The life of a prominent member of the Quaker Meeting where regularly I attend was commemorated yesterday. Though he passed away last year from pancreatic cancer, we did not take stock of his life as a Meeting until yesterday. Though he’d been born into a semi-observant Jewish family, Judaism as a religion did not appeal to him. He still identified as Jewish, culturally, but his religious beliefs were much more complicated.
He was skeptical of the existence of God, yet found secular humanism and atheism to be sterile, academic exercises. It was clear by his life's work that he sought to believe and take part in something larger than himself, else he would not have sought the Religious Society of Friends. Converts to every faith tradition take similar forms.
Much ado was made of the fact that, even though he always called himself a misfit, he nevertheless was one of the most dynamic members of the Meeting. His years of service in a staggering variety of areas did not go unnoticed. I see this same conundrum within many liberals, especially liberal people of faith. On one hand, progressives often state that they don’t care to belong to any club that would have them as a member. But on the other hand, the desire to belong and be part is stronger than any protestations to the contrary.
Many people I know personally have felt like outliers for at least some portion of their lives. For a variety of factors, some biological, some sociological, I’ve felt outside the mainstream myself. Having said that, today I feel less estranged from humanity and God than at other times in my life. Adolescent existentialism has its own blameless place in our lives, but I believe it must be set aside eventually. We must embrace the mystery and enjoy life in spite of it, even if we can’t (and never will) quite wrap our minds around the notion.
Is it truly important to maintain a system of personal belief which always ensures, in our thinking, that the rest of the world couldn’t possibly understand us? Circumstances differ, of course. I admit that prior to the initial stage of coming out as bisexual that I did feel that I was like no one else. With great jubilation, I learned over time that this was not the case. Though I may have developed a protective identity for myself as different, in the end, it wasn't necessary.
A younger me wanted to wear my distinctions like a button badge, alongside the other activist identities I’d adopted. Now, I’ve been seeking commonalities with other people, even though I concede that it is easy to slide back into my overly critical ways. No one ever said when, where, and how we were supposed to have everything figured out.
The creation story in Genesis has been interpreted a thousand ways over the centuries. I’ve always chosen to view it as symbolic, metaphorical, and allegorical—anything but literal. Humans are animals, but what distinguishes us from the beasts of the fields is the massive size of our brains. We have the ability to know both good and evil, at least to an extent, and to wrestle with the concept. If we are indeed created in God’s image, we see reality as complicated, nuanced, and far from simple.
The serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild animals the LORD God had made. One day he asked the woman, "Did God really say you must not eat the fruit from any of the trees in the garden?" "God knows that your eyes will be opened as soon as you eat it, and you will be like God, knowing both good and evil."We can, each of us, become the serpent that divides, distorting meaning for our own ends. We have the ability to come close to understanding ultimate reality and God, but we’ll always fall short. Human theories are disproved and ideas fall out of favor with the passage of time. An estrangement from God, however, is not forever. God's guidance never wavers or is rendered obsolete. We have free will and the choice to make our own path.
Any ideology or system of belief contains its own language and terminology. Many people with whom I communicate regularly have backgrounds in gender studies. Over time, I’ve picked up the key terms and concepts, especially the ones currently in vogue. But gender studies as a discipline seeks to poke holes through established thinking. I fully admit to being a feminist, in part, because I never have been able to understand, much less experience conventional masculinity.
Like before, gender studies sees the current state of affairs as deeply flawed and needing a radical transformation. It appeals often to the same outliers, who view themselves as different, keepers of the one true faith. This is a breeding ground for misfits, malcontents, and seekers.
When we see ourselves as one people, outside of the idealistic utopia of our own creation, one that may or may not ever come to pass, then we’ll undo the curse of humanity. Life is to struggle for meaning and context, and often to fall short. To those granted the vision to view a set of perfect circumstances, our burden will never be light.
But in the meantime, we have significant inner work to do, work that will last the whole of our lifetimes. When our inner work is in synch with our outer work, then we can scale heights never before imaginable. Indeed, if we had faith even as small as a mustard seed, we could move mountains.