Evangelism Reconsidered, Part One
February 12, 2014 § 2 Comments
I have been surprised to find how much I have to say about evangelism. I think this is because it gets to what I feel are two essential questions, at least for Liberal Friends: what is our message and what is the place of Christ in that message? I had promised in my last post to offer a positive exploration of evangelism as one of the purposes of Quakerism, and when I got started, I ended up with two really long posts following different threads, but often crossing the same ground. So I am going to publish them separately but simultaneously, and hope you will accept the inevitable repetition.
Evangelism, the Quaker Message, and the Christ
In the Greek of Christian Scripture, evangelion means to proclaim the good news. For centuries, Friends have proclaimed the good news that salvation from sin can be found in the direct experience of the Light of Christ and needs no outward mediator—no priests, no outward sacraments, but only the direct experience of the Christ. Furthermore, this salvation through direct communion is available to anyone, for the Light of Christ is universal; it enlightens everyone.
I believe that Friends do have good news to proclaim. However, as I said in my last post, I believe that the Quaker message is bigger, more inclusive, and more positive than just salvation in Christ, though this obviously is one of the purposes of Quakerism and demonstrably a great blessing to those who find in him their savior.
Thus I propose that our purpose, our message, is to bring souls to Christ, irrespective of “salvation”, and inclusive of salvation. My Liberal Quaker readers might be more comfortable with “awakening people to the Light within them”. I think “bringing people to Christ” and “awakening people to the Light within them” are the same thing. And I do believe that the Christ belongs at the center of our message, even for those of us who have not personally experienced the Christ as Jesus Christ.
I want to diverge for a moment and talk about how we know such things, how we make the connection between the Liberal Quaker’s Inner Light (or “that of God”, or whatever you want to call it) and the spirit of Jesus the Christ, the spirit of the man who walked the deserted places of Galilee and Judea, who taught, enacted, and embodied the kingdom of God, and of whom people have had visions and visitations throughout the centuries.
Interpreting mystical experience of—and as—the Christ
I have had a number of “mystical” experiences. Two of them were of Jesus appearing in the midst of a meeting for worship as an apparition that connected me directly and psychically to inward things that were happening to others in the meeting. In both cases, he stood right behind someone who would in moments rise to speak powerful ministry. I felt that he was connecting me to them in some way.
In my own formative spiritual experience, I was visited by a presence in the midst of a very deep and overwhelming altered state induced by an intense sweat lodge ceremony. This presence had a name, a voice (made of sounds repeated in patterns), and a mission. It took me weeks to understand the voice’s message and the messenger’s mission. It took help from someone with a little shamanistic training to find my footing inside the experience right after it happened. I have conducted my spiritual life as a covenant with this spirit ever since. But what is that spirit, really?
Even really powerful “visionary” experiences are extremely subjective; the vague, “still small voice” experiences that are much more common are even more subjective. These experiences are full of mystery, of questions. Was it real? Was it real as it presented itself—can I take the experience at face value—or was it essentially symbolic in its manifestation? Where did it come from? Was I communing with an independent spiritual entity, or an archetype in the collective unconscious, or “merely” projecting from my own unconscious—or all of the above? What does this experience mean? What mental and spiritual tools do I need to better understand it? Is the help I get from others to gain understanding to be trusted, or are my human mentors just guessing or projecting, too, or at least limited by their own mental and spiritual tools?
You can see all these questions playing out in accounts in Scripture of such events. Peter, James, and John have no idea what’s going on at first in the transfiguration. When Jesus walks across the sea in the darkness, his own disciples do not recognize him. The men to whom the risen Jesus appears on the road to Emmaus do not recognize him, even though they walk with him for hours talking specifically about Jesus’s career and death—until they “break bread” with him. Paul gets help from Ananias in understanding his visitation. The disciples often don’t even understand Jesus’ parables, let alone their visions, and he has to interpret his stories for them.
I love thinking about these questions, but they don’t really go anywhere. I end up making intellectual choices based on what makes the most sense to me. But I know that really I am just speculating.
So my own approach is to accept transcendental experiences on the terms in which they present themselves; I take them more or less at face value. I wait to see what else is revealed. And I acknowledge to myself that what I’ve experienced could just be inside my head; or at least, that something else might be going on that I do not yet perceive or understand.
This is not skepticism. I do not doubt the experience. But I hold it lightly, gingerly, expecting that more about it may be revealed—but not necessarily.
This is why I accept at face value the testimony of Friends, both ancient and modern, who knew and know Jesus Christ inwardly. This is why I will not deny the testimony of others or try to redefine their experience into terms that work better for me, just as I don’t want others to redefine for me what my experience means. I do not translate other people’s messages into terms I like better, as many Friends do. I try to embrace their language as their truth, and potentially, therefore, as my truth, too. For how many stories do we have of some Friend awakened to a new truth by another Friend’s challenging vocal ministry? Margaret Fell and Elizabeth Fry come to mind immediately.
The Christ today and the Quaker message
And this is why I feel free to assume that the Christ is still working in people’s hearts and in the midst of Quaker meetings, still saving us, still gathering us, still teaching us, still healing us, still leading us into new revelation. Just because he is not wearing his name tag does not mean he is no longer alive, present, and active.
On the other hand, just because the Bible tells us he is alive, present, and active doesn’t necessarily mean that he actually is. This is all a mystery. Thus some would say that it is a matter of faith: we are left to simply believe it or not. I don’t agree. I won’t “believe” something I haven’t experienced. Instead, I “entertain” it: I give it a room of its own in my mind and heart and it is welcome to dwell within me while we try each other out. I will give it shelter, I will even feed it with my Bible study and prayer, share it with other visitors into my life, play with it, and try to learn from it.
Sometimes, a new belief—an idea I’m entertaining that does not rest on direct experience—starts paying rent. It bears fruit. It is confirmed by experience, or at least comes to feel so right that I now consider it a member of my inner household. Or not. I have a whole boarding house of ideas that I am still working with experimentally, using them to approach my life when they seem useful, but without the convincement that comes with direct experience.
The idea that the Christ is a consciousness, that, in practical terms, the Christ is the consciousness of the gathered meeting, seems increasingly right to me, ever since the opening that came while writing my series on the gathered meeting in this blog. And for years, I have been entertaining the idea that the Christ, the consciousness that the evangelists were trying to convey in the gospels, is still among us and still working within us, but without “a name tag”, as I put—without declaring his identity or demanding our confession.
Thus, in the same way that I entertain new ideas and beliefs, I feel that the Christ has been “entertaining” me, that as a non-Christian Friend, I am a guest in the house that Christ built. I am grateful that I have been welcomed. I try to respect the Master of the house and the human stewards who know him personally. I try to know him personally myself, through study and prayer and meditation.
I have arranged the furniture in the room I occupy in this mansion to suit my religious sensibilities, but I don’t try to move the furniture in the rest of the house around without sharing a process of discernment with the other inhabitants, hopefully with the explicit invitation to the owner—the Christ—to join us and guide us.
Put more plainly, I do not claim that my Liberal, post-Christian Quakerism is the only legitimate Quakerism, or, even worse, that traditional Christ-centered Quakerism is somehow illegitimate, or at least passé, or that we have somehow outgrown it or laid it aside. I do not claim that our core belief is that “there is that of God in everyone”, not at least without linking it to the Christ and acknowledging that this is relatively new light that is still being tested.
I said that I feel we should explicitly invite the Christ into our meetings for worship, our meetings for business in worship, and our other discernment processes. This is pretty rare in Liberal Quaker meetings. When we’re at our most attentive and faithful, we acknowledge that we labor under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our discernment, but we rarely name “the Spirit” as the spirit of the Christ. (And all too often, we are actually just trying to reach a consensus, anyway, rather than a true sense of the meeting.)
Well, if the Christ isn’t going to manifest himself clearly to us and, like me, we are not willing to just “believe” as a matter of faith without experience, then dropping back a notch in our language to “the Spirit” makes sense. Only never should we forget or deny the testimony of Friends over centuries and among us today that we actually are gathered in the Christ, or as I prefer, the Christ-consciousness. For that is what the Christ is—a consciousness, a spirit. Even if that consciousness was the same consciousness Jesus of Nazareth possessed, now, today, Jesus the man is gone, and all we presently have is the consciousness of the Christ.
This is why I believe that the Christ should still stand at the center of our message, whether we have experienced him there or not. And so, this is how I express the good news that we Friends can offer the world, as I presented it in my previous post:
There is in everyone a light that can guide and strengthen us to do the right, that can awaken us to the wrong we have done and are about to do, that can heal us, that can save us from our demons and relieve us of our inner suffering, that can inspire us to acts of kindness and to creativity, that can lead us to become the people we were meant to be, and that can open to us direct communion with God (however you experience God), both as individuals and as a community. We Quakers have experienced this light as the Light of Christ, as a Spirit of Love and Truth, as a Presence in our midst, as that which has gathered us as a people of God and continues to guide our meetings and the Quaker movement into the future, when we are faithful to its call. In this light, G*d is always trying to reveal to us the way of love and peace and truth.