I’m obsessed with history, especially my own. Ever since I was young, I’ve been driven by the need to locate my roots, and to make sense of where I have come from. I truly believe that we can only understand who we are when we understand our own story. This series is a attempt to locate my story in the tangled web of boundaries that I’ve crossed in my life. This also explains why I re-visit old poems, research, and reflections, including my post yesterday on Liberal Quaker boundaries.
I’ve had a few people critique the conclusions that I made in the post as being far too simplistic, and not reflecting the wider variety of Quaker thought. I agree. That research WAS simplistic, and was my first stab, three years ago, at coming to some understanding of where I might fit in the broad Quaker world. That’s the challenge of using old research: it’s interesting to see where you’ve come from, but it’s also based on potentially outmoded and immature assumptions.
I wanted to re-visit the conclusions that I made then, in an effort to see if the broader thesis still held: that one could locate Christo-centrism in Liberal Quaker thought (even if it was a historic root, and needed to be revived), and if one could build a theology around it. I think that there IS a place for Christo-centrism in the complexity of Liberal theology, even if that place is, for some, now outside of the boundaries of FGC-affiliated meetings, or in the ‘convergent Friends’ gatherings and FWCC conversations. I do not presume to say whether these extra-denominational trends are ‘good things’ or not: they just ARE.
In today’s post, I explain how I consider myself ‘ontologically homeless’, in a perpetual state of living in a ‘third-culture’, without any obvious cultural rooting. I then apply this ‘third-culture’ dynamic to my experience as a convinced Friend. I put forward the theory that the multiple strands that have come together to influence Liberal Quakerism (including yes, Unitarianism, Progressivism, and Non-theism) have created a ‘third-culture’ environment which is very attractive for people who feel as if they don’t belong anywhere else, due to their sense of being ‘boundary-crossers’ in their own lives. I think that Liberal Quakerism is in for a period of re-evaluation as the multiple ‘third-cultures’ of individual convinced Friends continue to dynamically interact with each other.
This picture was taken from my back garden, when I was living in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It reminds me of the staggering beauty of the Irish sky, especially in winter. That low rise is called Black Mountain, and it glowers imposingly over South Belfast as one in a series of ridges that ring Belfast’s south, west and northeast sides. It is a rather beautiful ‘mountain’, in the same gentle, ancient way that many find the Appalachian Mountains beautiful. As opposed to the young, dynamic and dizzying heights of the Rockies, Sierras, or Himalayas, these low, long-eroded mountains in the eastern United States and in Britain/Ireland FEEL ancient, rooted in the depths of the earth. I feel at home in these mountains, ‘my mountains’, more than any other chain because they just seem to breathe AGE.
(I wasn’t very surprised to discover that they were all made in the same period, as they have rather similar ‘feels’. This similarity was one of the things that appealed to the settlers from lowland Scotland and the Province of Ulster when they arrived in the American colonies and moved to the mountains as fast as they could.)
I think that these old places speak to me because I feel so rootless, so ‘ontologically homeless’. In some sense, I guess that I’ve always felt as if I don’t really belong anywhere, exclusively. I thought that I was alone in this feeling until I came across a term called the ‘third-culture kid‘. The term was initially created to make sense of the phenomenon of kids who are raised in countries foreign to that of their birth, such as the children of missionaries, diplomatic staff, people in military service, and people in any form of international business. These kids create a ‘third-culture’ between the culture of their parents and home country, and the culture of the host country.
The term itself is a bit controversial (‘kid’ doesn’t really apply when you’re deep into adulthood), while others question if military life is a cultural stew of its own. I didn’t move overseas until i was in my late 20’s, yet I found much in common with the experience of ‘true’ TCK’s. I think that it’s rather easy to forget how significant the differences are amongst the various ‘American cultures’. Yet, I only needed to visit the two vastly different sides of my family to see American multi-culturalism in action.
My father’s family are rooted in the Sicilian immigrant experience. Their values were blue-collar, Southern European, deeply influenced by the Roman Catholic Church, with a healthy dose of a beautifully irrational view of the natural world. My mother’s family, on the other hand, was rooted in the Anglo-American values of hard work, rationality, family ‘duty’ and the social virtues of Methodism. Everyone on both sides of my family were raised in New York, yet they never seemed to be speaking the same language.
When we were with either family, my brother and I became quite adept at ‘code-switching‘. Our accents shifted, depending on who we were speaking with. To this day, whenever I speak about New York, or Long Island, and especially when I cross the bridge into any part of New York City, my accent shifts abruptly. I sound very ‘Long Guy-land’. I become very loud and expressive, and my use of foul language increases exponentially. Whenever I am anywhere else, however, I am much quieter, with a broadly ‘Mid-Atlantic’ accent. My personality shifts dramatically. I am, at once, two people.
This shifting became much more pronounced when I moved from Long Island to appalachian Alabama. I was, for all intents and purposes, in a COMPLETELY foreign land. I hadn’t left my political country, yet I felt profound culture shock. I didn’t fit in, and didn’t know anyone who was like me. My ‘default’ personality was still my Long Island personality. I quickly discovered, however, that Long Island was simply not going to fly in tiny Scottsboro, Alabama. I adopted my quiet Methodist/Anglo personality, if for no other reason, to survive. (Alabama is still one of those states where it’s usual practice for Roman Catholic churches to be located at the town line, as they were often unable to secure the permits to build within city limits.)
I was negotiating four cultures all at once: my mother’s, my father’s, the surrounding Appalachian culture, and my own rapidly developing hybrid of all four. I took on a Southern accent in order to ‘hide’, and often find myself code-switching when speaking about Southern topics, or when I’ve lived in Southern states. (It’s a party trick of mine to switch amongst all three accents-it’s always a kick!)
Little did I know that I wasn’t alone in my sense that I was living in a different ‘country’. The idea of multiple ‘American Nations’ has been written about extensively, most recently in the book of the same name by Colin Woodard. His basic thesis, and that of Joel Garreau, David Hackett Fisher, and others, is that North America IS split into many different cultures, or ‘nations’. The specific boundaries of, and number of, ‘nations’ differs amongst all of these theorists. However, they all share the common thesis that the United States has been profoundly impacted by the variety of different cultural ‘nations’ that first established colonies on this continent.
‘Nation’ in this context would mean a group of people who share common values, culture, and identity. A nation is thus different from a state, in that a state is solely a political/governmental entity, whilst a ‘nation’ is a cultural entity. There might be ‘nation-states’ where the borders of the governmental entity directly overlap the borders of the national identity, such as Luxembourg. Small countries are not exclusively nation-states, however: Belgium is comprised of two very different nations, and is experiencing profound political struggles overcoming the sharp divide between the two nations.
The American ‘nations’ were established along the three main coasts of European colonisation (Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf…the Arctic Coast was, and still is, dominated by First Nations peoples). The colonies reflected the various cultural preoccupations of the colonists. These cultural norms became deeply rooted in any area where these nations moved, and became the dominant cultural norms into which all immigrant populations were expected to assimilate. Broadly speaking, this helps to explain why the highland South still feels very different to Tidewater and the Deep South, even though they might all be in the same state. (Virginia is the perfect example of this: West Virginia is the result of highland Southerners finding more in common with the Union than the patriarchal society of the Tidewater and Deep South planters along the Chesapeake and the Piedmont.)
So, when I moved to Appalachian Alabama when I was thirteen, I really WAS living in a vastly different culture. I was a ‘third-culture kid’, in the boundaries of my own country. After two years learning to adapt to this incredibly different place, we moved to yet another ‘nation': Houston, Texas. Dear Lord. Catholicism was different there. The food was different. The cultural values were VERY different. At this point in my life, I feel as if I experienced a permanent break in my personality. I was far removed from everything that felt comfortable, was light-years away from my family, and was even beginning to doubt whether I felt comfortable in this new Catholicism.
I can date my ‘existential homelessness’ from this moment. I’ve since lived in the liberal enclave of Austin, the low country grace of North Carolina, the colonial rootedness of Annapolis, the cultural schizophrenia of DC, the perpetual cultural conflict of Northern Ireland, and the post-industrial mish-mash of Birmingham, England. I’ve been Episcopalian, Anglican, Methodist, and now, Quaker, in three different countries and innumerable ‘nations’. At this point in my life, I can honestly say that I live in Baltimore because it truly feels as much a ‘home’ as anywhere, and I can at least understand the cultural ‘nations’ that overlap here.
I think that many people wind up in Liberal Quakerism, as I did: as refugees from other faith backgrounds (or even lack of religious ‘faith’), and see in Liberal Quakerism a place where many cultural ‘nations’ are present. Liberal Quakerism makes a point of maintaining an ethic of radical, and open, welcome to any and all seekers. Quakers have a strong tradition of welcoming seekers, as many of the first Quakers came from the ‘seeker movements’ of the seventeenth century in the Midlands and Yorkshire. We appeal to people who feel comfortable living in the spaces between religious certainties, the ‘third-cultures’ between Evangelicalism, Atheism, Catholicism, and Progressivism. This ‘third-culture’ of Quaker uncertainty feels like home to people who may be ‘homeless’ in some other aspect of their lives. This is not to say that there aren’t certainties in Quaker life; there are simply far fewer absolute certainties in matters of belief,’doctrine’, and faith than there are in the majority of other ‘religious’ groups.
I’d even go out on a limb and say that if you crack open a convinced Liberal Friend, you’re going to find someone who feels at least somewhat alienated from the culture and ‘nation’ in which they are living and working. Convinced Friends, the ‘third-culture kids’ of religion, walk into a Quaker meeting, and breathe a sigh of relief, feeling as if they’ve finally found their home, and are amongst ‘their people’. It’s truly a beautiful thing, and it’s why I still have a warm place in my heart for Liberal Quakerism.
Yet, I think that it’s exactly this cultural dynamism that is feeding the growth of extra-, trans-, and non-denominational experiments in Quakerism, including Liberal Quakerism. The most foundational truth of the ‘third-culture’ experience is that you don’t truly ever feel at home for long. You’re always seeking, always looking over the next hill, looking to explore more of life. You’re always searching for the most elusive of feelings: ‘belonging’. Belonging isn’t simply being welcomed somewhere, it’s also feeling as if every aspect of your identity is welcome in a place and amongst a people. It’s an exhausting search, in part because it’s a fool’s errand. You aren’t ever completely welcome anywhere because NOWHERE has that unique amalgamation of cultures that encompasses all of you. So, ‘third-culture’ people often decide to create their own ‘home’. Just like refugees in a foreign land, ‘third-culture’ people find themselves creating a cultural ghetto in which they can feel completely free to be themselves.
I’m certain that some may disagree with my read of the situation. Some may also say that I’m not giving the large tent of Liberal Quakerism enough credit. All that I can say in reply to that critique is that I don’t feel as if it is the fault of Liberal Quakerism, so much as the end result of the rootlessness of the ‘third-culture’ experience. This echoes my experience in Quakerism…and I’m not alone.