Liberal Quakerism, Part 5—Jesus and I, Part 1
April 16, 2013 § Leave a comment
Jesus and I
I said in my last post that I would turn next to the gathered meeting as the experience from which my exploration of Liberal Quaker theology begins in earnest. But I realized that I had at least one more important background entry, about my own relationship with Jesus. Because, while I have not had an experience of Jesus that would make me his disciple, I’m not exactly sure why, since the experiences I have had have been quite profound. There have been three kinds. It looks like I have so much to say about this subject that I’m going to have to dedicate a post to each one separately.
Jesus, the Christ of Christian Scripture
The most important of these experiences is my discovery of the Jesus of the gospels—the Synoptic gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke. The Jesus of John seems to me, if not a fabrication of John’s, at least such a radical reconstruction of what I consider to be the more historical Jesus of the Synoptics that I’m only interested his gospel as brilliant religious literature. There’s more to it than that, actually, because John reflects the Essene tradition even more than Luke and clearly there’s a mysterious but strong strain of Essene thought and practice in the early Jesus movement. So also with the wisdom thread in John; there’s something going on there. But, again, it feels to me like it has more to do with John, whoever he was, than it does with Jesus.
The Jesus of Paul—and especially, the Christ of Paul—is even more removed from the prophet and charismatic with whom I have fallen in love in my study of the gospels. In Paul, the proclaimer has become the proclaimed, and the kingdom Jesus proclaimed has been almost utterly lost, spiritualized and uprooted from its foundations in Torah. It’s the Synoptic proclaimer of the kingdom of God whom I find so compelling.
This started when I was writing a book on Christian earth stewardship and, after reading a score of books and articles, it became clear that that movement was almost wholly based on Hebrew Scripture, that Jesus had basically nothing to say about earthcare. I felt that, if a theology does not come out of the heart of the gospel of Jesus, Christians are very unlikely to embrace it. If Jesus doesn’t talk about it, why should we? So I determined to start my research over and focus on the gospel of Jesus on its own terms, and if there was nothing there that could inform our earthcare, then I would drop the project.
Then I discovered The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder while taking a course on The Prophetic Tradition under the care of the School of the Spirit. In that book I discovered what I call the economics of redemption in the commonwealth of God, and it launched me on a decades-long study of biblical economics. Once you learn to recognize the economic language in Torah and the unique, pervasive, and innovative ways Jesus uses this language and these principles in his teachings, you realize that the gospel is all about economics. I alluded to this in my earlier post on definitions of “Christian”.
This covenantal economic language is everywhere in the Synoptics—in the stories, in the parables, in the sayings, and in Jesus’ actions, even his healings. In terms of earthcare, while Jesus has almost nothing to say about land use, he is all about land tenure—who gets to decide how the land will be used. This has completely reoriented my approach to ecological issues in general. As I said, I talked a little bit about this in my post on definitions of “Christian”.
Furthermore, this fascination with Jesus and the kingdom he proclaimed goes beyond interest in just his teachings—his role as the anointed (messiah/christ) prophet of “good news for the poor”. I am just as interested in him as a charismatic, as one who manifested divine power as a preacher, presence, and healer.
Yoga has a fully developed “theology” of the siddha, the guru whose very presence is enlightening and who can psychically transform her or his followers and, at times, manifest in other ways. I have been in the presence of siddha yogis. I have seen psychic healing. I have done psychic healing. I know that many of the “miracles” Jesus performed are possible, and that makes the tradition’s claims for his divinity something to take seriously.
My quest to understand Jesus’ charismatic power and the roots of the tradition’s claim of his divinity have been just as important to my approach to this project of Liberal Quaker theology as my love of his teachings. And I think it sets me apart from many Liberal Friends. I take the idea of Jesus’ divinity seriously. Still, it has not made me Christ’s disciple.
Well, there’s lots more to say. I have written a lot about the economics of redemption, much of which is available in my first blog, BibleMonster. That blog has been dormant for a while, since it’s hard enough to keep up with one blog and this one now has my attention. I’ve studied, thought, and written a lot about Jesus the charismatic, as well, but have not published most of it anywhere.
This work, this intense study of the new covenant Jesus inaugurated and the charismatic dimension of the kingdom he proclaimed, has evolved into a deep love of the Jesus whom I have thus come to know. Christian tradition has never honored the discipline of study and the path of the mind to the love of God the way that Judaism has. We have the Jesuits, but especially in the Protestant tradition, while Bible study has long been an aid to personal devotion, it rarely has been a path unto itself, the way it is in Judaism.
I feel especially akin to the Merkabah mystics, Jewish mystics of the early Middle Ages whose path was the study of Ezekiel chapter one, the prophet’s vision of Yahweh’s throne chariot. Paul is sometimes credited with being the first recorded proto-Merkabah mystic. I think he learned this from his teacher Ananias, but that is a series of posts for BibleMonster. Anyway, I think I understand those rabbis.
But Quakerism (at least Liberal Quakerism) is even worse in regard to the path of the mind. Many Friends, in my experience, are hostile and/or contemptuous of “theology”, of the intellect, and of intellectuals. They are clear in their own minds that the community, the “spiritual”, and the “emotional” paths are superior to the path of the mind, at best; often, they deny the mind as a legitimate path at all. “Words are limiting and inadequate . . . “ goes the usual anti-intellectual mantra.
Yes, they are. So is everything else. What I am saying here in this little diversion/diatribe is that there are many kinds of religious temperaments, each has its legitimate place in the life of the spirit, and each person tends to experience one or more of these temperaments as dominant in their own spiritual journey. By temperament, I am a student and a mystic.
(It could be worse. If I were a “somatic”, someone for whom the way of the body is the path to God, Quakerism would be a coffin to the spirit; I would have to become a ballet dancer, or a yogi. It’s almost as bad for musicians. Now we have our John Bloods and our Jon Watts, thank God, but it took a while. Meanwhile, we have had centuries of Bach, Handel, Shaw . . . )
As a student, I have come to know the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels quite intimately. It feels like a kind of love affair. The more I learn, the more complete my understanding of Jesus becomes, the more I admire him. I have come to love him. I am in awe of the reach of his mind, the depth of his spirit, the mystical and personal power he manifested, the depth of his compassion for those who suffered, his gift as a poet and as a story-teller, whose stories had the power of zen koans. I am in awe of the heroic courage his anointing gave him, and the devotion he gave so utterly to his Father—and to his followers. I have fallen in love.
And yet I have not felt led to join his followers as his disciple. I don’t know why. But there it is.
In the next post I want to describe my experience of Jesus, the Presence in the Midst—my own “mystical” experience of the Christ in meeting for worship.