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?
Wanna’ rent a movie from Amazon? How ‘bout Quakers—That of God in Everyone, a 2015 documentary co-produced by Cincinnati Friends Monthly Meeting. The film begins with the stars of Quakerdom—George Fox and William Penn. As I heard how Penn bought land from the Indians and established freedom of worship in Pennsylvania, well-known historical facts, I prepared myself for a narrative that would bore me with what I already knew. And, in fact, most Friends will be familiar with the basic “plot” of the documentary, which characterizes Quakerism by its anti-slavery and peace testimonies. However, because the documentary does not dwell on the most famous American Quakers but concentrates on lesser-known figures from Cincinnati or southwest Ohio, the presentation of these two historical strands was fresh and interesting.
Quakers was quite accurate but lacked the qualifications and subtlety of well-done historical writing. Although Friends were universally opposed to slavery after the late 1700’s, not every Quaker farmhouse was a stop on the Underground Railroad; the film undervalues the efforts of the slaves themselves as they escaped, often with little help from others. And although the peace testimony is foundational for Quakerism, there have always been Friends who reject absolute pacifism. The tone of the documentary might lead the uninitiated to believe otherwise.
However, the only serious historical defect in Quakers is its treatment of Indian boarding schools. Although Friends were undoubtedly well-intentioned, their education of Native Americans was not the humanitarian success depicted by the film. In fact, Friends committed a kind of cultural genocide by attempting to civilize the Indians. They wanted to save the children by destroying the Indian in them, and that traumatic experience has reverberated through generations of Native Americans. (See this article by Paula Palmer.)
Technical aspects of the documentary are well done. The content is presented with old photographs or film clips supplemented with line drawings. The commentary by various members of Cincinnati Meeting is informative; and Thomas Hamm, professor of History at Earlham College, succinctly summarizes the film’s message: “If it were proper for Quakers to be proud, I think we’re entitled to be proud for the many ways that we work to try to make the world a better place….”
Quakers: That of God in Everyone can be rented for $2.99 from Amazon Prime Video, but the complete film may be accessed free of charge HERE on YouTube.
This last week I read a classic work of Christian theology, Rudolf Bultmann’s Jesus Christ and Mythology. Bultmann was born in 1884 and died in 1976. For thirty years he was a professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Marburg in Germany.
Bultmann notes that the New Testament is full of first century mythology. God’s abode, Heaven, is literally somewhere up in the sky among the stars. Mental illness is explained as demonic possession, and miracles happen when the laws of nature are suspended by magicians and healers.
A common myth among the Jews of this time was the expectation of a messiah who would establish God’s Kingdom on Earth. Of that end time Jesus himself is supposed to have said,
There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth,
nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and
tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive
of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will
be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming
in a cloud with power and great glory. (NIV, Luke 21)
Using Bultmann’s method of de-mythologizing the Gospels, we can eliminate the signs in the Heavens, the seething of the sea, and the appearance of a superhuman figure among the clouds. What’s left is the law of the Kingdom, the law of love. In the Kingdom people are lovingly kind and truthful. People are unfailingly good. Even non-theists can accept this version of the Kingdom of God, which now becomes a symbol that a wide range of Friends can affirm. The Christian tradition can be maintained in a meeting even if there are many non-Christians in that meeting.
May we always hope for unity as we individually search for Truth!
~ Richard Russell
Why can’t Quaker meetings be more diverse and attract a variety of members? As everyone knows, most liberal Quakers are white, older, and relatively well-to-do. Where are the African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and youth in their twenties or thirties?
I would argue that ethnic minorities and younger people are often disadvantaged and therefore feel uncomfortable among privileged liberal Quakers. Such Friends make more money and are better educated than their poorer compatriots.
Consider Two Kinds of Quakers: a Latent Class Analysis . This study by Cary and Weber divides the members of 10 Philadelphia-area meetings into a “G” (God) group and an “S” (social activist) group. 33.7% of the “G” Friends make $100,000 or more per year. 41.4% of the “S” Quakers make at least $100,000. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the annual real median income in 2019 was $35, 977. How would a Walmart employee making $25,000 a year feel in the company of Friends making four times as much?
And then there’s education. The Census Bureau says that in 2019, 36% of people 25 or older had a bachelor’s degree or better. 91% of G Quakers had a bachelor’s degree or better. Over 50% of Quakers in the Philadelphia meetings had a master’s or Ph.D. How would our Walmart high school graduate interact with the Quaker Ph.D. in Physics? Certainly, they wouldn’t be discussing Quantum Mechanics or String Theory. Fact is—ordinary, average people would likely never return to a Monthly Meeting after an initial visit. Ordinary people are generally neither stupid nor lazy, but they simply wouldn’t fit well in the upper middle class Friendly milieu.
Of course, not all monthly meetings are as high in the socioeconomic scale as those analyzed by Cary and Weber. Moreover, the 572 Friends of the study are an exceedingly small sample. I can easily imagine that most Friends don’t individually make anything close to a $100,000 salary. And I don’t know that—nation wide—half of us have advanced degrees. We need more statistically significant studies before generalizing too much. Still, as educated white people, we Quakers are undoubtedly privileged.
Related to privilege is the matter of talents and gifts. Not everyone has the ability or experience to be the treasurer or clerk of a meeting. Not everyone is equally inspirational as they speak or testify in a meeting. God has chosen some people to be witnesses and prophets. Other people do not even have “ears to hear” the truth of a testimony.
In general, God has distributed gifts and talents unequally. How can a person receiving little not feel humiliated or envious? How can the person receiving much not succumb to pride or arrogance? Where is the justice in one person being given genius while someone else is born an imbecile? Why does one human being receive strength and health while another is saddled with weakness and disease? Why is this man or woman a saint while another is criminal and evil?
In his book The New Being, Paul Tillich has what I believe to be the answer:
There is an ultimate unity of all beings, rooted in the divine
life from which they emerge and to which they return.
All beings, non-human as well as human, participate in it. And
therefore they all participate in each other. And we participate
in each other’s having and in each other’s not having. When we
become aware of this unity of all beings, something happens to
us. The fact that others do not have changes the character of
our having; it undercuts our security and drives us beyond our-
selves, to understand, to give, to share, to help.
Friends are—in my opinion—good at understanding and helping. With a distinctive style of worship and unusual inclusiveness, we have much to offer seekers of Truth. May we continue to share our gifts!
~ Richard Russell
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