Sunday, August 21, 2016

Words, Symbols, and Idols

I was at the West Knoxville Friends meetinghouse this weekend for a meeting with the Nurturing & Steering committees of Southern Appalachian Young Friends (the teen group for my yearly meeting). Last night, we had a discussion that touched on our use of language and how our language can hurt others. One of the things that I found myself thinking is how words can be symbols, and when they are symbols for systems of oppression they can be hurtful to those who are victims of that oppression system, and yet seem somewhat innocuous to those who are not on the receiving end of that oppression, especially if we aren't aware of what they symbolize.

On the way to Knoxville, Mary Linda took this picture around the Cookeville exit: Then on the way home, right around the same place, I passed a car with a bumper sticker reading "In God We Trust". That got me thinking about Christian words and symbols, and at first, I thought about how those words and symbols might be used more as symbols of American Christian culture, which is not the same thing as Christianity. In this case, they are sometimes used to symbolize membership in a group, but not necessarily in consideration of what those symbols actually represent. Of course, that's me being somewhat judgmental, but I do think it is important to consider how we use words and symbols, and when it comes to religious symbols, it can get into the area of idolatry when the symbol becomes separated from God. For example, look at "In God We Trust". I often hear that phrase used in ways that seem more about establishing Christianity as the official religion of the U.S.A., rather than being about trusting God. Much of our political discourse these days seems driven by fear, and if we really trusted in God, fear wouldn't have such a grip on us. I don't know if I would say that the phrase itself is the idol, or the political ideal is the idol, but it seems like either way it suggests that something is substituting for God.

I started questioning how I might also be using a symbol, word or practice without consideration or connection to God. We might be tempted to say that since Quakers have internalized everything, we don't really get stuck on symbols in the same way other faith traditions do, but I think maybe we have just made it harder for us to find those things, but they do exist. One personal example that comes immediately to mind is the silence. I know that there are times when I just sit in worship being silent, sometimes I even find myself settling in and enjoying the silence. Intellectually, I understand the silence in our worship to be a product of our listening for the Inward Teacher to lead us and I remember one time thinking that the phrase "silence means assent" works well for us in that it is our assent to being led by God. But more times than not, I do not have this assent at the forefront of my mind when I settle into worship. I may think of being centered, and I do have periods of being aware of listening, but I feel like do not enter into it consciously.

It gets more complicated for me with the cross. Again, intellectually, I resonate with the internalized understanding of the Cross mystical that William Penn describes here in No Cross, No Crown:
The cross of Christ is a figurative speech, borrowed from the outward tree, or wooden cross, on which Christ submitted to the will of God in permitting him to suffer death at the hands of evil men. So that the cross mystical is that divine grace and power which crosseth the carnal wills of men, and so may be justly termed the instrument of man’s holy dying to the world and being made conformable to the will of God. ...

Well, but then where does this cross appear, and where must it be taken up? I answer, within, that is, in the heart and soul; for where the sin is, the cross must be. Custom in evil hath made it natural to men to do evil; and as the soul rules the body, so this corrupt nature sways the whole man; but still, ’tis all from within. Experience teaches every son and daughter of Adam an assent to this; for the enemies’ temptations are ever directed to the mind, which is within; if they take not, the soul sins not; if they are embraced, lust is presently conceived (that is, inordinate desires). Here is the very genealogy of sin.

But how and in what manner is the cross to be daily borne? The way, like the cross, is spiritual, that is, an inward submission of the soul to the will of God as it is manifested by the light of Christ in the consciences of men; the way of taking up the cross is an entire resignation of soul to the discoveries and requirings of it.
I don't consciously think about taking up the cross daily, although I do occasionally recognize it at work in me. Lately I have felt a concern about my interactions with people online, which I felt upon hearing one of the advices read at NCYM-C: "Seek the beautiful and worthwhile in literary and recreational pursuits, being always sensitive to the encroachment of the banal, the degrading, or the violent." I felt that I shouldn't be contributing to the banal, degrading, or violent. Since then there have been times when I really wanted to, but I have felt an inward stop, that I think is that inward submission to the will of God. Although I can see this in retrospect as a small example of taking up the cross, I feel I want it to be more a more conscious thing.

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