Saturday, October 21, 2006

On seeing ourselves as others see us
...and a curious compliment for Quakers

The problem with faith and practice is that Islam and most of the major Christian religions except a few like the Quakers, declare theirs to be the one true faith and mandate that their members proselytize.

So said commentator Rosa Maria Pegueros last Tuesday in her piece entitled "A Priest, A Rabbi And A Minister Walk Into A Bar…" featured on the Common Dreams website. The author, a professor of Latin American History and Women's Studies, makes an incorrect statement with regard to one of the world's major religions. Still, I find her misconceptions very revealing, since misconceptions expressed by someone looking at a religion from the outside often reflect the gap between adherents' faith and practice, between what the religion teaches and what its members actually do.

Pegueros starts her piece with a joke:
Did you hear the one about the man who dies and arrives at the Pearly Gates? St. Peter checks him in and tells him to follow him. As they walk, they pass a room where people in saffron robes chant in unison; the man asks who they are. St. Peter replies, “Oh, those are the Buddhists.” Then they pass a Black congregation singing, swaying and clapping their hands. Baptists? Yup, replies St. Peter. In the next chamber, there are Tibetan throat singers; then Jews dancing a hora; then Muslims prostrate on their prayer rugs and so on until they pass a room with the Pope and Cardinals and bishops and throngs of people. “Catholics?” he asks. St. Peter replies, “Shhhhhhhh; they think they’re the only ones in heaven!”
I can recognize Pegueros' mistaken belief about Catholicism because I'm "a product of Catholic schools," as they used to say and, in my not-so-distant past, a practicing Catholic. The Catholic Church no longer holds (if it ever officially did) that only its own members are saved. I certainly was never taught that by any of my teachers, many of whom were nuns. (Well, OK,
maybe they did impart the idea that we Catholics were just a bit more...closer to the Truth than the others, but hey, as my grandmother used to say, "Everybody praises their own.") In the document Nostra Aetate, issued by Vatican Council II in 1965, we read,
The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in [other] religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.

... The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.
So the punchline of Pegueros' joke turns on a misunderstanding...unless, of course, by their actions and attitudes in everyday life, Catholics actually do give the impression that they think they're the only ones going heaven. But my purpose here isn't to point an accusing finger at Catholics. Rather, it is to suggest that we who follow a spiritual path --whichever it may be-- treat Pegueros' words like a mirror that lets us see ourselves as others see us (sort of like a Quaker "Query").

And as for misconceptions, I naturally assumed, because of her beautiful Spanish name, that Pegueros was Catholic herself. Surprise! In the "funny you don't look it" category, she reveals that she's actually "a devout Jewish agnostic" (perhaps originally of the Sephardic tradition?).

I wonder if any other Quakers picked up on Pegueros' curious compliment:
The problem with faith and practice is that Islam and most of the major Christian religions except a few like the Quakers, declare theirs to be the one true faith and mandate that their members proselytize.
Since Pegueros teaches at the University of Rhode Island, perhaps the only Quakers she has encountered are members of the FGC. True, we don't do much in the way of "proselytizing," which Pegueros finds praiseworthy...even if some of our fellow members do not. She is obviously unaware, as was I before I began to delve more deeply into Friends' literature, of other branches of the vaster Quaker community, such as the Evangelical Friends International who, as their name implies, spread the Light in a more active way.

But that's OK. I'll take a compliment any way I can get it.


  1. nathan's shepherdOctober 23, 2006 at 6:24 PM

    Funny. I head the same joke told once -- and it was the Presbyterians who thought they were alone.

    I imagine the joke makes the rounds, with a different butt-end depending on the teller.

    Which leaves me with a question. Do people primarily tell this joke about themselves -- or about other folks?

    Speaking of which, how do Quakers sing hymns? By reading 2 bars ahead to see if they agree with the words.

  2. We sang just fine at rise of meeting yesterday, David. No controversy, no challenges to the lyrics. Thanks for asking and for stopping by.

  3. So. If we have the truth--maybe not any truth distinct from that in other religions, but their underlying basic truth that God is accessible, with a lot less of their dubious and sometimes counterproductive baggage--why shouldn't we "proselytize"?

    I think that what we're supposed to have--direct experience of God--is not only too rare in the outside population, but fairly unusual and desparaged even among us. Which makes calling ourselves "Friends," in that sense we took from the Gospel of John, an example of false advertising. Not having it strongly enough, we don't know how to share it.

    We can claim the modest virtue of not faking it. Far better if we could catch fire from one another, and ignite the world as our predecessors once hoped to do.

  4. Our meeting has singing for 20 to 30 minutes right before meeting for worship. I [Tom] find hymn singing one of the worst ways to prepare for waiting worship. I end up with all those words on my mind along with the theology/mythology they reflect.

    My partner [Sandy] loves singing then. She grew up in a Methodist parsonage. I go to the library or the first day school building. Sometimes I am 'late' to meeting because I miss the brief window of opportunity to enter between the end of singing and closing the doors for worship.

  5. Hi Tom and Sandy,

    To clarify about the singing, we only sing at our meeting on special occasions. At Christmas time, the kids do a little play (usually an updated version of the Nativity story -- last year Mary and Joseph were refugees from hurricane Katrina looking for a place to have their baby...) and then they lead everyone in the singing of carols.

    Volunteers are requested to teach First Day School during the summer, so that the regular teachers can have some time off to attend meeting for worship in its entirety (instead of the first 10 min, and then leading the children out to the school building). So, in August I dusted off my guitar, tried to reinstate the callouses on my fingers, and taught the kids a couple of songs. The event has been memorialized in a
    blog entry:

    This past First Day was another special event, which I'll write about soon.

    Hi Forrest,

    I am not arguing for or against proselytizing. It is not something I am comfortable doing myself, except inasmuch as my blog may serve that function. However, I would never presume to tell other Friends not to heed the leadings of the Spirit, if they feel so moved.


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