Quaker Universalist Voice

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Quaker Universalist Fellowship Interview with Rhoda Raasch Gilman

Rhoda Raasch Gilman, from a PRX/KFAI interview about her passion for history and politics Rhoda Raasch Gilman

To download an audio file of this interview of this interview click here.

QUF: This is Cherie Roberts of the Quaker Universalist Fellowship, or QUF, as it is known. Today is August 26, 2013. I am here today with Rhoda Gilman, a former member of the QUF Steering Committee and long-time supporter of QUF.

Welcome, Rhoda.

RHODA: Thank you. I am delighted to be here.

QUF: Rhoda 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 Rhoda.

Rhoda Gilman graduated from the University of Washington with a major in labor economics (Phi Beta Kappa) and has a Masters Degree in economics from Bryn Mawr.

Ms. Gilman worked for the American Friends Service Committee in the American Indian program, and for a year in Mexico she co-directed a work camp with her husband.

She moved to St. Paul, Minnesota in 1952 and joined the staff of the Minnesota Historical Society and served in a number of positions of increasing responsibility including, the Head of the Education Division, Assistant Director, and Senior Research Fellow. As a Senior Research Fellow, she developed a comprehensive curriculum of Minnesota history including a textbook and teacher guide. The textbook was issued separately for sale to the public. In March 1992, she retired, receiving a Certificate of Commendation from the American Association for State and Local History that cited her “for exemplary contributions to the understanding of Minnesota history and for professional leadership.”

In 1972, Ms. Gilman was a founding member of Women Historians of the Midwest and served as its president in 1990-1992. She was also a founding member of the Minnesota Independent Scholars Forum in 1982, serving on its board in the 1980’s and 1990’s. She has also served on the editorial advisory board of the Journal of the West.

In1995-2003 she served on the board of directors of the Institute for Minnesota Archaeology (IMA) and later on the board of the Minnesota Archaeological Society.

Rhoda Gilman is a published writer with three books, co-author of one, and editor of four collections, and one pamphlet that can be found on the QUF website. The books and most of her articles are on topics in upper Midwest history. The book, Ringing in the Wilderness, was nominated for a Minnesota Book Award in 1996.

Ms. Gilman has been politically active, helped to found the Minnesota Green Party in 1994, and, in 2002, was its candidate for lieutenant governor. In 2008 she and her daughter, Betsy Raasch-Gilman, were both honored by the Vincent L. Hawkinson Foundation for their work toward peace and social justice.

Ms. Gilman is a member of the Twin Cities Friends Meeting (Quakers), and,
from 1995 to 2011, she served on the board of the Quaker Universalist
Fellowship. In that capacity she edited numerous pamphlets, authored one, and from 1995 to 2002, conducted an international listserve and discussion group by email. A number of her short essays are included in two collections published by the QUF in 2007, Universalism and Spirituality and Universalism and Religions.

Let me say, the vita has been abbreviated somewhat. Rhoda has even more accomplishments to her credit. Rhoda, this is an impressive vita.

RHODA: Well, as I’ve said before, if one stays around this world enough years, a vita gets to be pretty long. I have been really fortunate that mine reflects my basic interests and convictions of history, education and writing, and the number of truly remarkable people and events that I’ve encountered all along the way.

QUF: I know we will have a very interesting interview today, so without further delay, let us begin the interview. We would like to open the discussion with “your story”: how did you come to embrace universalism. We would like to hear about your life’s journey and how your journey has related to the Quaker tradition and universalism.

RHODA: First of all, I am what used to be called a Quaker by convincement, as I would say probably most Quakers are today, not a birthright Friend. Both of my parents were public school teachers. My mother, of course, had to quit teaching because married women were not allowed to teach in the 1920’s. But her interests remained in education and, particularly, in history. I was raised basically as an agnostic. We had no church ties and, as matter of fact, my father leaned toward the Marxian tradition, that religion is a positive force for keeping people in line, and therefore, he avoided all institutional church ties. Nevertheless, he retained a very strong sense, of what I would call, Christian social responsibility, and that was one of the main themes in my raising,….my spiritual background.

I was born in Seattle. I became acquainted with Quakers in World War II when I was in college at the University of Washington. At that time the American Friends Society Service Committee had a program to assist Japanese American citizens who were being relocated. Of course, Seattle and the whole Puget Sound area had a number in them. I had Japanese American friends and fellow students in high school and college, and I took part in that program and, thus, became acquainted with Quakers, basically, as an organization that supported peace and social justice. That was my view of Quakerism until I was attracted later in life by meditation and mystical traditions. I found more meaning in the Quaker silent worship than I had ever found before. So, that resulted in my joining the Twin Cities Friends Meeting in the early 1980s. I can’t remember the exact date; perhaps it was 1981. I have been a Quaker ever since. And, that pretty much covers my spiritual journey in brief.

QUF: Thank you. That gives us a very broad view of how you came to Quakers and universalism. We have a number of specific areas where we’d like to hear your views. First of all, how would you describe the scope of Quaker universalism and its context in the world?

RHODA: I like to view it as John Linton did when he first was seeking to found a Quaker universalist movement and to change Quakerism…to make it a faith that no longer divides but unites humanity. That was in the late 1970s and it resulted in the formation of the Quaker Universalist Group in England, and in 1983, the Quaker Universalist Fellowship in this country, which John Linton was also very responsible for bringing about.

I think it means moving from a focus on the Society of Friends and the individual spiritual journey to the inclusionism of universalism. It’s a focus on spiritual and moral unity of all human societies, which we are beginning to see the absolute need for if we are to survive, in addressing the destruction of the earth and the moving beyond purely human spiritual needs.

QUF: What changes have you observed in your view of the scope of your concern beyond ourselves?

RHODA: To a concern with all human beings, just not the Society Of Friends or Christians, and to our being part of the great web of life on this planet. I think I have observed the move from stewardship in the sense that we are stewards of the natural world to the sense that we participate in it, and that our fate is irrevocably tied to it. We can’t know whether or not humanity is unique in this universe. I think that the Christian assumption always has been that it was. This was from pre-scientific times when we were not aware of the nature and extent of the universe around us.

We need to be careful about claiming human exceptionalism to other forms of life. Obviously, we are tied closely to them physically and, perhaps, spiritually here on earth. I think we need to be fully aware of the limitations imposed by our dependence on our own physical senses and our physical brain, which gives rise in some ways we do not fully understand to our minds and thoughts. Which leads me to mysticism and dealing with that which we cannot know but which our intuition and our yearnings tell us is a part of human nature. In some ways, one might describe this as “the essence of reality” that can’t be captured or communicated in words because it is beyond thought.

I think perhaps the famous linguist, Alfred Korzybski, put it very well in the simple statement, “The map is not the territory”, by which I think he clearly meant that our view, the view that our mind and physical senses give us of the reality around, is not the reality itself. It is the map.

I feel that mysticism is an effort to get beyond that map to the true reality, the essence of reality, that can’t be captured in words. For that reason, silence has to me taken on a much more significant and living aspect than we usually assign it. I think true silence is the silence of the mind and absence of thought and the words that bring thought. It is a sense of pure awareness. I feel it may exist; I’m sure it does exist, in the practice of many individual Quakers, and perhaps in group meditation occasionally, although I frankly have never experienced it in the form in what is described as a gathered meeting.

I think silence and meditation are distinct from contemplation, which focuses on a particular idea. I think meditation is the effort to get beyond ideas and beyond mental activity. I think that a lot of changes in the view of Friends, which are related to the concept of universalism and its relationship to mysticism, have resulted in the 20th century from contact with eastern practices and that began in late 19th century and, it was begun and was furthered by the work of Rufus Jones linking Quakerism to the medieval Christian mystics of late medieval times. I see the Quaker Universalist Fellowship and other similar efforts as an outcome and also a continuation of these changes. And again, returning to John Linton’s statement, “making it a force for uniting, rather than dividing” the many forms of faith on this planet that are going to have to unite, in some way, in order to save the earth.

I think other religions have also changed. Buddhism. I have seen great changes in Buddhism, even in my own lifetime. In my rather brief acquaintance with Buddhism, I have seen it spreading to a whole population including women and lay people, rather than being limited to a clergy of monks and a few nuns. It’s undertaking the phenomenon called “engaged Buddhism”, which is essentially Buddhism with an active sense of social responsibility. In this country, it is exemplified by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.

QUF: What is the role in your life of particular special persons (such as, Jesus, Mohammed, Siddhartha, Saints, etc.) in your life understanding?

RHODA: I think rather than special people, I would say their teachings are very important. I don’t regard Jesus of Nazareth as a savior, but as the teacher of enormously important and beautiful truths. The Sermon on the Mount is very precious to me. The fact that, in modern terms, he walked the walk right to the cross gives us added devotion and emphasis. I don’t regard any of these special people as superhuman, but they do set standards that humans can measure themselves by.

QUF: With respect to sin and redemption, how have you come to understand the reality of human nature (either positive or negative)?

RHODA: I don’t see a real possibility of saying positive or negative. I accept the Buddhist view of the reality of suffering. It is one of the things that attract me to Buddhism. The Buddha preached suffering and ways to transcend suffering. He did not concern himself with original causes or the nature of reality other than as it affected human beings. I don’t see human nature as necessarily evil. Many evils are done, but I think they are the result of fear and delusion and, not of any inherent evil. I believe in the linking of all forms of life. One of my favorite teachings is the famous poem by Thich Nhat Hanh, “Please Call Me By My True Names”. One of the verses is, “I still arrive in order to laugh and to cry, to fear and to hope. The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death of all that is alive.” I think that is my basic view of human nature.

QUF: How, with respect to redemption, are the bad or harmful acts of humans remedied? Can bad or harmful be redeemed?

RHODA: If we are approaching question of justice, I would say restorative justice. I am a strong supporter of restorative justice. Bad things can be remedied by ameliorating their effects and by comfort and health for those who have been the victims, but not by revenge. I see a vengeful god as a completely unacceptable concept.

QUF: With respect to youth, what changes have you observed in adult spiritual guidance for youth regarding Quaker universalism themes?

RHODA: I have had very little work with youth over the years, and in Quakers, particularly. I can only judge by our own meeting. One of the most vital aspects of the meeting is the First Day School. Many of our attenders are young parents who want a spiritual home or some sort of spiritual guidance for their youth. There is an ongoing discussion as to what form that should take. Since we are a very liberal meeting, it tends toward a pretty universalist form, I think. I have not been a Quaker that long, nor have I been associated with Quaker youth work, specifically, to be able to make a judgment on that.

QUF: How does Quaker universalism change your understanding of your citizenship in the nation of the United States?

RHODA: Universal is universal. I regard myself as a citizen of the world and of humanity rather than of a particular nation. A nation state, especially a democratic nation like ours is, or I should say used to be, has a claim on the loyalty of its members because it is supplying essential unity and services, the means of survival. I don’t see a nation as anything more than a utilitarian organization.

QUF: How has your universalism changed your understanding of political involvement of Quakers and others?

RHODA: My universalism hasn’t really changed over the years. I feel that Quakerism needs to address the problems of the entire world and not just the nation. I support, for example, Friends Committee on National Legislation, although I have sometimes differed with them on their reluctance to challenge some of the basic evils and inequalities of our system. Their function is to work with the people who have been elected under our system and, therefore, they are doing that job. I think their job is at this point being superseded by the need for more basic opposition to the evils that are mounting up all around us.

QUF: How have the insights, practices and reflections of persons in other religions affected your inner life?

RHODA: I have already mentioned Buddhism a number of times. That is the one that appeals to me the most and seems to be the most parallel and similar to Quakerism. I like the personal involvement of meditation. I certainly encourage…. I have been a member of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, as well as various Quaker peace organizations and other peace organizations. Peace is an obvious need for humanity and for the earth. Other religions have aspects that are very positive. I am not that familiar with them beyond a slight familiarity with Vedanta and a little more familiarity with Buddhism.

I am not familiar with Islam. I know its basic history somewhat. I do not know its basic teachings, and, particularly those of the mystics within Islam. The major religions of the world all have an underlying current of mysticism, which is very often not welcomed by the institutional expressions of those religions. Several Islamic mystics (whose names I cannot recall) have been martyred because of their teachings about Allah and their independence from the institutional and organizational aspects of their religion.

I believe that probably all major religions…. We don’t know enough about some of them. For example, the Central American Mayan religions probably had a great deal of more philosophic basis than we have any way to know at this point because, they didn’t leave enough of a written record. It’s a very interesting question the relationship of mysticism, which is basically in its nature universal, because it is based on the human inability to know the answers. To me, the true mysticism is based on human humility before the vast “unknowability”, the vast mystery of the universe. I think most religions have been a seeking to find answers to that.

QUF: Regarding toleration, what changes have you observed in the acceptance and toleration of the particular beliefs, practices and customs of people of other cultures and religions?

RHODA: I think one of the changes that I have noticed and a direction that Quaker Universalist Fellowship has taken is the more active interface program. I don’t see the answer to working together as necessarily adopting a sort of blank check universalism. But I think the basic similarities, and again …This goes down beneath ritual and specific explanations of the beginnings of creation and so on,…. creation myths that surround most religions. Getting beneath that, you find a great deal in common, the common search for an answer to why we are here, why we are suffering, why we face the fact of death almost as soon as we are born. These are the great questions of humanity and I think they are pretty universal questions. Different societies have evolved different specific answers. The recognition that all those answers are provisional, and none has the ultimate truth is the basis for working together each in our own way to achieve the restoration of the earth and its preservation as a home for humanity and liberation from some of the suffering that is involved in evolution and the mechanics of evolution, I think there is enough to support general aspects.

We have achieved a declaration of universal of human rights in my lifetime. And I think that has been an enormous achievement for the human race. I think it is little recognized but is overshadowed because of our conflicts. I think it has been a civic step and also a spiritual step toward universalism.

QUF: We touched on science and I want to ask what changes have you observed in your view of the universe through science?

RHODA: I’m engaged in reading and reviewing right now a book which has come from England that addresses what they call the new story, which I think has impressed a lot of Quakers. I think it was proposed back in 1988 by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, titled The Universe Story. It is an attempt to reconcile science with a sense of spiritual movement and spiritual direction and destiny. Friends are uniquely equipped to work with this sort of reconciliation of science and spirituality by their belief in continuing revelation, the belief, that the final story has not been written down and presented to us in ancient times, but is still being presented. And, obviously, we are still learning a great deal. Our map of reality is becoming more and more detailed and extensive and sophisticated, so will our vision of its spiritual implications. One of the things that draw me to Quakers is the fact that the belief in continuing revelation equips them to deal with the discoveries of science without being placed in blanket opposition to what studies and experiments have revealed to us.

QUF: How have your reflections evolved regarding the nature of God or that part of reality at the border of words and images?

RHODA: I think I often use the word “god” as a sort of shorthand. People know what you mean even if they don’t literally accept a personal god, which I don’t. I consider myself a non-theist. I prefer names for the divine that avoid gender. God “SHE” doesn’t do a lot more for me than god “HE”. I do not see God. I guess my best term for god would be ultimate reality as far as we can know it. I find the word problematic, but I do use it because it is generally understood. I think, among Universalists and Quaker Universalists, it is understood to include non-theist views of the universe. When I say non-theist, I am not meaning to rule out ultimate causes, so much as a personal image. One of the things that attract me to Buddhism is its emphasis on the need to avoid a sense of a personal self…to find the no self, which in itself is very slippery, which can easily become just the bigger self. Where is our self? It’s in our memories of our lives and the events of those lives. There is no actual existence of a permanent and returning self. Of course, Buddhism came out of a world that believed in reincarnation. But if you don’t have memory of a previous self, you really you don’t have a self. I think this is a mirror image in some ways of our concept of God as a person, the patriarchal image of the king of heaven.

QUF: As far as continuing revelation, what changes have you observed in Quaker views of continuing revelation?

RHODA: It is very hard for me to define changes in Quaker views because I have not been a Quaker that long. I know that there has been constant division among Friends as to the nature of meetings, the nature of beliefs, the nature of worship. I find it very hard to define changes among Friends that I have seen. My own Meeting has been universalist. I could never have joined a Meeting that was not universalist. There have been changes as the world itself has changed, but nothing that I would call specific to Quakers.

QUF: What changes have you observed in the understanding and practice of prayer in the Quaker tradition?

RHODA: I think that more of the Friends that I know are motivated by a fundamental non-theism. Prayer is generally considered coexistent with meditation. It’s not exactly the same but very similar to meditation. Personally, I don’t use the word prayer very much because to me it is associated with the figure of a personal god who will intervene in the course of life and events of the world, which I simply don’t believe in. I think that some other Friends do, and it is interesting how the old symbolism is precious to many people who would say that they really don’t believe it. One of the favorite hymns that our Meeting sings is “Angels Hovering ‘Round”. Well, how many really believe in angels hovering around? I doubt very many, but it is a lovely old song and a beautiful image.

QUF: What observations do you have in the use of language to communicate about that reality observed beyond words?

RHODA: I think there has been a dropping off of the use of the word “God”, though I might or might not be correct on that. Our meeting has three separate services, two on First Day and one Midweek Meeting for worship. I usually attend the Midweek Meeting because it is by far the smallest and, being the smallest, it is the most silent. The language we use has been a shift toward spiritual and divine, again avoiding gender specific terms that have cropped up in traditional Christianity. I think there is not that much discussion because when something is beyond words, other than sitting in silence there is not much way to affirm it.

QUF: What are your observations in the attraction, understanding and use of scriptures in discernment of sound daily practice?

RHODA: It varies. Some people find the scriptures very helpful and I would include some of those in our meeting, who would say they are universalists. There is a great deal of curiosity about them as carriers of our cultural tradition quite apart from religious or divine significance. These reflect the society we have grown up in. They are something that we should be familiar with, if not overawed by. I personally am so busy reading other things that I do not return to the Scriptures very much, but occasionally. I have not been drawn, for example, to the Buddhist scriptures or East Indian or Hindu scriptures. I simply don’t find them very meaningful. I can’t say that I have observed many changes in time I have been associated with the Friends.

QUF: Are there any other thoughts about the Quaker universalism and the Quaker tradition in your life experience that I have not included today?

RHODA: In my experience, Quaker universalism has had a lot of different aspects. It has introduced me to a much broader sense of what the Society of Friends is. I have known its history, but its contemporary activities have introduced me to a great deal that I would not have encountered, just in my own meeting. It has influenced my relationship with my meeting too, because I have been fairly outspoken in advocating universalism. In some ways, some have disagreed with me; but for many, it has been a helpful thing in putting a language to what they really believed anyway, and giving a sense that there was a broader Quaker relationship.

It has brought me into contact that I probably would never have had with Friends General Conference, and organizations like the Quaker Institute for the Future, Christian Interfaith Relations Committee of Friends General Conference, Quakers in Publishing, QIP. It has made me much more familiar and aware of British Friends and the differences in attitudes between British Quakerism and American, the many varieties in American, Quakerism. The differences in the history and the development of them and, of course, through Friends General Conference, and other international organizations, the vast differences of Friends in Britain, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, from friends in Africa and Latin America, who have been converted to a rather fundamentalist Christianity by the more conservative orthodox Quaker churches. It has broadened my knowledge of Quakerism a great deal. For others it has done much the same thing.

It has introduced me to people. As I mentioned at the beginning of our interview, I am particularly grateful for many of the outstanding people I have met. A number of those I would not have encountered without the Quaker Universalist Fellowship….people like: Elizabeth Watson, Dan Seeger, Sally Rickerman, Sallie King, who is a leading Quaker Buddhist who has been on the steering committee, Steve Angell, Anthony Manousos, and George Amoss. These are people, I would say, who have been on the cutting edge of thinking about Quakerism and its future; and, predictably, they are strong Quaker Universalists. In England, we have: Harvey Gillman, with whom I have corresponded. I have a high opinion of his views, and those of the non-theist, David Boulton, who has done a lot work with Quaker history. So the work within the organization has been very, very influential in my view of Quakerism and in my knowledge of it. And I am very grateful for that.

QUF: How do you assess the importance of publishing and making available materials about Quaker Universalism for reflection and discernment?

RHODA: I think it is extremely important. As my article for Friends Journal several years on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the QUF pointed out, I see the need for dissemination and discussion of all the various enormous changes that are taking place in the world, and the new means for discussing them worldwide. I guess I take particular pride in the fact that I was the one who introduced the listserve way back in the mid 1990s long before there was an Internet. We had a QUF listserve that allowed friends allowed Friends all over the world to talk to each other. It was a great help in expanding the work of the Quaker Universalist Fellowship and the Quaker Universalist Group. The new communication has drawn British and American Universalist Friends together much more than ever was true before. It is a whole new world from publication in the traditional printed sense. We’re right on the cusp now of the transition, and it can be very confusing and very hard to deal with in many cases. It’s going to happen and it’s a little hard to say exactly what direction it will take, in Friends circles and, as well as in the much broader circles of the whole world. It is enormously important that Quaker universalists maintain a voice and find a language to communicate in.

QUF: I think you are right on point because the QUF is in that transition right now, maintaining printed media, as well as moving forward with new forms of electronic media. It sounds like the listserve was the predecessor to what is now the blog, as well as eReaders and that type of media.

RHODA: I think this is great; and I applaud it. But I can’t contribute much to it because I am not that technologically sophisticated. It’s a great move in the right direction.

QUF: Rhoda, this concludes my questions. If you have any other comments you would like to make, please do. We thank you very much for this very thoughtful and truly profound interview. It has been an honor to have you share your ideas with QUF today. Would you like to make any other statements?

RHODA: I am honored you want my ideas. My work with QUF has been very enriching. I have already listed a number of the people that I would not otherwise have been acquainted with and each one of them has added something really substantial to my thought and my life.

It’s been a great ride. I would certainly encourage expansion of it. I hope we can draw in more youth. Again, I have had relatively little opportunity or occasion to deal to with young Friends. But I think they are obviously a very important element of what we need to appeal to.

QUF: Yes, again, thank you, Rhoda. This concludes our interview. Thank you for your participation.

RHODA: Thank you, Cherie for all the work you have put on this.