January 17, 2020 § 1 Comment
I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
Do you solemnly swear that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of Donald John Trump, president of the United States, now pending, you will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws, so help you god (sic)?
Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain: for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
Our president took an oath several years ago. Ninety-nine of our U.S. senators took an oath yesterday. (One was absent due to illness and will take the oath soon.)
Oaths. Taking an oath casts a magico-religious spell. In this, it is like a sacrament: perform an outward ritual, effect an invisible but real spiritual outcome; take holy communion, receive God’s grace. An oath binds our words and actions and fates to a covenant of truth, a three-way agreement between the oath-taker, the witnesses, and a Power as the guarantor of the pledge.
Full-blown oaths have three components and three magico-religious aspects. The three components are verbal, somatic, and material. The aspects are: invoke a Power, declare the promise, submit to the Power’s punishment upon breaking the promise.
The simple oath we used to take as kids was stripped down to some essentials: Cross my heart and hope to die. This just has the verbal component, the speaking of the oath, and the somatic component of making the sign of a cross over the heart. The promise: I’m telling the truth. The punishment, death, heart failure, presumably.
The vow of marriage involves the verbal, somatic, and material components of vows, standing before the officiator, and rings, plus a kiss for sealing the promise. The promise: fidelity. The punishment: violation of the vow is breach of one of the ten commandments (two, actually) and cause for dissolution of the covenant—divorce.
The senators’ oath to “do impartial justice” in the impeachment of Donald Trump
Verbal. The verbal component of the senators’ oath is the oath itself, of course. It’s worth noting that “solemnly” here does not denote a mood but rather the religious character of the oath; for “solemn” my Webster’s 7th Collegiate Dictionary reads: “1 : marked by the invocation of a religious sanction 2 : marked by the observance of established form or ceremony; specif : celebrated with full liturgical ceremony 3 a: awe-inspiring : sublime b : highly serious c : somber, gloomy.” Note that the religious meaning is the first one.
Somatic. The somatic components were: standing before the seat of judgment, raising the right hand, placing the left hand upon a Bible, and signing a book or record.
Material. The material component is the signature in the book of record.
Invocation. The Power invoked as the guarantor of the oath in the senators’ oath is the God of the Bible—“so help you God”, they solemnly swear.
Promise. The promise they made, the general terms of the covenant, are obvious in the phrasing: “do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws”. Adjudication of the specifics of a breach—whether the oath has been broken or not—rests with the Power invoked and with the Power’s human agents at the judgment bench. His (sic) representative at the swearing was Chief Justice Roberts. His representatives at a trial of the senators for breach of oath would be the rest of the senators.
Punishment. The punishment for violating these oaths is not explicitly specified, but the punishment under human agency, for the president, is impeachment; for the senators, it is expulsion from the Senate and presumably, rescinding of the title. This leaves the huge question of what punishment the president and the senators will suffer at the right hand of the Power invoked if they break their oaths. That Power is God (the Christian, or at least, the biblical God). What will God do to a senator who fails to “do impartial justice”?
He (sic) has explicitly promised not to hold him or her guiltless, so they are not getting off. In the biblical context, oathbreakers are cast out of the divine covenant. Deuteronomy (the version of the commandment I’ve quoted is in Deuteronomy 5) lays out an extensive list of blessings for faithfulness to the covenant and curses for unfaithfulness. But that covenant binds Israel as a people to their god and presumably, Christian senators don’t fear those particular curses, which are specific to a people and a time and place and cultural context they do not share.
But there’s no doubt that, in theory, breaking their oath is a sin for which God will hold them accountable. This reveals the weakness of the sin-salvation paradigm of traditional Christianity: what is there to fear? Some vague threat of suffering in the afterlife? Is God really going to send them to hell if they break their oath? For those handful of senators who truly are devout Christians, this might have some weight—but all you need is a confession to get clear. If you’re Catholic or high-church Protestant, confession and the eucharist. The threat of divine spiritual punishment is a threat without teeth.
And why the Bible, anyway? Well, we know why—America in its mythical rhetoric thinks of itself as a Christian nation, never mind all the citizens who are not Christians and the guarantee of the First Amendment that the nation does not actually have an official state religion. And, anyway, how many of these senators are religious in the first place? Are any of them avowed atheists? Are any Jewish or Muslim or something besides Christian in their religious profession?
All of these arguments are part of why Quakers don’t take oaths—or didn’t. (I wonder how many of us do these days, how many of us take this particular testimony very seriously.) But we should remember that the primary reason Friends don’t—or didn’t—take oaths is that Jesus expressly told us not to in Matthew 5:33–37. “Swear not at all. . . . Simply let your yea be yea and your nay be nay; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” Wow—straight from Satan. Did you hear that, Mitch McConnell?
Meanwhile, all these factors help to explain why some senators have already declared their intention to break their oath. I hope they suffer some kind of spiritual curse if they do break their oath. Nothing so bad as hell; but something. And I hope they repent before they do, not after.
January 13, 2020 § 5 Comments
For years I have carried a ministry of seeking ways to reconnect liberal Friends to our root tradition. A recurring concern in this ministry has been to reconnect us to the Christ.
Now a lot of Friends are allergic to the word Christ, in most cases, I suspect, because of its connotations in traditional Christianity and its focus on sin and salvation, the cross and atonement, on Jesus’ divinity and the trinity. But traditional Christianity has redefined the Christ into something quite different than what Jesus himself meant, at least in the Synoptic Gospels.
In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus unambiguously claimed to be the Christ and explained what he meant by this claim in Luke, chapter four. In this passage, he has just been baptized, during which the holy spirit descended upon him. The spirit then drove him into the wilderness, and after forty days he emerged and went home to his home town. There, on the sabbath, in the synagogue, as the “visiting rabbi”, he was invited to read from the prophets. He chose Isaiah 61, verses one and two, which read as follows:
The spirit of Yahweh God is upon me, because Yahweh has anointed me [a clear reference to his baptism]; he has sent me to proclaim good news to the poor . . .
Now that word “anointed” is the word “christ” in Greek, “messiah” in Hebrew. He is saying, “the Father has christed me”.
For Jesus, being the Christ meant being anointed in the spirit of God. Being the Christ meant having been called by God and empowered by His spirit to do His work in the world. For him, that work was ministering to the suffering and the condition of the poor.
The Christ is the consciousness of having been called by the Spirit and empowered by the Spirit to do the Spirit’s work in the world.
That is as good a description of Quaker spirituality as any I have ever heard.
Post-script: I am not saying that the Christ is limited to this one understanding. Certainly Friends have come to know the Christ in a variety of ways in their own direct experience, and I take their testimony at face value. For many Friends, in fact, their experience of the Christ accords well with the understanding that “traditional Christianity” has given us, or at least with the Quaker version that we see in the testimony of early Friends, which rests more on the gospel of John and the writings of Paul. I am simply trying to recover the Christ whose ministry we see being born in the gospel of Luke.
December 29, 2019 § 6 Comments
One of the signature characteristics of our time is that many people have a spiritual life, or they want one, but fewer and fewer people want a religion. This trend has been working its way into Quaker culture, as well.
Years ago, I was a friendly adult presence at a Quaker high school conference. In one of the exercises, the facilitator designated one end of the room “spirituality” and the other end “religion” and we were invited to place ourselves along the spectrum. There was a crowd at the spirituality end, a sizable group just left of center toward spirituality, stragglers thinned steadily out toward religion—and then there was me. I’ve always had a religious temperament. I have experienced this phenomenon many times among us since.
The result of this trend in liberal Quakerism is that many Friends and attenders treat meeting for worship as group meditation, “an hour in which to find your truth”, as the A-frame placard says which my meeting puts on the sidewalk outside our entrance. This is an invitation to meditate, not an invitation to worship.
Nothing against meditation, mind you. I’ve been trained in several kinds of meditation, and I practice my own mash-up form all the time. And I’ve been in several satsangs that practice group meditation, which are great. But they’re not worship.
Meditation takes you deeper into yourself. Worship takes you out of yourself. Worship is more like listening to music than like listening to the “still, small voice” within. Worship is paying attention to something that transcends self.
Of course, one transcends one’s self in deep meditation, also; and the “something” we attend to in worship is within us, too, yes. That’s why centering is the first stage in worship. The door to worship is within us.
But that something we seek in worship is not just within me; it’s within all of us in the meeting room. And more to the point, it’s within us—as an us, as a collective consciousness. There’s a “that of God” in the collective consciousness of the gathered worshippers, just as there’s a “that of God” (whatever that means) in each one of us.
When we find ourselves in a gathered meeting for worship, we know that this transcendental something I’m referring to is real, and not just a facet or manifestation or dweller in my own individual consciousness. We come out of worship spilling over with joy, and looking around, we see that our fellow worshippers are filled with that same joy themselves. We have shared the joy of gathering in the Spirit.
I think of that gathering spirit as the spirit of Christ. Not necessarily the spirit of the risen Jesus, which traditional Christians infer from their reading of Christian scripture; that seems rather unlikely to me, metaphysically speaking, and certainly not objectively verifiable but only for one’s self alone through personal experience.
Rather, what I call the spirit of Christ is the spirit of anointing, the spirit that Jesus invoked in Luke 4:18–21, quoting Isaiah 61:1–2—the spirit that descended on him at his baptism, the spirit that descended on the apostles at the Pentecost, the spirit that descended on the first gathered “Quaker” meeting at Firbank Fell when George Fox convinced the Seekers, the spirit that Friends have been gathered in as a people of God ever since.
I experience that spirit is an emergent communion of a collective consciousness that is fully focused on the transcendental Mystery that dwells in the midst of the gathered worshipping community (and in the midst of each worshipper’s soul). For sure, it may be more than “emergent”; that spirit may have identity, sentience, and presence independent of the gathered worshipping community. For all I know, it’s the spirit of the risen Jesus.
However, while the worshippers rise from such a meeting knowing that, yes, that was it, that was covered in the Holy Spirit, in none of the gathered meetings I’ve experienced has anyone, let alone the whole gathered body, risen up and said, Ah! Yes, there he was, that was the risen Jesus. So inference as to the Spirit’s preexistence or independence or sovereign identity is, for me, just speculation. I know it’s real; its identity and its other qualities, are yet a mystery; to me at least.
So why call it the spirit of Christ? Because doing so reconnects us with our tradition and at the same time pulls our tradition forward, and because Christ is uniquely and truthfully descriptive. For “Christ” is a title for a consciousness, not the last name of a historical person. “Christ” means “anointed”, anointed of God as Spirit for some work. And, in the gathered meeting, have we not just been anointed by the spirit, just like Isaiah was in chapter 61 verse 1, and just as Jesus was in Luke 4:15–31? “Christ” is the awareness that one has been anointed for some divine work and the consciousness through which one is empowered for the work. For Jesus in Luke 4, the “work” was “good news for the poor”, a ministry of debt relief through radical reliance on the providing spirit of God and radical inter-reliance within the worshipping community for its execution.
And for us? For what work have we been anointed? Or have we, in truth, been anointed in the Spirit in the first place? Do we, in truth, worship? Or are we “just” meditating?
December 11, 2019 § 1 Comment
Sometime in the late 1980s, when New York Yearly Meeting was struggling over a revision of its book of discipline, Joshua Brown, who was then pastor of Adirondack Meeting, wrote a short essay on testing new revelation. At the time, the “new revelation” being tested was the move toward marrying same sex couples, though this concern carried the greater weight of challenges to the authority of scripture and, even more deeply, whether we would be a Christ-centered or more universalist community.
As I remember it, Joshua Brown proposed that new leadings should be tested against the testimony of four things: scripture, tradition, natural reasoning and common sense, and most importantly, the Holy Spirit, the sense of the meeting when gathered under the guidance of God’s guiding Spirit.
Some Friends, as you can imagine, questioned whether the Bible deserved its role as a touchstone. This nervousness bled over into questions about the authority of tradition, as well, since, in many ways, the Bible is the foundation of our tradition.
But I have two reasons for reaffirming the value of both the Bible and tradition. First, scripture has always been a fountain of new revelation itself, from the way it inspired George Fox to the way it inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. and liberation theology in general. Second, biblical interpretation and the traditions it supports have themselves always been evolving. Think of Margaret Fell’s pamphlet on women’s call to vocal ministry or the critical revisiting of those passages in scripture that seem to prohibit same-sex marriage—the current crisis, whatever it is, and the prophetic voices that rise in response to it prompt deeper engagement with scripture and tradition, and new truths. I capsulate this dynamic by saying that we should hold ourselves responsible for the tradition, but not necessarily responsible to it.
Joshua Brown’s four test framework has stuck in my mind all these decades, obviously, and I keep returning to it. Out of my contemplation, two other tests have presented themselves.
First, I believe we should also test new revelation against the testimony of our prophets, those whom God has called into service as voices of renewal and revelation. For that’s how it works: each new revelation comes to us through some good news first expressed by someone in our midst, just as the revelation of the Light of Christ was brought to England and the world originally by George Fox.
This of course begs the question of how you test the prophet. Here we return to Joshua’s fourth test, the gathered meeting, the Holy Spirit. So this test is not an injunction to heed every new voice or idea, but that we listen to new voices and messages, listen for the feel of Truth, listen to discern the spirit of the message, and submit it, ultimately, to the sense of the gathered meeting.
Which brings me to my second addition to Joshua’s four tests—the testimony of the lives of those Friends who are already living under the guidance of the new revelation. For instance, do the lives of married same-sex couples, or same-sex couples living together in the spirit of marriage as a sacred covenant, manifest love and truth? Not perfection, but the same spirit of shared care, respect, and responsibility that we hope for in married heterosexual couples.
Or, to use the test that Jesus gave us for prophets, we will know them by their fruits.
November 21, 2019 § 1 Comment
I have just finished reading Gary Dorrien’s The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805–1900 as part of my deep interest in the history and character of liberal Quakerism. It wasn’t as fruitful as I had hoped and in one case, quite disturbing. The disturbing part was learning how racist Elizabeth Cady Stanton was.
The book never mentions Friends; it’s mostly about Presbyterians and Congregationalists. But I do see definite overlap in the ways that liberal Quakerism and liberal Christian theology in general evolved. And I did find some definitions and characterizations of liberal American theology useful. So, hoping that my readers might find this material interesting, here are some sharings from Dorrien’s book.
From someone named Daniel Day Williams comes this definition: Liberal theology is a modern Protestant movement “which during the nineteenth century tried to bring Christian thought into organic unity with the evolutionary world view, the movements for social reconstruction, and the expectations of a ‘better world’ which dominated the general mind. It is that form of Christian faith in which a prophetic-progressive philosophy of history culminates in the expectation of the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth.”
The movement tried to address three modern developments: the theory of evolution, German biblical criticism (so-called “higher criticism”), and the rapidly industrializing social order.
Evolution theory did not just challenge certain pseudo-historical claims in the Bible or, more broadly and importantly, the authority of the Bible itself. It opened the way for a new attitude toward religious authority even more broadly: it shifted the emphasis from external authority to inner authority and personal experience. Furthermore, the embrace of evolution theory transformed the very understanding of religion. Liberal theologians, and liberal Quakers, now came to believe that religion itself and our understanding of God and God’s will was also evolving. It paved the way for our current emphasis on “continuing revelation”.
Biblical authority was also challenged along another front, as liberals increasingly embraced the insights about the Bible that higher criticism was providing. German thinkers, working with the kinds of literary criticism tools being use by the Grimm brothers to analyze folk tales, concluded that more than one person had written parts of the book of Isaiah, that Moses could not have written all the books of the Penteteuch, and so on. Put another way, liberal Quakers embraced scientific method as a friend of forward-thinking Christianity, and this demanded a new approach to what God was doing with scripture. They strove for credibility rather than adherence to authority.
Thirdly, they redefined the mission of the church. They demanded that religion be relevant and even progressive, that it work to bring the kingdom of God on earth. They rediscovered Jesus as prophet and teacher, not just as priest and king. In this, they joined in spirit with the Progressive movement in politics and social and economic thought and with the social gospel movement that emerged at the same time in answer to the ravages of industrial capitalism unchecked by other social forces.
In spite of these profound challenges to the evangelicalism and traditionalism that had dominated Quakerism through most of the nineteenth century, liberal Quakerism remained unquestionably Christian in its language and worldview. They felt that science and these new ways of thinking brought them closer to realizing Jesus’ hope for his church, not farther way.
They did step away from the traditional understanding of the blood atonement of the cross, however. Rather, they found themselves moving toward a moral concept of the atonement that more resembled that of early Friends—salvation from sin came, not from Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, but rather from surrender to the spirit of Christ working within us to overcome sinful impulses.
How liberal Quakerism lost its center in Christ is a subject for another time.
November 8, 2019 § 2 Comments
In Listening Spirituality, Vol II, Patricia Loring defines worship as collectively offering ourselves to God and listening for God’s Word. This definition works well for me and I want to explore it a little.
By “offering ourselves” I would mean both offering our individual selves and offering our collective self as a worshiping community.
Offering our individual selves. Quaker worship gives us an opportunity to focus on this offering of our selves to God; or, if God language does not work for you, worship is an opportunity to focus on our alignment with the forces that work within us for positive transformation, however we might experience them or conceive them.
Offering our selves to God is committing ourselves to the work of inner transformation, to the work of becoming better people, more loving and kind, more attentive and sensitive, more honest and self-aware, more open to inspiration and creativity; committing ourselves to becoming more whole as a person, to becoming our true and better selves.
As a religious society, we have an advocate in this project. For some of us, this “advocate”, this help with realizing our true and better selves, feels like a presence, a spiritual sentience, a companion of spirit whom we could name and with whom we can have a relationship. For others of us, we know at least that there are moments in the work when breakthroughs, or release, or insight, or strength, or some kind of inner change takes place as grace, as unexpected, sometimes even undeserved, inrushing of positive energy and transformation—but its source remains a mystery.
We have another advocate, as well—each other. More on this in a moment.
Offering our collective self. The same things are true for a gathered body of worshippers. The community offers itself up for transformation. This is most obvious in the meeting for business in worship, when we offer our decisions to God’s wish for us; or, if God language doesn’t work for you, we seek to follow the movement of the spirit amongst us, guiding us, until we are collectively certain about where we are to go.
This process is mysterious. Mostly it works through individuals, through individual spoken ministry as we settle deeper and deeper into a discerning consciousness. I believe there are other forces at work, as well, ways in which human consciousness responds to small signals in the group—body language, facial expressions, tones of voice and other aural clues, the character of the silences between messages—which communicate feelings and leanings subliminally, rather than content, substance, or ideas outwardly.
And then there is Spirit. Collective Quaker discernment has a third dimension beyond outward spoken word and the subtle human signals. Something transcendental moves among us when we truly are in worship. This partakes of true mystery. It transcends the sensible and the subliminal; it operates in the realm of the psychical. It transcends our ability to name it or understand it, but not our ability to feel it or to follow it.
The same dynamics—the same Spirit—is at work in the regular meeting for worship. With our vocal ministry we serve each other’s transformation. With the small signals of our sitting together we communicate a host of more subtle feelings for each other that build community and nurture the individual spirit. And in the gathered meeting, we find ourselves present to each other in a spirit transcendental and we sense some movement, some presence, some something behind or within our joy and energy and knowledge. The experience strengthens our faith and cements our sense of blessed community.
We could name it God, or Christ, or just the Spirit, but for almost all of us almost all of the time, we are just assigning meaning to something we don’t really understand but which we know is really happening. Sometimes some of us claim to know with certainty the identity of our gathering spirit, and those persons may be right. However, the rest of us cannot with integrity share their certainty, except on faith. But we can and do share a certainty about its effect on the body, its intention, if you will, the direction of our discernment.
Listening. The other half of worship-as-offering is worship-as-listening. We “listen”, not with our ears but with our souls, for a response to the offering. We offer because we believe in the response, because our experience shows us that, in reciprocation to our offering there is an answering.
If, as individuals, we align ourselves with the forces that work within us for transformation (and also “forces” without us—other people, circumstances, “coincidences”, books, the Book, a whole host of vehicles outside ourselves for answering our cry for wholeness), we are indeed transformed. Usually in little ways, but not always; sometimes in overwhelming ways.
So we are listening for these answers to our offering. And then when we “hear” the answer, we offer ourselves again—we submit to the forces of positive change. And I say “submit” deliberately, because almost always, change comes at a cost. We must give something up of ourselves; we must let go of something we are attached to. We don’t like change; it takes an act of sacrifice, of inner submission in faith that it will be worth it.
And it is worth it. We offer ourselves, in faith. We receive an answer, an offer back. We offer ourselves, in faith again, to this answer. And then we find what we have sought.
And so it is with the worshipping body. We offer ourselves to God, to Christ, to the Spirit, however we might name that Transcendent Mystery that guides us to Truth. We listen for that still small voice within us. With vocal ministry we listen, not for this Friend or that Friend’s word or wisdom, but for the Word of Wisdom speaking through them in their vocal ministry.
In the silence we open ourselves also to the subliminal. We have taken away as much of the noise as we can with silent, waiting worship, so that we can hear the true signal, however small it might be.
And we “listen” psychically for the movement of the Holy Spirit. We barely know how to do this. Even if we are trained in some form of mindfulness or meditation, there is some faculty beyond technique that operates with only our intention—our offering—as its handle, mysteriously, transcendentally. Let’s call it the spirit’s ear, with which we hear the answer to our offer.
October 15, 2019 § 2 Comments
A Friend commented on my previous post and my reply got so long that I decided to make it its own post. I had started out focused on what different people want from the life of the spirit, but soon found myself in deeper territory.
An awful lot of Friends, in my experience, are not in the life of the spirit for the radical personal transformation Ellis Hein describes (though I am myself). They want religious community, meaningful companionship in their journey. Or they want a spiritual grounding and a tradition from which to work as transformers of our world. Or, even if they are “mystics”, they want to engage with the world and with other seekers after truth, rather than to withdraw from the world—they are attracted to the Quaker way of “practical mysticism”; and, again, they want religious community in which to deepen their relationship with whatever they are experiencing. And most, I suspect, do not want someone to preach at them about how they must do all this or someone demanding that they name their experience a certain way.
This is the genius of liberal Quakerism, it seems to me, that we recognize that there are a lot of totally legitimate desires, temperaments, or even desiderata, for anyone on spiritual journey. In fact, these are the impulses that have shaped Quakerism from the beginning. I suspect that George Fox wanted some of the things I list in the paragraph above himself, maybe all of them. But I think he got ahead of himself.
Fox was a genius, but he fell into the same trap he sought to escape: he didn’t want anybody to tell him what he should do with his soul, then he turned around and started telling others what they should do with theirs. He demanded faith in Jesus Christ, and not just any Jesus Christ—his understanding of Christ.
I would love to ask Fox and Burrough and Penington how they knew that what they were experiencing was Jesus Christ. And why they took the leap that Don Badgley alludes to in his comment on my last post, the leap take by traditional Christianity itself, from the proclaimer to the proclaimed. Jesus pointed his disciples toward the Father; now we point to the son. How did we get from the universal to the particular, and why is the particular more precious, more deserving of worship, than the Deeper Truth and Source of Love that the Galilean mystic had found the way to.
This narrow gate to heaven was built almost immediately, certainly by the writing of John’s gospel: no one cometh unto the father but by me. Really? One might claim that hundreds of millions of Buddhists (for instance) are writing with a cheap Bic pen—though that’s a very arrogant thing to say—but to claim that they can’t write at all is just ridiculous.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the particular. Airy, lofty statements about the absolute and universal and eternal God, who is too transcendent to put into words, seem to me to be speculation that meets some kind of need for the importance of our own way of believing and worshiping, but not very spiritually satisfying in the life I’m living. Yes, some of us get hints about how cosmic “God” is. But where do you go from there? Most of us want something more relevant to our lives. Hence the experience of Jesus Christ.
But my question is, what about the experience of “Jesus Christ” suggests, let alone proves, that the spirit we’ve encountered inwardly is the risen spirit of Yeshua, the Galilean we encounter in Christian scripture? (And which Jesus are we talking about—John’s preach-the-long-sermons Jesus? the Lamb of Revelations? Mark’s much more accessible and “human” Jesus?) And why would we leap to the conclusion that this particular spirit is, in fact, nothing less than God God’s self?
The answer to the first question—how do we know we’re experiencing the Yeshua of Christian scripture resurrected?—or put another way, where does our experience get its name tag?—pretty much has to be the cultural context in which we live. Would a Babylonian mystic in 585 BCE have named the spirit he encountered Jesus Christ? Or are we claiming that she either did not have a legitimate spiritual experience at all or that the spirit she experienced was some kind of demon, a false god. That’s the traditional exclusionist answer I was taught as an evangelical Lutheran child.
The answer to the parenthesis—which Jesus are you experiencing?—is also, I suspect, a matter of accident and subjective preference: which tradition are you drawing from, which Jesus appeals to your own temperament? Quakers have always loved the Jesus of John’s gospel, never mind his relentless anti-Semitism and wordy theologizing. I happen to prefer Mark’s Jesus. My point is that they are not at all the same. They have all been filtered for us already by the cultural contexts and subjective preferences of the evangelists, Paul, and the other writers of the books of Christian scripture.
The tradition claims, of course, that God, or God’s spirit, inspired all these writers and therefore their Jesuses are all the same, even though they talk and act differently. But how do we know that? Objective observation contradicts the idea. This is just a canonical decision made by the tradition for doctrinal reasons.
The answer to the last questions—how do we conclude that, in experiencing Jesus Christ as risen spirit, we are at the same time experiencing God God’s self—again, this conclusion seems to me to depend on culture. The trinitarian idea of the Son’s equality with the Father wasn’t even settled at the Council of Nicea in 325, whatever the writers of the Nicean creed would like to have hoped. In fact, it was still in debate in George Fox’s time.
On top of this cultural accident of whether we are Quakers or Baptists or Catholics—or Buddhists, or traditional Hopi—we add our own need to make our religious lives as significant as possible. At least, Christian communities do. In practice, actual individuals seem quite content to talk about universals and absolutes, but what really matters to them is a sense of personal relationship, a meaningful and coherent way to understand their experience, and a community with which to celebrate and explore their experience.
But back to the Quaker particular. The spirit of Christ—my name for whatever spirit answered Fox’s condition and gathered the first Children of Truth into a people of God, which assumed a name more or less determined by cultural accident—is not a figment of cultural imagination, in my opinion. I believe the spirit of Christ is real.
For I am not saying that our forbears and contemporary Christian Quakers are wrong about their experience of the Christ; I am saying that they and we have usually overlaid that experience with interpretations that go beyond our own personal experience and come to us through our culture, the legacy of the tradition through which we attempt to understand our experience.
Nor is that overlay wrong, either, just because it’s essentially an accident of birth place, time, and culture. It’s just that we cannot with integrity make universal and absolute claims about it. We can only testify to its value for us, as individuals and as communities.
In my next post I want to get into why I believe Jesus Christ is “real” and why I think it matters to Quaker meetings.