Religion and Spirituality

January 4, 2018 § 9 Comments

I want to make a case for Quakerism as a religion.

I suspect that many Friends prefer to think of their Quakerism as a spirituality rather than as a religion. For one thing, “religion” implies belief in God and beliefs in general, and for many of us, “belief in God” isn’t as straightforward as it was a generation or two ago.

Also, “religion” implies tradition, a legacy of beliefs and practices that one has had no part in shaping, leaving you to either accept or rebel against them; religion implies an authority in the community that in some ways supersedes one’s own individual preferences. By contrast, “spirituality” implies individualism—personal sovereignty over one’s own ideas, beliefs, and practices.

For many Friends (in the liberal tradition, at least), one of the most appealing aspects of Quakerism is this freedom to believe and practice what you wish. You can escape the constraints of religion, and for many of us those constraints have been enforced with abuse. Thus, for many Friends, joining a Quaker meeting means joining a group of like-minded people who accept that each of us is practicing our own form of spirituality. In this view, meeting for worship becomes, in essence, a form of group meditation.

For me, however, Quakerism is both a religion and a spirituality. Let me explain by trying to define spirituality and religion as integrally related.

For me, spirituality is the ideas, attitudes, emotions, and practices one embraces in order to align one’s inner life toward personal transformation and toward the transcendental and to align one’s outer life toward right living.

For me, religion is the collective spirituality practiced by a community. Religion is the ideas, attitudes, feelings, and practices the community embraces in order to align its inner life toward collective transformation and toward the transcendental (God—more about this in a moment), and to align the community’s outer life toward justice, peace, equality, earthcare, and service in the world.

For religious communities have a collective inner life, just as individuals have a personal inner life. (Some Friends, especially in the 18th century, called this collective inner spiritual life of the meeting the angel of the meeting, after Revelations, chapters two and three, which are letters written by Christ to the angels of the meetings of seven churches in Asia Minor.)

Actually, all communities have an inner life. Clubs, professional associations, businesses, municipalities—all these communities have some kind of inner life. But these communities are rarely self-conscious enough, self-reflective enough, small enough, or organized in such a way as to manifest a collective consciousness coherent enough to work with in a deliberate and meaningful way. These communities can still experience transformation. On very rare occasions, they can even experience the transcendental. And they can bend toward justice (or toward oppression) in their presence in the world.

But the thing about a religious community is that it’s designed to work with its collective consciousness. It’s designed to provide shape and context for the spirituality of the individuals who comprise its collective consciousness; but it also works directly at the collective level with ideas, attitudes, emotions, and practices that only the community as such can embrace.

For most religions, this direct attempt at collective faith and practice is limited to the worship service. Friends enjoy a number of other “venues” for collective spirituality in addition to worship: worship sharing groups, clearness committees, even committee work itself—we conduct all of our gatherings and discernment as meetings for worship, at least in theory, as shared tools for aligning our collective inner and outer lives.

What really makes Quakerism a religion, in my view, though, is that our practice of collective spirituality sometimes manifests in collective transcendental experience. We call this direct experience of God the gathered meeting. By “God” I mean here the Mystery Reality behind our experience of the gathered meeting. We may not be able to collectively articulate what that presence is very well—it’s a mystery. But we share the knowledge of its reality.

The direct experience and knowledge of that reality puts “belief in God” in a new light. We don’t believe in God as a matter of faith in a legacy or tradition of ideas. Rather, we know God collectively through direct experience. As individuals, we may elaborate in various ways on that immediate apperception of the divine which we’ve experienced in the gathered meeting for worship—we may have certain beliefs about what’s happened.

The community may do the same thing with its collective experience and develop a “theology”, as early Friends did, as a way of sharing the experience—with each other, with our children, with potential converts. But, for early Friends, such evangelizing did not aim at converting people to a set of beliefs, but at bringing them into that experience, bringing them into direct relationship with God. So also today, our theology, our ideas about what’s happening in our collective spiritual life as a meeting and as a movement, are only tools for pointing toward the Presence we experience in the gathered meeting and/or in our own hearts.

Thus Quakerism does have a tradition, it does have a legacy, and that legacy does include ideas, attitudes, feelings, and practices for the individual to practice as the Quaker way. But these are not as fully developed as in some other religions. This is mostly because we are so inwardly focused and have abandoned outward forms to such a thorough degree. We don’t light votive candles, pray rosaries, have stock hymns or a religious calendar lectionary. Technically speaking, we don’t even have a religious calendar at all. We don’t have a Benedictine Rule. We don’t have the formal elements of the Eightfold Path, breathing exercises and asanas, like yoga does.

Even to “turn toward the light” or to “sink down in the Seed”, favorite phrases of George Fox representing spiritual “practices”, are very ambiguous as actual practices; it’s taken Rex Ambler to “systematize” the former to some degree as a spiritual practice, and to my knowledge, no one has done this for sinking down into the Seed. And even Ambler’s Experiment with Light is a collective practice, as well as an individual one.

This leaves us as individuals free to hold onto any more fully developed spiritual practices we may have picked up from other traditions, as I have done myself. And we can take some of these with us into our collective Quaker practice; I use some of the same deepening techniques I use in my personal practice to deepen when I attend Quaker meeting for worship. These don’t just help me as an individual to experience worship more deeply; I think they deepen the collective worship, as well.

But the collective practices of the Quaker way are what make it a religion, because, through them, we come to know God in ways that are not possible for us as individuals, in ways that transform the community as community. These practices and these experiences are what make us a peculiar people of God—that is, a religion.

This post is getting pretty long. In the next one, I want to explore how the collective spiritual practice of a religious community is shaped by its founding collective, transcendental, spiritual experience; how the focus of the practice evolves as the community moves away from this foundational experience in time, through the generations; how this kind of evolution has shaped the legacy we have inherited as liberal Quakerism today; and what all this means for us.

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The Spirit-led Life

January 1, 2018 § 7 Comments

I have a close friend who feels that seeking to live a “Spirit-led life” is inviting delusion. That certainly there is no “Spirit” who might lead us, that there are many such “spirits” who might lead one astray, and that what we’re dealing with here—Spirit, or spirits—are only impulses that come from within ourselves. Some of these impulses can be trusted; some cannot.

I’m reading an article in The Atlantic about Vice President Mike Pence in which a former aid wondered to the author whether Pence’s religiosity might be a rationalization for what he wants to do anyway. I wondered the same thing about George W. Bush. I wonder the same thing about myself.

Friends have a fairly robust framework for “discerning spirits”, as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 12, for winnowing the true leading from the delusional. At least we do in theory. In the reality of many of our meetings, we are barely holding on to the mindset and the tools we’ve developed for discernment over the centuries. This mindset and these tools serve both personal discernment and corporate discernment.

Regarding personal discernment, the first of these, I think, is regular spiritual practice. It takes regularly setting aside time for turning inward and listening for that voice. Over time, one maps one’s inner landscape, one learns how the spirit moves through that landscape. Deepening techniques help with this a lot.

Then, the “voice” itself. Rarely does one hear an actual voice. I have only done so twice, and one of those times, it was a kind of “language” I could not decipher; the message was the messaging itself, not its content, the establishment of a relationship between myself and that which was offering to lead.

But from then on, for decades now, the “voice” has been “silent”, utterly subjective, internal, devoid of “content”. It feels more like a magnetized needle swinging inside me toward a certain direction for thought, feeling, or action than like a clear command or prompting. It’s perfectly capable of deluding me.

In the everyday surrender of self to the leadership of the Holy Spirit (whatever that is, however it works), one has to discern the truth of such inner directing on one’s own, basically moment to moment. In the day to day life, the range for delusion is rather small and the consequences rarely very important. The needle flutters lightly on its pivot and one is hardly conscious of its working.

But often enough the needle gains enough mass to break through everyday consciousness and we find ourselves consciously deciding what to do about something. Here is where a regular devotional life pays off. Here the practice in meeting for worship of discerning whether one has some vocal ministry for the meeting—whether your message is spirit-led—pays off.

My problem is that, in these moments, I almost always forget to employ this discipline. I forget to stop for a moment and go inward before I go forward. I forget to check where I am in my inner landscape, to check my belly (as Bill Taber often recommended) and other physiological signs, and to listen for the voice, to seek the light in my conscience. I let the momentum of my current direction, the forces at work on me from the environment and the people around me, and my fears and desires guide my steps instead.  I follow the surface “spirits” of my conscious and unconscious mind.

Most of the time, that’s okay. I get away with it. I make an okay decision, nothing terrible happens. But I’ve lost the opportunity to go deeper first, to be more fully spirit-led.

That’s everyday life. But sometimes a leading takes on more weight than that. Sometimes one feels led out of the everyday into an uncharted landscape. Sometimes one feels called to new action. Now the possibility of delusion really matters. With these stronger leadings of the Spirit, corporate discernment really matters.

I have had several such leadings and these have evolved into sustained ministries. Very rarely in the evolution or conduct of these ministries have I enjoyed meaningful corporate discernment or support. Well, to be honest, I have allowed my initial disappointments to deter me from seeking further support. Once I was settled in my discernment and after finding that these ministries were not just sustaining themselves but getting deeper and expanding, I felt I was on my way and haven’t sought further support since. But I should have.

One of these ministries is to recover and renew with experimentation the faith and practice of Quaker ministry itself. It’s one of the reasons for this blog and one of this blog’s recurring themes. Many meetings are not well equipped to nurture our members’ leadings and ministries. We have deliberately laid down the traditional culture of eldership that nurtured Quaker ministry for centuries and many meetings have not replaced it with anything else.

Well, we have worship and ministry committees, and we have clearness committees. But in my experience, worship and ministry committees do not necessarily have unity about even the existence of divine leadings, let alone solid knowledge of how to “discern spirits” or how to handle a member’s leading. And many meetings are not clear about how to conduct clearness committees for discernment, either.

We use clearness committees for four different kinds of discernment, and they each are constituted and conducted in different ways. Many Friends are not clear about these differences and many meetings have too little experience with discernment committees to feel confident in their use. (See my post “Gospel Order—Four Types of Clearness Committees” for more about the four ways we use clearness committees.)

So some of our meetings need to do a better job of supporting the spirit-led life of their members. Our worship and ministry committees need to gain both clarity and unity about how to support leadings and how to conduct clearness committees for discernment. And I think we need an ongoing conversation in our meetings about what the Spirit-led life is for us and how we might nurture it.

This includes, at the very least, the one thing we all have in common—vocal ministry. What does “Spirit-led vocal ministry” mean? How do we discern whether a message is spirit-led? Or is “Spirit-led” vocal ministry what we’re hoping and aiming for in the first place?

“That of God” as divine spark—the source

December 21, 2017 § 8 Comments

After years—decades even—of searching for the passage in the writings of Rufus Jones in which he first reinterprets Fox’s phrase “that of God” as a divine spark, which now distorts and dominates Quaker “theology” (such as it is) in the liberal tradition, I think I have finally found it. It begins on page 167 in Social Law in the Spiritual World: Studies in Human and Divine Inter-relationship, published in 1904, in a chapter titled The Inner Light:

We shall now pass from accounts of personal experience to statements of theory, or the doctrine of the Inner Light. One might say that every early Quaker writing is like a palimpsest. Beneath every word which was written this idea of the Inner Light also lies written. It is the key to every peculiarity in Quakerism. What was the Inner Light? * The simplest answer is: The Inner Light is the doctrine that there is something Divine, “something of God,” in the human soul.

Five words are used indiscriminately to name this Divine something: “The Light,” “The Seed,” “Christ within,” The Spirit,” “That of God in you.” This Divine Seed is in every person good or bad. Here is Barclay’s way of saying it: “As the capacity of a man or woman is not only in this child, but even in the very embryo, even so Jesus Christ himself, Christ within, is in every man’s and woman’s heart, as a little incorruptible seed.” (Apology, 1831, p. 177)

Again: “We understand this seed to be a real spiritual substance.” [emphasis is Jones’] It is “a holy substantial seed which many times lies in man’s heart as a naked grain in the stony ground.” (Apology, 1831, 139)

Barclay is very particular to have it understood  that this “seed” is not something which man has as man, but that it is a gratuitous importation from God—it is a gift of free Grace to every man. The child, however, does bring this with him, and so does actually “trail clouds of glory;” he does bring with him from God a Divine soul-centre. But this “seed” may lie hidden and unregarded, like a jewel in the dust.

It follows secondly as a corollary of this principle that direct communications are possible from God to man. In other words, the Inner Light is a principle of revelation—it becomes possible for man to have “openings of truth.” . . .

Quaker ministry is supposed to be the utterance of communications that are given by the Spirit. This Light within is also held to be an illumination which makes the path of duty plain through the conscience.

There is still a third aspect to the doctrine of the Inner Light. It is used, perhaps most frequently, to indicate the truth that whatever is spiritual must be within the realm of personal experience, that is to say, the ground of religion is in the individual’s own heart and not somewhere outside him.

* It should be said that the early Friends did not minimize the importance of the Scriptures, or of the historical Christ and His work for human redemption. The Christ who enlightened their souls was, they believed, the risen and ever-living Christ—the same Person who healed the sick in Galilee and preached the gospel to the poor under the Syrian sky, and who died for our sakes outside the gate of Jerusalem. One of the great fruits of the Incarnation and Passion, according to their view, was the permanent presence of Christ among men in an inward and spiritual manner, brining to effect within what His outward life had made possible.

The phrase “Inner Light” is itself part of the paradigm shift that is taking place here. If I understand correctly, for two hundred years before Rufus Jones and the liberal Quaker innovations that began around 1900, the Light was an inward Light—it beamed into the human heart, as it were, from Christ, across the gulf between the human and the Divine. I think Jones is working at a corrective here, reestablishing the Light as indwelling.

That being said, even the Inner Light is not quite, for Jones, inherent in the human species, in human nature as such. Per Barclay, he seems to think of it as somehow embedded in each individual human child. This seems like a very subtle differentiation between the human as an animal descended from animal predecessors through evolution—an idea that was in his time still relatively new and provocative, as he discusses in the introduction to this book—that is, a distinction between the human animal and the human as a spiritual being with a soul.

The Inner Light is a gift conferred on humans by God, but it is still permanent and indwelling. Most importantly, it brings with it the very substance of the Spirit. The Inner Light, that of God within us, is a divine spark, however it gets there. And it is this substantial correspondence between the Inner Light and the Light who was Christ that makes communication with the Divine possible—like speaks to like.

Social Law in the Spiritual World was Jones’s third book. His goal with the book was to do for the new science of psychology what previous authors had done for biology, especially the theory of evolution—to build a bridge between science and religion, to show that the scientific discoveries that were transforming the modern worldview could deepen the religious experience rather than threaten it.

Five years later, in 1909, he would publish Studies in Mystical Religion. I think he was already deep into the scholarship for this later book when he wrote Social Law. I have recently finished reading Studies in Mystical Religion and you can see him realizing that very many of these mystical movements in the history of Christianity had in common the belief in some version of the divine spark. I think he came to feel that the neoplatonic idea of a universal divine spark explained these commonalities, explained how mystical experience worked, and therefore explained the mystical experiences of Fox and other early Friends. And he found enough evidence in their writings to feel that Quakers stood in this long tradition of mystical religion grounded in the resonance between the divine spark in the individual and the Divine Spirit from which that spark had been struck.

 

Vocal Ministry — Goals for Nurture Programs

December 18, 2017 § 3 Comments

A small ad hoc group of Friends in my meeting recently met to consider what kinds of programs and efforts we might sponsor that would nurture the meeting’s vocal ministry. We had representatives from three committees: Worship and Ministry, Religious Education, and Attenders. In preparation for the meeting, I tried to identify what the goals might be for these programs. The notes below represent an expanded version of my notes.

Primary goal

To nurture deeper, more Spirit-led ministry.

I deliberately capitalize Spirit. I think we all know intuitively what deeper means, but I wonder whether we know what Spirit means in this context. Are we able to articulate where Spirit-led vocal ministry comes from, to newcomers, to our children, to each other? This should be one of our secondary goals, I think, to be able to do so with confidence as a meeting.

History, faith, and practice

Knowledge of the history of the faith and practice of vocal ministry in our tradition.

Knowledge of the practices that have over time proven effective at fostering deep worship and ministry—giving time after someone’s message before speaking ourselves, not addressing another person’s ministry, etc.

Programs in this area might fall to either Adult Religious Education or Ministry & Worship Committees. Since such programs will never reach a certain considerable percentage of the meeting members and attenders, especially those new to the meeting, I think some short handout should be distributed on the benches periodically that lays out the conventions governing our practice of worship and vocal ministry. My meeting just produced such a handout and I think it’s quite good. You can download it here.

Centering

Knowledge of and experience with various centering methods to nurture the vocal ministry’s roots in the Spirit.

Programs in this area might fall to an ad hoc group of Friends with experience in meditation, centering prayer, breath work, Experiment with Light, etc. This gets to the “deeper” part of the over-arching goal. There are lots of Quaker-friendly techniques for centering, by which I mean they are inward, simple, and effective. I believe that a deeper state of consciousness does foster religious experience. Simply turning inwardly and consciously “toward the Light” within, however one does that, seems to me a uniquely Quaker form of centering.

Calling to ministry

Support for those who feel called to the ministry.

Discernment and support for those who speak often in meeting, to the degree that they welcome such attention: Do they think of their speaking as a calling? Do they feel a need for support?

Programs in this area might fall to Worship & Ministry Committee or, if the meeting has one, as mine does, to a Gifts and Leadings Committee, or some such. Ever since we laid down the centuries-old culture of eldership with which we used to nurture vocal ministry, we have left ourselves without any way to support those who feel called to what used to be called gospel ministry. I suspect that many meetings no longer even think that such a calling exists among us anymore, or that it should. But here and there, it does. Such Friends should not be left bereft of our meetings’ support in what is for them a divine calling.

And some of our frequent speakers may have such a calling but not think of it that way. Thinking of it that way could deepen their ministry. And just bringing the possibility up could deepen both the meeting’s worship and the Friend’s own life in the Spirit.

At the very least, meetings should be more attentive and proactive regarding vocal ministry, starting with those Friends who speak often.

Sharing

To know each other better with regard to our ministry—opportunities to share our feelings about our own vocal ministry, the tests and processes we use for discerning whether to speak, our feelings and concerns about the quality of the meeting’s ministry in general.

Programs in this area might fall to Ministry & Worship Committee.

Sharing of this kind deepens the bonds between us and gives us deeper respect for one another’s messages.

Unity on the issues

Knowledge about what the members and attenders feel about the current state of our vocal ministry. A sense of the meeting regarding vocal ministry as a calling, whether we consider such callings real and legitimate and deserving of corporate support and oversight. Knowledge of who considers themselves so called and whether they want support and/or oversight. I have created a blind survey that tries to elicit this kind of information. If we find that many Friends are unhappy with some aspect of our worship, then we are more likely to do something about it. Here is a link to a Word document version of such a survey.

Meeting-wide agreement about our goals vis a vis vocal ministry, and specifically about whether the meeting wants to address whatever comes up in the discovery process mentioned above.

Trust on the part of the meeting in Worship & Ministry Committee’s authority and judgment regarding vocal ministry, especially in terms of its eldering role. Unity within the committee itself about its authority and roles—are the Committee’s members clear and in unity about how proactive they should be in nurturing vocal ministry, about when, how, and why the Committee should speak to someone about their ministry, either in support or with gentle eldering, and about who should do it?

The committee that has the care of the meeting’s worship and ministry should be confident in its charge and have the support of the meeting, it should be unified in its approach, and proactive, not just reactive.

Quaker Ministry

November 21, 2017 § 3 Comments

Brian Drayton’s blog Amor Vincat is one of the best Quaker blogs I know of. I find it consistently thoughtful, edifying, and most important, Spirit-led. His latest post offers a wonderful resource and raises important questions about our meetings’ nurture of vocal ministry. The post is Library: Harvey “Our Quaker ministry since the cessation of recording”.

Harvey’s little essay was written in the mid-1940s, some twenty years after London Yearly Meeting had laid down the practice of recording ministers. Harvey had approved of the laying down, even though he himself had been recorded. In this article he looks back to consider what had been lost and gained in the intervening decades.

Harvey’s main concern is my own, as well. Though the yearly meeting’s book of discipline had strongly encouraged meetings to support vocal ministry and especially newly rising ministers, both within the meeting and through minutes of travel and service outside the meeting, very few meetings knew this injunction even existed, let alone taken responsibility for such nurture. That is, just because the practice of recording had been discontinued, the need for nurturing Quaker ministry remained, and most meetings were not meeting that need.

New York Yearly Meeting still does record gifts in ministry, though many Friends and many meetings in the yearly meeting don’t like it. I have written an “apology” for the practice (On Recording Gifts in Ministry) and feel very strongly that, even if a meeting would never record the gifts of someone in their meeting, they should be paying attention to those who speak in meeting often. Worship and ministry committees should offer their ministers support and yes, oversight. They should nurture the meeting’s vocal ministry with programs that discuss the conventions governing our practice of ministry and its history. Meetings should provide opportunities for its regular speakers to consider whether they have a calling to ministry and be prepared to offer support, if only through continued meetings for mutual sharing. And meetings should provide opportunities for all members and attenders to share their own experience and practice regarding vocal ministry.

Vocal ministry is one of the most important aspects of the Quaker way and a key element in our outreach. Newcomers to our meetings have only the quality of our silence, the quality of our vocal ministry, and the quality of our fellowship by which to feel inspired to make us their religious home. Weak vocal ministry, which is all too common in our meetings I fear, not only fails to inspire the deeply yearning souls who come to us, but sets a low bar for expectations of everyone, newcomers and oldtimers alike.

Scripture—Picking and Choosing

November 8, 2017 § 13 Comments

In a comment on a recent post, Patricia Dallmann pointed out that, in quoting Matthew 18:20—“Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them”—I left out what she felt was the most important part: “in my name”. So I did.

I have for decades now been trying to chart a way for myself (and for liberal Quakerism) that honors our tradition while selectively letting go of it. I’ve been picking and choosing in the way I read the Bible.

One of the things I’m letting go of is the traditional Christian “name theology”. Name theology—the power of the name of God—has a long and deep history in the Jewish tradition and it made a stark and decisive turn in the dark years between the Babylonian captivity (roughly 587–525 BCE) and the Maccabean revolt in 165 BCE. It became increasingly magico-religious, the kind of thinking that believes that the bread and wine actually turn into Christ’s body and blood when the bell rings.

Of course, name theology is also about confession. By invoking Jesus’ name, Matthew is saying, unless you believe in Jesus, you can’t expect him to show up. I suspect that this is Patricia’s point.

But is it true? Is Matthew right? Or are we even reading the real words of Jesus here, or something Matthew wrote? Or maybe some piece of tradition that Matthew inherited, but who knows where that came from? How would we know any of this? Where’s the benchmark, the test for biblical authority, in this case, or in any case?

I am choosing to leave the name thing out in this case. The name theology feels to me like the tradition speaking, and not Jesus himself. But who knows?

We are all of us always picking and choosing when it comes to the Bible. This is one of the things that makes the biblical argument against homosexuality so twisted. Those folks are just picking and choosing, only they won’t admit it.

For instance: Jesus commanded his disciples to call no one father, to wash each other’s feet, and to go out and buy some swords. The Roman church calls its priests father; only the Brethren wash feet; and we Quakers don’t buy swords. In the South, of course, lots of Christians buy their Glocks.

Now fundamentalists will insist that they take the Bible literally. But it is literally impossible to take the Bible literally. For one thing, one third of it is poetry and taking poetry literally is ludicrous by definition.

For another thing, we’re all reading somebody’s translation. Whose translation are you taking literally? The NIV and the modern, reader-friendly translations favored by evangelicals are the very worst at getting things right.

For a third thing, the manuscript traditions vary quite a lot, especially in some cases. For Acts, the differences amount to hundreds of words. Mark is famously missing its original ending and the tradition took three different tries at finishing it. The version used in our Bibles usually includes all three endings. We have no idea what Mark originally wrote.

Then there’s lacunae—holes in the manuscripts we do have. The word or phrase just isn’t there. Translators do the best they can to make up something that makes sense.

Or unique words that have no known cognates . . . we have no idea what these words mean. Again, translators try to use context to fill in the gap.

We are all always picking and choosing, even when we don’t know it. The best we can do is be honest about that and try to justify the decisions we make.

The problem with that is that then you have to study the Bible. Deeply. I have. But most Friends don’t read Bible commentaries for fun like I do. But why should they if they don’t want to?

And that doesn’t really do you much good in the end, anyway. You still end up picking and choosing. For the deeper you go, the more you realize you don’t know. And the deeper you go, the more complex things get; the Bible is the most self-referential library on earth—1500 years of writers and editors and redactors looking at what went before and then adding to it. Virtually every passage has hidden resonances and echoes.

My point is that the Bible is an unreliable foundation for religious life. At least until something in it has been confirmed by our own experience, until the Holy Spirit opens it up to us. Which the Spirit can do, and has always done. For the Bible has also repeatedly demonstrated its value as an aid to faithful religious life, its weirdness, opaqueness, vagueness, contradictions, confusions, resonances, and echoes notwithstanding.

Its a paradox.

I can see that I have more to say about the role of the Bible in our religious lives. I started in two other directions before ending up in this one. Had to stop somewhere.

The Sociology of Collective Religious Experience

November 4, 2017 § 5 Comments

Jesus, the Christ, and I—Part 9

In a previous post, written quite awhile ago now, I gave the first of four reasons why I think we should name our collective religious experience as the spirit of Christ. That was a negative reason: that the more diverse theologically and the more uncomfortable we have become with our traditional Christian identity, the more diluted our worship has become.

I have more to say about this, about whether our worship really has become more shallow and how theological diversity might have that effect, but it’s not seasoned enough yet. In this post, I want to explore the sociology of our collective religious experience. For collective religious experience is intensely social even while it is ineffably transcendental.

By “collective religious experience”, I mean the gathered meeting, primarily, plus those instances of profound vocal ministry that brings a meeting into divine communion, and the other extraordinary psychic experiences that arise in the practice of the Quaker way. I believe that coherence in our collective understanding, a shared framework for understanding and a shared vocabulary—or lack of it—has a real effect on the quality of our worship.

The group dynamics and psychology of a religious community act both as “drivers” behind its experience and as part of the discernment by which the community seeks to understand the experience that it does have.

The chain of our tradition is long and the links are strong. In Christian scripture, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit (in several places in the gospel of John) and to be present whenever two or three are gathered (Matthew 18). Then, according to the testimony of our forbears, the promise was fulfilled in the experience of the early Friends, beginning 1600 years after those promises and continuing as revelation for another three centuries and more of our history as a people of God. Jesus’ promise and fulfillment established a foundation of faith upon which many Friends have built their religious lives. That faith, and its fulfillment in continuing revelation, fosters what we now call continuing revelation.

But our tradition does not just encourage our collective religious experience; it also explains it. It gives us a framework for understanding our experience and for talking about it, amongst ourselves, to our children, to newcomers. For more than 300 years we have said that we were gathered together in Christ. In fact, the tradition gave us our very identity: “You are my friends, if you do whatsoever I command you.  . . I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard of the Father I have made known unto you.” (John 14:14, 15)

Or it used to explain our experience. Until sometime around the middle of the twentieth century.  Now, we in the liberal tradition don’t really have an explanation. And I suspect we don’t have the support for such experience that the tradition used to give us, either.

Nothing illustrates how the tradition comes into play after collective transcendental experience more powerfully than the resurrection experiences recounted in Christian scripture, of which there are ten or so accounts, depending on how many stories you consider accounts of the same appearance by different evangelists.

In all but two of the resurrection stories, the people to whom the risen Christ appears do not recognize him or they have their doubts about what’s going on. Some cases are extremely challenging. How, for instance, could Mary Magdelene, Jesus’s closest disciple, fail to recognize him in the garden until he says her name (John’s gospel)? How could those two fellows on the road to Emmaus walk with Jesus himself for several hours while talking to him about his own crucifixion and the rumors of his appearances, and still only recognize him after they have arrived at their destination and broken bread together?

The answer is in the breaking of bread, that is, in the communal meal inaugurated at the Last Supper. We know that this meal was the central practice of Jesus’ movement. Jesus’s followers would gather at someone’s house, share a meal, hear catechetical teaching, pray and worship together, and distribute food and resources to the poor among them (Acts 2:42).

Here’s my point: Some of Jesus’ followers were having visions of Jesus after his death, but the meaning of those visions had to be worked out collectively over time, and this took place in the context of the “daily bread”, the daily meal.  Put another way, Jesus did not come to these friends and disciples with his name tag on. It wasn’t obvious what they were experiencing. They had to discern together what was happening to them.

The resurrection experiences of the disciples are directly pertinent to my suggestion that we name the spirit of Christ as the center of our gathering. Even at the very roots of our religious tradition, doubt and confusion prevailed, and community discernment was needed to arrive at a conclusion.

Likewise, in our gathered meetings today, it is not immediately apparent what is going on; it is only obvious that something is going on. In the past, our collective discernment has concluded that we were being gathered in the spirit of Christ.

Now, however, the bathwater, the deep and rich tradition in which we have been steeped for three hundred and fifty years, has been thrown out the window. Is it any wonder that we now we look around and find that the baby is gone, also, that we wonder why we so seldom experience the gathered meeting?

Now, doubt, confusion, and most egregiously, disinterest dominate our collective (lack of) discernment about what is happening in the gathered meeting. When it happens, the worship has a center or we wouldn’t be gathered, but we have no way to articulate what that center is. We have no framework, no vocabulary with which to speak to each other, or to our children, or to newcomers about what we have experienced. As a result, we don’t speak about it much. Furthermore, we have no context, no cohesive religious ecosystem for nurturing the experience.

Now, as I’ve said in earlier posts, I myself have no direct experience of Jesus Christ at the center of the gathered meeting. In this I am like a lot of Friends in the liberal tradition. But I am not really talking about Jesus Christ as conventional Christianity understands him, that is, as a spiritual entity who was the Jesus of Christian scripture, who was crucified, dead, and buried and rose again according to the creed. I am speaking of the spirit of Christ—that mysterious experience of awakening, joy, comfort, and renewal that the two men on the road to Emmaus experienced—after they had been taught who had come into their midst.

My name for that spirit in which we are gathered in our collective religious experience as Friends is the spirit of Christ. For me, the relation of that spirit to the man who walked the roads of Galilee is a matter for speculation rather than one of direct revelation. And that’s enough for me, though I love the study, thought, and imagination that such speculation requires.

For me, the spirit of Christ is more than just a placeholder for whatever might be going on in our collective religious experience, though it is that. It is another link, made of faith, in the chain of our tradition, one that I refuse to break simply because I am still on the road to Emmaus and have not yet broken bread with Jesus as the Christ.