What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Spirituality vs Religion

December 13, 2013 § 9 Comments

Religion as Corporate Spirituality

My one-line answer to the question, What is Quakerism for? is: bringing people to G*d and bringing G*d into the world. “Bringing people to G*d” has two parts: personal spirituality and communal spirituality.

The last post’s discussion of worship provides a segue from personal spirituality to communal spirituality—that is, to religion.

Several years ago I was a Friendly Adult Presence in a youth conference sponsored by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and in one of the exercises, the young people were asked to sort themselves out by whether they had a spiritual life or not and whether they practiced a religion. The vast majority said yes to spirituality and no to religion. This made me feel bad.

I suspect that quite a few adult Friends have similar feelings. They are much more comfortable talking about spirituality and not so comfortable talking about their “religion”. For many Friends, I suspect, “religion” conjures traditional belief in a “God”, a supreme being, maybe even the trinity of Christianity, whom the community worships, and aspects of this traditional definition of religion just don’t work for them. Many, like me, I suspect, have no direct experience of such a God. Many may have had negative experiences of traditional worship of such a God. And thus many may be uncomfortable with “worship” when defined as adoration, praise, and supplication of such a God.

And then there’s Jesus and the intensely Christ-centered legacy of our own Quaker tradition. For many Friends, “religion” is relationship with him, placing him at the center of our individual lives and at the center of our life as a community. And again, for many Friends, this just is not their experience.

I’ve written about my own struggles with this question quite a lot—how confounding I usually find it to belong to what I believe is a Christian religious community and not be a Christian myself. As is happening right this second, every time I get to a certain depth in exploring Quakerism, in this blog and in my other writing, I find myself trying to identify who Jesus Christ is for me, and what Quakerism means without experience of him. And I mean experience of him, not belief in him; I have the belief, but not the experience. It is one of the central questions of my religious life. I believe it is perhaps the central question for modern Liberal Quakerism in general. I’m still working on it.

In the meantime, I keep beavering away at other questions while skirting this elephant in the room. Why? Because I feel led to, is the basic answer. But also in the hope that circling this central question will eventually lead to some answers. And finally, because I know I am not alone. I feel that I am exploring the issues I write about alongside many other nonChristian Friends, and I hope to be useful to others in their search.

So I do have a nonChristian definition of “religion” and “worship”. And I have a concern to bridge the gap between “spirituality” and “religion”, which I see as a misperception. I do not want a religion that is little more than a society for practicing individual spiritualities together. I have done that and it is not enough for me. The reason it’s not enough is that I have had collective spiritual experience, experience shared with others of something deep and profound. I have had religious experience. So my definition of religion starts with a definition of spirituality.

By “spirituality” I mean the faith and the practices through which we as individuals seek to open ourselves to the Light within us—to the presence, motion, guidance, teaching, healing, strengthening, inspiration, and redemption of the ChristSpirit acting in us—and the ways in which we try to follow its guidance in our lives.

“Religion” I define as the faith and the practices through which the community seeks to commune with the Mystery Reality that lies behind and beyond the Light within each of us as individuals, that lies between us or among us as a community, and that becomes real for us in the mystery of the gathered meeting for worship.

For the Light, the kingdom of heaven, is not only within us; it is also among us, as Jesus put it. It is the presence in the midst. It is the motion of love between us. It is the guidance, teaching, healing, strengthening, inspiration, and reconciliation of the Spirit acting through us as individuals and among us at the center of our worship and our fellowship. The presence within us and the presence in our midst—these are the same. This is our faith, born of our experience in the gathered meeting for worship.

Thus I define “religion” as the spiritual life, the faith and spiritual practices, of a community, the things a religious community does to renew its communion with the Divine.

This begs the question (again) of just what we mean by “the Divine”, which is one of Liberal Quakerism’s placeholders for whatever it is we are experiencing, when we don’t think it’s the traditional triune Christian God. I have dealt with this problem by using “G*d”, letting the asterisk stand in for whatever your experience is. Speaking this way, however—speaking around a more explicit naming of God—just throws us back into individualism, casting ourselves again as a society of individuals practicing our own spiritualities, rather than defining ourselves as an integral community with a clear focus for our worship.

The only thing that belies this individualist reality, the only hope in all this mess, it seems to me, is to be found in the gathered meeting. As I have written earlier, the gathered meeting seems not to care about name tags. I have felt a meeting become gathered in spite of its theological confusion and diversity. I once felt a meeting gathered because of its diversity, reaching exquisitely joyous unity as the result of deep wrestling with the plurality of our experience.

Anyway, I hope that thinking of religion as the shared spiritual practice of a community encourages some Friends to warm up to the idea of Quakerism as a religion. And I, at least, find great encouragement in the fact that this practice now and again delivers genuine fulfillment—both spiritual fulfillment; that is, individual fulfillment, joy, healing, and inspiration; and religious fulfillment, a corporate experience of the presence in our midst, of love and the healing of conflict, of inspiration and prompting to corporate witness, and of unity and joy in the knowing of each other in that place where words come from.

If only it happened more often.

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§ 9 Responses to What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Spirituality vs Religion

  • What I don’t understand is the difference between the “God of Christianity” and the G*d that you consider yours.
    Is this God a state of mind, a feeling? Is it physics and the evolutionary process?

    You say that G*d is not a supreme being. Is it relational? Does it have personality, consciousness, will? Does it want anything? Does it ask anything of us? Does it feel? Does it want to relate to humans?

    And what does worship mean to you? Is worshiping G*d objectionable?
    Because I would think that any form of praise, admiration, honoring or joyful acknowledgement of someone or something would be considered worship.

    • this comment of yours, daniel, seemed to take down one of the four walls of the room we were talking in and open us up to an infinite vista. i’m very grateful. (i’m mostly doing without capital letters while my broken right arm heals.) it’s all very well to say that the Divine is indescribable, without qualities, both a Person and Not a person, etc., all that apophatic stuff, but in order to have a relationship with God we have to make certain decisions as to who God is: is God supremely good, or morally indifferent, merely an observer? is God omnipresent, almighty? can God save us from sin, addiction, suffering, ignorance, death, & samsara generally, and secondly, does God want to? (thirdly, do we want that?) does God advise us to “pray without ceasing” because God has a huge ego that needs gratifying, or because it’s for our own salvation? are love and forgiveness of God? does God know our every thought? and then – who knows God best: avatars (Rama, Krishna, Jesus, etc.), prophets (Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, etc), or philosophers and theologians? to whom might we turn for help? did Jesus mean it when He said “He who has seen me has seen the Father” and “Behold, I am with you always?”

      To me it seems that the central question in all this is, do we feel the need of salvation?

    • I agree with John that these are the basic questions: what do we mean by “God”, does worship require a discreet sentient being with whom we could have a relationship, and is it necessary to share an understanding of God to “worship in spirit and truth”, as the gospel of John puts it?

      I’ve been thinking about these questions for a long time, only gradually getting closer to clarity about them. The basic problem for me is that my own answers to these questions and the answers I would like to give for the Society as a whole are not the same.

      This is why I started the previous series trying to develop a theology for Liberal Friends.[https://throughtheflamingsword.wordpress.com/category/liberal-quakerism-an-exploration/] That series turned into an extensive treatment of the gathered meeting because I feel that the gathered meeting offers some answers: we do have the experience of being gathered in the spirit, even though we are not in unity about the object of our “worship”. So something is happening that tests the boundaries of traditional Christian theology.

      But even then, I found myself having to answer the question of whether “God” or more pointedly, Christ, is the “gatherer” when we are gathered. And is my “G*d” a being or not? I use “G*d” so that the asterisk can stand in for whatever my readers’ experience of God is, and because, while I do have experience of spiritual beings with whom one could have a relationship (and I do), I have no experience of “God” as the traditional supreme being. But, this leaves a lot of these questions unanswered.

      In fact, I doubt that we can know a supreme-being god at all, by virtue of its utter supremeness and our utter finiteness. So talk about a supreme being God is by definition an exercise in speculation, or a faithful acceptance of the tradition we have inherited. This is not enough for me.

      But herein lies the genius of the Christian tradition, that we have Christ to relate to, a being whom we already “know” in some ways, if we are willing to take Christian Scripture seriously, because there he is—even though the Jesuses we meet in the various books of Christian Scripture vary a great deal. So, as all Christian communities have had to do throughout history, we are back to trying to define the God we worship and come to unity about it. That has not often gone well and the answers are legion.

      So I will return to these questions. They are really important. I interrupted my first attempt to do this by moving into discussion of the gathered meeting. Well, in truth, I was led into that series of posts. But I didn’t finish. And I don’t want to interrupt this series to go back. So I am going to stay with my exploration of What is the Religious Society of Friends for? But at the end, I will have to return to these questions, because they are the basic ones:

      Who/what is God? Do we need to agree about God? Is theism necessary for faithful Quakerism? And the very core question, which gathers them all together: is Jesus Christ necessary for a faithful Quakerism?

      I know that the fact that I even raise the question deeply troubles many Friends. It ought to be obvious, they feel. Well, it isn’t obvious anymore, and that just is our condition in the Liberal branch of Friends. And it’s my condition, as well. Nevertheless, I feel that I personally have to answer these questions and not just ignore them, as many Liberal Friends do.

      And I feel we have to answer them collectively, as well. It’s not enough to continue as a religious society that simply allows individuals to make their own minds up about this stuff and not address them as a community. It’s not faithful to the testimony of integrity. It avoids a valuable opportunity to engage with the deepest issues our community faces. And it’s such bad religious practice as to challenge whether we are a religion at all if we can’t at least try to define our God.

  • Agni Ashwin says:

    I know Quakers sit in silence communally. Do they sit in silence individually, as a common practice, too?

    • Agni, that really depends on the Friend. I don’t think we can give a global answer for (all) Quakers. But I think it’s safe to say that many Friends do model their personal spiritual practice on meeting for worship to some degree and do sit in silence as a personal practice.

      I do myself, though I also use some of the deepening practices I’ve learned along the way, mostly from the study of yoga.

  • Bill Rushby says:

    If this has not already been posted on QuakerQuaker, I think it should be!

  • Steve, thank you for this, and for trying to challenge our knee-jerk reflex discomfort about the word “religion.”

    This morning I read the following words in the _Philokalia_, attributed to Makarios of Egypt (c.300 – c. 390): “But in reality Christianity is like food and drink: the more a man tastes it, the more he longs for it, until his intellect becomes insatiable and uncontrollable.” I’m coming to feel that way myself. And to think that it all happened to me through membership in Fifteenth Street Monthly Meeting! Who would have thought!? L.O.L.!

    Well, perhaps I should say “through membership in Fifteenth Street Monthly Meeting and by the grace of God.” I got a whole lot of my Christian religion by shying away from the chit-chat of social hour and going to the library, where I sought out the company of Friends like George Fox, John Woolman and Thomas Kelly. It’s been reinforced along the way by certain living Friends, who’ve affirmed my gifts of the Holy Spirit and encouraged me to daily and constant spiritual practice, by guiding words from the Still, Small Voice, and by the kindling of fire in my heart by the living Christ, whom I hail as my Savior, though I won’t go into what I mean by that now.

    How I wish I could persuade others around me — Quakers and non-Quakers — to own Christ, to die to the old man of selfishness and be reborn a new creature, and to realize that this *is* the Christian religion, where all things work together for good to those that love God, in spite of the sorrow and suffering and evil and mortality that plague this life! More addictive than dope, better even than sex, more empowering than money… what shall I compare the Christian religion to, as I’ve experienced it? It’s love for all creation and all creatures, and yet more than that; it’s waking up from a dream of being an ugly, dirty, defiling, treacherous predator to find oneself washed clean and made innocent, nay, luminous, so as to help light the way to glory for others. Makarios of Egypt, or whoever made that statement, knew what he was talking about, and probably knew it better than I do.

  • treegestalt says:

    There is really only one workable exit from imagining yourself trapped inside some “individualist reality” — because going to a collectively-imagined “reality” makes no significant difference.

    We’re only able to collect in any sort of “reality” in the first place because something is real in its own right; we can connect through it precisely because there really is a ‘there’ there.

    Whether this looks to you like a traditional Triune Christian God is beside the point; that is merely a concept certain other people in the past have been able to form of that big What’s There (or ‘big Who’s There’ — since it lets Itself be experienced in various modes by various people.)

    You don’t want to commune with ‘a concept’; “God is not a concept of God.” You recognize something as real because it has the potential to give rise to experiences; a computer is not “an experience” or “something people experience together”; that’s simply how people know of it.

    The “religion/spiritualy” dichotomy is shorthand for “I want something I can actually find, myself, rather than mentally swalllowing what someone else has heard/read from somebody else.”

    On that basis, “spirituality” is a perfectly valid stance; it just needs to develop into a deeper realisation — “Oh! That’s what everyone else is experiencing, describing in various ways, too!” At that point people can compare notes and generate your desireable sense of ‘religion.’

  • Jnana Hodson says:

    Steven, you pack a lot into this small posting, and I’m glad to hear your thoughts. (It’s tempting for the blogging universe to fall back on Plain Speech … Steven, thee packs a lot into this small posing, and I’m glad to hear thy thoughts.)
    Some of our struggles as Quakers these days springs from the prohibitions that kept early Friends from laying out their insights in a fuller articulation — their compression of Christ, Logos (the Word, in all of the richness of the Greek philosophical system), and the Light into one metaphorical unit, especially. Add to that the interlocking metaphors of the Seed and the Truth and you have a powerful and fresh theology. (Now there’s a word to stir up our liberal end of the Friends’ spectrum, theology!)
    The early Friends’ unspoken message was this: Christ is bigger than Jesus. And it’s still revolutionary, yet has its own array of Scriptural support.
    I’ve been delving into much of their thinking and connecting the dots over the past several decades and have been posting much of it on my blog, “As Light Is Sown.” A more extended version of my argument here is laid out in the August 8, 2012, post, “Revolutionary Light” (friendjnana.wordpress.com/2012/08/).
    Hope you find it stimulating and helpful. I’m looking forward to seeing where your explorations lead.

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