Thought for the week: Harvey Gillman’s future tense

‘The greatest paradox for me is that the divine is incarnated in people like us.’

'Many a bee resides in a Quaker bonnet.' | Photo: Vincent van Zalinge / Unsplash.

Some weeks ago a Friend read from Sydney Bailey’s Swarthmore lecture, Peace is a process, which is now Quaker faith & practice 24.57. Sydney Bailey writes: ‘The follower of Jesus is to discover and then promote the Kingdom of God. That Kingdom has two tenses: it is already here, in each one of us; and it is still to come, when God’s goodness becomes a universal norm.’ That passage has been on my mind ever since I heard it, though I prefer the phrase ‘divine commonwealth’ to the ‘Kingdom of God’.

The spiritual life is one of paradox. Quakers are encouraged to look within, yet I have always felt that ‘that of God between’ is as much a reality as ‘that of God within’. (Where does the inner life end and the outer one begin?) We tend towards the mysticism of the present moment. We have a contemplative tradition. At the same time we are working actively to implement a vision for a better future. We have a strong activist impulse to change the imperfect society around us, but we are called to engage with this society as it is, not to turn our backs lest engagement dirty our hands. I have noticed a tension here, not least on the letters pages of the Friend. Some Friends regard an emphasis on the sacred vision of the present as a form of ‘spiritual navel gazing’; others complain that we are always too busy mending things, that we are a sort of sometimes-silent Oxfam. Some find religious language a barrier to communication, and talk of a world waiting for the Quaker message, yet I assume they do not think that this message is simply the one proclaimed by more secular social activists.

I actually love these tensions. They have always been among us. I also find them at times intensely irritating. But they show that we are alive, that we are trying to build community with all our differences and contradictions – just like the disciples to whom Jesus was preaching the kingdom. After years of being active among Friends, I now feel called to a quieter, more solitary, approach. After years of exploration through language, I grow ever more cautious about how it can be used. And yet the greatest paradox for me is that the divine is incarnated in limited, tentative, argumentative people like us; I am continuously surprised by the depth of insight and relationship we contradictory folk can offer each other.

And so the activist may continue to be frustrated by the contemplative, whether these be two people or one person with a conflicted spirit. To try to speak to the world with the world’s language (whatever that may be) may be unsatisfactory to the one who wants a deeper language (whatever that is). We all have different emphases. Many a bee resides in a Quaker bonnet.

I do not want Friends to sort out these tensions. The inner and the outer, the present and the future, contemplation and activism, how we communicate – all these are aspects of the one life we are given. The angle from which we approach them is based on our experiences, psychological needs, limited visions, our changing discernment, even the time of life and our understanding of how much of that time we have left. It is sad when one person declares that our Society should be (re)made according to her or his personal requirements. Living adventurously is surely living with paradox. As Rainer Maria Rilke wrote: ‘Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions… Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything.’

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