George Fox believed that Christians could “…come to Adam’s perfection, —into that image of God, that righteousness and holiness, that Adam was in before he fell; to be clean and pure, without sin, as he was.” While I personally reject the idea that humankind is inherently sinful and depraved, I haven’t seen anybody in this life who is sinless. In fact, a person claiming to be spiritually perfect in the twenty first century is possibly suffering from a psychological disorder.
It is true that Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In context, however, Jesus was saying that we should even love enemies and tax collectors. He was really saying, “Be compassionate.”
Consider these words from the Apostle Paul, probably referring to the epileptic attacks he may have suffered:
Therefore, in order to keep me from being conceited, I was given
a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three
times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said
to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect
Here Paul has Jesus connect human weakness with divine grace. As a Friend recently commented to a group of us, “Good enough is where God’s grace happens.”
“Good enough” is a maxim that can counteract perfectionism, not only in spiritual matters, but in all areas of life. A brilliant doctoral student whose punctuation is not perfect deserves compassion. A conscientious host whose zoom meeting lacks internet stability at least deserves “good enough.” And although I’ve taken fifty years to follow a leading to Quakerism, I know that God’s power is made perfect in my weakness.
~ Richard Russell
My father was a psychopath, or at least somewhere on the psycho-sociopath spectrum. Outwardly charming and a successful businessman, he made our home life a hellish mixture of verbal and physical abuse. Although he’s long deceased, my brother and sister still have not forgiven him. I have.
But in my 20’s and 30’s, I not infrequently felt a deep anger, even rage, when I remembered what he had done, the details of which I’ll omit here. How did I overcome these feelings? How does anyone get rid of anger stemming from childhood trauma? I believe the current treatments for PTSD are a solution to this problem.
PTSD, post-traumatic stress syndrome, originates with a brain structure called the amygdala. Suppose, while walking in the peaceful countryside around Old Chatham, you suddenly come upon a black bear with its cub. The bear, in protective mother mode, turns, growls, looks at you, and seems ready to charge.
Your eyes and ears send signals to the thalamus, the brain’s “switchboard,” tasked with routing those signals to the appropriate brain regions. The thalamus then sends the bear information to both the neo-cortex and the amygdala. The amygdala decides that the situation is too threatening to wait for the sluggish processing of the neo-cortex. So, the amygdala initiates the so-called “flight or fight response.”
In response, adrenaline is pumped into your bloodstream, causing the heart to push blood to your muscles. You breathe more rapidly, taking in more oxygen for energy metabolism, which is also fueled by the emergency release of blood sugar (glucose). You’re ready either to run from the bear or fight it.
But wait! The bear charges, fortunately stopping short of you. Your stress response continues with the release of cortisol. Hopefully, your neo-cortex kicks in and tells you not to run as that would encourage the bear to chase after you. Luckily, the bear decides against charging again, and, shepherding its cub away from you, puts distance between itself and you, a perceived danger to its progeny.
Physical abuse in the home also activates the fight or flight response of the children who experience it. In later years, even the memory of the abuse can cause these children, now perhaps adults, to react with sudden fear or anger as their amygdalae react inappropriately. I’m guessing that my anger at my father was the result of this process. In other words, I suffered from a mild PTSD and was completely incapable of forgiving paternal misdeeds.
What treatments are available for such PTSD? One consists of medication; another is psychotherapy, in which the patient is tasked with repeatedly recalling the traumatic event or events, perhaps while meditating and doing breathing exercises to reduce the pain of remembering. With time, the patient is desensitized to the disturbing memory and the PTSD symptoms disappear. Another option is to use a flashing light or hand movements to distract the patient during recall of the trauma. The distraction may allow the patient to think positive thoughts that color the negative memory and eventually sanitize it.
Which method did I use? Well, “None of them,” I admit. Sometimes PTSD sufferers completely suppress bad memories and avoid any thought of past traumatic events. That’s what I did. It’s not a recommended therapeutic technique, however. “The return of the repressed” may produce other psychological symptoms. In my case, I’ve completely forgotten, not only traumatic incidents, but most of my childhood and adolescent memories. Memories are inextricably linked, and my memory repression has affected, not only bad memories, but also good and neutral memories.
Nevertheless, this forgetting of memories has also enabled me to look more kindly upon my father and even to forgive him for his abuse. Forgiveness, however it comes about, is a good thing. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus calls upon us to forgive others just as God forgives us. Surely, we must heed his call.
~ Richard Russell
I want to briefly look at the material and spiritual condition of Europe in 1946, my birth year. The destruction of homes and buildings was wide-spread, particularly in Germany and—to a lesser extent—in England. I do remember my parents remarking on the ruined buildings we saw in London on our way to Scotland in 1953. (My father was an exchange officer with the Royal Air Force.) Luftwaffe bombers, supplemented by V-1 and V-2 rockets, had taken their toll. Germany, of course, had been devastated by Allied bombing. During our 1954 European vacation, my parents must have seen bombed-out portions of Munich, but they remembered only the enchanting beauty of the Bavarian Alps around Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
Garmisch, a ski resort, was largely untouched by Allied attacks, but the major cities of Germany were “flattened” by bombs, as recorded in Kurt Vonnegut’s description of the Allied attack on Dresden. Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden at the time but writes from the perspective of a fictional character, Billy Pilgrim.
He was down in the meat locker on the night that Dresden was destroyed.
There were sounds like giant footsteps above. Those were sticks of high-
explosive bombs. The giants walked and walked. …Dresden was one big flame.
The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn. (The) stones
(of the buildings) had crashed down, had tumbled against one another until
they locked at last in low and graceful curves. “It was like the moon,” said Billy
Other German cities were also in ruins. Free-standing walls jutted up from the rubble, and people took refuge in roofless buildings that had three or four walls intact. Berlin had lost up to 50 per cent of its habitable space, and an astounding 70 per cent of residential Cologne was no longer livable.
While statistical studies can always be disputed, the death toll in Europe was enormous, perhaps thirty-five to forty million people. Great Britain lost about 300,000 people while over a half-million French citizens were killed. Some six million Germans died, equaling or surpassing the number of Jews who perished in Hitler’s Holocaust. Six million was also the probable number of Polish deaths; and in the Soviet Union an incredible twenty-seven million died violently.
Numbers are, of course, abstract. Keith Lowe in Savage Continent suggests another way to comprehend the death toll of World War II:
Perhaps the only way to come close to understanding what happened is
to stop trying to imagine Europe as a place populated by the dead, and
to think of it instead as a place characterized by absence. Almost everyone
alive when the war ended had lost friends or relatives to it. Whole villages,
whole towns and even whole cities had been effectively erased, and with
them their populations. Large areas of Europe that had once been home
to thriving, bustling communities were now almost entirely empty of people.
It was not the presence of death that defined the atmosphere of postwar
Europe, but rather the absence of those who had once occupied Europe’s
sitting rooms, its shops, its streets, its markets.
Absence was most acutely experienced by those Jews who had managed to survive Hitler’s “final solution.” After all, two out of every three European Jews had been killed. As an experiment, I added the common Jewish name “David” to the surname “Hirsch” and searched for “David Hirsch” in an online data bank of Jews persecuted by the Nazis.
I found eleven instances of “David Hirsch.” All eleven were, of course, Jew (presumably) murdered by the Nazis. Based on my interpretation of the data, three had been sent to Auschwitz, two had died at Theresienstadt, two had been executed in the killing fields near Minsk, Belarus; and one was shot in the Rumbula forest of Latvia with some 26,000 other Jews. A David Hirsch also died at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin; and another Hirsch was sent to the Warsaw Ghetto where he apparently died shortly after German troops crushed a Jewish revolt in the ghetto. A final individual died earlier in 1939 when the Nazis herded thousands of Polish-German Jews across the border with Poland in a mass deportation. The Polish government sent them back to Germany!
So, where was God in 1946? Apparently, he wasn’t in Europe! Traditionally, of course, God is a loving God who is omni-present, omniscient, and all-powerful. Mere human beings can only speculate about God; but, based on the Judeo-Christian tradition, God is Love. In that same tradition, he is thought of as all-powerful. But then the question arises, “How could a loving, all-powerful God have permitted the events that led up to the human and material destruction of 1946? Aren’t those two divine attributes contradictory?
“Yes, of course,” is my answer. We must throw out “all-powerful” if we want to preserve God’s loving nature. And the excision of omnipotence makes sense. Again, remembering that we can only speculate, we can think of God as the Ground of Being, “Being Itself.” Being Itself must struggle against non-being, Satan or the Devil in mythological terms. Being Itself (we hope) will eventually triumph but only with the passing of time. While that time passes, human beings have the responsibility to cooperate with God, to work for the coming of The Kingdom of God. Exactly how this will happen and what the result will look like, we cannot know; but faith in God implies faith in the establishment of the Kingdom. May we have the courage to wait and work for this natural and supernatural culmination!
~ Richard Russell
“When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion, it is called Religion.” So writes Richard Dawkins, the noted evolutionary biologist. And he may be right. But if religion is a delusion, Shankar Vedantam and Bill Mesler argue that it is a useful delusion.
In the last chapter of their book, Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain, Vedantam and Mesler describe several benefits of religion, even if it’s assumed to be false. (1) Religion helps us cope with the fear of death, (2) it reinforces the idea of morality, and (3) it fosters better physical and mental health.
Quakerism is a type of religion. So, it should have the three benefits listed above. (1) Coping with the fear of death is, however, a little problematic for Friends like me. I feel certain that God exists but not at all sure that we have a soul or spirit surviving after the death of our physical bodies. The phenomenon of Near-Death Experiences gives me some hope of an afterlife as does the Christian teaching about Heaven and Resurrection. The terror of death I feel is at least somewhat mitigated by these factors, but I envy those Christians and Quakers who have the same view as that expressed by Emily Dickinson:
I NEVER saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet now I know how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be.
I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in Heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart were given.
There are, of course, those Friends whose Quakerism has helped them to see death as a natural stage of life and something to be accepted without fear. I greatly admire their detachment, what I might even call their wisdom. Still, Quakerism clearly does not do as good a job at banishing the fear of death as do some of the Christian Evangelical denominations.
(2) Religion is obviously not necessary for leading a moral, ethical life, but religion may have originated as a guarantee of morality. When humankind existed in small, hunter-gatherer bands, everyone in the group knew everyone else. It was known who could be trusted and who was devious. As society evolved into larger agricultural communities and communities began to trade among themselves, strangers had to be dealt with. If a stranger worshiped the same god or gods, it was a guarantee (not absolute, of course) that he could be trusted to do his share of community work or not to cheat in a business deal with someone from a different tribe.
Quakerism comes out rather well as a guarantee of morality. Early Quakers had a central testimony of integrity in life. Integrity meant following the commands of a just God—for example, never lying or even misleading others. Early Friends who owned businesses soon abandoned the common custom of setting high prices and haggling for an actual selling price. They placed fixed, reasonable prices on goods and acquired a general reputation for honesty and trustworthiness. This reputation led to success in business and banking for Quaker families like the Cadburys, Rowntrees, and Frys. It also explains modern business using the Quaker name to market oats and oil.
(3) Finally, there is the matter of religious people being healthier and living longer than their more skeptical counterparts. For example, in a 2018 study entitled “Does Religion Stave Off the Grave,” Laura Wallace and her fellow researchers analyzed obituaries, classifying the deceased as religious if the obituary revealed the person’s attendance at a church or synagogue. After allowing for the effects of gender and marital status, one sample showed religious subjects living 6.48 years longer than non-religious subjects. Another sample showed a difference of 3.82 years. Let’s just say you live four years longer by going to church, synagogue, or Quaker meeting.
Why? Well, there are numerous factors. Religious people tend to have a sense of purpose and order in life. That decreases the stress that contributes to cardiac and other disease. Better mental health leads to better physical health (mind and body are not separate).
Also, religious groups tend to discourage unhealthy habits like drinking alcohol or smoking. For example, Query 8 of NYYM’s Faith and Practice asks,
Have we confronted our own decisions about our use of alcohol,
tobacco, and other drugs, and do we encourage others to do like-
wise? Have we considered the cost in human suffering that might
result from such use?
Notably, religious groups encourage the socializing and the relationships that are fundamental to good health. Having friends is at least as important as exercise and sleep. Weak social connections correlate with increased depression, cognitive decline, and decreased life expectancy. Moreover, one study indicates that membership in a religious organization is more beneficial than volunteering or playing sports (see the Medical Daily).
I conclude that Quakerism is indeed a useful delusion. But wait! What if religion and Quakerism aren’t delusions? What if—as early Friends were fond of saying—Quakerism is Truth. I personally believe our Society to be very realistic indeed, both in its process of discernment and in its original form as a type of Christianity. Richard Dawkins is wrong, maybe even deluded.
~ Richard Russell
Prayer is a common occurrence. Public prayers are offered before sports events and governmental meetings; liturgical prayers are offered in churches; private prayers of the “Dear God, please…” variety escape our lips in traffic jams and grocery lines.
However, Paul Tillich, in a sermon from The New Being, questions whether true prayer is even possible. After all, we are attempting to talk to the Creator of the Universe, who—presumably—already knows our needs and wants before we even enunciate them. Isn’t a kind of prayerless resignation more logical than asking for God’s help or even thanking God. Surely God is not so small as to need our thanks; and if God was going to help us anyway, why bother asking? And if God wasn’t going to help, again—why bother?
The Apostle Paul tackles the problem in Romans 8:26-27:
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know
what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us
through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows
the mind of the Spirit because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people
in accordance with the will of God.
Paul’s solution is not so easy to understand. To begin with, what is Spirit? In a Christian context, Spirit is simply God’s felt presence. So, despite our inability to pray except in wordless groans, God himself helps us. God himself intercedes for us. But to whom is Spirit/God interceding? Well, that’s “he who searches our hearts.” And that’s—God himself. God is praying to God for us—we could say through us. We ourselves cannot speak to God. We can only groan in the Divine Presence, the Spirit, and “…he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit.”
In Quaker terms, that of God in every person wordlessly tells God what we need. That is why we may profit from a meeting in which the silence is not broken by a message. The Spirit silently does its work anyway.
~ Richard Russell
After all, you’re a part of The Religious Society of Friends. I’ve discovered an online quiz that purports to measure religiosity on a scale of one to ten. Although such quizzes are mainly for fun and not to be taken too seriously, this offering seems to be well-designed. My score was seven. The explanation of a “seven” is as follows:
Religion is a central aspect of your life. Your beliefs guide your
decision making, your mental outlook, and your political per-
spective. But, you may miss a religious service if you need to
sleep in or take a walk in the woods instead. Your religious beliefs
and practices are very important to you, but you also balance
them with other values and needs.
The quiz is entitled Can We Guess How Religious You Are, on a scale of
1—10 and may be found HERE.
~ Richard Russell
I was surprised and shocked. After my mother’s death, my brother had her dog euthanized. He reasoned that Taz had become over-protective of her and over-aggressive toward other people. Without Mom’s presence, Taz refused to eat and wandered around the house—actions perhaps indicating an inability to adjust to the changed situation. Moreover, Taz was old and suffered from a bad back.
Still, he walked normally; and his grief was not necessarily permanent. By identifying what triggered his aggression (i.e., being lifted onto the bed) and re-training him, he might have had two or three years more of life. Of course, he may have been incorrigible.
I just thought we should have tried to save him. My brother disagreed; and after caring for our mother several years, my brother had earned a very real moral authority. That didn’t keep me from criticizing his decision. The result was an old-fashioned family fight which—fortunately—will have no long-term effect on the relationship between my brother and myself.
Gary L. Francione argues that the world can be divided into “persons” and “things.” Things are property, to be used as the owner desires. At one time, slaves were property according to the rationalizations offered by Southern plantation owners. Today, we obviously consider pigs and cows to be property. After all, we acknowledge no freedom or even “right to life” for these animals. We butcher and eat them. We don’t usually eat our dogs, however. In fact, we grant canines a limited personhood.
Research backs up our intuition about dogs. Either through actual genetic change from their wolf ancestors or through sensitization of genes already present in wolves, dogs can function in human society. Dogs can respond to human gestures and speech. They follow our gaze and our pointing fingers. They can infer our moods from facial expressions (although they apparently don’t identify people by looking at faces). They don’t understand conversations, but they respond to spoken commands. They understand that humans have a different perspective on the world. Thus, dogs will commit a forbidden act in darkness even in our presence. They know we don’t see well in the dark.
And dogs are master manipulators. My dachshund, Annie, has learned to steal socks and trade them for treats. She’ll even keep the sock if the treat is not exactly what she wanted. And if no sock is available, she’ll steal something else that she thinks is of value to me. She also makes it a point to walk past me so I see the stolen goods.
Because of their abilities, I believe it’s wrong to euthanize dogs unless they are in pain and terminally ill. In fact, I’d argue that it’s also wrong to kill other animals. Pigs, for example, are more intelligent than dogs and capable of playing video games with chimps. (They move a joystick with their snouts.) They are good at remembering the location of objects. They display empathy and compassion, play with other pigs, and are extremely sociable.
Moreover, even if an animal is not very smart or sociable, its life deserves respect. I agree with Albert Schweitzer, the doctor and theologian. He writes, “Reverence for life affords me my fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and that to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil.” With one sentence, Schweitzer takes away my ham and bacon.
Although vegetarianism is the logical result of Schweitzer’s philosophy, the great man himself was never a complete vegetarian except, perhaps, in the last years of his life. Nevertheless, with my feelings about animals, I should stop eating meat. I don’t know whether I can do that or not. If anyone in Old Chatham Meeting can reason me out of this quandary, I’d be grateful.
~ Richard Russell
Steven Weinberg, perhaps the world’s pre-eminent theoretical physicist, has died (July 23). Weinberg believed that the universe is cold, impersonal, and indifferent to the fate of humanity. He maintained that religion undermines the scientific search for truth, once declaring, “Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization.” (N.Y. Times)
Isaac Pennington, the great 17th century mystic, had a contrary view. He saw the universe as God’s creation. Pennington’s God is “the fountain of beings and natures, the inward substance of all that appears….” In Pennington’s cosmos, the “love and kindness of God…overspreadeth all his works….”
I don’t mean to vilify Weinberg by comparison. After all, in a PBS interview Weinberg said,
…if there is no point in the universe that we discover by the methods
of science, there is a point that we can give the universe by the way
we live, by loving each other, by discovering things about nature,
by creating works of art. And that—in a way, although we are not
the stars in a cosmic drama, if the only drama we’re starring in is
one that we are making up as we go along, it is not entirely ignoble
that faced with this unloving, impersonal universe we make a little
island of warmth and love and science and art for ourselves. That’s
not an entirely despicable role for us to play.
Still, in Weinberg’s philosophy, there is no life after death; and the cosmos itself is destined to become a lifeless, burned out cinder. I prefer Pennington’s more hopeful view. What evidence do I have? Admittedly, none—just as Weinberg has no proof for his opinion, logical and rational though it may be.
I do have an authority on my side, however. In 1 Corinthians 13:12-13, the
apostle Paul writes, “For now we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror; then we
shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then shall I know even as also I am
known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these
No doubt Steven, Isaac, and Paul would agree about the incompleteness of
human knowledge and the greatness of love.
Today my mother died,
Her body left at least,
To sow a wandering mind
In the Garden of the East.
One day, perhaps at dawn,
Again, we’ll meet.
And joy long gone
A river at God’s feet.
~ Richard Russell
Normally you attend First Day meeting in jeans and a short sleeve shirt, but today you came in a suit and dress shoes. After meeting, you have an important job interview (a little strange, admittedly). You’re trying to relax before the interview. So, you take a walk around the pond at Powell House to calm your nerves.
To your surprise, you see a small child thrashing about in the shallows of the pond, on the point of drowning. You face a decision. If you wade into the water to save the child, you’ll get your $200.00 shoes and suit wet and muddy, maybe ruining them. Moreover, you’ll even be late for your interview. What should you do?
You should, of course, save the child. Everyone will agree that it’s an easy choice to make, but what about sending $200.00 to an overseas charity that can save a hungry or sick child? Although comparable to the suit and shoes situation, that seems to be a harder choice. That’s the dilemma posed by philosopher Peter Singer in his book, The Life You Can Save .
And even if you agree to save a child with a charitable donation, why should you stop at saving just one child? Shouldn’t you give $200.00 several times and save multiple children? And couldn’t such generosity cause you financial distress? If you keep giving, couldn’t you be short-changing your own kids?
Singer argues that saving one child is better than saving none. I agree. In his book, he recommends several effective charities. It appears that $200.00 could save the life of a child in Malawi, which—I discover—is a landlocked country in southeastern Africa. Before summer’s end, I should easily be able to send that amount to Development Media International, which sponsors radio ads in Africa about how to improve health. This method is surprisingly effective in getting people of the Third World to adopt behaviors like going to a doctor when one has symptoms, for example, of malaria.
I can save a child afflicted by malaria when the parents go to the doctor. I can feel rather proud of myself…. But should I save a second child?
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