The Sociology of Collective Religious Experience

November 4, 2017 § 5 Comments

Jesus, the Christ, and I—Part 9

In a previous post, written quite awhile ago now, I gave the first of four reasons why I think we should name our collective religious experience as the spirit of Christ. That was a negative reason: that the more diverse theologically and the more uncomfortable we have become with our traditional Christian identity, the more diluted our worship has become.

I have more to say about this, about whether our worship really has become more shallow and how theological diversity might have that effect, but it’s not seasoned enough yet. In this post, I want to explore the sociology of our collective religious experience. For collective religious experience is intensely social even while it is ineffably transcendental.

By “collective religious experience”, I mean the gathered meeting, primarily, plus those instances of profound vocal ministry that brings a meeting into divine communion, and the other extraordinary psychic experiences that arise in the practice of the Quaker way. I believe that coherence in our collective understanding, a shared framework for understanding and a shared vocabulary—or lack of it—has a real effect on the quality of our worship.

The group dynamics and psychology of a religious community act both as “drivers” behind its experience and as part of the discernment by which the community seeks to understand the experience that it does have.

The chain of our tradition is long and the links are strong. In Christian scripture, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit (in several places in the gospel of John) and to be present whenever two or three are gathered (Matthew 18). Then, according to the testimony of our forbears, the promise was fulfilled in the experience of the early Friends, beginning 1600 years after those promises and continuing as revelation for another three centuries and more of our history as a people of God. Jesus’ promise and fulfillment established a foundation of faith upon which many Friends have built their religious lives. That faith, and its fulfillment in continuing revelation, fosters what we now call continuing revelation.

But our tradition does not just encourage our collective religious experience; it also explains it. It gives us a framework for understanding our experience and for talking about it, amongst ourselves, to our children, to newcomers. For more than 300 years we have said that we were gathered together in Christ. In fact, the tradition gave us our very identity: “You are my friends, if you do whatsoever I command you.  . . I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard of the Father I have made known unto you.” (John 14:14, 15)

Or it used to explain our experience. Until sometime around the middle of the twentieth century.  Now, we in the liberal tradition don’t really have an explanation. And I suspect we don’t have the support for such experience that the tradition used to give us, either.

Nothing illustrates how the tradition comes into play after collective transcendental experience more powerfully than the resurrection experiences recounted in Christian scripture, of which there are ten or so accounts, depending on how many stories you consider accounts of the same appearance by different evangelists.

In all but two of the resurrection stories, the people to whom the risen Christ appears do not recognize him or they have their doubts about what’s going on. Some cases are extremely challenging. How, for instance, could Mary Magdelene, Jesus’s closest disciple, fail to recognize him in the garden until he says her name (John’s gospel)? How could those two fellows on the road to Emmaus walk with Jesus himself for several hours while talking to him about his own crucifixion and the rumors of his appearances, and still only recognize him after they have arrived at their destination and broken bread together?

The answer is in the breaking of bread, that is, in the communal meal inaugurated at the Last Supper. We know that this meal was the central practice of Jesus’ movement. Jesus’s followers would gather at someone’s house, share a meal, hear catechetical teaching, pray and worship together, and distribute food and resources to the poor among them (Acts 2:42).

Here’s my point: Some of Jesus’ followers were having visions of Jesus after his death, but the meaning of those visions had to be worked out collectively over time, and this took place in the context of the “daily bread”, the daily meal.  Put another way, Jesus did not come to these friends and disciples with his name tag on. It wasn’t obvious what they were experiencing. They had to discern together what was happening to them.

The resurrection experiences of the disciples are directly pertinent to my suggestion that we name the spirit of Christ as the center of our gathering. Even at the very roots of our religious tradition, doubt and confusion prevailed, and community discernment was needed to arrive at a conclusion.

Likewise, in our gathered meetings today, it is not immediately apparent what is going on; it is only obvious that something is going on. In the past, our collective discernment has concluded that we were being gathered in the spirit of Christ.

Now, however, the bathwater, the deep and rich tradition in which we have been steeped for three hundred and fifty years, has been thrown out the window. Is it any wonder that we now we look around and find that the baby is gone, also, that we wonder why we so seldom experience the gathered meeting?

Now, doubt, confusion, and most egregiously, disinterest dominate our collective (lack of) discernment about what is happening in the gathered meeting. When it happens, the worship has a center or we wouldn’t be gathered, but we have no way to articulate what that center is. We have no framework, no vocabulary with which to speak to each other, or to our children, or to newcomers about what we have experienced. As a result, we don’t speak about it much. Furthermore, we have no context, no cohesive religious ecosystem for nurturing the experience.

Now, as I’ve said in earlier posts, I myself have no direct experience of Jesus Christ at the center of the gathered meeting. In this I am like a lot of Friends in the liberal tradition. But I am not really talking about Jesus Christ as conventional Christianity understands him, that is, as a spiritual entity who was the Jesus of Christian scripture, who was crucified, dead, and buried and rose again according to the creed. I am speaking of the spirit of Christ—that mysterious experience of awakening, joy, comfort, and renewal that the two men on the road to Emmaus experienced—after they had been taught who had come into their midst.

My name for that spirit in which we are gathered in our collective religious experience as Friends is the spirit of Christ. For me, the relation of that spirit to the man who walked the roads of Galilee is a matter for speculation rather than one of direct revelation. And that’s enough for me, though I love the study, thought, and imagination that such speculation requires.

For me, the spirit of Christ is more than just a placeholder for whatever might be going on in our collective religious experience, though it is that. It is another link, made of faith, in the chain of our tradition, one that I refuse to break simply because I am still on the road to Emmaus and have not yet broken bread with Jesus as the Christ.

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§ 5 Responses to The Sociology of Collective Religious Experience

  • Steve, I laud your desire to put Christ back into the center of Quaker faith, but without Christ present among us (or at least a deep, Seekers-like hunger for a foundation for life, manifesting as fervent love of truth) our meetings could at best be an environment in which an individual’s inward discovery of Christ could be confirmed, and, in that case, our meetings would not be much different from what now’s available in any other “Christian” church. You left out the essential phrase in Mt. 18:20: “For where two or three are gathered together IN MY NAME, there am I in the midst of them.” A gathering that is not in Jesus’s name, that is to say, not in Jesus’s power and life, is not a gathering in which he is in the midst of them.

    I say your theory of the need for communal discernment in order to recognize Jesus in these stories isn’t a valid one. Most clearly, the theory is undermined by the story in John 21 of Mary Magdalene, alone at the tomb, exclaiming “Rabboni” in recognition. Each story in which disciples fail to recognize Christ has a particular lesson; they aren’t all the same. In the same chapter, the disciples only recognize Jesus when they see his wounds. My essay “The Gift of Scriptures” looks at these recognition stories, each having its own lesson. And the road to Emmaus story gives yet a different lesson, which I’ve not written about.

    The common thread throughout these failure-to-recognize stories is that recognition, when it comes, is strong and immediate, not mulled over and put together by communal effort, as you have said. Recognition is immediate and individual, as for the ones at Emmaus: “And their eyes were opened, and they knew him” (Lk. 24:31). Each having his own eyes opened, each knew him; it’s individual.

    The following passage from Matthew 24 denies that conferring with others about where Christ is to be found is a useful activity. Instead, the recognition is immediate, the Son of man is seen, i.e., recognized, like one sees a lightening flash.

    Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the desert; go not forth: behold, he is in the secret chambers; believe it not. For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be (26-27).

    • treegestalt says:

      If “in my name” means in his spirit (Steve’s usage — ‘under his influence’ perhaps) then all branches of Friends, within our human limitations, should quality.

      If the appearance stories (symbolic afterthoughts as they seem to me*) are any guide, it wasn’t only among people particularly inclined to expect or recognize him that he’d appear.

      * Given the fact of: “He’s back alive and showing up among us”, then as long as such appearances keep happening, “Where, when and who saw him do what?” become pretty secondary. Details become more important in their own right when people start needing to ‘prove’ it to others with doubts.

  • Ellis Hein says:

    “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.” (John 6:53) “This is my body, which is given for you…” (Luke 22:19) “The flesh profits nothing, the words I have spoken/am speaking to you, these are breath, these are life.” (My rendition of John 6:63) Are you thirsty, come to the water of life. But you cannot buy a drink. Are you hungry, come to the living bread. But it is not for sale. These are to be had for no money or price. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread and for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me and eat that which is good. Delight your soul in fatness” of listening to every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord. (See Isaiah 55:1-3, and Deut. 8:3)

    These scripture passages have come running through my head. They are a call to life that only comes by hearing the voice of Jesus, the Christ, who is the Word of God. Do you stumble at the door? They are a call to partake of the sustenance that sustains life. You cannot listen while words of argument fill your mind. These words are a call to lay aside all the garments you have stitched together to hide your nakedness. Come and receive the garment of the breath of the living God. Will you remain in hiding, oh children of Adam and Eve? Turn from the broken cisterns you have dug and come to the spring of living water that bubbles up. Come to the teacher who will instruct you in the way of righteousness, that you may be cleansed from dead works to serve the living God in the newness of life.

  • treegestalt says:

    The word ‘spirit’ gets used for at least two related things: as the Spirit that lives as our consciousness/awareness and as a mood/style/personality-flavor/way characteristic of a particular person, group, organization, piece-of-music, place, artwork, etc…

    So I generally find Friends’ Meetings to be typically ‘in the spirit of Christ’ in that second sense. Whether or not members itch when they hear the word “Christian”, they tend to be drawn toward, and to exemplify, that mode of being.

    But “the Spirit of Christ” in that first sense refers to “the Spirit of God” as a consciousness embodied (imperfectly) in us all, “our” consciousness (only utterly transcending our local embodiment of it) — “the image of God” aka “the breath of God” as I’ve felt for a long time.

    That’s what puts the juice in that nice Quaker flavoring… and we don’t get to tell ‘That’ when or how to come or go. It’s always ‘here’ for each-and-every-here; but the challenge (how to put this?!) is to let ourselves be knowingly ‘with’ it — not just to experience a meal but to let ourselves be nourished by the food that “is” the Whole Holy, regardless of what we and That are bringing to each other at the time.

    What we have to contribute will be changed by this. But as R.B. put it, that’s not the object. For us and That to be with each other, that matters.

  • Sam Kennet says:

    Amen. Your last paragraph would make a good summary of your blog and is certainly the reason I come here to read your words. Solidarity on that road… Thank you.

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