Gathered by—what?

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.

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§ One Response to Gathered by—what?

  • Emily says:

    These very interesting posts have caused me to collect various things Friends have written over the years on God, on Meetings, and on the Light. Talking over differing ideas among Friends helps to stimulate ideas, and many Friends in the meeting I attend seem very desirous of deepening their own worship.

    My favorite expressions for God are those of Rufus Jones: “the Beyond-that-is-Within” and “the Oversoul.”

    Francis Frith in The Quaker Ideal described meetings as “an opportunity for people to meet together, to wait upon and get help from God.” Certainly, many come to meeting to seek God, whether in Christ, in “the Beyond that is Within,” to use Rufus Jones’ favorite, or in the “Being with all the care of a father, and the tenderness of a mother,” to use Inazo Nitobe’s expression. True, some are simply seeking companionship, quiet refreshment, or political fulfillment.
    I feel we can encompass all, however, without being “gathered by Christ,” as not all of us share a “consciousness of Christ.” Inazo Nitobe wrote that the “advantage of Christianity” (and the reason for his own conversion to Quakerism) was that it “provides weak, ordinary human mortals with a definite and concrete object upon which the focus their minds, thus facilitating their discovery of the Perfect Man. Acquaintance with Him makes us one with Him–at-one-ment.” I can understand that, but I simply don’t share this need for “Christ” as the anointed one.
    Friend Steven asks, “who else would it be” besides Christ? Who else?–there have been so many great prophets and spiritual leaders to look to! John Bartram in the 18th century looked to Confucius for having “restored human nature to its original dignity…[for telling us] to love our neighbors as ourselves.” (Philadelphia Meeting was so put off by this it disowned him in 1758.) Contemporary Australian Quaker John Cartwright opens his 2009 essay Courageous Spirit with an 1880 painting by French artist Paul Ransons, of Christ and Buddha together. What about all the Hebrew prophets?
    “I know of no experience,” Quaker Horace Alexander wrote, “so rich as the communion that comes of common worship with men of many faiths.” Corder Catchpool wrote, “true fellowship” should be found among all “seeking souls,” not those just within “an inner ring whose views more exactly coincide with mine.” Arthur Morgan wrote that Quakers should “desire fellowship with many different faiths…whose ethical standards are compatible with our own.”
    The Friends World Committee for Consultation now defines Quakers as a “Christian body.” Friends General Conference describes the Quaker faith as having “deep Christian roots. Many Quakers consider themselves Christians, and some do not.” Need we go further than that?
    These very interesting posts have caused me to collect various things Friends have written over the years on God, on Meetings, and on the Light. Talking over differing ideas helps to stimulate ideas frequently, and many Friends in the meeting I attend seem very desirous of deepening their own worship.
    My favorite expressions for God are those of Rufus Jones: “the Beyond-that-is-Within” and “the Oversoul.”
    Francis Frith in The Quaker Ideal described meetings as “an opportunity for people to meet together, to wait upon and get help from God.” Certainly, many come to meeting to seek God, whether in Christ, in “the Beyond that is Within,” or in the “Being with all the care of a father, and the tenderness of a mother,” to use Inazo Nitobe’s expression. True, some are simply seeking companionship, quiet refreshment, or political fulfillment.
    I feel we can encompass all without being “gathered by Christ,” as not all of us share a “consciousness of Christ.” Inazo Nitobe wrote that the “advantage of Christianity” (and the reason for his own conversion to Quakerism) was that it “provides weak, ordinary human mortals with a definite and concrete object upon which the focus their minds, thus facilitating their discovery of the Perfect Man. Acquaintance with Him makes us one with Him–at-one-ment.” I can understand that, but I don’t share the need for Christ, as I don’t believe God would have anointed only one human throughout history to spread his truth.
    Friend Steven asks, “who else would it be” besides Christ?” Who else? There have been so many great prophets and spiritual leaders to look to! John Bartram in the 18th century looked to Confucius for having “restored human nature to its original dignity…[for telling us] to love our neighbors as ourselves.” (Philadelphia Meeting was so put off by this it disowned him in 1758.) Contemporary Australian Quaker John Cartwright opens his 2009 essay Courageous Spirit with an 1880 painting by French artist Paul Ransons, of Christ and Buddha together. What about all the Hebrew prophets?
    “I know of no experience,” Quaker Horace Alexander wrote, “so rich as the communion that comes of common worship with men of many faiths.” Corder Catchpool wrote, “true fellowship” should be found among all “seeking souls,” not those just within “an inner ring whose views more exactly coincide with mine.” Arthur Morgan wrote that Quakers should “desire fellowship with many different faiths…whose ethical standards are compatible with our own.”
    The Friends World Committee for Consultation now defines Quakers as a “Christian body.” Friends General Conference describes the Quaker faith as having “deep Christian roots. Many Quakers consider themselves Christians, and some do not.”

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