Liberal Quakerism, Part 5—Jesus and I, Part 4

April 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

What Jesus means to me

Taken together my experiences of Jesus have helped to transform my relationship with my chosen path, Quakerism. I said in the post in which I asked whether Quakerism is Christian that I take at face value the testimony of Friends from all periods in our history that Jesus the Christ is the Gatherer of this extraordinary people. My own experiences have made that faith personal.

My experiences have fused the content of my study of the gospels with the content of our Quaker tradition (the Presence in the Midst) and with my own inner life. The Jesus I have experienced inwardly conforms (more or less) to much of the testimony of Friends and with my conclusions from my study of the Bible. My experiences have fused in me the intellectual and the mystical, belying the artificial and false dichotomy between the two and bringing a wonderful sense of integrity to my religious life. By “integrity” I mean wholeness, oneness, rather than honesty.

As for honesty, I must admit that I could hardly expect anything else from my unconscious mind. Here I’m going to play the role of the devil’s advocate, of the cynic and skeptic, who could easily contend that my personal past, my chosen religious tradition, and my own studies could be conspiring behind the curtain to produce experiences of Jesus that would be emotionally fulfilling and comforting and even falsely exalting—especially since, on the surface, they are actually kind of cheesy. Certainly, they are stereotypical.

I agree. The content of my mystical experiences and the emotions they carry probably are projections of my imagination, my past, and my unconscious mind, at least in part. I said in the post on Definitions that we give shape and form and even meaning to our spiritual experiences from whatever person or tradition helps us put them in context. For me, that’s Quakerism. Religious experiences, I said in that post, are spiritual experiences that arise in the practice of or that receive meaning from a religious tradition. So it’s no wonder that my experiences have the form of Quakerism. For, while I am temperamentally something of a radical, a risk-taker, even sometimes a trouble maker, nevertheless I have a passion for tradition, especially the Quaker tradition.

But true spiritual/religious experiences are not just emotionally satisfying (in fact, they often are just the opposite); besides being “transcendental”, they are real. They bring real positive change. My experiences are deeper than just the shallow forms they have in my imagination. They have left me changed. One of the changes they have wrought is that I now take very seriously the experiences that other Friends of all generations have had of Christ. I now share some of their faith, because each of my three kinds of experience of Jesus supports an openness that the skeptic in me must entertain.

First, while some of the accounts in the gospels of Jesus’ charismatic power may be so loaded with symbolism as to be suspect as history, I know from personal experience that charismatic power is real and I believe there is a real foundation for the belief in the early church that Jesus was “divine”. What that means (what I think it means, anyway) is for a later post.

Second, the visitations of the Presence in the Midst prove that something extraordinary and transcendental can happen in meeting for worship. It does not prove that Christ is behind those experiences. But something is. What would you call it?

Third, I have received transforming pastoral ministry, not just from Friends who have been open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance, but by the Spirit itself, dressed in the image of Christ.

Nevertheless, notwithstanding this catalog of profound experiences of Jesus, I have not been “convinced”. I pray for Jesus’ presence in meeting for worship, I pray for his guidance when I write. I believe he abides among us and even within us as we sit in waiting silence, as the Power that has made us a people of God in the first place. And yet I do not count myself his disciple.

Why not? I can think of a number of reasons.

The first is that Jesus himself just may not care. He may have from me what he wants, more or less, and does not feel incensed that I do not give him more. He may feel that it is the turning toward the Light that matters, not the name we pin on it. My reading of the gospels leads me to believe that he did not claim to be God, that he would have found such an idea blasphemous, but that he did feel so attuned to his Father, so clear about his sending, so turned toward the Light himself, as it were, and perhaps something more, something deeper, more transforming and more mysterious—that he could say that he and the Father were one. In much the same way, George Fox claimed that he and Jesus Christ were one.

I will return eventually to this “something more” that made Jesus something more than just a Spirit-inspired human prophet, as many Liberal Friends believe him to have been. I have a theory about what it was that transfigured the historical Jesus into something that Paul’s post-pagan followers could easily understand as divine, and that Jesus’ own Jewish followers also recognized, in the terms of their own tradition, as more than merely mortal. But my ideas will be purely speculation, “notions” and “shadows”, as Fox would have said, since I have no direct experience of it and my ideas rest on rather thin evidence and some creative conjecture. My ideas are fun to entertain, at least for me, but not very important.

A second more likely reason I still am not a self-confessed Christian, which I suspect many of my readers are voicing in their heads, is that I am in denial. Something in me is resisting the truth behind my experience.

No doubt this is true. There’s lots of good reasons for such resistance. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” says Proverbs, and I know why: Let God in and your life will be destroyed. You will have to give stuff up, things you really care about and want to hold onto. You will be laid low and it will hurt.

Furthermore, I have personal reasons to resist, besides the desperate generic battle waged by any selfish unconscious mind to protect the spiritual status quo. For one thing, I would resist Jesus as my “Savior” from sin because I reject the sin-salvation paradigm of traditional Christianity with all of my heart and soul and strength, to turn a phrase on its head. This rejection is intellectual, moral, and visceral. One of these days, I’ll explain why. As I said in an earlier post, I still am looking for a way to express myself about this that is truthful and respectful.

I can think of other reasons for my resistance, too. My relationship with my evangelical father is one of them. But this kind of psychological speculation is just more “notions” and “shadows”. I don’t actually feel any urgency about it. Here I am. Trying to make sense of it all. Trying to be true to my leading to integrate my experience with that of my community and my tradition. Hoping to make connections in my written ministry that might serve other Friends, especially those who, like me, aren’t Christian but are Quaker.

So far, I have never experienced Jesus the Christ as a threat, but only as a friend, as a healer, a unifier, an inspirer. I do not fear him. I love him, in my way, and I am grateful for his gifts. That’s the personal side of the relationship.

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