Evangelism Reconsidered, Part Two
February 12, 2014 § 7 Comments
Here is my second installment on What is Quakerism for? — Evangelism Reconsidered.
I ended my first post on evangelism by saying that I believe that the Christ should stand at the center of our collective message, whether we personally have experienced him there or not. In my opinion, a presentation of “the Quaker message” that does not include our message about Christ isn’t a Quaker message.
In this post, I want to explain why I believe “the Quaker message” must include the Christ. For me, that message is essentially about the Christ, but not about salvation from divine judgment, as traditional evangelism claims.
Private experience and public message
“The Quaker message” is not the same thing as our own personal theology (or non-theology) or our own ideas about what Quakerism is. We are representing the whole Society when we speak to non-Friends about Quakerism. The testimony of integrity requires that we do not presume that our own experience is normative or even descriptive of all Friends, let alone prescriptive.
(“Prescriptiveness” is precisely what we Liberal Friends dislike so much about “evangelism” as traditionally practiced, the claim that salvation in Christ is the only thing that really matters and you better believe or else. We would be quite disingenuous to decry evangelical prescriptiveness while practicing it ourselves by presuming that our form of Quakerism is the only legitimate one.)
Our theological diversity is one of the reasons we often are so paralyzed by the question, “What do Quakers believe?” We often don’t feel we can speak confidently for all Friends, and it gets so complicated to start off with a whole bunch of disclaimers, and it takes so long to cover all the versions of Quakerism—that we tend to say nothing at all. Or—we do in fact presume to share our own version of Quakerism as normative, against the testimony of integrity.
I feel very strongly that the Liberal Quaker message ought to be truly inclusive. Our collective openness to whatever the positive spiritual or religious experiences of other people are, which is so central to the Liberal Quaker identity, absolutely must include, not just openness to the experience that other Friends have had of Christ, but also openness to the messages they bring to us from that experience. Actually, “openness” is too weak a word. We should embrace the Christ when we evangelize—when we share Quakerism with others, when we are bringing the Quaker message into the world. And we should embrace the Christ-centered messages of our fellow religionists.
But I do draw the line at forceful exclusiveness, the assertion—by anybody—that someone else’s religious experience is not legitimate, not the truth, not enough. How dare we make such a claim? And on what authority? Our personal experience—or lack of experience—in the case of Liberal Friends? Or, in the case of some evangelical Christians, on our personal reading of a book?
That’s what it comes down to with some evangelical Christians—their authority for their claim to be right comes primarily from their personal interpretation of the Bible. This claim not only disrespects other people’s interpretation of Scripture; it disrespects Scripture itself, as though the Bible were not ceaselessly surprising, confounding, mysterious, and even sometimes, just plain opaque and self-contradictory; that is, totally open to varying interpretations and emphases.
But what about the assertion that someone else’s experience is not true Quakerism? Most of us do have our own ideas about what true Quakerism is, I suspect. Certainly I do. I am filling this blog with my opinions about “true Quakerism”. This post is my take on “true Quakerism”. So sometimes there’s quite a difference between the movement as it is in its various forms and our own ideas about what constitutes true Quakerism.
For instance, I have trouble accepting programmed, pastoral Quakerism because of the way it constrains and suppresses universal and open ministry, which, in my opinion, is one of the essentials of our faith and practice. On the other hand, I know Friends who feel that a Quakerism without Christ at its center is no true Quakerism. Well, about that I can agree, with some caveats.
So this gets really complicated. At least it does for me.
The Christ and the Quaker message
When we speak to people on behalf of “Quakerism”, I believe . . .
- we should not ignore the Christian roots of our history and the subsequent Christian history of Quakerism’s unfolding over the centuries;
- we should not ignore our current Christian demographics as a worldwide movement;
- we should not pretend that we have in good gospel order at some point “left all that behind” and redefined our movement as post-Christian; and
- most importantly, we should not deny the divine spirit that gathered us as a people of God in the first place and that still gathers the vast majority of Friends today. Even if this is not our own experience.
I believe in Christ. I believe that the Christ was—and is—the “gatherer” of this peculiar people, as George Fox envisioned from Pendle Hill and then effected at Firbank Fell—even though I do not experience the Christ this way myself. (Well, maybe I do, actually; this is where it gets complicated.) I cannot with integrity deny the testimony of so many Friends about Christ, his presence today, and his role in our origins. Can you?
Actually, as I just implied, I do have my own experience of the Christ. I have experienced something that presented itself as the Christ a couple of times, as a presence in meeting for worship, accompanying psychic manifestations that were pretty impressive at the time. I have several times experienced a deeply gathered meeting for worship and, as I have written in a couple of entries on the gathered meeting, I choose to call the consciousness of the gathered meeting the Christ consciousness, even though I have never experience his presence among us explicitly in a gathered meeting.
The consciousness of the Christ is all we can actually experience of the Christ. Even if we narrowly define Christ as the divine reality of Jesus of Nazareth, as traditional Christianity does, the risen Jesus is now a consciousness; we do not experience him in the body, through our eyes and ears and normal consciousness, as did his disciples. To experience the Christ in our time, one must enter an extraordinary consciousness, just as Paul did; and George Fox. One must “come up in the spirit through the flaming sword”. Well, it’s not always so dramatic. But the transformational experience of the Christ is a visitation of an extra-ordinary consciousness.
As I have also said elsewhere, I therefore believe that at times (quite often, actually), the Christ is gathering us now (and, in fact, has always gathered us) without his name tag on. Put another way, I choose to call the consciousness of the gathered meeting the Christ-consciousness, even when, as is mostly the case, he does not declare himself explicitly as Jesus the Christ, recognizing that this is theological speculation on my part.
Such speculation, such “notions”, are not “Quakerly”. We do not base our religious lives on theological ideas that we do not know experientially ourselves. So for me this “belief” that the Christ is the presence in our midst is a matter of personal intellectual choice, and it’s not really very important to my personal religious life as a result. It is my experiences that are of primary importance to me, not the ideas I’ve come up with to explain them.
But we are talking about our collective voice, what we say on behalf of the whole Society of Friends to those who are inquiring about Quakerism. Sharing our personal experience is probably the best way to share Quakerism with others, up to a point. But we inevitably come to a point where we must speak beyond our experience on behalf of Quakerism as a whole.
Nor would my experiences of the Christ pass a traditional evangelical litmus test. On the other hand, the assertion that true religion, true Christianity, true Quakerism, must proclaim Jesus as savior is also a theological idea, one interpretation of Scripture among many possible ones.
Once someone has experienced Christ as their savior, well now they know their own Truth. It is obvious that the Christ is the savior for many, many people. And what a blessing that is. But on what grounds could anyone with integrity claim that I must accept their experience as prescriptive for myself? Because that’s how they read the Book? And because they believe that not only is the Book the ultimate authority, but their interpretation of the Book is the ultimate authority?
Thus I am inclined to draw a line here: I cannot welcome with integrity the exclusive, prescriptive message that salvation in Christ is the only true religion. This is a matter of personal faith. It is based on an interpretation of one book (well, a library, really), filtered by thousands of years of (sometimes apostate) tradition, whose message was mutating even while its own books were still being written.
I believe that the essential Quaker message is that only inward experience of the Christ matters, and not belief in a certain religious ideology, however ancient and established that ideology might be. Thus we must respect that inwardness and eschew projecting our own inward experience on others. Others must be allowed their own inward experience.
But what is the Christ that we can proclaim? The Christ is a consciousness that tradition believes was the divine consciousness of the Jesus of Scriptures. But that consciousness has throughout history manifested itself in forms that run along a spectrum . . .
- from absolutely clear and personal experience of Jesus Christ as savior;
- through the rather more mysterious and uncertain experiences that Mary Magdalene and the guys on the road to Emmaus and Paul himself had of the risen Jesus, in which it took some time, teaching, and revelation to understand what was happening;
- to the modern gathered Quaker meeting in which, although we are certain that we are gathered, we are not certain how we are gathered, only that we sense a presence in the midst, perhaps, or at least, we sense each other sensing each other in some mysterious communion.
That is the Christ that I feel we can proclaim:
- that we were gathered originally as a peculiar people of God by a spirit, a consciousness, that those Friends testified was Jesus Christ;
- that throughout our history, the spirit of Christ has continued to guide us and strengthen us, heal us and save us, inspire us and reveal new truth to us; and
- that still today our meetings are gathered in Christ, in a spirit of love and truth, a spirit that we hold is continuous with the Quaker experience of the Christ’s revelation in Jesus himself and throughout our history, even though we do not—and never have—always explicitly experienced that spirit as Jesus Christ.
I believe we have a message to proclaim, and it should include—let me rephrase that—I believe it should be established on, not just the history of our experience of the inward Light of Christ as a people, but the reality that the Quaker Way points directly to the Light of the Christ, however we name it or experience it ourselves.
For myself, I choose to accept the testimony of so many Friends that the Light I have experienced is the Light of Christ, even if it dos not declare itself to me as such. I choose to accept that it is the Christ who gathers us as a people of G*d, whether we all recognize that consciousness as the consciousness of Jesus the Christ or not in that moment of gathering.
And I believe that the first thing out of our mouths when proclaiming the Quaker message—when we are evangelizing—should be the joyous promise and reality of direct communion with the Divine in the Light of Christ. We Liberal Friends can then go on to talk about the Light, or the Inner Light, or even, I suppose, that of God in everyone if we feel compelled to (even though, as I have written before, we misuse our tradition when we use this phrase this way).
In fact, many times our listeners will need this kind of bridge from Christ-language to more inclusive language in order to really hear our message. We know this because many of us need this bridge. But the Christ is the mainland and we “post-Christians” are on the island, and I for one am grateful that modern Liberal Quakerism offers me a causeway between the two.
Our tradition says that it was the Christ who awakened us as a people of G*d, that it is the Christ who gathers us even today. And our tradition has always claimed to be universal in this—that the light of Christ enlightens everyone who is coming into the world, as the gospel of John puts it in the King James Version.
Yet clearly, not every act of enlightenment comes with the name of Jesus Christ tagged upon it. Inward religious experience takes many forms and runs across a very wide spectrum of clarity and assignation. Even Luke, in his three different tellings of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, gives us three different accounts of what happened, and even Paul himself had to be taught by Ananias what his experience meant.
Thus, even if we cannot explicitly own the experience of the Christ’s “enlightenment” ourselves, it still could be true that it is Christ who “enlightens” us. We certainly can’t claim that it isn’t Christ. So when we are sharing the Quaker message—when we are speaking on behalf of the tradition—I believe that we should respect it enough to share it with integrity, and not project upon it the limitations of our own experience.
For me, the way to present this complicated message is to say that part of my evolution as a Liberal Quaker is the revelation that the message of Jesus is universal and that, for me, the communion I experience in the gathered meeting, the healing, the inspiration and guidance, and yes, the salvation, that I might experience inwardly as an individual, are the experience of the Light of Christ, even if I do not explicitly experience it as such. This obviously is a matter of faith, since I do not know it experientially. But it still belongs in my presentation of Quakerism, notwithstanding the limitations of my own experience. And finally, the people to whom I may be speaking are themselves free to experience the Light in whatever way it reveals itself to them, as the Christ—or not.