Kristin Loken attends Shepherdstown Monthly Meeting in West Virginia. From her little cottage beside the Potomac River in West Virginia, Kristin writes and works locally on problems she sees as critical to a just and sustainable world.
A few years ago, someone asked me about my spiritual biography. I was surprised to realize I had never thought about it before and had very little idea what mine might look like.
Then, in January 2016, I attended a gathering of Quakers under the auspices of Friends World Committee for Consultation in the Sacred Valley, Pisac, Peru (FWCC 2016 World Plenary Meeting). During one of the morning worship sessions, my entire spiritual history suddenly appeared fully formed in my mind. I quickly jotted down notes so I would not forget it. Here is what I learned.
About 68 years ago, my grandfather baptized me. He was an immigrant from Norway who ended up at Harvard Divinity School around 1900 and spent his life as a Christian minister. He believed the primary purpose of religion was bringing people, even those with diverse faiths and traditions, together to worship God and to live together in community.
In the 1950s in New York, I attended Sunday school in a Methodist church, was confirmed there, and sang in the choir. These experiences had little or no effect on me that I can remember. This may be less a result of the Methodists and more of my own age and youthful alienation.
When I was growing up, my neighborhood in New York consisted mostly of Protestants. There were also a few Jews and Catholics, in spite of the intense prejudice against non-Protestants. People of African, Italian, Polish, and Latino decent (none of whom lived in my WASP neighborhood) also suffered under this intense discrimination.
One of my friends was from a conservative Jewish family that kept a kosher kitchen and observed all the Jewish holidays in a traditional manner. My friend’s mother kept a special set of dinner plates for me. Since I was their daughter’s friend, I was often in attendance at Rosh Hashanah, Passover, Sukkot, and of course Hanukkah.
Both parents were careful to explain for me the meaning of the observance and what we were doing on Jewish holy days. They were a happy, proud, and loving Jewish family that invited me to be a part of their lives, for which I will always be grateful.
I also attended Hebrew school with my friend, where I learned there were other words and even other alphabets than those I had been taught in school–a great surprise that left me feeling sort of uncertain and queasy. Life was not as stable and firm as I had been taught.
When I was 11 years old, we began spending summers with my father overseas, first in Ghana and later Egypt. In these countries I was introduced to religions that were new and strange. In Ghana I encountered traditional religion that included a spirit world manifest in rivers, mountains, trees, and rocks; rituals to maintain the balance between this world and the spirit world; traditional medicine men; and talking drums.
I loved the dancing and music and colorful costumes of men and women. We spent hours listening to the drums talking to each other over miles and miles. I came home with my own fertility doll, which I still have (although I have never had any children.)
A few years later I was introduced to Islam by my Egyptian boyfriend, read the Koran at 16 years of age, learned about the history of Islam and its contributions to human development, and visited many mosques and holy sites. In those days, Egyptian women, like Mohammed’s daughter Fatima, did not wear the burqa, and they were strong actors in Egyptian society at every socio-economic level.
About 1969, I attended my first Quaker meeting in Gainesville, Florida. I was feeling depressed about some “monumental” disaster while at college. A Quaker friend suggested I come with him to a Meeting, which happened to be just a block from my house. Almost from the moment I walked in I felt like I had found a home.
I loved the meditative quality of the (mostly) silent Meeting. When I found out the Society of Friends has no required creed or set of beliefs and that questioning religious doctrine is actually encouraged, I was totally hooked. I deeply appreciated the Quaker commitment to open-mindedness, tolerance, freethinking, and unabridged questioning.
As I found out more and more about Quaker values (simplicity, integrity, peace and non-violence, equality), the history of Quakers in the Civil War and World War II, and Quaker practices, I knew the Society of Friends was something very meaningful for me. It remained so for the next 46 years.
I worked on civil rights in the mid-sixties and, through the years of the Vietnam War, I organized with other Quakers against war and American militarism. Later I organized against the Iraq wars. Throughout my career as a foreign service officer, I tried to bring Quaker values and practices to my work.
I experienced the realities of war in several foreign service postings: El Salvador, Nepal, Eritrea, and Lebanon. It was in El Salvador that I was introduced to Liberation Theology. My husband and I arrived in San Salvador in early 1979, simultaneous with the beginning of the violence in a civil war that had been heating up for centuries.
Monsignor Óscar Romero had been named the Archbishop of San Salvador. This appointment pleased the government and Salvadorian elite, who saw Romero as conservative, willing to continue the historical church-state cooperation to maintain the status quo in El Salvador. That status quo consisted of the government oppressing, torturing, and killing its own citizens in its fight against “communism.”
Progressive priests and many rural campesinos were openly aligning with Liberation Theology, working against repression, poverty, human rights abuses, and social injustice. Romero surprised everyone and started taking ever-stronger stand against the Salvadorean government, against poverty, and against state oppression in his masses in the cathedral and in his sermons on the radio.
He even went so far as to criticize the US government for providing military assistance to the Salvadorian government, and to tell Salvadorean soldiers to put down their weapons and refuse to carryout the government’s orders against the people.
On 24 March 1980 Archbishop Romero was assassinated at the altar in the cathedral. His life and work taught me the meaning of Liberation Theology–even though for him it had always been Christian Theology.
Living through bombs and curfews and chaos and gunfire, watching my friends and colleagues be wounded and tortured and killed, witnessing the horrors of war on non-combatant people, and learning the effects of war on economies and political systems all have strengthened my belief in non-violence and the futility of war and militarism.
Today war has no victors and solves no problems, if it ever did. War only devastates the environment and makes this planet uninhabitable. It does so both by direct effects and indirectly, by diverting resources needed to ameliorate the effects of climate change and human population growth, end poverty, educate children, provide universal healthcare, and make this world a more just and safe place. I greatly value and try to live by the teachings on non-violence of both Quakerism and Buddhism.
I started meditating with Lawrence LeShan’s How to Meditate: A Guide to Self-Discovery as my teacher in the mid-70s, while I was living in Karachi. When I returned home, I wanted to further develop my meditation practice. I decided the Buddhists were the most knowledgeable about meditation, and started attending short 1-2 day retreats at a monastery near Washington DC, the Bhavana Society.
Over the years I continued to attend longer and longer meditation retreats and to read the Buddhist texts the teachers recommended. Buddhism, like Christianity, has a strong written tradition of religious thinking, poetry, philosophy, psychology, and art that varies by country and culture. I was very impressed by the Buddhist teachings of the Middle Way, non-violence, equality, the Four Noble Truths, and the Eight-Fold Path. With the Quakers, Buddhists share the belief that there is a Buddha Nature or that of God or the Light within all sentient beings.
Like Christianity, in its time Buddhism was revolutionary. It took me years to understand ideas like reincarnation, samsara, nirvana, and karma and how these upset the social applecart of Buddha’s time. I came to appreciate the similarities between Buddhism and the early Christians and to enjoy the Buddhist ritual that was associated with meditation and training. I continue to practice meditation daily and attend Buddhist meditation retreats.
In 1984, I returned to school to study in the first conflict management program in the USA.1 My fellow students were from all backgrounds: police, environment, education, government, military, law and civil rights. I had seen how violent conflict in Lebanon and El Salvador both devastates people and economies and destroys years of development work. I thought there must be ways to resolve conflict without the devastating violence.
In the conflict management program, I learned that indeed there are ways of doing this, but that human beings do not have experience or vested interests in making these non-violent conflict resolution processes work. In the last 25 years, non-violent conflict management has blossomed around the world with significant achievements, such as the non-violent end of apartheid in South Africa.
We have still much to do but some of us are at last headed in good directions. Even in times like we are now experiencing in the USA, the Friends Committee on National Legislation has had significant progress working with Congress to resolve critical issues without violence, such as the nuclear sanctions agreement with Iran.
While I have appreciated all the religions I’ve studied and practiced, I eventually came to think of myself as a Quaker and a Buddhist. This is what my heart tells me. I’ve never seen any contradictions or lessening of allegiance to one or the other religion. For me the two religions fit together well. Jim Pym’s book, The Pure Principle: Quakers and Other Faith Traditions, was valuable to me in first seeing this unity in diversity without under-valuing the diversity.
I found myself in Quaker Universalism. In my experience, all religion is a further elaboration of the human condition and values. Each religion has its own set of stories it uses to teach its doctrine. For me these stories are the heart and the wealth of human existence.
An unfortunate aspect of my association with the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) is that I have never been able to become a member. I have tried on more than one occasion over the years to apply for membership. However, our Faith and Practice contains language about membership with which I am unable to come into agreement. With respect to membership, Faith and Practice situates the Quakers squarely in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Encouragement of questioning is one of the things I most value about the Society of Friends, questioning to seek my own Truth or truths without boundaries, even questioning fundamental Christian beliefs. Quakers have no required set of beliefs or creed. Yet, the membership section of our Faith and Practice certainly seems to require commitment Christian “principles of belief.”
Attesting to this one tradition feels to me like turning my back on all the other meaningful religious friends I have made over these many years. Over the years the Society has become a diverse place. Besides Universalists and Non-Theists, there are Programmed, Unprogrammed, Evangelical, and Traditional. We also have Jewish-Quakers and Buddhist-Quakers and many others. Instead of describing Quakers as uniformly Judeo-Christian, I’d prefer to see us welcome, encourage, and celebrate our diversity and our unity within that diversity.
I simply cannot limit myself to one set of religious beliefs. I would find this terribly restrictive intellectually and spiritually. The invitation to question everything is one of the reasons I am a Quaker. This questioning enables me to make a personal spiritual commitment, instead of following whatever was handed down from my parents. I’ve found that over my lifetime such questioning has continued, and my spiritual allegiance, faith, ideas, beliefs, practices, rituals, and values have continued to evolve.
Take the issue of God. When I was young and frightened, I remember feeling that God was holding me in the palm of his hands and I could sleep peacefully. Later God was the friend I talked to late at night.
Then when things went really wrong and people were hurting and friends had serious accidents and at one point a baby died, I remember questioning: if God was omnipotent and loving, why would God allow a baby who never did anything to anyone to die? I remember being very angry with God about that baby. This wasn’t the God I wanted in my life. For a long time, God played a smaller role in my life and I became uncertain of God’s existence.
This feeling of alienation persisted until I started reading the Buddhist sutras. In almost all of the religious texts I am aware of, God plays a central role. It is assumed that at least one God exists. When I got to Buddhism, this was not the case.
I was very surprised to learn that when the Buddha was asked whether there is a God, he answered that it is a question that we, as human beings, can never answer. He basically said whether God exists or not is not relevant and students should focus on the practice and being a good person. If I do my best to be a good person, the rest will take care of itself whether or not there is a God.
This seems so eminently logical to me and comforting too. I don’t have to try to believe anything or answer a question I find unanswerable. Of course, it flies in the face of almost every other major religion, including, some would say, Quakerism. If I had been following only the tenets of Judeo-Christian Quakerism, I would never have discovered this lovely idea–and many other ideas that I personally value so greatly.
More recently I read some of the work on Taoism by Lao-Tzu. He describes the Tao as eternal, nameless, the mother and father of all things, bottomless, hidden but always present, empty but inexhaustible, unending, like water that nourishes all things, unspoken. This Tao comes closest to my understanding of God today.
We all seem to end up in similar places, no matter what pathway or story or tradition brought us there. There are central ideas–like loving one another and compassion–which we share no matter how diverse our spiritual traditions.
There are orientations of Quakers that think and practice somewhat differently–Conservative, Programmed, Unprogrammed, and Evangelical. Though we are dissimilar in some aspects, we are all Quakers and share many values, principles, and practices. Though the diversity brings some tension, it was truly beautiful to see the celebration of that diversity, recognition of our shared values, and respect for each other at the FWCC gathering.
I felt this experience was a testament to the somewhat maligned notion that human beings can be different and still love and respect one another. For me, it felt very much like an affirmation of my personal spiritual life-story that I will always cherish.
Notes & Image Sources
Videos and slideshow about the FWCC World Plenary in the Sacred Valley, Pisac, Peru.
“Oscar Romero of El Salvador (1917-1980),” icon by Br. Robert Lentz, OFB (available from Trinity Stores).
1 At what later became the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University.
“Buddha” (available from EskiPaper Wallpapers).