May 22, 2015 § 1 Comment
I woke up this morning with an opening blooming in my mind. I actually had the opening a couple of days ago, and I’ve been circling round it for years, but when my eyes opened this morning, the sun was shining on some petals as they reached toward the light.
At the heart of the liberal Quaker experience lies Mystery.
My regular readers will know that my operating definition of God is the Mystery Reality behind our spiritual and religious experience—whatever that experience is. This is why I use an asterisk to spell “God”: the asterisk stands in for whatever your experience is. And the asterisk stands in for the Mystery.
We know that our spiritual and religious experience * is real because it has transformed us. Because of it we are healed; we are more whole; we are saved from our sin; we are relieved of some burden or pain or wound; we are inspired; we are more aware; we are more fulfilled; we experience the joy that passes all understanding—something has happened and are we are the better for it.
But it passes understanding. The experience is transcendental—it transcends our normal understanding; or it transcends our five senses; or it transcends the psychic boundaries between people; it transcends normal consciousness. Thus, it is a Mystery. Beyond, or behind, or within what we know and can speak about the experience lies something deeper, something we can only know with the soul, that is, with that part of us that knows this Mystery, that perceives beyond, behind, and within.
That Mystery Reality behind or within our religious experience I call G*d.
Part of the genius of liberal Quakerism is that it acknowledges that real religious experience comes in many, many forms, and they are all Real and they are all Mysterious. No one religion or spiritual path has exclusive claim on Truth—and no one is excluded from the Truth. We honor the asterisk.
The truth that every human can commune with the Divine makes the Truth universal without being absolute.
Because of the non-absolute universalism of Truth, many liberal Friends describe religion as a journey, as a project of seeking. I have never understood this approach. These Friends would not be Quakers if they had not found something. Ever since George Fox convinced the Seekers on Firbank Fell, Friends have proclaimed what they have found.
But the Mystery remains. We may have found Quakerism and with it a rich tradition that takes weeks to explore just to get through course 101. But still the Mystery draws us forward, seeking—what?
Seeking a name, I think. Seeking an opening into the mystery. Seeking more of the release, joy, and fulfillment that comes from spiritual and religious experience. Seeking deeper immersion in our communion.
Fox had a name for what he found—even Christ Jesus.
On the surface, it looks like a huge gap yawns between having a name—especially having that name—and not having a name, any name at all. To someone who knows the Name, whose life is filled by Christ Jesus, it might seem that to experience the Reality and still have a Mystery means that maybe you didn’t experience the Reality after all.
Yet we know that every human can commune with the Divine. That, as mysterious as the religious experience of a Cro-Magnon woman might be to us, nevertheless, Something Was Happening for her that made her more whole.
I think you can make subtle but fairly convincing arguments from Christian scripture for the universal Christ, for why any genuine religious experience could be experience of the Christ. But then you could do the same for Krishna. This is a mystery.
Almost all arguments about the nature and the necessity of the Christ come from scripture. Those of us who have experienced Christ personally and directly can speak from our experience, but even these Friends will soon turn to scripture to fill in the details. It is ever so with religious experience. This is one of the roles of a religious tradition, to help its people understand their experience.
The problem with the Bible as authority is that you have to understand it, and everyone takes their own path into it, as is apparently the way with all religious experience. Interpretations abound. I have studied the Bible for decades and I have pretty settled ideas about what a lot of it means. But how do I know I’m right?
The very idea of biblical authority comes from the Bible itself. It’s age, its tone, and its power to transform us confer upon it some real authority. Then there’s 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
So says Paul. But why is Paul an authority? Because he’s in the Bible. The Bible is self-authenticating.
And meanwhile, it’s just wrong about a lot of stuff. And we have changed our minds about some things that it’s pretty clear about, like slavery and the place of women in the church and in the world. And it doesn’t even agree with itself sometimes. And right beside the soaring beauty of its poetry and the healing it can bring, other pages are soaked with blood and horror.
At this point, we remember Margaret Fell’s words:
And so he went on, and said, “That Christ was the Light of the world, and lighteth every man that cometh into the world; and that by this light they might be gathered to God,” &c. I stood up in my pew, and wondered at his doctrine, for I had never heard such before. And then he went on, and opened the scriptures, and said, “The scriptures were the prophets’ words, and Christ’s and the apostles’ words, and what, as they spoke, they enjoyed and possessed, and had it from the Lord”: and said, “Then what had any to do with the scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth? You will say, ‘Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;’ but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?” &c. This opened me so, that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat down in my pew again, and cried bitterly: and I cried in my spirit to the Lord, “We are all thieves; we are all thieves; we have taken the scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves.”
What do we know in ourselves? Are we children of the Light? What is the Light?
These are the real questions, and even when we have answers, mysteries remain.
* “Spiritual” experience. Spiritual experience I define as transcendental experience that transforms us for the better. It transcends normal experience, or normal consciousness, or our normal sensory experience, so that we do not necessarily know where it comes from or even what it means, in its fullness. Yet it is real. We know that it is real because it has changed us in demonstrable ways for the better.
“Religious” experience. Religious experience I define as spiritual experience that takes place in the context of religious community or religious tradition. Either the tradition has led you to the experience, as when you find yourself in a gathered meeting for worship; or you find in a tradition a way to understand your experience, as we do when we speak of that mystery that enables us to commune with G*d directly as the Light.
“Religion”. Religion I define as the spiritual practice of a community. Religion is the things a community does to remember, invoke, and celebrate its communion with its god, the things it does to reconnect with the Mystery Reality that brought it forth as a community of Spirit.