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On Living in Harmony -- Parts Five through Seven

Friends, this is not the talk I gave at Baltimore Yearly Meeting. This is an essay paralleling that talk, dedicated to all the loving friends who took an interest in my journey and helped make it possible — and based on the set of notes I used for the talk.

This is Part Five. Part Six is part-way down this posting, here; Part Seven is further down, here. If you’re wanting to start with Part One (which is not a bad idea), you’ll find it here.

ew cameo.jpgV. The Need for Discernment

 

In Part Four of this essay, I outlined a set of projects that could make a real difference in the world, if they were taken up as a corporate witness to the world, by our Society as a whole, expressing the requirements of truth and love.

I also suggested that the reason we have not already taken on any projects of this sort is that we are divided — unnecessarily divided.

Some of you may disagree when I say this dividedness is unnecessary. You may say that the needs are unproven, that global warming isn’t real, that it’s all a liberal plot, that the proposed solutions are wrong solutions, or that it doesn’t matter because the world is supposed to come to an end.

I honor your right to hold these opinions, Friends, as long as you continue to test them in the same way that I continue to test mine — which is to say, in the crucible of corporate discernment among Friends, in the light of all emerging facts, and by the Light of the Spirit of Christ.

Our testimony as a Society, for more than three and a half centuries, has been that if we will test our opinions in this manner, we will be led step by step into unity with one another and with truth.

This system has worked well for us for all those three and a half centuries. And I see no reason why it should not work well for us now, if we engage in it faithfully.

We need to find our way to unity, to clarity in unity, and to the strength to do what clarity says should be done, whatever that may prove to be. The questions raised by environmental science are far too serious to be fumbled, stalled, or neglected.

But this means that there is factual, moral, and spiritual work to be done, by each and every Friends community everywhere.

On the factual front, it means:

  1. We need to learn to focus on evidence rather than hearsay, and on crucial facts as distinguished from quibbles.

  2. We need to learn to distinguish between a consensus of the best-informed, and dissenting positions, and we need to learn how to discern where the dissent is coming from.

  3. We need to learn how to distinguish between opinions that are dishonest because they are shaped by groups with weak commitments to truth — and opinions that are based honestly on solid evidence.

I won’t say these measures favor the side of environmental alarm. They do not. There are true uncertainties about the speed and magnitude of global warming, alongside the very real need for proactive measures. There are tendencies for the alarmed to overstate; and while honoring their concern, we should make appropriate allowances.

Moreover, according to a recent article in Science, which is a very respectable scientific journal,1 the technology already exists to slow the greenhouse gas build-up for the next fifty years, buying us time to take care of the problem on a more permanent basis.

So it’s not that the situation is already hopeless, Friends. Not by any means.

On the other hand, these measures — learning to distinguish the hard evidence, the crucial facts, and so forth — don’t favor the side that says these issues aren’t serious, either. Indeed, the more we approach these issues in an honest and disciplined manner, the clearer it becomes that they are very serious indeed.

Then — on the moral front — our need to find our way to unity, and clarity in unity, means that we have to learn how to identify what standards God wants us to live up to.

We also need to learn how to choose the truth even when it isn’t at all what we want.

And on the spiritual front, we must how to “speak to the conditions” of those who hold back from unity. We must learn, too, how to tap into that source of strength that energized early Friends.

 

VI. Early Friends’ Discernment

 

So how do we learn these things?

How do we discover what standards God wants us to live up to?

How do we learn to distinguish between the things that people are saying about the environment that are true, and the things that people are saying that are deceitful or manipulative or intended to stampede us in a bad direction?

And how do we find the strength and the personal skills we need to do what’s needed?

These are the same fundamental questions that Friends faced in the first generation of the Quaker movement, back in the 1640s and 1650s.

Of course, back then the debate was not about scientific issues, but about Biblical ones. But the challenges, nevertheless, were the same. On one side there was an establishment eager to obfuscate the issues in self-defense. On the other side there were crazies, Ranters and M√ľnsterites, who went overboard into wild theories and destructive enthusiasms.

Friends back then were asking the same things we must ask now. How do we sort out the factual truths from the errors on either side? And how do we discover what God actually wants of us?

How did they handle these questions then?

They began by turning to the Bible.

Of course, they had their own way of doing this! Unlike their Puritan contemporaries, they had a gut suspicion that the teachings of the Bible weren’t intended to be arbitrary rules applied in an uncomprehending fashion. They suspected, rather, that the teachings in the Bible were illustrations of how a deeper rightness, an underlying Christ-mind, had spoken to particular problems on particular occasions.

That deeper rightness, that underlying Christ-mind, was what they sought to get in touch with. As they themselves put it, they sought to read the Scriptures in the same Spirit as that in which it was given. If they could connect with that deeper rightness, and follow it, they’d be guided directly by the principle that instructed the prophets and apostles and Christ.

Still, grasping the deeper rightness underlying the teachings of the Bible is no easy task. I think the first Friends grasped it as well as they did, in part because they devoted very substantial chunks of their lifetimes to wrestling with what they read in the Bible, and in part because they did so with a real hunger to understand.

And they saw patterns.

They saw, for example, that Christ’s command to swear not at all was not a command that stood in isolation; it was tied to much broader concerns, dating back to the prophets, about people who tried to cheat each other with falsehoods and incomplete truths and beliefs that hadn’t been tested, and about a society in which such falsehoods and so forth were regarded as okay. It wasn’t just that swearing alone was wrong. It was that the whole system was wrong, and needed reforming. Hence what has become known as the Quaker testimony of integrity.

But even the whole testimony of integrity wasn’t just something meant to stand in isolation. It in turn was tied to still broader concerns about a world that God intended to be just and right and good, and that was fallen from that standard of justice and goodness — was gone sour.

The early Friends, like many of their contemporaries — and many of us — found a voice inside them that protested the world’s fallenness. But their genius lay in the fact that they didn’t stop there. They took it one more step. They saw that no one could hear that voice inside rightly, unless she or he first learned to hear it clearly as it criticized her- or himself.

 

VII. And Herewith, A Story

 

Way back somewhere around 1720, a British Friend named Isaac Pickerill recorded the testimony of “an aged woman of Long Lane”, who had heard George Fox speak when she was a girl.

This is what that aged woman said:

Now Friends, I will tell you how I was convinced.

I was a young lass at that time in Dorsetshire, when George Fox came into that country; and he having appointed a meeting to which the people generally flocked, I went among the rest; and in going along the road, this query arose in my mind: “What is it that condemns me when I do evil, and justifies me when I do well? What is it?”

In this state I went to the meeting, which was large.

George Fox rose with these words: “Who art thou that queries in thy mind, What is it I feel which condemneth me when I do evil, and justifieth me when I do well?

“I will tell thee. Lo! …He that formed the mountains and created the winds — and declareth unto man what are His thoughts — that maketh the morning darkness, and treadeth upon the high places of the earth: the Lord, the Lord of Hosts is His name.

“It is He, by his Spirit, that condemneth thee for evil, and justifieth thee when thou dost well. Keep under its dictates, and He will be thy preserver to the end.”

To which she added, “It was truth, the very truth, and I have never departed from it.”

There are a number of significant points about this little story.

One of them is that Fox was quoting a bit of scripture verbatim: Amos 4:13. In the context where it appears in the Bible, this verse is an exceptionally clear affirmation of the fact that God declares His mind to us — us ordinary human beings! — within our own hearts and consciences, seeking to draw us back from wrong actions such those that Amos’s hearers were engaged in. For this very reason, Fox also quoted this verse in his writings.

The prophet Amos spoke these words at a time when YHWH was preparing to punish Israel for her transgressions, “making the morning darkness” and “treading down the high places” of the land. In the first part of the chapter that George Fox was quoting from, Amos listed the ways in which YHWH punished those who transgressed His laws: drought, blight, locusts, disease — environmental disorders, every one of them! Amos wrapped up this list, in the verse immediately preceding the one Fox quoted, with the famous warning: “Prepare to meet your God!”

The verse, then, that George Fox quoted — He that made the created world and the Spirit-wind, who declares His thought to man, and turns the day to darkness and flattens high places like the World Trade Center — this is Amos’s statement of how we may meet our God. We may meet God in Creation, in His Spirit-wind, in what He says in the place of conscience — or in the tragic consequences of our uncorrected wrongdoings.

Finally, in the conclusion of this sermon, Amos talked to his hearers about the way to avoid the impending disaster: “Seek good and not evil, that you may live…. I [YHWH] take no particular pleasure in your meetings for worship! … But let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream!” (Amos 5:14,21,24)

Oh, Friends, I find this a poignant parallel to our present situation. Are we ourselves going to just let ourselves drift into environmental disaster, as it seems the Israelites had done in Amos’s time? Do we feel any hint in our own hearts and consciences, that YHWH might be trying to get some thoughts of His own across to us about this matter? Are we ready to accept preventive correction from Him who “declareth unto man what are His thoughts”?

Why, Friends, is this verse, with all its potent environmental resonance, so central to the message of Quakerism that George Fox quoted it and people were converted by it? How many of us think that this convergence of Quakerism and environmental issues is only coincidence?

(To read the conclusion of this essay, click here.)

 

Footnote:

 

Part V:

  1. S. Pacala and R. Socolow, “Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies”, Science , 305:5686 [13 August 2004], pp. 968 - 972.

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