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?