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.

The evidence.

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.

§ 7 Responses to On Naming the Christ—The Evidence

  • A mid-life convert to Christianity and Quakerism, I started attending meeting nearly thirty years ago and soon applied for membership because the door was wide open and no one asked me to sign on to articles of faith, Christian or otherwise. I love that wide-open door, which I believe is Christ’s wide-open door. It grieves me deeply when I hear Friends disavow Christ, display ignorance of His gospel, or act as if they or their meeting are distanced from His Person; but Christ has not authorized me to act huffy about it. So I remain a self-defined Conservative Friend embedded in a Liberal Friends’ meeting. But I am easily saddened

    • Bill Samuel says:

      You can have a center without having a doctrinal statement to sign on to. I know, because this is true about my current church and was true about my previous church. At my previous church, they would talk about a centered set vs. a bounded set. The centered set does not have clear boundaries but it has a definite center which is the direction of the church. I often hear a false either/or.

    • QuaCarol says:

      John, I read your comment to Bowen and he wants to know who commissioned you to be sad?

  • Bill Samuel says:

    I am one of those who left Quakerism in large part because liberal Quakerism, which is all that exists in English-speaking meetings in my area, does not identify with the historic center of Quaker faith, Christ Jesus. I know dozens of others who have left. Some are wandering in the wilderness, and others have identified with some non-Quaker faith community. That’s not uncommon, although it’s also not uncommon (but certainly far from universal) that such people’s Christian identity didn’t come about until they were involved with liberal Quakers.

    That doesn’t in itself prove that this is *the* cause of numerical decline in liberal Quakerism. There are certainly those attracted because they like the failure to name the basis of the faith, and those who would have left had meetings come to identify themselves clearly with Christ. It’s not clear what the numerical balance is there. And we know that FUM, which is explicitly Christian, has declined much more dramatically than has liberal Quakerism.

    A practical point is there is no return except through some extraordinary moving of the Spirit perhaps comparable to Fox’s day. Meetings with lots of people who love the lack of identity aren’t going to find unity on naming the identity again without such a revival. The intellectual arguments aren’t going to get them to do it; and even if they did, it would be doing it on a nominal basis not truly changing the character of the meetings. We don’t need meetings to become less honest!

    What has happened in liberal Quakerism is that Friends define themselves mostly negatively rather than positively. It is an oppositional movement. Ask a liberal Friend what they believe, and more often than not they will respond with an explanation of things they don’t believe. And even the supposed center of the Society, worship, has come to be named that way – unprogrammed worship (not a traditional Quaker term; it only arose after the development of the pastoral movement). Defining yourself by what you are against rather than what you are before is generically, not just in the instant case, bad. Without a vision, the people perish. And not naming an identity results in the rise of a generally unstated basis of identity which would often be rejected if stated as something to approve. Thus we seek the demographic identity becoming central in many meetings – white, liberal, educated, concentrated in a narrow range of professions, NPR-listening, etc.

    Oppositional thinking is not new to Quakerism, and was strong (IMHO, well too strong for the good of the movement/the faith) in early Quakerism. But at least it was balanced by a strong positive message.

    • I agree, Bill, that meetings in the liberal tradition aren’t going to start naming the center of their worship without some prophetic inspiration, and that doesn’t look too likely. But you never know. Furthermore, this makes my blog posts on the subject “farts in the windstorm,” as a friend of mine used to say.

      And I get what you’re saying about negative self-definitions. Often the answer to what we believe is to say that we have no creed, by which Friends often really mean that belief doesn’t really matter or that we have no settled doctrine; or it’s just a smokescreen for the fact that we don’t know how to answer.

      I think beliefs do matter; they just aren’t the most important thing. And I believe we do have something to say beyond there is that of God in everyone, and the testimonies.

      But your comments makes me question the direction this thread of the blog is going. Still, I started off just testifying to my own experience, and to the choices in faith I’ve made based on that experience. And that may be useful to some of my readers. The whole project of a blog is a form of written ministry for me, so I try to be faithful what the Holy Spirit’s promptings, even if they seem futile in the face of some putative or possible objective.

  • Some on the discussions or events a meeting has should be seen as helping to build a shared vocabulary. Small things, like coffee after worship, are a time to understand how people talk about faith and to informally come to an understanding of common words. It does mean compromising, which can be hard, yet we do this with our language everyday because we know that using a shared language is vital.

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