Daniel A. Seeger
QUF: This is Cherie Roberts of the Quaker Universalist Fellowship, or QUF, as it is known. Today is Monday, November 11, 2013. I am here today with Dan Seeger, known to many in the Quaker community.
DAN: Thank you. I am glad to be here. I’m glad to participate in this project.
QUF: Dan is here to talk with us about a number of interesting topics concerning universalism and, in particular, Quaker universalism.
First, I would like to introduce Daniel A. Seeger was born and raised in New York City. His family was Roman Catholic. He attended Queens College, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in physics.
He fell away from the Roman Catholic faith, and eventually felt led to become a conscientious objector to military service, although he was not personally acquainted with any pacifists. In the late 1950’s Dan applied and was denied conscientious-objector status. I will let Dan tell that part of his life’s journey in more detail.
Dan became interested in Friends and became a member of the Religious Society of Friends in the late 1960s. He abandoned physics, and served on the American Friends Service Committee staff for a total of 29 years, first as College Secretary in New York and then as Regional Director of the AFSC’s New York Regional Office.
After leaving the AFSC staff to serve as Executive Secretary of Pendle Hill, Dan served on the AFSC’s Board of Directors. After retiring, Dan was called back twice to serve in interim capacities at the American Friends Service Committee, once as Regional Director in California and once as Interim General Secretary in Philadelphia.
Dan was active in Friends World Committee for Consultation, serving as Clerk of its Interim Committee, which governs the World Office in London between Triennials. He was presiding clerk at the World Conference of Friends held in Kenya in 1991. Dan was a participant in the First World Conference on Friends and Evangelism held in Guatemala City in 1987. He has served on many other Quaker boards and committees.
He has a foster son, Kevin Sary, a daughter-in-law, Paula Sary, and two grandchildren, Serena and Timothy Sary.
Dan writes frequently on topics of interest to Friends, and has had articles appear in Friends Journal, Quaker Life, and Quaker Religious Thought. He has also published work that can be found in Quaker Universalist Fellowship Reader Number 1. He is the author of two Pendle Hill pamphlets.
QUF: Dan has a very interesting history. He has certainly done quite a bit of work in the international arena.
We would like to open our discussion your story. How did you come to embrace
universalism? We’d like to hear about your life’s journey and about the events of the CO. How your journey related to the Quaker tradition and universalism.
SEEGER: I think there are three sources of my universalist perspective. Two were related to my Supreme Court case and one was related to my work with American Friends Service Committee.
As you mentioned in your introduction, I was raised a Roman Catholic. When I went to public high school I fell away from the faith, and I became a teenage agnostic. At college, although I was majoring in physics, one of the natural sciences, the City University of New York required its graduates to have a broad background in liberal arts and humanities, a course of study one pursued for two years before turning to your field
So I took two years of a variety of courses that were required, including one which
was called Western Civilization. In that course, which lasted for four semesters or two years, we went through a regime of reading what I would now call snippets — but which in those days seemed quite daunting – of reading assignments from Plato, Aristotle, Marx, Freud, Hume, John Locke, and everyone in between. We read enough of the original writings of all these people to get the gist of their line of thought. As a good conscientious student, I did my reading faithfully and at the end of each term, after I got my “A”, I proceeded to erase everything I learned from my mind, and went on to the next batch of reading with a clean slate.
But there were several readings that didn’t erase so easily. One was, of course,
from the writing of Mahatma Gandhi. How Mahatma Gandhi wound up in course on “western” civilization I do not know, but there he was. He did have a big impact in the West and, of course, he did study in London. I read Gandhi, and also Tolstoy and Thoreau (not Tolstoy’s novels, but his religious thought, which especially developed toward the end of his life.)
These three people were anti-war people, nonviolent people. This was the part of the western civilization course which stuck with me. I don’t know why that occurred but nevertheless it did. I am sure it was not the intent of the course’s designers.
So as I proceeded through college, during my junior and senior years, after this
course was over, becoming more and more convinced that I could not participate in war. Without any advice or counsel from anyone experienced in Selective Service procedures, I did write to my draft board telling them that I did not intend to enter military service. I did not know the term conscientious objector, so I did not use it, as far as I can recall. I just said that I could not in good conscience participate in war-making and in killing. Well, the Selective Service System, via the local draft board, ignored my letter, as I suppose now they properly should have, because I was eligible for a student deferment, and that took precedence over the category of conscientious objector in their hierarchical framework. But they didn’t even acknowledge my letter, and so I just drifted along having written my letter.
Nothing seemed to happen until I lost my student deferment near the end of my college career, when I became a part-time student in order to clean up six or nine credits which I still needed for graduation. Having lost my student deferment, I received an order to appear for a pre-induction physical. They were proceeding as though I had never written my letter. I called their attention to my earlier letter. I had a carbon copy of the letter, I am sure, but I probably did not send it to them. Photocopy machines had not yet been invented.
In any event, they located my letter and sent me something called Form 150 – a
special form for conscientious objectors. This, at least, acquainted me with the term conscientious objector. But there was another surprise: The first question on Form 150 was “Do you believe in a Supreme Being?” followed by two checkboxes. The first checkbox was for the answer “yes,” the second for the answer “no.”
The second question was a request that I explain my how my belief in a Supreme Being required me to be a conscientious objector. I had a vague notion about the separation of church and state, and so I was surprised that an agency of the U. S. Government would ask me questions like this.
I was an agnostic; Gandhi, I now know, was a great devotee of the Bhagavad Gita,
and so presumably he was a theist, but I had not picked this up in the excerpts of his writings I had read. I tended to regard these first two questions as more or less irrelevant. I pondered for a few days. Then, to meet the deadline, I completed the application by checking neither box, but by drawing a third box which said “Please see attached pages.” I included an eight page essay on the knowability and unknowability of God, but claimed to have a religious sort of concern for peace and non-violence.
So the first thing about this journey toward universalism is that I became a onscientious objector to military service not by the inspirational example of one or
more personal acquaintances, which is the way most people come to this if they have not been raised into it by their families, but I came to my conviction by book reading, primarily by reading a writer from Asia who practiced Hinduism.
My effort with Form 150 made no impression upon the local draft board, and I received another order to appear for a pre-induction physical. (I now know, but did
not know then, that by failing to check “yes,” I ran afoul of an explicit provision of the Universal Military Training and Service Act of 1948, which required people to base their beliefs on a Supreme Being if they were to receive a conscientious objector exemption from military service. So, although the draft board action seemed abrupt and unceremonious, they nevertheless had little choice legally, given my Form 150 submission).
As the situation grew more dire, one of my friends on campus finally said to me: “Dan, you had better look up the Quakers. They may be able to help you.”
I did follow this advice and looked up the Quakers in the yellow pages of the telephone directory and found my way to the local American Friends Service Committee office for draft counseling.
I brought with me my eight-page essay on the knowability and unknowability of
God. It turned out the Friends themselves were getting their conscientious objector classifications fairly readily and had a long history of pacifist tradition to back them up. But the staff members of the American Friends Service Committee were apparently frequently meeting people whom they regarded as sincere conscientious objectors, but who were being tripped up by this theological or dogmatic test. When they at looked me and my eight-page essay, they thought that there might be the basis for a constitutional claim under the First Amendment of the Constitution guaranteeing us both freedom of religion and freedom from religion and prohibiting the state from preferring one religion over others or all religions over no religion. So after some consultation, the American Friends Service Committee asked if I would agree to be a candidate for a test case
of the constitutionality of the Selective Service law, of the Universal Military Training and Service Act of 1948, which stipulated that, in order to be a conscientious objector, one had to believe in a Supreme Being. Robert Gilmore of the AFSC, and George Willoughby of the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, and his successor, Arlo Tatum, became my main draft counselors at that point.
So I agreed. The Friends organized a defense fund and found the lead attorney, Kenneth Greenawalt, to argue this case. To make a long story short, there was a long-drawn process in which I appealed my denial of a conscientious objector classification to the Executive Branch of the government, from the local board up through many layers of the Selective Service System and on to the President of United States, who was at that time John Kennedy. And then there was another appeal process through the judicial branch, starting at the federal district court, then on to the circuit court of appeals, and, finally, to the United States Supreme Court.
The second thread of universalism occurred when the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a verdict in my favor declaring that it was not reasonable to exclude agnostic people who did not believe in a Supreme Being from the conscientious objector classification. They actually delivered an opinion that was 9-0, that is, unanimous, in my favor. This is known as the case of the United States of America vs. Daniel A. Seeger.
This was a complicated decision in that there were five concurring decisions. William O. Douglas wrote one of the decisions. He likened me, with my eight-page essay, to a Buddhist. He was, apparently, himself interested in eastern spirituality. Not only did I have Gandhi, but I also had Buddhism now thrust at me. I said Hmmmm. Justice Douglas’ concurring opinion gave me a second push into an interest in eastern spirituality. This was the second push toward Quaker universalism.
The third push occurred when I was working with the American Friends Service
Committee. In the course of being helped by the Quakers, I became curious about
who the Quakers were and what they were doing. My wife, Betty-Jean Seeger, and I became interested in the local American Friends Service Committee office and began volunteering there. Eventually, the American Friends Service Committee asked me to apply for a job on the staff, which I did and was appointed to the position of College Secretary. That was when I threw over my career in physics, which was really only just beginning. As College Secretary I was charged with organizing work camps and other volunteer projects for college-age constituencies, and did a lot of speaking at campuses in the New York area about Quakerism and pacifism. About four years later I was appointed Regional Director of the New York AFSC office.
All of us in the American Friends Service Committee were very concerned that the work be an authentic expression of spiritual values. Everyone participating in the American Friends Service Committee saw their involvement as an expression of a religious quest, even though a few of us were agnostics, or even atheists. Many people in American Friends Service Committee were devout Christians or Jews. (I suppose some might have been Muslim, but I didn’t know of any.) Thus, there were all kinds of people in American Friends Service Committee — people
of many faiths and backgrounds. But the problem that I sensed as a leader and
administrator was that, out of deference to this diversity and to everyone’s individual religious views, we tended not to talk about religion at all. We talked about social change and political activism in strictly secular terms. There were periods in my life in the American Friends Service Committee when one didn’t hear any discussion or vocabulary that one would not hear in a public school classroom. This seemed to be an impoverishment of our internal dialogue about the witness we were trying to make, about the work we were carrying out. I became interested finding diverse ways of expressing spiritual truth so that it wouldn’t seem sectarian, narrowly Christian or narrowly Quaker, but would acknowledge the fundamental spiritual reality that undergirded the work for peace and for justice.
Drawing on pacifist strains in Buddhism and Hinduism, and on my own interest in
eastern spirituality which germinated out of the Supreme Court case, and expanding to a utilization of like concepts drawn from Jewish and Christian sources, I began to try to articulate a spiritual basis for our AFSC endeavors which would be broadly acceptable to a diverse constituency.
I also was concerned to nurture the cross-fertilization between the AFSC and the
Religious Society of Friends which had long been a vital source of regeneration
and renewal for both the AFSC and the Religious Society, and which seemed to be beginning to atrophy. I became an activist Quaker and religious spokesperson within the Religious Society as well as being an AFSC executive. The universalist slant to my Quaker perspective caught the attention of other Friends of like mind, and so in the natural course of events I was drawn into the life of the Quaker Universalist Fellowship.
I did bring a particular flavor to the universalist dialogue. Many universalists, being
refugees from Christian malpractice experienced in other denominations, were profoundly allergic to Christian references and thought forms, and seemed bent on
excising its Christian heritage from the Religious Society of Friends. I felt, however, that it was inauthentic to be welcoming to the perspectives of Buddhists, Hindus, Shintos, Taoists and Muslims, and then to be hostile to Christian and Jewish ways of thinking. So I practiced a kind of smorgasbord approach, or syncretic approach, in terms of my interest in expressing spiritual truths.
But I also became wary of universalist dabbling — you know, a little Buddhism here, and a little pinch of Taoism there. I began to feel that to have an authentic and deep spiritual life one had to specialize in one tradition and its particular disciplines and vocabulary. At the same time, everyone could be helped and enlightened by an appreciation of the fine and good things that had been discovered in other branches of civilization during humankind’s long pilgrimage on this earth. Finally, I tended to be wary of the thought that all religions are essentially alike, another belief to which some universalists were inclined. There are, indeed, some tantalizingly common themes which can be discovered throughout different spiritual cultures, particularly in the ethical sphere. The various versions of the golden rule, which crop up in different religious cultures is an oft-cited example. But there is also great diversity and some outright contradictions, among religious cultures, and not to appreciate and savor these, and ponder their implications, is to deprive the universalist exploration of its capacity to stretch and challenge us.
So, these were the three sources of my universalist interests: reading Gandhi in college and becoming a conscientious objector to military service; being impelled by Justice William O. Douglas’ concurring opinion to look into Buddhism; and trying to serve the American Friends Service Committee’s religiously pluralist constituency. I am sorry to have given so long an answer to your question. I apologize if I have digressed.
QUF: No, no that was fascinating. That is so interesting. I must say that in my readings have not heard the third element where you are talking about the religious smorgasbord and but how you are trying to balance many things but yet be true to yourself in what ever that specialty might be.
We have a number of questions to pose to you. Your explanation in your introduction and journey covered a number of issues. Wherever you feel you have addressed it, please feel to move along.
How would you describe the scope of Quaker universalism and its context in the world? What changes have you observed in your view of the scope of your concern beyond ourselves?
SEEGER: It seems to me that from the time I was growing up (rather a long time ago — in the 1940’s and 50’s) until today, there has been a growing universalist spirit in global culture. I also sense there has been a growing animus toward religion in general, at least in the modern industrialized segment of global culture, which, in a sense, contradicts that. Let me try to explain what I mean.
I will use my own personal experience, although I want to be careful in doing this. I was brought up in a religious Roman Catholic family by good and sincere people. I was sent to Roman Catholic elementary school where the nuns, saintly though they were, nevertheless taught me that I would endanger my immortal soul if I hung out with Protestants. I was instructed that, when I grew up, if someone in my office was getting married but the marriage was to be in a Protestant church, I must be sure to get the permission of my pastor before attending the wedding. Needless to say, this is not at all a universalist perspective. One was taught that there was no salvation outside the Catholic Church. I want to be careful to acknowledge that even back in those days the Roman Catholic Church was a vast and sprawling phenomenon with many different people and flavors in it, and I was caught in one tiny corner of parochialism. By the time I got to public high school and met Protestants and Jews who were fine and decent people, the whole idea that there was only one true way to interpret reality began to crumble.
Since that time, in my own life experience, the Roman Catholic Church has had Vatican Council II, the documents from which express appreciation for other faith traditions. And, since that time, popes have convened prayer meetings which included even representatives of animist religions, and popes have visited and prayed in synagogues and at the wailing wall in Jerusalem.
The church itself has changed a lot and I have the sense that in many religious institutions there has grown an appreciation that there is a rich and useful body of
experience beyond one’s own particular tradition which can be appreciated and learned from. So I see a dimension of openness and inquiry growing in many religious communities. People who observe religious life are quick to point out that the religious communities who have adopted a universalist flavor are losing members by leaps and bounds, whereas the growing and energetic dimensions of religious culture tend to be fundamentalist. It is true of Christianity, Judaism and of Islam. That is a contradictory trend. I don’t know what to make of it. To me, the tolerance and universalist flavor of religion is much more sensible and much more true and accurate.
Finally, as part of this overall picture, is the growing influence of atheist people. We have seen three authors hit the bestseller list, not just for a superficial moment, but substantially. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and even others, feel that religion in general is a blight on human experience and they take vigorous issue with all religious culture. That is also a non-universalism that is arriving in the world today. There is a complicated situation with much in flux, but it is a different world than when I was growing up over 50 years ago.
QUF: What changes have you observed in your view of human relationships to animals, plants and objects?
SEEGER: Certainly in my earlier years, I was inclined to adopt the common Western view that the creation existed for the benefit of human beings, and I gave little thought to the way human beings manipulated and exploited the earth and other living things. And like many people who have been confronted with the realities of scientific findings, I now know that this is dangerous and destructive and that we have to find a way to live in harmony with the creation outside of ourselves, including animals and plants and the natural physical environment. I don’t think I’m any different than many people in all walks of life and in many cultures who are beginning to understand that we have to respect and revere the earth and everything in it.
QUF: How has mysticism been a factor in your affiliation or connection with Quaker Universalism
SEEGER: Mysticism is a tricky word. I notice that a lot of religious writers use the word as if they and everyone else understand exactly what it means. And yet when you try to find out what it means it’s not so easy, and dictionaries are often not particularly helpful.
My understanding of the word mysticism is that it alludes to the phenomenon that
different people in different places and different cultures believe themselves to have
a direct experience of the totality of fundamental reality, or with God, and an awe-
inspiring sense of belonging within it all. In order to be a mystic, one might argue, if you are going to have a direct relationship with God you better to believe in God. So that would count out certain people as mystics. But, at the same time, one might observe that classical Buddhism is both an agnostic religion and yet it also is a mystical religion. So I interpret mysticism as a kind of grasp of, or feeling of unity with, all of existence, with reality conceived as this totality…. a kind of sense of unity in or reverence for or connection with all that is, and a consequent feeling of compassion for everyone and everything. In that sense, I consider myself to be a mystic. Some mystics hear voices; some mystics have visions. I do not hear voices or have visions. But I do have a sense, sometimes deep, profound, and persistent, sometimes fleeting, of being enwrapped in a wondrous totality. I have had a sort of evolution in my sense of connectedness, of love and of awe for this great phenomenon of reality, a reality of which the human estate is a very intriguing part, but a very small part.
QUF: What changes have you observed in the practice of silence in your experience?
SEEGER: As I have explained, my initial interest in the Religious Society of Friends was focused upon the peace testimony. Later, as a result of my involvement in the American Friends Service Committee, I got to appreciate and sought to uphold the other social testimonies. My interest in exploring the spiritual source of these testimonies – in fact, my realization that they had to have a spiritual source – came more gradually. But given my interest in the social testimonies, I did somehow figure out that I ought to attend worship to understand and deepen my grasp of these attractive principles.
When I wandered into my first Friends meeting for worship and experienced the silence I was fidgety; I was wondering what these people were doing; I was saying to myself what am I doing here; why am I here; what is going on here; when is it going to be over. It was only after a time that I truly began to value a period of quiet. Actually, my reading in eastern spirituality was really better than any tutelage I received from Friends about what to do with the silence and what the meaning of the silence was. I do now know that there are some good Quakerly writings, especially from the early days of Friends, where people did speak very pointedly about the need to stop the self-propelled inner mental movies which constitute so much of our conscious awareness, about the need to transcend as well, the ups and downs of emotions and moods, and the importance of repairing to a still place — a silent place — where the sound of eternal things can be heard. I have at least a primitive grasp of all this, and although I have gotten much from my readings in eastern spirituality about the meaning and purpose and usefulness of silent meditation, nevertheless, in terms of my actual practice, it is a Quaker practice and occurs in Quaker meetings and in my own private Quaker meditative practice.
I have been to retreats and learned about mantras and Gregorian chant. I have been to yoga classes, I sketchily understand the meditative dimensions of these, But my practice is a Quaker practice.
QUF: What changes have your observed in your view of religions, or other religions, than the Quaker tradition?
SEEGER: As I mentioned earlier, there are some of my colleague Quaker universalists who advance the perspective that all religions are basically alike, that the differences we see among religions are superficial, and that when you scrape the superficial differences away they all boil down to the same thing. And as I indicated, I am not enthusiastic about this particular slant on universalism. I rather think that what is interesting about universalism is exactly that religious traditions are different and therefore have something to offer to each other and something useful to share. There is a big difference in the Buddhist approach, which says (as the Buddha was recorded as having done) that he “doesn’t know where the world comes from or where it is going, but he knows how we should live in the here and now,” on the one hand, and a theistic view that “in the beginning, God created heaven and earth” by speaking words, and subsequently handed down laws for us to follow, on the other. I like to savor the differences as much as the similarities, which are, indeed, many as well. That is one thing I would add to my general observations about religious pluralism.
Our atheist friends are quite accurate in pointing out the many crimes and sins that have been committed in the name in religion – alas, in the name of all religions without exception. As a universalist, one cannot overlook this dimension of the situation. These crimes and sins have not only been committed in the past, but are also being committed as we speak. This is a challenge that people in religion have to face up to. When trying to assess a vast panorama of religious experience, like the Buddhist tradition, or the Hindu tradition, or the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is almost impossible to say that one is better or worse than the others in terms of their religious crimes, just as it is impossible to say that one is superior in terms of its religions triumphs. It is just too complicated and variegated a story. So I am not into picking and choosing in that sense. And my immersion in Quakerism is only an expression of my belief that it is fitting to affiliate with a strand of religious experience that is close at hand, rather than
reaching half way across the world to find a spiritual practice that has developed in a foreign culture.
QUF: What is the role in your life of particular persons (Jesus, Mohammed, Siddhartha, Saints, Buddhivistas, etc.) in your life understanding?
SEEGER: Not only those great, legendary sages, but also not so ancient very
contemporary spiritual seekers and writers, as well as activist people, have had
influence on me. I love the stories in the Gospels about Jesus Christ; I love the stories about the Buddha, about the Prophet Mohammed, about Lao Tsu and about Confucius. I don’t particularly care whether these stories are true or not in the literal, historical sense. I think they are beautiful stories which teach us something and which are valuable in that regard. I can accept them as allegories or myths perfectly easily.
I do read a lot of reading. There are a lot of things about Saint Augustine that as a
universalist one would dislike. He nevertheless has a marvelous way with words and some very lovely spiritual ideas. I am almost indiscriminate in whom I will read. One of the things we are taught in Quakerism is that when a fellow worshipper gets up and offers ministry in meeting-for-worship that may strike one as “off the wall,” one is not supposed to sit there and decide what one doesn’t like about what was said. One is supposed to try to find the truth underneath everything. That is how I try to approach religious writing. I try to find the truth underneath it and I don’t necessarily get caught up in what is untrue.
QUF: How have you come to understand the reality of human nature (either positive or negative)? How are the bad or harmful acts of humans remedied (redemption)?
SEEGER: This is really one of the biggest questions on your list. It is a question not only about human beings, but also about God. It touches on the difficult question of theodicy – how does one vindicate God for permitting physical and moral evil? This issue has confounded religious thinkers forever and has never been resolved.
There is a naïve version of Quakerism which assumes that because there is that of God in everyone that it is possible, with some well designed gesture or message, to rescue everyone from evil, from the evil of their ways. That is a modern optimistic slant on Quakerism. The original Quakers were not quite so optimistic. They were, after all, pilloried and thrown in jail themselves, and witnessed a terrible civil war taking place all about them. They weren’t quite so dismissive of the human propensity for evil.
Nevertheless, both Buddhism and Quakerism are essentially optimistic about human nature, in the sense that they do presume it is possible ultimately for everyone to see truth, and it is possible to find dignity and goodness in the most unlikely places.
Nevertheless, we have to face the fact that people my age have lived through a century of great horrors, of holocausts, of world wars, and of nuclear weapons used on human populations. So it is not possible easily to dismiss the propensity of human beings to do bad things merely by saying that there is that of God in everyone. On the one hand, I have come to believe that the doctrine of original sin in classical Christian thought is too pessimistic — I am speaking of the idea that we are irreparably tainted and that nothing will save us but the sacrifice of Jesus Christ himself, and that nothing arising out of our own effort will save us. Yet, on the other hand, I can also see that the original sin idea was striving toward an understanding of the reality we face that again, and again, and again human beings do manage to structure social arrangements which are oppressive, and do manage again and again and again to commit crimes against others on an individual and social basis. So that is a reality.
From a scientific point view, evolutionists will point out a pattern of changing life forms in which there is progressive complexity over time. Thus, human consciousness seems to be more highly developed than that of other creatures, just as we would consider dolphins to be more complex and highly evolved than one-celled amoeba. This advance in complexity has come about, in the end, because more complex creatures adapt to the environment more effectively, reproduce more successfully, and in the end inherit the earth. A survival instinct is the engine which drives this great creative process. One could say that this survival instinct is a selfish instinct.
What evolutionists also understand is that cooperation is another critical part of the process. Sociability is also a crucial aspect of successful survival. So if one takes a more naturalistic point of view, one could say we are the significant inheritors of intuitions or instincts which are competitive and selfish and egocentric, but we are also are inheritors of a great predisposition toward cooperation and amity and comity and community. And in fact, it is difficult to imagine that any human being could survive if s/he weren’t in a community.
I see a kind of parallelism between the scientific conclusions about the state of affairs and the religious conclusions about the state of affairs with regard to these good and evil instincts. At the same time, I think it is awfully difficult to derive moral precepts from empirical observations. This is where the materialist and atheist worldview presents us with certain unresolvable problems. As I said earlier, atheists are quite accurate in pointing out the crimes and sins committed in the name of religion. Atheism, as a prevailing concept, is very modern and there have been very few societies that have actually been built on atheist principles. But atheists tend to give themselves a free pass when criticizing religion,
failing to acknowledge that the Soviet Union and Maoist China are the only large
contemporary societies we know about which have been founded on atheist principles, and neither developed as societies which we would want to emulate.
This is a modern dilemma that we have. Modern philosophical and scientific thought seems to veer toward a mechanistic and materialistic view of reality from which it is very difficult to derive concepts of love, truth, beauty, or morality in any coherent way. This remains the modern dilemma, which we all need to ponder deeply.
QUF: How does Quaker universalism change your understanding of your citizenship in the nation of the United States?
SEEGER: Since we do believe in freedom of religion, and in fact it is a founding principle of our nation, obviously we have to live in a religiously pluralist society; it’s not going to be possible to do so if we regard every other religion as some kind of misguided and pernicious enterprise. Historically, unfortunately, it was very common for people to do this. It seems to me there can be no sense in which you can have a functioning democracy which is not imbued with a spirit of universalism and a spirit of mutual respect among people of different religious communities. Now again, we get back to the idea – and the difficulty— that not everything that calls itself religion necessarily needs be tolerated. There are destructive things which go under the name of religion. There are some religions which torture animals, there are some religions which teach intolerance for other people, and all religions are to some extent, unfortunately, misogynist.
I remember reading a newspaper account some years ago about two gentlemen who came to a police station to seek help in finding the wife of one of them who was the daughter of the other. She had run away from being married as a minor, that is, the father had married her off to the accompanying gentleman while she was still a minor. The two gentlemen, instead of getting help in finding the escaped daughter, were instead arrested for child molestation. Well, this was a religious issue. I don’t know if we in America are ready to tolerate all religious practice, some of which involves the marriage of minors to much older people. This has happened in Hindu, Muslim and Christian cultures.
The story of Romeo and Juliet, which we love so much, takes its engine and its
dramatic motivation from the fact that the father of Juliet felt it was within his prerogative to marry his daughter, who was virtually a child, off to someone much older than she whom he felt was a fitting son-in-law. So this is not confined to any particular culture, and yet these are religious practices that cannot be tolerated. So there is a limit to toleration. And it is very, very hard to draw where that line is. But nonetheless, to manage a functioning democracy, you have to have a universalist spirit.
QUF: With respect to politics, there is a lot of animus and controversy in politics today. How has your universalism changed your understanding of the political involvement of Quakers and others?
SEEGER: This is one thing that I tremendously admire about Friends. Friends have never seen a stark difference between politics and religion. Friends understand that if our religion is going to mean anything, it’s not going to exist in some kind of a vacuum which is separate from our political life. Political life presents us with challenges to justice and fairness every day of the week. And if we are not applying our religious beliefs in our political life, we’re really missing the boat. I don’t think that separation of church and state means that religious people should not apply their religious principles in public life.
Obviously, this same principle must be extended to fundamentalist Christians, some of whose advocacy I do not approve of. Nevertheless, I do think that fundamentalist Christians have a right to advocate for their beliefs, and I don’t think it’s fair for us to say they must do so only using secular vocabulary. If they want to say that they believe we should enact or repeal such and such a law because Jesus said we should, well, that’s their reason and I think we have to listen to it. It may not be my reason or my belief, but nevertheless I don’t think we should try to excise religious vocabulary from public dialogue simply because we have a separation between church and state. I think citizens have a right to use their own vocabulary in their own advocacy in the pursuit of public policy, even if their advocacy is the based on religious belief, which, for Quakers, it is. Our opposition to slavery and our opposition to war has all been based on religious
belief. We don’t want anyone telling us what vocabulary we should use in stating this opposition. If we oppose slavery because “there is that of God in every person,” we don’t want anyone telling us that we can’t use the word “God” when we’re opposing slavery.
QUF: How have the insights, practices and reflections of persons in other religions
affected your inner life?
SEEGER: I think we’ve covered that pretty well. I feel blessed. It’s a miracle that
nowadays you can walk into any bookstore and buy for a modest price great religious classics, or you can download these wonderful writings into a digital reader, when for so much of history these writings were only available to select people who had advanced education and who could afford them. We can buy sacred scriptures for $9.98 each and read them! You’d think we would be much better people! I think it’s a marvelous thing. I am a big consumer of religious, political and philosophical literature. I think we are fortunate to live in a time when all this material is so accessible.
QUF: What changes have you observed in the acceptance and toleration of the
particular beliefs, practices and customs of people of other cultures and religions?
SEEGER: As communication media grow more and more pervasive, as more and more people in different countries connect with up with each other, there arise two contradictory impulses: first, sometimes people shrink in horror from what they learn about other people, and second, sometimes people come to empathize with other people, seeing their humanity and their similarities. I think the latter is prevailing more. I think people are getting more and more tolerant because of their exposure to other people through the mass media.
A few years ago it would not be imaginable that a Mormon could run to be President of the United States. This has happened. I see these changes all the time. I drive around and see mosques sprouting up all over the place. I see peace demonstrations with people wearing Buddhist monks’ robes in America. All this is good from my point of view. All this is great.
QUF: What changes have you observed in your view of the universe through science?
SEEGER: This is an interesting thing. This is probably where I part company more sharply from the atheist writers I was alluding to earlier, although I am not ready to call myself a theist. I forget which of them seemed to believe that by the pursuit of science we would ultimately get to know everything we need to know. We will become totally enlightened by science.
As someone with a smattering of interest in science, there are a number of things that strike me. One is that the more we apply science outside of the immediate realm of our own environment, the more perplexing reality seems to become. It almost becomes as hard to digest current scientific theories as it is to believe in angels and demons. Here we have a universe which began with a big bang, but no one knows what came before the big bang, or what caused the big bang. We have a universe that is expanding yet “boundary-less,” and what it is expanding into, no one knows. Space is curved and time is relative and most of the matter in the universe is dark matter which we cannot perceive or see. We only know it is there because it exercises a gravitational pull which we can’t explain in any other way. Thus, the idea that we’re going to pursue science and find satisfying answers to ultimate questions is a little bit naïve.
And the same is true in the area of the microcosmos. We have a system of thought called quantum mechanics which seems to require that we accept the idea that there are particles which switch from matter to antimatter and back to matter again in a fraction of a millisecond. We have to be willing to accept all kinds of strange and weird particles which seem to be invented periodically and which sometimes exist for nanoseconds only. And the problem remains that we can’t reconcile at this point all the theories of the microcosmos with the theories of the macrocosmos, even though all these particles that are in the microcosmos are also out there in macrocosmos.
So science is a marvel in terms of giving us a technical grasp of our immediate
environment, including, alas, the ability to make nuclear weapons and to lay waste the earth. But in terms of its ability to give us the answers to ultimate questions, I am not an optimist.
QUF: As a scientist and as you point out, it is helping us to find unravel the world around and also how help us make use of those things that we learn whether it’s nano technology or biomedical advances or robotics. But, as you point out, it is also the destructive, such as nuclear weapons. It gives us a pathway. If we didn’t employ these, we would be back in the garden.
SEEGER: Right, we’d be back living in caves. I’m not anti-science. We all benefit from science. Our longevity, if nothing else, is a benefit of science. I’m just a little wary of scientists trying to answer ultimate questions about good and evil and reality. I’m not sure we’re ever going to get there.
Behind every scientific answer there is another question. The same is true of the idea of a Supreme Being or God. In a sense, the question that scientists are trying to answer the religious people answered by positing a supreme being or deity — which is just a way of wrapping up all the unknowns in a convenient and comforting package.
I am not saying religion has any advantage over science, but here is where my true Buddhist nature comes forth, in that I sometimes wonder whether speculating about all these remote and unknowable things is useful when we should be spending our time and energy and treasure solving the very real problems before us — where children are starving when they need not starve, and where we seem not to be able to solve simple human problems without wars. This is where our creative energy should be spent. I am not sure figuring out whether string theory leads us to believe that there are more universes than the one we know about is all that useful.
QUF: How have your reflections evolved regarding the nature of God or that part of reality at the border of words and images?
SEEGER: Certainly I do believe in the Quaker traditional line of thought, which says there is a level of reality we can grasp which defies our languages to express. The nature of languages is very interesting. One thing that we can say about language is that words are generalizations. When we use the word “tree” we’re talking about something which generalizes the characteristics of all trees. When you use the word “person”, we are doing the same thing. Any word we use is a generalization. Words begin to fail us when it comes to experiences which are unlike any other experience. In that case there is no word to express describe it. We have to rely on poetry and imagery and suggestion.
Can you repeat the question?
QUF: How have your reflections evolved regarding the nature of God or that part of reality at the border of words and images?
SEEGER: There are experiences that we can have which are quite unique — the
mystical experiences that I spoke of earlier, which defy the power words, and where silence is a fitting response. Now when it comes to deities and gods, it gets a little complicated. As best I can understand the situation, there are alive in the human community right now two basic attitudes towards reality: one is strictly materialist where it is assumed that everything is akin to what we know and experience as matter in motion; whereas other people posit the idea that there is both a material reality and also there is a reality of spirit which maybe is intermingled with, but yet, is distinct and independent from material reality. I think this is an unresolved problem at this point.
I can imagine that we may find it possible to conceive of what we understand as art, music, religious intuition, and moral principles as part of a continuum of which scientific explorations are also a part. But yet that connection has not yet been made very satisfactorily. There are some people who posit a view that all our thoughts are really simply the result of electromagnetic and chemical interactions in our brains which are as predictable and as predetermined as is the motion of a satellite around the earth or a chemical reaction when we bring hydrogen and oxygen together under certain circumstances and get water. The idea is that everything that we do is the result of physical laws affecting the piece of meat in our head which is called the brain.
That is determinism and a challenge to the idea of human free will paralleling inscience the one that John Calvin posited in the religious realm when he assumed that everyone was predetermined by God to go either to heaven or hell. So we have a sort of parallelism between scientific and religious determinism, with equally baleful results in human experience. I think this is an interesting area for exploration.
At the present moment, I think it is useful if, without knowing whether our every move has been predetermined in a mechanistic way by the laws of thermodynamics, chemistry, physics, and electromagnetism in our brains, we act as if there is something magical and spiritual in our world and in our experience over which we have some control but not complete control, and from which we derive much benefit and joy, without worrying too much about whether we are monists or dualists regarding matter and spirit.
QUF: Thank you. That was a very thoughtful response. We have a few more
questions, but we need to move forward. I would like to talk about your interface with QUF and your experience and anything you can tell us about the value and importance of communicating Quaker universalism. Could you tell us about your AFSC experience and interfaces with QUF and the value and importance of doing that?
SEEGER: Here is my recollection although others may recall it differently. Just as I became a conscientious objector without knowing other conscientious objectors, I became a Quaker universalist without particularly knowing any other Quaker universalists. I described the three strands, which led to my exploration of universalist thought and my articulating these thoughts in the context of Quakerism and of my work for AFSC. To some extent, at least, the universalists found me and began putting me on their programs as an exponent of universalism, which indeed I was. As for me, I was very happy to find others who were thinking along these lines.
My recollection of this might be subjective. You may find other Quaker universalists that have a different take on this; it was a long time ago. My recollection is that there was a time when there was resurgence among unprogrammed Friends of a Christo-centric view of Quakerism. There was something called the New Foundation Fellowship; there were other truly articulate Christo-centric Friends who articulated their religious vision in unprogrammed meetings as well as programmed yearly meetings. And, there was a feeling among some Friends who were refugees from Christian malpractice experienced
in other denominations that a safe haven that they had found in Quakerism was being invaded by an enemy when other people got up in meeting and spoke about Jesus Christ.
As I have explained, my flavor of universalism is not anti-Christian. So on the one hand, some of the Quaker universalists I first met, whom I liked and agreed with, nevertheless acted as if they were in a duel to the death (figuratively speaking) with outspoken Christians within the Religious Society of Friends. I didn’t and don’t think it is the job of the Quaker universalists to excise Christianity from Quakerism. Quakerism, after all, evolved as a branch of the Christian church. So there was a little bit of tension between me and some of the Quaker universalists even while they were inviting me to be their spokesperson on public platforms. I brought my own flavor of universalism to the Quaker Universalist Fellowship, and they seemed to like it.
In the meantime, the aggressive Christo-centric Quakers have somewhat faded away, so the Quaker universalists are no longer feeling themselves to be under this assault. Because there were people who were saying “How can you be a Quaker without believing in Jesus Christ”, and “How can you be Quaker if you don’t believe in God,” there were reasons for Quaker universalists to feel under assault. So things have mellowed out. That is my recollection.
I was invited to join the governing body of the Quaker Universalist Fellowship for a
number of years. Quaker Universalists have been very generous in publishing a number of my writings, perhaps a half dozen essays. I was clerk of the Quaker Universalist Fellowship for a number of years. I do consider myself to be a died-in-the-wool Quaker universalist and I think they do, too. But there are different kinds of Quaker universalism, just as there are flavors of everything.
QUF: We have used the time allotted for this discussion. Are there any closing
thoughts that you’d like to share with us.
SEEGER: I am happy to participate in this project. You certainly have asked some thought provoking questions. I do think this is a good project. I do think these religious questions, these spiritual questions, and these scientific questions, are enormously interesting and deserve our deep thought. I am a little worried that the Religious Society of Friends is not engaged the way it should be in the great and momentous social and political issues that face us, particularly, issues of the economic order. I am a little baffled and perplexed by the almost quietest character of the Religious Society of Friends right now in 2013, and I am interested in addressing that, but I don’t know just how. That is what is really on my mind.
QUF: Dan, thank you very much for joining us today and sharing your views and
your experiences of your life’s journey. I know that the people who come on the QUF website are going to enjoy reading and learning from your insights today.
DAN: Thank you, Cherie. It has been a pleasure.