“That of God” in the Gathered Meeting
April 1, 2021 § 5 Comments
I suspect that many Friends would agree that the central principle of Quaker religion is the presence and activity of the Light within us. For early Friends, as for us, this is based on our experience, not on some legacy concept from our tradition which we then accept on faith. We know that something within us brings us into direct, unmediated communion with God.
To express this experience, early Friends did turn to their tradition. They found their experience articulated in the opening sentences of the gospel of John and called it accordingly, the Light: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1:9)
Today, many Friends have a new way to express our experience of the Light Within—“that of God” within. Whatever we call it, this presence, principle, or capacity within us still enlightens us, with its guidance, healing, conviction, forgiveness, renewal, strengthening, and inspiration. Though we rarely get into the metaphysics of how it works, the Light Within, or that of God within us, somehow enables for us holy communion.
The second essential and distinctive principle of the Quaker faith in my opinion is the gathered meeting. Not only can any individual commune directly with God, but also the worshipping community can commune directly with God as a community, without any mediating persons, rituals, or substances. This is the principle behind our worship practice and our discernment and decision making practice. We submit the call to ministry to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. We submit the governance of our community to the guidance of the Holy Spirit rather than to human politics. We surrender the gathered body to the Presence in our Midst.
What is this Presence? What enables the collective mysticism so distinctive to Friends? What is the corporate analog to the Light within each individual? Just as “that of God in everyone” is key to individual communion, so something is key to our collective communion. What do we call that something?
The traditional answer, of course, is Christ. It was the spirit of Christ who first gathered those Seekers on Firbank Fell in 1652, as George Fox opened the way for them with his preaching. In the centuries since, Friends have testified that it is the spirit of Christ who has gathered us and guided us as a movement.
However, this formulation no longer works for a lot of Friends. Without the kind of direct experience of Christ that so enlightened early Friends, many of us have become averse to a Christ-centered articulation of our experience. I feel the same way as regards the traditional salvific theology of Christ taught to us by the conventional church. But I have received an opening that reconnects my experience to my tradition in a continuing revelation. I share it only because I hope it will serve others as it does me.
First, as always for me, experience: we still are gathered in the Spirit now and again. Whatever we call it, something still is at the center of our worship, upwelling with Spirit, bringing us into mystical union with each other and with itself. That is, in the gathered meeting, the worshippers share something transpersonal, something that transcends our personal experience in the sharing, something that awakens in us collectively the deepest joy, gratitude, unity, and astonishment. Whatever we call it.
To express their experience of personal revelation of Spirit, early Friends turned to their tradition—to the Bible—and found in John’s gospel a way to express it—the Light. Where would we turn to express our experience of the gathered meeting, if not to our tradition, as well? Granted, we no longer have unity about the Bible’s authority. But the Bible’s authority is not the issue, for three reasons.
First, Friends have never given the Bible ultimate authority; that is the Spirit’s alone.
Second, where else would we turn? To the Upanishads or the Bhagavad Gita? To the Quran or the Analects of Confucius? To the humanist philosophies of Bacon, Locke, and Descartes?
The Christian context and the biblical content are our tradition. They are the only spiritual tradition we have in common. To turn away from them is to hack at our own roots with the axe of perversity, with acts of peevish obstinacy. It’s a kind of collective self-wounding.
And here is my third reason for not denying the value of our tradition: the Bible is a proven vehicle for personal revelation and renewal, even for those who reject its authority or find parts of it disagreeable, as I do and I have. Experience proves that one can find “that of God” in the scriptures. That’s why denying their value is perverse.
That doesn’t mean that they are above criticism or correction. Nor do I deny how they have been weaponized for oppression and suffering; this was my original reason for turning against Christianity and the Bible. The Bible is not holy, nor would I even call it sacred, except insofar as it can be a channel for revelation. Building on its value as a potential channel for revelation fosters continuing revelation.
Thus, for me, the expression that works to name “that of God” in the gathered meeting is the spirit of Christ. I am making no claims here about Jesus as the Christ, but trying to name a bridge between my experience and my tradition.
Here’s why: “Christ” means, in Greek, “anointed” (as does the Hebrew word “messiah”). So “the spirit of Christ” is the spirit of anointing. The same spirit of anointing that Jesus experienced and declared for himself in the fourth chapter of Luke: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me; he has anointed me (christ-ed me) to proclaim good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18).
That spirit anointed all the prophets before Jesus. It anointed Jesus. It anointed the disciples at the Pentecost. It anointed the Seekers on Firbank Fell. And it anoints us today, in our vocal ministry and for our other ministries. It anoints us in the gathering of our community into oneness and joy. Whatever we call it.
I call it the spirit of Christ, the spirit of anointing. For me, the spirit of Christ/anointing is “that of God” within the gathered meeting.