Quaker Theology has published an occasional series of what we call “Narrative Theologies” essays: personal accounts of Friends’ religious pilgrimages, into (and sometimes, out of) the Society of Friends. These reflect, but are not tied to theological currents which regard, for instance, the Bible as a collection of stories rather than any kind of formal structured set of propositions. Their best outcome is more a conversation rather than a system.
However, our goal for them is that they be more than simply autobiography or memoir. The hope is that they also will be vehicles for reflection on the experiences recounted and analyzed– reflection by the author, the reader, and by the wide community of Friends.
For me theology differs from straight storytelling in that it involves, at some level, reflection and analysis of experience. Thinking, in short. (And George Amoss Jr.’s piece in the new issue of Quaker Theology, Issue # 34 is a fine example)
Such work is not exactly the same thing as “intellectual” activity or abstract and systematic reasoning. I don’t think one needs to be “an intellectual” to be a Friend, or even a theologian; but I do think there is an important place for such work in the Quaker community if we are to be a mature religious body.
George Amoss Jr. is well and widely read in theology, in and outside Quakerism, but his story here is as personal as it can get. The few samples below will, I hope, prompt many Friends to turn to the full story on his website. The fuller story makes for a fine weekend read. And if you’re moved, please join the discussion via the Comments.
Brief excerpts from George Amoss Jr.:
“The Church, the Draft Board, and Me” recounts my conflicts with the Catholic Church, whose ethics were called into question by the war in Vietnam, and the U.S. Selective Service System, which refused to honor my conscientious objection to participation in war. In telling that story, it sketches my evolution, despite encounters with predatory priests and a vindictive draft board, from youthful candidate for the Catholic priesthood to adult a-theistic Quaker who still asserts that “God is love.”
My parents were sober and industrious, but we were not financially well-off. During my eight years in Catholic grade school, we lived in a working-class area characterized by ignorance, intolerance, and occasional violence. Education beyond high school was seen as neither attainable nor necessary . . . . From my perspective, the future looked bleak: I wanted as much education as I could get, and I didn’t want to pass most of my life performing rote tasks inside a noisy factory. One day, I stood in the school athletic field across the street from our home, looked around slowly at the tract houses that enclosed it, and vowed aloud, “This will not be my life.” I would find a way out.
I didn’t have far to look. The Catholic Church offered to lift a boy out of the blue-collar blind alley and into the most respected and important position a man could hold: the priesthood. Like many other devout Catholic boys, I was already considering that offer by the sixth grade. Then, in the latter years of grade school, I was befriended by two popular priests at our parish. Each of them singled me out for conversation, arranged for me to serve him as an altar boy, took me for ice cream and visits to churches in his impressive new car, and gave me gifts. . . .
If that looks today like grooming for abuse, that’s because, for one of them at least, it was. . . .
My primary exposure to institutional religious life was through the nuns, members of the active institute called the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who taught us in grade school. When I served as altar boy in their convent, I thought that it must be lovely to live in such an orderly, peaceful, and sacred atmosphere. I also became acquainted with life in a men’s religious institute by participating in retreats at a Capuchin Franciscan seminary, a boarding school for candidates for the priesthood, in western Pennsylvania. . . .
I trace the emergence of [a recurring] depression to a day in my third year of high school when my confessor Father Alexander — who was weak in zoology as well as pastoral theology, I would later understand — withheld God’s forgiveness from me. Although I had followed his instructions to participate in Mass and confession more often, I had continued to “abuse” myself. “That’s disgusting,” he said in the confessional. “Not even the animals do that. You come in here every week and confess the same mortal sin. [Mortal means soul-damning; I’ll discuss that further in a sidebar.] Absolution requires a sincere intention to reform: clearly, you have no such intention. I will not absolve you until you’ve stopped committing that sin, and I forbid you to seek absolution from another priest.”
The result of that abortive confession was relentless self-loathing and fear of hell as I amassed mortal sins. Despite the shame and dread, I was unable to stop “committing that sin.” . . . .
After months of despair, I revealed my situation to a young teacher whom I felt I could trust. I’ll call him Father X. “Ninety-eight out of a hundred males do that,” Father X said of the behavior I’d thought depraved, “and the other two are liars.” I was stunned.
Saying that Father Alexander must have misunderstood a settled matter of moral theology, Father X then explained the doctrine of “habitual sin.” When a person repeats a grievously sinful act so often that it becomes a fixed habit, he told me, that person is no longer able to consent fully to that act and is, therefore, no longer committing mortal sin. . . . I just needed to confess the sin of allowing the habit to develop, he said; ongoing instances of a habitual act were not seriously sinful, and they were probably not sinful at all if the person regretted the habit, as I did. I formally confessed, and he absolved me. No longer damned and no longer doomed to repeatedly re-damn myself, I felt weightless with relief.
Although the doctrine of habitual sin was wondrously convenient, it was well-established in Catholic moral teaching. . . .”This is a commonplace of moral theology. It is emphasized here because when the priest meets a habitual sinner, either in or out of the confessional, he is dealing generally with a sinner who sincerely repents of his acquired habit and is willing to use the necessary means to correct his habit of sin.” (From a Catholic moral theology text.)
It may have been a commonplace among moral theologians, but I suspect that most Catholics would be as surprised to learn of it as I was. It may be too dangerous a doctrine to be widely propagated. . . .
At the time of my confession to Father X, however, the Catholic worldview, its madness cloaked by its universal acceptance in my milieu, was still my normal, unquestioned reality. . . I would not begin to think critically about religion and ethics until I stepped outside of Catholic culture after high school. Only then would I realize that the doctrine of habitual sin might harbor more than relief for adolescents possessed by hormonal demons. Even so, I did not suspect the depths of depravity that it could rationalize. It was still inconceivable that priests would rape children.
Almost fifty years after my confession to him, Father X was posthumously accused of molesting boys at Archbishop Curley and elsewhere. By that time, the myth of priestly purity had been exploded by the abuse scandal. I saw then the darker possibilities of the habitual sin doctrine — and of that confession, which had taken place not through a screen in a confessional box but face to face in an otherwise empty classroom. . . .
The Draft Board — 1968-1970
It seemed to me that the Selective Service System’s objective was to force me to choose between killing and imprisonment. When those had been my only options, the choice had been obvious: the state could incarcerate me, but it could not coerce my conscience. Now, the lottery was offering a way to avoid both. Should I take that way out, or should I continue to press for official recognition as a C.O., now solely as witness against war and conscription?
Although I had participated in protests against the war in Vietnam, promoting pacifism as national policy had not been my intention. My rejection of any and all war was a matter of personal conscience, not a political position: even when the counterculture seemed strongest, I understood that nonviolence was counter, a deviation from widely-accepted moral standards. My stance, I would later find, was similar to that of early Quakers, who in 1660 avowed that “All bloody principles and practices, we, as to our own particulars, do utterly deny, with all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any end or under any pretence whatsoever” [emphasis mine]. Those Friends, however, had thought that the peoples of the world might soon be led to a radical change of heart that would bring lasting peace. I had no such hope. . . .
I saw, too, that as a free man I could work for human welfare in ways that were more productive than submitting to imprisonment. And without the ever-present worry about prison, I should be less depressed and anxious and therefore more able to engage in such work.
I decided that I would accept the lottery’s offer of immediate liberation, but without recanting my declaration of pacifism. On December 22, 1970, still classified as 1-A, I sent a registered letter to the local board, informing them simply that I was withdrawing my appeal and was therefore subject to the 1970 lottery. Someone at the board . . . signed for my letter on the following day.
After leaving The Church; and God
my analysis of Jesus’ attitude toward violence revealed that the Catholic Church, which claimed him as its cornerstone, had abandoned his teachings and spirit. With the stone removed, the structure crumbled. The dust settled slowly, but when it had, I found that the sanctuary had been empty. The Christian God, my God, was but a creation of the Church, a fresco on a now-fallen wall. He had terrified me at times, but he had been the heart of my world. I longed for him and for the meaning he had provided.
I turned to Buddhism, a faith born, like Christianity, in a profound reaction against human suffering. Whereas Jesus had expected that God would end all pain by creating a new world, the Buddha had taught a way to overcome suffering. Buddhism sought liberation through personal effort, but it seemed to leave open the possibility of a divine reality. Captivated, I pored over sutras, Zen dialogues, and Madhyamika dialectic. Joining a local group that met regularly for Zen meditation (zazen), I learned to allow my mind to become calm and detached, a practice that would later enrich my Quaker worship.
But Buddhism lacked the person and vision of Jesus. I was moved by his ideal of the Kingdom of God, a world of peace, justice, and well-being. And I sensed that the story of his crucifixion could symbolize a divine self-emptying (kenosis) at the heart of all things. Hoping to find a way to believe in his presence again, I studied the works of Bible scholars and contemporary theologians. For a dozen years, I struggled to work out both a theology of a suffering, kenotic God and an exegesis that would make New Testament eschatology — expectation of the imminent end of the world — something other than a barrier to belief. It was an effort that would ultimately fail; for a time, however, both disciplines being elastic, it opened the possibility of a return to Christian faith.
It was during that time that I began to worship among Friends at Little Falls Meeting in the countryside north of Baltimore.
That Quaker Meeting traces its founding to William Amos Jr., who resigned from the militia and became a Quaker in 1738. William was of the Amos(s) family’s first native-born Maryland generation; I am of the eighth. When, in 1975, my grandfather told me of that family connection, I visited Little Falls on a day when the meetinghouse was unoccupied. My eye was caught by a wooden sign posted by the door. It testified to a belief, “based on the life and teaching of Jesus,” in responding to evil with good. . . .
‘WHAT FRIENDS BELIEVE…
The basis of Quaker life and practice is the conviction that there is something of God’s spirit in us all: that every soul can have immediate communion with God. . . .
Feeling in sympathy with that statement, I returned on Sunday to join the small group of Friends for worship. When I was invited to stay for their business meeting afterward, I accepted, and my life was changed. . . .
Feeling in sympathy with that statement, I returned on Sunday to join the small group of Friends for worship. When I was invited to stay for their business meeting afterward, I accepted, and my life was changed.
The Friends, concerned over their dwindling numbers, were planning to renovate an old schoolhouse on the property to provide classroom and meeting space, a kitchen, and washrooms, which the place then lacked. . . .
I was astonished: never before had I seen a group of people so single-mindedly put love and respect above “getting things done.”
I became a regular attender at Little Falls. As I participated in their worship and business practice, learned of their work and witness, and experienced their respect for and challenges to individual and community consciences, I became convinced that the Friends were living in the spirit of Jesus. Through them, I was able to believe – unlike, ironically, some of those Friends themselves — in the present guiding activity of Christ. That faith was strong and sure enough, I felt, to warrant belief in the resurrection of Jesus and therefore in the Christian God. I had recovered — reconstructed — my God.
. . . So I used my family’s move into Baltimore City as an opportunity to “visit other churches,” as I put it to one of the Friends. I soon found that the local Episcopal church, where an acquaintance served as priest, offered beautiful services and relative freedom of thought in a traditional setting. It seemed to be just what I needed, and, within three years of my discovery of Quakerism, I was ritually received into the Episcopal Church.
The sacred beauty and joy of the liturgy outweighed, I told myself, the Church’s failure to embrace equality, justice, and nonviolence. . . . And I took the Church’s recent decision to ordain women as a sign of a growing sensitivity.
But those things could not, I would find, quiet my concerns for long. Nor could they shield God from harsh reality. When my grandfather, who had been crippled for much of his life with a painful, degenerative disease, died of cancer, my faith failed once more. Already weakened by the churches’ complicity in injustice and violence, it could not withstand the sight of that beloved man’s agony of body and spirit. No good God would allow such things, I knew. The Christian God had once more been revealed as fantasy. Twice-dead, he would not be raised again.
After that abortive return to Christianity, I wanted to abandon religion completely. But religion had sensitized me to the dark side of life, to the violence, injustice, and pain that characterize our world; I couldn’t keep my gaze averted. And I had seen a spirit of committed and courageous love among Friends, some of whom did not hold traditional Christian beliefs, that I had encountered nowhere else.
A friend who was active in another Quaker congregation happened to call at that time, and we began a series of conversations that led to my attendance at Homewood Friends Meeting in Baltimore. As I began again to know the power of Quaker practice, I dove into reading of Quaker history and spirituality. At the same time, I satisfied my desire for broader intellectual inquiry by completing a college program of comparative religion, scripture criticism, and seminars on moral questions. . . .
I shared the Quaker thirst for Jesus’ Kingdom of God, found inspiration in the silent communion of worship, and experienced the power of group discernment to awaken wisdom and love. Back among Friends, I had come home. In response to my request for membership in the Religious Society of Friends, Homewood Meeting graciously received me, asking not whether I believed in God or would conform myself to a set of rules, but whether I was committed to the people and practices of that Quaker community, particularly to seeking to live in the spirit we see in Jesus. I accepted membership with joy and a sense of responsibility to contribute to the life of the congregation and the Society as best I could. . . .
If some of us can no longer claim supernatural guidance, it is nonetheless true that our Quaker faith and worship continue to ground our lives in love, empowering us to live compassionately and courageously. And if we can no longer expect the arrival “in power” of the Kingdom of God, it is nonetheless true that the work of Friends for relief of suffering, equality of persons, tolerance, freedom, peace, and justice continue to make the world a better place. The lives of Friends today and throughout our history prove that, whether a supernatural Christ-being lives or not, what Fox believed to be Christ’s light within the human heart is real. . . .”