Friday, June 20, 2008

Christopher Hitchins & Quakers

I’m reading atheist Christopher Hitchens’ book God Is Not Great and finding it more interesting than I expected. He provides details of stories we know vaguely, about the revolting histories of religions and the sordid immorality of religious figures. As expected, he pays little attention to admirable religious activities, but he does call “haunting and elusive” Philippians 4:8:
Your thoughts should be wholly directed to all that is true, all that deserves respect, all that is honest, pure, admirable, decent, virtuous, or worthy of praise.
Having observed atheist spirituality before, I was not surprised to see it here. Hitchens tried on Marxism as “a rational alternative to religion,” but eventually he realized it was “comparably dogmatic.” I applaud his insight and honesty in making this admission. But here’s a more intriguing thought: He admired Leon Trotsky, the Russian Marxist, for his sense of
the unquenchable yearning of the poor and oppressed to rise above the strictly material world and to achieve something transcendent.
This could be one definition of spirituality—unquenchable yearning for something transcendent, something beyond the material world. The same yearning that produced Marxism generates religions of all kinds. It motivates the beloved religious women, my friends and mentors, who graciously let me participate in their Sunday liturgy and in chanting psalms.

In one day I go from chanting with nuns to atheist philosophy. How do I harmonize them? By knowing that yearning for the Transcendent motivates both, but they express this yearning in different ways.

I am attracted to the Quaker way of praying as described by Parker Palmer. For the Quaker Society of Friends, prayer is listening for “that of God” inside every person. This inner voice or teacher or light, also known as Christ, is “often muffled or obscured by all kinds of static, both inside and outside of us,” writes Palmer.
So, prayer is first about getting ourselves into a place where the rush and the pressure of modern life can fade into the background and we can slow down so we are not standing in the middle of the freeway, as it were. . . . some of the speeding and clanging and clamoring is going on inside of us. It is not all external, not by a long shot.
Quakers in meeting still the heart “so inner listening can go on” because “a human being is not an empty vessel.” They hearken to the Inner Transcendent, believing we do not need to be “filled up from the outside by someone else’s version of what is good and true and beautiful.”

Could Christopher Hitchens resonate with this? I think so. He does not deny all spiritual reality, and I see compatibility between his sensibility and Palmer's Quaker spirituality. Religious leaders should take note.

2 comments:

Clayton said...

In one day I go from chanting with nuns to atheist philosophy.

This sort of syncretism has been happening in Catholic feminism for nearly twenty years.

For example, religious sisters participated in Wiccan rituals in the early 90's, according to Donna Steichen in her book Ungodly Rage.

Jeanette said...

Not only feminists are stepping outside the box to cooperate instead of compete. Catholic and Buddhist monks have been dialoguing for decades without feeling threatened by each other’s differing types of faith. More and more Christian and Muslim leaders see the need for such dialogue. Fortunately the list is growing of groups learning how to stop saying, “Either you’re with us or against us.”