Spirituality vs Religion, Meditation vs Worship

December 29, 2019 § 6 Comments

One of the signature characteristics of our time is that many people have a spiritual life, or they want one, but fewer and fewer people want a religion. This trend has been working its way into Quaker culture, as well.

Years ago, I was a friendly adult presence at a Quaker high school conference. In one of the exercises, the facilitator designated one end of the room “spirituality” and the other end “religion” and we were invited to place ourselves along the spectrum. There was a crowd at the spirituality end, a sizable group just left of center toward spirituality, stragglers thinned steadily out toward religion—and then there was me. I’ve always had a religious temperament. I have experienced this phenomenon many times among us since.

The result of this trend in liberal Quakerism is that many Friends and attenders treat meeting for worship as group meditation, “an hour in which to find your truth”, as the A-frame placard says which my meeting puts on the sidewalk outside our entrance. This is an invitation to meditate, not an invitation to worship.

Nothing against meditation, mind you. I’ve been trained in several kinds of meditation, and I practice my own mash-up form all the time. And I’ve been in several satsangs that practice group meditation, which are great. But they’re not worship.

Meditation takes you deeper into yourself. Worship takes you out of yourself. Worship is more like listening to music than like listening to the “still, small voice” within. Worship is paying attention to something that transcends self.

Of course, one transcends one’s self in deep meditation, also; and the “something” we attend to in worship is within us, too, yes. That’s why centering is the first stage in worship. The door to worship is within us.

But that something we seek in worship is not just within me; it’s within all of us in the meeting room. And more to the point, it’s within us—as an us, as a collective consciousness. There’s a “that of God” in the collective consciousness of the gathered worshippers, just as there’s a “that of God” (whatever that means) in each one of us.

When we find ourselves in a gathered meeting for worship, we know that this transcendental something I’m referring to is real, and not just a facet or manifestation or dweller in my own individual consciousness. We come out of worship spilling over with joy, and looking around, we see that our fellow worshippers are filled with that same joy themselves. We have shared the joy of gathering in the Spirit.

I think of that gathering spirit as the spirit of Christ. Not necessarily the spirit of the risen Jesus, which traditional Christians infer from their reading of Christian scripture; that seems rather unlikely to me, metaphysically speaking, and certainly not objectively verifiable but only for one’s self alone through personal experience.

Rather, what I call the spirit of Christ is the spirit of anointing, the spirit that Jesus invoked in Luke 4:18–21, quoting Isaiah 61:1–2—the spirit that descended on him at his baptism, the spirit that descended on the apostles at the Pentecost, the spirit that descended on the first gathered “Quaker” meeting at Firbank Fell when George Fox convinced the Seekers, the spirit that Friends have been gathered in as a people of God ever since.

I experience that spirit is an emergent communion of a collective consciousness that is fully focused on the transcendental Mystery that dwells in the midst of the gathered worshipping community (and in the midst of each worshipper’s soul). For sure, it may be more than “emergent”; that spirit may have identity, sentience, and presence independent of the gathered worshipping community. For all I know, it’s the spirit of the risen Jesus.

However, while the worshippers rise from such a meeting knowing that, yes, that was it, that was covered in the Holy Spirit, in none of the gathered meetings I’ve experienced has anyone, let alone the whole gathered body, risen up and said, Ah! Yes, there he was, that was the risen Jesus. So inference as to the Spirit’s preexistence or independence or sovereign identity is, for me, just speculation. I know it’s real; its identity and its other qualities, are yet a mystery; to me at least.

So why call it the spirit of Christ? Because doing so reconnects us with our tradition and at the same time pulls our tradition forward, and because Christ is uniquely and truthfully descriptive. For “Christ” is a title for a consciousness, not the last name of a historical person. “Christ” means “anointed”, anointed of God as Spirit for some work. And, in the gathered meeting, have we not just been anointed by the spirit, just like Isaiah was in chapter 61 verse 1, and just as Jesus was in Luke 4:15–31? “Christ” is the awareness that one has been anointed for some divine work and the consciousness through which one is empowered for the work. For Jesus in Luke 4, the “work” was “good news for the poor”, a ministry of debt relief through radical reliance on the providing spirit of God and radical inter-reliance within the worshipping community for its execution.

And for us? For what work have we been anointed? Or have we, in truth, been anointed in the Spirit in the first place? Do we, in truth, worship? Or are we “just” meditating?

§ 6 Responses to Spirituality vs Religion, Meditation vs Worship

  • Worship as “paying attention to something that transcends self”. That’s it, in a nutshell. You speak my mind. And, when we pay that deep, listening attention to the “other”, then that thing happens which is so much more than the sum of the parts. Palpable and acknowledged by all, even if they explain it to themselves in different ways.

  • Making a clearer distinction between the terms “spirit of Christ” and “risen Christ” can further clarify, I think, the difference between meditation and worship. The word “risen” implies having moved beyond earthly life and into heavenly life, and this is crucial for first Friends. “Earthly” or “worldly” indicates a lack of divine life and light, a kind of death, and it is this death-like, earthly condition (sin) that must be transcended by each person, as it is the natural condition of every person.

    Friends are clear about how this can be effected: by allowing the light to judge oneself, to be open to seeing what the light manifests in oneself that is unjust, corrupt; that is, to subject the self to the authority of truth. This is humbling but can’t be bypassed with some other way substituted, such as imitating “the spirit of Christ.” Friends are clear: one’s sin must be seen by oneself, and the next step is to stand (remain) in that awareness until God in his mercy raises one up in His son, “the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29). Here’s an excerpt from Fox’s tract “To All That Would Know the Way to the Kingdom” (Works, IV:17) that identifies the necessary work:

    [The light] is present to teach thee, and judge thy wandering mind, which would wander abroad, and thy high thoughts and imaginations, and makes them subject; for following thy thought thou art quickly lost. But dwelling in this light, it will discover to thee the body of sin, and thy corruptions, and fallen estate, where thou art, and multitude of thoughts: in that light which shews thee all this, stand, neither go to the right hand, nor to the left: here is patience exercised, here is thy will subjected, here thou wilt see the mercies of God made manifest in death . . . and the promises of God fulfilled, which are to the seed, which seed is Christ. . . for the first step of peace is to stand still in the light (which discovers things contrary to it) for power and strength to stand against that nature which the light discovers.

  • Rhonda Pfaltzgraff-Carlson says:

    Thank you for clarifying this distinction. I resonate with your point. For a couple years, I was part of a Centering Prayer group. We were meditating/praying together, but we were focused on our individual experience. While my time in that group was fruitful for my spiritual development and I was blessed to be with women who lived devoted, faithful lives, I never felt we were a listening body nor did I or anyone else receive any messages that would serve to deepen the spiritual life of the group.

  • I’ve been pondering the question, too, Steve — that is, when we sit in silence together, are we “worshiping,” “meditating,” “praying,” or simply trying to let the Holy Spirit have Its way with us? I think it depends on the will of the Lord: if and when He/She wills that we “meditators” experience His/Her gathering us together, then it becomes collective worship. But worship, individual _or_ collective, comes as His/Her gift or not at all. As Paul wrote in Romans 8:26 — I paraphrase — we don’t know how to do it; the Holy Spirit does. As Barclay wrote in Proposition 11 in the _Apology_, “All other worship then . . . which [the person] sets about in his own will and at his own appointment, . . . they are all but superstitions, will-worship, and abominable idolatry in the sight of God” (p. 290, QHP ed.) That’s a little severe, but the point is well taken: we can’t truthfully say that we “made a phone call” to our Parent unless He/She answered the phone at the other end, enabling it.
    A second point is that if I love my fellow worshipers and want them, too, to experience contact with God, bringing reproof and correction, healing, forgiveness of sins, baptism of the Spirit, salvation, etc., as much as I want those things for myself, then I can more easily call it “worship” with a straight face than I can if I think of the other people in the meeting room as so much furniture. “if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another” (1 Jn 4:11 AV).

  • Bill Samuel says:

    Early Friends would have been aghast at that sign outside the so-called “meeting for worship.” They didn’t believe in a different truth for each person.

  • treegestalt says:

    What I intend in Meeting is ‘prayer’, ie to be knowingly present with and interacting with God. ‘Meditating’ can help move me in the right direction for that — but anything else can happen, instead, including riding a long train of thought into senseless (to me, anyway) dreaming.

    God communicates _in_ experiences, not necessarily in words (& not necessarily without them.) But what I’m needing to ‘hear’ in Meeting or private prayer tends to be beyond me. Like ‘growing up’, I can’t expect it to arrive at any given moment. Typically, a long period of frustrated bewilderment has to be trudged through before arriving at an “Oh!”

    I too am disturbed by the prevalence of Theophobia in contemporary culture, particularly in our Meetings. (But the absence of God, if that were even possible, would be far scarier. People think they’re living perfectly well without God — but only because of confused notions of what God is…) But while that renders Meetings a little bit lame, such Meetings still serve well as bridges to God.

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