May 10, 2013 § 1 Comment
Toward a theology for Liberal Friends, Part 8
In my last post, I argued that the consciousness we enter when we’re in a gathered meeting corresponds in some ways to the consciousness of the Christ as we see it defined in Christian Scripture: the consciousness of being anointed in the Spirit, as Jesus claimed to have been in Luke 4, and especially as we see manifested in the disciples at the Pentecost and repeated at Firbank Fell and in Quaker meetings ever since.
This was the testimony of early Friends, that they were being gathered as a people by Christ himself and that he was gathering their meetings for worship, as well.
For who else would it be? or what else would be going on? We have the testimony of scripture and the testimony of generations of Friends to confirm it and it is a reasonable assumption to make if you believe in the Christ and his promise to be with us “whenever two or three are gathered”. But what if you don’t believe in the Christ as a spiritual Power capable of being present with us today? Other answers are possible.
In my conversations with a couple of nontheists about what gathers us, they answered, “We gather ourselves.” Personally, I don’t see how “we ourselves”, the individual worshippers, as the agents of our own “gathering”, can alone account for the transcendental, psychic character of the gathered meeting. If it is just we ourselves who perform the miracle of gathering, then there must be something transcendental within each of us to accomplish it, something in human consciousness capable of psychic interaction with others. And there must be some medium in which this interaction takes place. What do you call these things?
Many Liberal Friends are ready with an answer to the first question: it is “that of God” within each of us that unites us in the gathered meeting. They say that “that of God” in me is capable of communicating transcendentally with “that of God” in you. One Friend I’ve talked to about this referred to a passage in Barclay’s Apology in this regard:
[God] causeth the inward life (which is also many times not conveyed by the outward senses) the more to abound when his children assemble themselves diligently together to wait upon him; that as “iron sharpeneth iron,” so the seeing of the face one of another, when both are inwardly gathered unto the Life, giveth occasion for the Life secretly to rise and pass from vessel to vessel; and as many candles lighted and put in one place do greatly augment the light, and makes it more to shine forth; so when many are gathered together into the same Life, there is more of the glory of God, and his power appears to the refreshment of each individual for that he partakes not only of the Light and Life raised in himself but in all the rest; and therefore Christ hath particularly promised a blessing to such as assemble together in his Name, seeing he will be “in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20).
This Friend posited “that of God” within each of us as analogous to the candles and “the Life” in Barclay’s metaphor. She or he (I don’t remember who it was anymore) equated “that of God” with Barclay’s “glory of God” and “Light and Life”.
I am inclined to agree that these may just be different names for the same thing. The rich and varied vocabulary used by early Friends for God and Christ makes some room for the use and meaning of “that of God” among Liberal Friends today. If “continuing revelation” could lead Fox and early Friends to coin nearly a hundred new and distinctive terms for the Spirit and its work within us and among us, including “Light and Life”, why could it not lead Rufus Jones and modern Liberal Friends to do the same with “that of God”?
This doesn’t get us very far, however. The phrase “that of God” just begs the question of what we mean by “God”, and what we mean by “that of”. So we are forced to backtrack toward Barclay and talk about God anyway, something that most Friends who use this phrase do not do. In fact, ignoring ironically the presence of God in their phrase, many Friends use the phrase “that of God” to avoid talking about God; they use it virtually in place of God.
Since the belief that “there is that of God in everyone” is the essential tenet of Liberal Quaker faith (if not virtually the only tenet), I will return to it in some depth in later posts. Indeed, because it is so ubiquitous and significant among Liberal Friends, I could very well have started this whole project with a discussion of this phrase. But I wanted to start closer to the historical core of our tradition.
As for the medium for the psychic dimension of the gathered meeting, this, I believe, is the real question. I know of no Liberal Quaker explanation for the psychic or metaphysical mechanism for the phenomenon of the gathered meeting. To be honest, though, Christian Quakerism isn’t any better. George Fox was hardly interested in metaphysics at all, Barclay is satisfied with “the glory of God” and “the Light and Life”, and Friends have followed their lead ever since. It has been enough to say we are “gathered in Christ” without bothering to unpack what that means or how Christ does it.
Metaphysics is by definition speculation; it therefore is not essential to a vital Quaker faith and practice. But it is fun (at least for me) and not irrelevant. In fact, I feel that, to be faithful to the testimony of integrity, we owe it to ourselves to be more robust in our thinking than we have been so far about something that is so important to us. So I want to delve more deeply into the psychic or metaphysical mechanisms of the gathered meeting in a later post.
Right now I want to continue exploring this thread of the Christ’s role in the gathered meeting. To sum up my point in this post, it seems to me that the alternatives I’ve heard to our being “gathered in Christ”—that we do it ourselves and that we are gathered in “that of God” within each of us—do not explain its extraordinary psychic, transcendental character. These alternatives raise more questions than they answer. But I feel equally strongly that saying we are “gathered in Christ” hardly does any better.
What does “gathered in Christ” mean and how does he gather us? That’s my topic for my next post.