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.



§ 2 Responses to Liberal Quakerism, Part 2—Some Definitions

  • Thank you for your series and for paragraph 11 in this post. I cannot sit aside the experiences that I had before attending Quaker Meeting, yet how do I integrate them and how does the Meeting understand them?

  • Steven, as has happened before, you and I are working on the same topic; had I not been delayed, I may even have published a blog post on a contemporary Quaker theology on the same day your series began. As you might expect, however, my perspective differs from yours. Those differences will be obvious when my post appears, which should be within a couple of days, but in the meantime I offer some critical comments on your definitions.

    I begin with the notion of “experience.” Setting aside for now the issue of the naive use of sayings like “What canst thou say?” in a foreign context, I note that the meaning of “experience” itself is not addressed in your post. It seems to me that an undefined concept cannot provide a stable foundation for a theology. I also suggest that any bias of some liberal Friends for subjective emotional “experience” over thought (which, by the way, is a form of experience) is itself based on ideas/notions, if unexamined ones. That is, the bias against thinking is a notion that conveniently exempts itself from critical examination by dogmatically devaluing critical thinking. It is, in other words, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It is also the sort of thing that we love to hate in, say, creationism.

    Similar criticisms apply to concepts such as “spiritual experience.” Given that “experience” is not defined, adding further undefined words such as “spiritual,” “transcendental,” and “religious” only makes things vaguer and more muddled. So while descriptive phrases — which might be applied to all sorts of things, from petting a dog to smoking weed or even to thinking deeply — are given to illustrate the composite idea of “spiritual experience,” the phrase remains essentially contentless. I’m reminded of Winston L. King’s dictum that “religious experience is religious precisely because it occurs in a religious context” — round and round we go. The King statement, by the way, is quoted in Religious Experience Reconsidered, by Ann Taves, which I highly recommend as an introduction to contemporary critical thinking about the topic.

    I suggest that the notional “experience” model serves to canonize fuzzy and narcissistic thinking and that it leads to arbitrary, irrational, and essentially dishonest schemas, belief systems which close off the powerful possibilities offered to us by our founders. For example, you define spiritual practice as “whatever you do to prepare for spiritual experience,” making the two distinct and making spiritual experience a kind of (consumerist?) goal. Our tradition, however, offers a way of being in the world that is centered not on self, on my personal experiences and what I need do to get (more of) them, but on loving relationship — a by-product of which is self-transcendence as one’s normal condition.

    As I have before in our conversations, I suggest that it’s time — and we see this vividly when we read current critical thinking about religion and the idea of religious experience — for us to let go of the twentieth-century notions that created the experientialist system in modern liberal Quakerism. That doctrinal current, traceable to people like Otto, Eliade, James, Jones, and Smart, is collapsing under the better informed and more inclusive contemporary gaze: it has a poor future if any. But the Quaker possibility need not fall with it. Liberal Friends may have buried the treasure of Quakerism, but it’s still there and recoverable when we give up our notions and open our minds to its message. I hope that your series will help us in that recovery.

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