation, tentativeness, and the provisional. I’m writing about the importance of holding our theology seriously, but lightly…writing it, as it were, in pencil rather than in ink.  (I’ve written a little about this elsewhere on Theography.)

If there is an attitude I am challenging in this project it is one of over-confidence and self-assuredness. This is something which I don’t believe is helpful to our theological work. Ok. Again, for those who know me, perhaps I am actually speaking to myself and trying to grow into a spirituality textured more by trust in God than confidence in my own abilities! Nevertheless, for me and anyone else who will listen, the point is to challenge us to have the courage to be honest about what we do not know and to trust that God can speak powerfully even in this “limitation.”

“The one who is awakened and gathered into being in the Church,” writes Karl Barth, “has every cause for the full assurance of faith, but none at all for certainty or over-confidence.” (CD I/1, 49, also 163) He goes on to argue that in theological work we don’t need “assuring” as much as “deassuring,” an actual “theological warning against theology, a warning against the idea that its propositions or principles are certain in themselves” (CD I/1, 165).  It’s somewhere between “full assurance” and “no certainty” that I’m aiming for.

It is important, then, for me to write somewhere where I am not overly confident or so familiar that I am lulled into certainty. So, I won’t be writing in a university library, nor in my campus office, nor even in my study at home. Yes, I’ll write in a context I love, but it will be one where I am not an insider nor one where I am so comfortable that I can be overly self-assured.

There is an edginess to Mexico that keeps us all wondering. In El Laberinto de la Solidad, Octavio Paz speaks of a deep questioning of identity and inheritance that is part of the Mexican psychology. This clearly grows out of the Spanish conquest, but it continues into the present. Who are the cultural mothers and fathers and could the present have come to be apart from the “sorrowful birth” brought about by Cortés’ defeat of Cuautémoc? In another sense, Mexico City has been described as full of “chaotic energy,” where everything that exists in the world is present at the fullest stretch imaginable.

And yet, at the same time, at every level of society and in every community across the Republic, there are random eruptions of joy splashed with bright colors and enough music to make even hardcore gringos burn their return ticket.

To think and write about theology in this context is to be aware of how much is provisional and even “on the run.” I won’t have to imagine disorientation; I will be in the middle of it living it in my skin. Yet, to write in Mexico is also a reminder to me of how, even in this uncertainty, there is and can be joy.

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We should not write theology in pen.

Theologians are not the only ones who fall into the trap of writing/thinking/speaking with permanent ink, but it is a besetting sin of many of us. Handling such topics as “the Divine,” “eternity,” or even more pompously stated, “the counsels of God,” we can fool ourselves into thinking we are working with realities fixed and certain. Words spoken in ink sound confident and assured but they are not honest and can actually diminish the liveliness of faith when over time we believe in them more than in the Spirit that moves as it will. Barth provides both comfort and challenge on precisely this point: “The one who is awakened and gathered into being in the Church has every cause for the full assurance of faith, but none at all for certainty or over-confidence.” (CD I/1, 49)  Full assurance, yes. Certainty, no.

When Moses asked to see God he didn’t quite get what he had hoped for…he saw God pass before him. And really, that’s as good as it gets. There is no holding on to a moving and living God, no pinning God down, no snapping photos and capturing the essence of the Holy One. Nevertheless, when such a phenomenon is expressed it is often done so with much more  triumphalism and self-assuredness than the reality permits.

We need to write theology in pencil and keep a thick eraser handy. This work is provisional, tentative, and always unfinished. There is no word or concept or beautifully crafted theological exposition that will sustain us through this life and the next. The Word can do this, however. The living, pulsing, and vibrant Presence of God is what animates words, inspires creation, offers hope, and births a people. Staying close to this Reality that–as Moses discovered–doesn’t stand still, will require revision, restatement, remaking, and renewal. It is smuggy, messy, and incomplete–it’s fulfillment may be written boldly in pen, but that day is not yet.

Returning to Uncle Karl: Barth was asked once about why he did not finish his magisterial work, Church Dogmatics. “There is a certain merit to an unfinished dogmatics…it points to the eschatological character of theology! (Barth, How I Changed My Mind, 86)

Rigidity and fixity in theology (and other matters) may address our ill-at-ease-ness with ambiguity and our discomfort with chaos, but whatever is its subject it can never be the Reality that is God.

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Writing Projects

I’m in the thick of two book projects and the thin of one other.

Quakers Worshiping in North America is well underway but has hit a snag with a couple chapters. I’m editing it and contributing a couple chapters. I’m fortunate (and so will readers) that there are several interesting (F)friends contributing to the project as well. Corey Beals is writing about Evangelical Friends, Deborah Shaw about Conservative Friends, Deborah Suess has written a beautiful chapter on Friends United Meeting, Tom Swain is writing about General Conference Friends, Wess Daniels on Convergent Friends, and Eden Grace about Ecumenicity in worship. I’m hoping to have a manuscript to the publisher sometime Fall semester.

Creative Center: Collected Writings of Maurice Creasey is getting much closer to completion. The chapters have been converted to electronic files, double copy-edited, and I am preparing brief introductions to the essays that will form each chapter. Additionally, during the Fall semester I will write a lengthy introduction to the book that will place Creasey work in it’s theological and Quaker context. I hope I can send a manuscript to publishers during the Spring semester.

In another post I’ll talk about a book I will work on during my upcoming writing retreat in Mexico.

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