On Naming the Christ—The Evidence
June 20, 2017 § 7 Comments
Jesus, the Christ, and I—Part 8
In my last post I asked why it matters what we call the Mystery Reality behind our religious experience as Quakers and I implied that we should call it Christ.
First let me say that I think we should name our own personal experience whatever we experience it as. I am not trying to force some idea or obligation on anyone. In fact, for many of us, naming our experience really isn’t important, and it shouldn’t be. This freedom to name our own experience is one of the great gifts of liberal Quakerism.
The naming only becomes important for the community. We, as meetings and as the Religious Society of Friends, do need to name our collective experience, I feel.
But why? And why call it Christ?
Why name our collective religious experience at all?
I have one negative answer and three positive ones. One is empirical, the second is sociological, the third is experimental, and the fourth is a matter of faith.
First, what happens when we don’t name our collective experience? Second, we need a shared vocabulary in order to talk to each other, and to our children, and to newcomers and seekers about the Quaker way of worship. Third, the experience we seek and proclaim in our meetings for worship—gathering in the spirit, direct communion with the Divine—might be more common and more powerful if we shared a common understanding of it. And finally, and most important, and most controversially, I suspect, we should name our experience because we know from our experience that there is a there there, and it already has a name; that is, we should name it, and name it Christ, because the Mystery Reality behind our religious experience, both personal and collective, is real and already has a name.
Let’s look at the negative reason for naming our collective experience, the empirical one.
In the “liberal” unprogrammed tradition, we don’t name our collective religious experience anymore. Well, we call it the gathered meeting, but what I really mean is that we no longer have a common object of worship. We are no longer all aligning ourselves inwardly toward a common spiritual reality in meeting for worship.
We are all doing our own thing. Some of us are bringing techniques, thought and belief systems, and even gods from other traditions into worship. Many of us are just inwardly focused and rather vague about any supra-personal, transcendental reality in worship. Some considerable number of us have no experience or faith in “God” at all and may even be hostile to the idea.
So how’s that been going?
Not too well. Our numbers are steadily dwindling. Our children leave us. Support for our meetings, both financial and in service, is waning. Most importantly, to my mind, gathered meetings are few and far between.
The evidence is in. We have lost something that could animate our members, attract newcomers, and back up our claims that you can directly experience the Divine in your personal life and in collective worship. The “Religious” in the Religious Society of Friends is slowly fading away.
I was tempted to say that we now know experientially that cutting yourself off from your tradition weakens the movement. But we can’t really name the cause for this decline so simply or definitively. I think a lot of things are going on. Furthermore, you could say we’ve been in decline since 1700. John Woolman writes in is journal about an elderly Friend in his meeting that complained of decline when he was still a boy. We will always have hand-wringers, and I’m one of them.
But I am pretty sure that tearing your movement off its foundation is going to weaken the structure. Pull your tradition up by its roots and you can expect some damage to its fruits.
We know from direct experience, which we liberal Quakers have (properly) made into an essential benchmark of spiritual authority, that our decline correlates with our abandonment of the roots of our tradition.
You can’t prove anything with a negative. And this observation doesn’t offer any solutions. So in the next post, I want to explore the sociological case for greater definition and clarity about the Mystery Reality behind our experience.