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Is everything divine? Northwest Border Meeting September 2011

It is hard to think of a place better qualified than Sittard to host the “north-western” Border Meeting of Friends from the Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Sittard is situated in the narrowest part of the Netherlands, just 20 minutes’walk from the German border and a short drive from the Belgian border; indeed some German and Belgian participants had had shorter journeys than some Dutch. We enjoyed the story of two of those Dutch Friends travelling together right across the country by train to the meeting, deep in talk about Quaker affairs; until an irate fellow passenger pointed out to them that the compartment they were in was supposed to be a silence zone!

Probably some of the nuns at the Carmelite convent in Sittard were surprised at the amount of noise these 35 supposedly quiet Quakers could make, as they greeted each other and exchanged news of how Friends have been faring since our last meeting. Some of those present had experienced their first Border Meetings over 50 years ago, when western European borders were more forbidding places than they are now. Others were quite new to the experience but all seemed to relish the opportunity to meet Ffriends from yearly meetings other than their own. If there was any shyness, Friday evening’s “getting-to-know-you” activities helped to dispel that. And once again we were reminded of the need to speak each other’s languages, and to speak our own languages audibly and clearly.

In preparation for the topic of the meeting: “Is everything divine? Spinoza and the Quakers”, many of us had acquired some superficial “googled” knowledge about Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza. But our speaker, Herman de Dijn, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the Universtity of Leuven, Belgium, has been occupied with questions about Spinoza all his professional life; he admits that there is still much research still to be done. His two very clearly presented lectures, given in English on the Saturday morning, demanded full concentration, especially for those whose mother tongue is not English. But what he said, and the enthusiasm with which he said it, gave us a wealth of food for thought, and the imperative to consider our own relationship with the Divine. I had heard criticism in advance of the meeting, that it was all going to be too academic. But in fact we found ourselves asking the sorts of basic question about God that small children ask their perplexed parents.

In a short report it is hard to do justice to it all. But what emerged was Spinoza’s view of God as being the principle behind the whole cosmos, or ordered universe, but not being involved in its actual operations. In finding out about the natural world we are part of the creative process, and an individual conducting pure scientific research can “find salvation” in this way, sharing in the intellect of God. Others, who perhaps have no taste for science or philosophy, can find meaning in life through religion, but that religion should be able to be studied and questioned objectively. The value of religions lies in their contributing to the virtue of the individual and the smooth functioning of the state. If a religious practice leads to its members behaving with charity and justice, then it is valid and “good”. God is viewed as the source of everything, and we can love this source, finding inspiration and enlightenment through worship and meditation.

In Herman’s second lecture we learned that Spinoza could well have had contact with those English Friends who visited Amsterdam to spread the Quaker message in the 1650s. Spinoza had by then been rejected by the Jewish community in Amsterdam, and he was known to be on good terms with Mennonites, Millenarialists, and other dissenters. Herman told us of the book by Richard Popkin and Michael Singer: “Spinoza’s Earliest Publication? The Hebrew Translation of Margaret Fell’s ‘A loving Salutation to the Seed of Abraham among the Jews’ ”, suggesting that the Jew who translated Margaret Fell’s letter from Dutch to Hebrew was likely to have been the youthful Spinoza.

We met in small groups to talk (in Dutch, German and/or English) about what we had heard, and to present our findings in poster form. Questions were wide ranging, and discussions lively. Can we accept Spinoza’s view that we may love God, but that this God cannot love us as individuals? Can we accept that the soul, being an integral part of the body, disintegrates as well when the body dies? Would Spinoza’s ideas have been acceptable to Friends in the 1650s and to us today? What would we do if he applied for membership? The posters, displaying considerable artistic talent, gave a good impression of our difficulty in formulating answers to these searching questions.

The whole programme, unobtrusively and cheerfully organised by Dutch Friends, allowed time for worship and for recreation too. On the Saturday afternoon, we walked through woods and fields to Germany and back! The border runs between sugar beet fields. On the Dutch side we were intrigued to see signs advertising the fact that those fields near Sittard are managed as a refuge for the endangered field-hamster. The fields on the German side, because of financial constraints, had no such signs, and we hope that the German field-hamsters can find protection across the border…….

Highlights of Saturday evening’s entertainment were an international sketch on the theme of “young person comes to meeting”, German poetry, a Friesian folk song about conflict resolution, a specially composed “Spinoza song” (with percussion accompaniment), English stories, lively games, and, from our oldest member, tales of life in pre-war Berlin, with little chunks of Berlin wall being sold to raise funds for Quaker projects.

All this in a peaceful Roman Catholic convent, complete with holy pictures and statues, where quietly smiling nuns made sure we were comfortable, seemingly happy for us to use their lovely garden for our early morning salute-the-sun sessions. One nun, the one responsible for the guesthouse, did break into hearty laughter when presented with a Quaker tea-towel portraying cooperation between the “two donkeys”, the donkey being her favourite animal.

A short talk at the evening epilogue about the suffering of the Palestinian people, and and a reading from the “Four-fold Franciscan Blessing” made the link for me between our faith and our practice, and the two verses quoted here sum up my reaction to the weekend:

May God bless you with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.

May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really CAN make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.
(Translation of part of ‘zegen van onrust’)

We left, thankful for the work Friends had put into the organisation of this meeting, and happy to know that plans are already underway for next year’s Border Meeting, the second weekend in September 2012 in Strasbourg.

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