Sunday, June 14, 2009

We are that we are

Out of the silence of our Quaker meeting this morning, my friend Ron was moved to stand and speak. He recounted the story of Moses climbing Mount Sinai and receiving the Ten Commandments from God.

When Moses asked God's name, God answered, “I am that I am.”

Ron recounted the story because on Saturday, he and I were among about 30 Quakers who participated in a workshop in which we were asked to experiment with our differences, our "polarities." We were directed to place ourselves in a line that stretched between extremes. At one end were those who experience God as “personal” and at the other end were those who experience God is “impersonal.”

We placed ourselves between the extremes, closest to the one we believe in.

A diversity of friends, pastoral and non-pastoral, attended the workshop so that we managed to span and include the extremes. We even had one atheist Friend who was beyond the extreme at the “impersonal" end. One of the workshop’s leaders, a Quaker pastor, thanked our atheist Friend for being with us to add yet another dimension to consider. I stood next to the atheist, mostly because I don’t agree with naming the nameless, ineffable power that most call “God.”

The workshop’s exercise was fascinating. We proceeded to explore the “polarity” of the line by dividing the group down the middle with the “personal God” believers in one group and the “impersonals” in another. Within the groups we were asked to apply adjectives to what “God” is to us. Then we discussed our views of “the other” group’s view of God (“naive,” “sterile,” “atheistic,” “anthropomorphic,” "self-righteous," "sinful," etc.). After that, each group sent a two-person delegation to share the discussion results with each other. In a polarized world, our leaders noted, this rarely happens.

The four-person meeting in the middle of the room revealed a similarity of sorts. Each delegation was harshly judgmental of the other, and, significantly, both had fervent, deeply held views about God. In talking about the divisions, a unity became clear.

Ron (and I’m sure all of us who participated) had been thinking about the exercise from the day before. Ron rose today to say that he had concluded it is possible for God to be both “personal” and “impersonal” at the same time. Which brought him to the story of God’s telling Moses “I am that I am.”

Ron’s insight engendered two in me. “I am that I am” is very close to what Buddhists call “suchness.’ Or “is-ness.” Moses’ encounter with God is akin to the story of the Buddhist sage, who when asked the meaning of life, said, “Who is asking?”

My other thought was this: Although our line had distinct polarities, it was one continuous, uninterrupted line. As one of the workshop’s leaders pointed out, it was an example of the “the joy of paradox.” Unity in division; division in unity. All it took was for the hands on the ends to clasp each other to make a circle.

It’s not hard to do, not really. If only we would meet and share.

I am that I am; we are that we are.

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