Liberal Quakerism, Part 2—Some Definitions
April 4, 2013 § 2 Comments
I want to begin this exploration of a Liberal Quaker theology with some definitions. As I said in my introduction to this series, I want to start with experience rather than with the legacy ideas of our tradition. I start with experience partly because Liberal Quakers tend to value experience more than ideas, sharing more than theological discourse, feeling more than thinking. The Quaker tradition itself values “what canst thou say” more than what early Friends called “notions” and “shadows”, and it rejects “forms without power”. But most important, I am looking to identify the common experience that keeps us a “people gathered” and to find a way to talk about that experience.
Ultimately, we will have to define “God”, but let’s work up to that by starting with personal spiritual experience.
Spiritual experience. I define “spiritual experience” as experience that is transcendental and yet real. It transcends usual experience, and it transforms you in positive ways. It transcends one’s understanding, one’s ability to describe or explain it. It often transcends one’s senses and one can only make full sense of it intuitively, emotionally, not rationally. It is not completely inarticulate or indescribable or mysterious, but language and normal consciousness only take you so far. In the end, something about spiritual experience remains mysterious; it goes deeper than one’s usual consciousness.
Just as important, spiritual experience is nevertheless real. You know it is real because you are not the same afterwords. You are somehow healed or more whole, more wholly yourself, awake to things you were not aware of before, stronger, deeper, better, less inclined to sin, more alive to opening. Sometimes, only you feel the difference. But often, others can see the difference, also.
Along these lines, spiritual practice is whatever you do to prepare for spiritual experience, to nurture it, and to follow through on it in faithfulness.
Religion. I define “religion” as the spiritual practice of a community—whatever the community does to prepare itself for real transcendent experience, to nurture it, and to follow through on it. For communities can have collective spiritual experience just as individuals do, spiritual experience that the members of the community share, experience that transcends the usual experience and the full understanding of the community, but that is nevertheless real and transformative, after which the community and its members are no longer the same.
The classic example of collective spiritual experience for Friends is the gathered meeting for worship. Historical examples include the Exodus for the emerging Israelites, Pentecost for the emerging Christian movement, and the convincement of the Seekers by George Fox at Firbank Fell for the emerging Quaker movement.
As a religious tradition develops around this kind of transformative initiation of the Spirit, the community eventually agrees upon practices that seem to build upon the experience and reconnect the community with the Spirit that initiated it. This communal spiritual practice I define as religion. True religion is collective practice that still connects the community and its members with its initiating Spirit. Most religion, however, has lost that connection and practices forms without real transcendental power.
Religious experience. Religious experience in this manner of thinking, is spiritual experience that takes place in the context of a religious tradition. Religious experience could arise from the practice of one’s religion; one thinks of John Woolman’s openings, or the mysticism of Thomas Kelly. Or one might come to understand one’s own spiritual experience, even if it has not resulted from your practice of your given or chosen religion, in the terms that your chosen religious tradition has given you.
Arguably, this is what happened to Paul when he was converted on the road to Damascus: he had been practicing a Hellenized version of first-century Judaism; then he has a visitation from the risen Christ and wham! Now a Christian named Ananias has to help him understand what happened to him. A spiritual experience that took place outside of his own religious tradition transformed his life; to integrate that experience and make sense of it, Paul needed someone versed in the new tradition to teach him what it meant and to help him integrate it with his life and his psyche.
This process of integrating previous or foreign spiritual experience with one’s adopted religion is really important for my project of exploring a Liberal Quaker theology. Many of us come to Friends with experiences—often formative ones—that we had before we became Friends. Some of us are still practicing some non-Quaker spiritual discipline while we also attend meeting for worship and share in the Quaker way.
My own formative spiritual experiences came mainly from my intensive use of psychedelic drugs, from my deep immersion in yoga as spiritual practice, from my partial immersion in Native American spiritways, and most importantly, from one truly overwhelming and transformative experience in a sweat lodge. That experience showed me who I am and what I am doing in this world. But it didn’t give me two essential elements for continuing toward fulfillment: a community and a tradition within which to understand, explore, and develop the original opening. Quakerism gave me both.
In my next entry, I want to begin looking at the legacy tradition of Quakerism and start answering some questions related to this aspect of integrating non-Quaker experience in our Quaker faith and practice. Because there’s one big problem with my situation and that of very many post-Christian liberal Friends:
Quakerism is a Christian religion and my experiences are not Christian. So how do I fit in?
This, I believe, is the essential Liberal Quaker dilemma. Many Liberal Friends balk a bit at calling their brand of Quakerism Christian. In my next post, I want to explain why I think Quakerism—even Liberal Quakerism—is Christian and why I think this matters.