Ivan Himmelhoch, Victoria Regional Meeting
It is always profoundly humbling to visit a person in a hospice at the end stage of their life’s journey. Such encounters have also made me reflect very deeply as to why that shrivelled, yellow-skinned human being before me, who has led a life of deep quiet service to so many without show or fuss, who has the gift of being able to listen to the other at all levels, never sought honours or revenge, have at what ‘should’ be their middle stage of life, notwithstanding medical progress, be suffering so much uncontrolled pain, discomfort, – and yet remain more concerned about others than themselves? How could a loving God allow this, I have asked myself.
There is no definitive answer of course. Over time though, it has become ever clearer to me, that if we ‘blame’ their situation on God, – a God who also ‘lets’ humanitarian workers die in plane crashes, ‘allows’ poverty and wars, ‘permits’ children to be run over – surely what we are really doing is trying to create God in our own image, rather than the other way round?
As a Quaker who last year completed a university Masters of Divinity with Honours, it was suddenly during a unit on ‘Christology’ that I felt that here too, there was this very same human ‘God-branding’ problem present.
Why did I experience this connection? Simply since a ‘traditional’ (sic) theological academic rigorous study of the way Christianity developed, with the many casuistic debates about creedal statements from the early Church Councils and continuing today, supplemented by diverse precisely delineated meanings of sacraments formed, and also argued about, – was surely essentially just a sad narrative illustrating how humans have been sculpting God in an image that they have created, that they have rules for, and that they feel everyone else must, as we say, experientially accept? Not to mention the way I experienced during the degree, what can only be described as a 2000 year and beyond drive to develop with words for Jesus just who he is, what relationship he should have with God, how divine he should be, and what his career path really was!
Nothing of the above is meant flippantly. I maintain a great fondness, love and appreciation for the many deeply caring professors who were at all times acting true to their own Light.
So back to basics. Why would a Quaker ever be studying theology at this level? I have drawn a connection between the hospice and what is taught, but is there any nexus with Quakerism?
Certainly in our Advices and Queries we read: –
… Study the Bible intelligently, using the help available from modern sources. Make every effort to understand the Christian faith … while remaining faithful to our Quaker insights, seek to understand the contributions to Christian thought and action made by other branches of the church.
Yet I would like to share additional quite recent developments within the paradigm of theological academic study that I cannot but help seeing as a new and challenging creative link with Quakerism, as well as a way that would allow increasing Quaker involvement in. These lie in the developing schools of Applied Theology (or Angewandte Theologie as it is better known in Germany) – and Political Theology, not to be confused with ‘Liberation Theology’.
I stand corrected if wrong, but surely our fundamental testimony that ‘Christianity is not a notion, but a way’, together with the way that we are advised in so many different ways and sources to help alleviate poverty, injustice, take social responsibility at home and abroad – not forgetting our most fundamental witness against war, really just another way of describing both ‘Applied’ as well as ‘Political’ theology? And if so, should we not seek more actively in the S/spirit of the excerpt from our Advices and Queries above, to inform ourselves through peer reviewed journals in these two branches of theology whether, and in what way they may speak our to condition?
And taking this a step further, is it not time that we should as Quakers, from a Quaker tradition, also perhaps feel comfortable contributing to the development of these areas of study?
Just maybe then in the future, I would in a benign and friendly way not be told in front of a full class: “Ivan, Quakers do not really like theology do they” as I was!
This is an interesting thought.