Posts Tagged ‘"Nothingness of self"’

Gimme That Old-Time Religion: a Sermon for the First First Day of Seventh Month

July 6, 2019

It’s now well into summer, and getting that Master’s of Divinity degree this spring feels well behind me now. When we graduating seniors sat up on the dais and got to give brief speeches to the audience, mine was the briefest: “He must increase; I must decrease.” I felt sure that those were the words the Lord had given me to say, John the Baptist’s words from John 3:30. I was grateful for them. What’s the point of divinity school if we don’t leave it desiring Christ’s increase? And what did we learn there if we don’t realize that we can only make room for His increase by shrinking self, subduing self-will, and hushing every flicker of the heart that’s at odds with being servants of the One who came “not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me?” (John 6:36 AV.) For, once we lambs have had the first glimmers of experience that our Shepherd dwells in us (2 Cor 3:5) and we in Him (1 Cor 12:27), which I’d hope every seminarian might get along the way, then what more natural response can we make than to make room for Him in us? This means to cultivate, and dwell in, what the old Quietist Quakers called “nothingness of self.” [1]

This nothingness, as I understand it, is compatible with Buddhist, Advaitin and modern philosophers’ ideas of the illusoriness of selfhood, but does not require them, because it is not itself a philosophical idea but a discipline of the heart, a habitual “casting down of imaginations” in the poetic words of the King James Bible. [2] Are we attached to dreams of winning in competition or combat? Take your time if you must, but out they must go, along with fantasies of anything illicit. Nothingness of self in this sense does not mean neglect of self-care, refusal of pleasure, or erasure of any harmless personal quirks that your loved ones love in you, for, if you think about it, you’re commanded to love yourself as you love your neighbor (Lev 19:18; Mark 12:31, etc.), and it’s not loving, to starve your neighbor away in a dungeon. But it does mean listening for the Shepherd’s voice and obeying His always wise and loving directions. Christ’s yoke is easy, and His burden is light (Matt 11:30), but it is a yoke. I find it sweeter to wear my yoke not out of duty or fear, but out of the love for Him that He plants in my heart.

One of my seminary professors, who called my scriptural references “proof-texting,” commented that I’d shown that I could write like a seventeenth-century Quaker, but not yet like a twenty-first century religious thinker. What a high compliment, to be likened to those early Quakers! But this sets me on a quest for the twenty-first century religious thinkers who, enriched by the cultural advances of these past few centuries, are also exploring nothingness of self.

Footnotes:
[1] A search in Earlham School of Religion’s Digital Quaker Collection (esr.earlham.edu/dqc/) yields ten citations for the phrase “nothingness of self.” The earliest attestation is dated “27th of Fifth Month, 1754,” in Memoirs of Catherine Phillips (Philadelphia, 1798), 381.
[2] 2 Cor 10:5 AV=λογισμοὺς καθαιροῦντες in Paul’s original Greek. I find “casting down imaginations” close in spirit to Patanjali’s pratipakṣa-bhāvanam, a corrective “encouragement of the opposite [sentiment],” in Yoga Sūtras 2:33, 34.