A meditation inspired by the first lighting of the rebuilt Church of St. Nicholas at the World Trade Center.
I intend the term “postmodern” to point to … an unreadiness, born of experience, to assent to any totalizing, teleological, grand story. As a child of both the Catholic Church and the 20th century, I am deeply suspicious of such stories.
The notion of neurotic repression may offer a helpful perspective on a central doctrine of the early Quakers; namely, that all human beings are naturally and fundamentally flawed, but most, if not all, can be significantly changed for the better.
“Quakerism is rightly called an experiential religion: one becomes a Friend in the experience of being illuminated, convicted, and empowered by the light within.”
To frame our religious experience in psychological terms is not to deny a place to those who believe in God, but to return to the very early Quaker insight that, as contemporary thinker John D. Caputo put it, “[T]he event that stirs within the name of God can take place under other names, which complicates the distinction between theism and atheism.”
Our thesis is that, in psychological terms, the biblically-shaped experience of the first Friends implies, first, that the characteristic of commonsense, “normal” self-centeredness constitutes a pervasive schematic bias in the psyches of most human beings, and, second, that Quaker conversion/salvation is a process of detaching from that self-centered bias and adopting a new, love-centered orientation.
To be saved is to be one whose basic bias is toward universal love, which is the opposite of “the world’s” orientation to self. To begin to turn to that new orientation is to enter the process of metanoia.
Life presents us at times with experiences that get through the filters and challenge the validity of our basic worldview. Such experiences create in us a dissonance, a tension between our beliefs and new information. Cognitive dissonance is particularly strong when the conflict involves our self-concept. There are two principal methods of reducing such dissonance.
“[F]or the least measure of God’s righteousness is perfect, and all are in perfection who become servants to it, and thereby become free from sin.” One might have flaws, but one’s basic orientation had changed; one’s heart had been set free from the self-centered orientation that is sin.
In a Quaker reading of the Fall myth, Adam and Woman have fallen into the spiritual death of the “way of self-wisdom and knowledge,” attempting to usurp God’s role as the Light which shows us what is good and what is evil. Each person will now define good and evil in terms of his or her self-interest, often unaware of doing so.