The gallery opening for the exhibition of the New Humanitarian Institute's design program students was a delight. (Scroll down my December photo gallery for some glimpses of the evening.) Afterwards, some of us went across the street (Lenin Prospect) to visit artist Mikhail Sotnikov's exhibition of art he painted in Montenegro (see my same December photo page for some samples--Sotnikov is in the black coat).
When I think of the dim state of affairs among some Quaker groups I know--lack of growth, lack of visibility, general low energy--I remember some comments made by Kenyan Friends Meshack Mudamba and Eileen Malova at the end of their renewal tour of North American Friends about ten years ago. Reporting to the board of Friends United Meeting, they observed, among other things, two disconnects between faith and practice that deeply concerned them: the lack of racial diversity among Friends and the lack of reverence.
The lack of diversity is something I've discussed before and will again, but just now I was thinking about the lack of reverence. Is this observation a temperamental bias, perhaps a cultural filter that says as much about the observer as the observed? Maybe there's some of that; and I think I'd get a little defensive if some authority said that Quaker piety had to include some prescribed ideal level of gravitas. Even though everyone knows how well I maintain dignity and decorum at all times, I wonder whether I would make the cutoff. We Friends were born with an elemental resistance to the religion industry, with all its curlicues, folkways, special voices, and the power structures that are required to keep all those things up to standard.
But the slappy casualness and the boozy conviviality that has sprung up in some quarters among us, perhaps especially in Europe, cannot be what the Valiant Sixty put their lives on the line for either. Once you have put your life in the hands of the Eternal One, can you (I) be so glib about holy things, holy topics? Can you settle for what seems almost a purely social quakerism whose spiritual temperature is firmly limited by the most skeptical participants?
I doubt that anyone ever made a deliberate decision to abandon old-time reverence. More likely it was drift. In the quietist generations of Friends, we substituted formula phrases for the names of God and Christ and the Holy Spirit, and I suspect that the reason was not theological vagueness but reverence--not wanting to trifle with these precious references. However, several generations later, the "Inward Light" became less a metaphor than a license to relativize the faith. Is a similar drift occurring with our sense of awe before God? Having become skeptical of canned piety, have some of us lost all sense of piety altogether?
I'm sure there's really no simple answer to this question. But the issue is important--particularly when we communicate across cultural lines. I think people in many cultures intuitively understand (however they personally relate to God) that this relationship should be treated with depth and respect and not made the subject of purely cerebral speculation, still less of new forms of intellectual self-gratification. I know that over the years some of us have shocked Russians with our casual individualism, just as some of us shocked Malova and Mudamba.
Dept. of Nonsequiturs... A lovely bit of blues history: Buddy Guy, B.B. King, and Eric Clapton:
Clapton Guy King r&r ceremony
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PS: Did anyone notice that I managed to produce a whole entry without politics?