Resisting the Temptation to Polarize

Department: 

I want to start with a story of a “popcorn meeting.” This is a type of Meeting for Worship that most Friends dread – full of distractions and superficial messages – including messages that are purely political, purely personal, or even incomprehensible – messages that actually seem to block us from finding a deeper Unity together.

One Sunday about twenty years ago, right after my father died, I went to worship at a meeting I had never attended before. I only knew one person there, but I didn’t try to contact her in advance. I just wanted to sit in the silence in my grief.  As it turned out, person after person stood and spoke. There was not much silence. An old man stood and rambled on about something that bore all the earmarks of having been said many times. Someone told a little story about stopping her car for ducks. You get the idea – a classic popcorn meeting. My friend caught my eye from across the room and was clearly embarrassed on behalf of this meeting that she dearly loved.

Let me tell that story again: A few days after my father died, I went to worship at a meeting I had never attended before. I only knew one person there, but I didn’t try to contact her in advance. I just wanted to sit in the silence in my grief. I am one of those people who rarely cry and had not cried since Dad died. At that time, I was also someone who had never experienced anything resembling a mystical experience. As I sat in the silence, I became aware of an arm around me. The feeling was so strong that I looked to see if the stranger sitting next to me had sensed my grief and had reached over to comfort me, but nobody was actually touching me. My tears began to flow as I felt the comfort of this invisible arm, supporting me and consoling me. Increasingly, spoken words began to penetrate my grief. Each speaker had something to say to me – something about a reassurance that even when we stumble and seem foolish, we are loved as a part of the whole; something about caring for even the least of those whom we encounter; something about who I am, and about the core of our faith.

This long-ago meeting for worship was where I first encountered That Which Unites us all – in a classic popcorn meeting. That was the meeting in which I first heard my call to take up vocal ministry and to travel in that ministry.

Clearly, vocal ministry that we might dismiss as “popcorn” might actually be lifesaving to someone else – even if we never know about it. Thus, we are challenged by our faith to grant respect to ideas that we are tempted to label as meaningless or negative. Different individuals connect very differently with all that is holy. It may be through song, through awareness of the Earth’s majesty, through the sharp taste of injustice, or through unexpected moments of compassion. Our Quaker practice of listening requires us to go deeper and learn how we might engage with the Life that dwells in places we would avoid.

We are called to live a life of faith in a world of paradox. We may not understand how multiple realities can coexist, but we are cautioned not to pit them against each other.

A paradox is a door that opens into a state that Buddhists call “beginner’s mind.” From the perspective of beginner’s mind, differences do not need to contradict each other. In Greek terms, paradoxes link us to kairos time rather than chronos time – that is, to time as it relates to the infinite mystery rather than the time of human experience. In the Unity that Friends find in a gathered meeting for worship, kairos time and human time intersect. Such an hour of worship seems to pass in an instant, yet it feels full beyond comprehension. As Friends, we are called to experience kairos time not only when we gather together on Sundays, but also as we interact with the world at large in our daily lives.

Yet our daily lives are ruled by chronos time, too. We cannot help but see that differences seem to line themselves up in easy polarities. Having been trained in science, I am very conscious of the ways that science and technology push us into a mode of thought which demands “right” answers and material proofs. Of course, in the twenty-first century, we are now aware that our perceived world of material certainty only is a rough approximation of reality. Newtonian physics allows us to master our environment to a terrifying extent, but it fails to reveal the heart of the matter, where paradox lies. Modern science allows for paradox. For example, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle recognizes that a subatomic particle is simultaneously both a particle and a wave – a contradiction which defies reality as seen from a Newtonian perspective.

In the world of our Quaker faith, too, contradictions abound. These sometimes polarize and drive Friends apart. They sometimes also inspire Friends to enter into paradox, into kairos time, and then further into Beloved Community together. Just a few examples of apparent contradictions in our Quaker faith:

  • God is with us, and God’s way is knowable. / God is mystery and unknowable.
  • Christ is Truth. / Christ is one name for Truth.
  • We take personal responsibility. / We live in holy obedience.
  • Jesus is Lord. / Jesus is a man who washes our feet.
  • We seek a clear group identity as Friends. / We seek to be radically inclusive.
  • To love life is to lose it. / To lose life is to gain it.

The constant pressure to polarize is intrinsic to our human nature. By learning to accept paradox in our lives, by resisting the impulse to find a single right answer, Friends can be catalysts for change throughout humanity. There don’t need to be a lot of us; we just need to be in the right places, reframing the questions. For example: It is not a question of whether we oppose Big Oil or promote alternative energy, but rather a question of how we can all reshape our lives to use less energy overall. It is not a question of deciding which nation can lead the global economy most successfully, but rather a question of how we can end the delusion that an American rate of resource consumption is healthy for the globe.

Living with paradox confounds us when we want black-and-white answers. It takes away our sense of absolutes and is disconcerting. Yet living with an acceptance of paradox offers an escape from seemingly intractable conflicts. Given humanity’s infinite range of different values, different self-identities, and different perceptions, it is all too easy to attack one another and become trapped in conflict.

Friends are by no means immune to these dynamics. We are well endowed with the potential to dig in our heels and refuse to acknowledge the humanity and divinity in each other. All too frequently we enter conversations with an attitude that says, “How can you call yourself a Friend if . . ?” Instead, we might do well to ask, “How is my own arrogance clouding my vision and preventing me from hearing the voice of the Spirit on this matter?” 

Addressing a related dynamic, Elise Boulding warned against “premature universality,” the human tendency to try to solve conflicts by trying to make everyone just like us, by promoting one universal set of values, perceptions, and practices.  Instead of forcing such false consensus, which only breaks down over time, Boulding advises us to acknowledge the realities of our differences. At the same time, we must become open to the unexpected ways in which all of us can be changed.

Since the middle of the twentieth century, Friends have tiptoed around each other, trying not to offend, trying not to trigger strong reactions. We have carried a particular concern for people who seek refuge from bad encounters with Christianity. We have been reluctant to use authentic, possibly incendiary, language in describing our personal experiences of our faith. Whether the terms we use in our homes are Christian, Universalist, Humanist, or other, we have avoided using those terms plainly in public with each other. Many of us back off whenever someone becomes angry – sometimes due to fear, sometimes due to a misunderstanding of our peace testimony.

Surely our peace testimony advises us to watch carefully, lest we cross the line between honest expression and bullying. And of course we should do all we can to avoid crossing that line. But we are called to offer more than mere refuge to our neighbors. We are also called to help them with the challenges they face in healing and gaining strength, in expanding possibilities and building new foundations.

Finding true peace, the peaceable kingdom, involves hard work and a lot of faith.  It requires listening – listening with God’s ears as well as our own, so that we might learn from each other and from our differences, so that we might find our way together to unity that exists in God.

One more way to think about paradox is to think of it as a bridge.  Bridge-building is an area where we Friends have made a reputation for ourselves – as international mediators willing to cross battle lines to open communications between enemies, as humanitarians willing to feed “our enemies” as well as “our allies” in times of war, as neighborhood activists willing to mediate local disputes. When we find the inner peace that allows us to stand in the middle of tensions between people and remain open to truth in unusual forms, we can work freely and without fear.  When we are not anchored to a certain outcome, we can more easily live with unresolved tension.  Every bridge is upheld by tension, and tension is required if a bridge is to span a waterway, or a road, or two hostile groups of people. I pray that Friends will increasingly learn to live and work in this space of creative tension.

A few years after that long ago “popcorn meeting,” I began to talk about the experience with a small group of women. About half of us were “liberal Friends” from North Pacific Yearly Meeting and about half were “evangelical Friends” from Northwest Yearly Meeting. We had been meeting together for a couple of years, and were starting to grow past the stage of feeling extremely tentative about sharing our faith with each other and discomfort with each other’s language. We had grown more interested in our diversity.

As I spoke, I named my experience as a Mystical Opening. It had opened me to another dimension of reality, to a place beyond time and words, a place beyond all hatred, violence, self-service, and greed. One of my evangelical friends brightened and almost jumped up in excitement. She almost shouted, “You’ve had a conversion experience!”  

As far as she was concerned, I had had a classic, “Come to Jesus” experience.  It took me aback at the time, and my friend still enjoys teasing me about it. I don’t use the language of Christianity in my own daily life. But I find it amazing that I stand in this place now where both are true – that I can accept that I have somehow known Jesus at the heart of my being, and at the same time, I also know that power, truth and love are not dependent on any particular way of knowing and naming God. ~~~

Marge Abbott is a member of Multnomah Monthly Meeting in Portland, Oregon (NPYM). She is a founding member of the Friends’ Women’s Theological Conference, which brings different branches of Friends together in learning and fellowship. She is the author of several books, including To Be Broken and Tender, published by Western Friend.