“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.

§ 5 Responses to “That of God” in the Gathered Meeting

  • Don Badgley says:

    I ask Friend Ellis if another interpretation is possible. “To express this experience, early Friends did turn to their tradition.” I read this as, upon the Experience of the Divine Light reordering their lives, Friends used the words, understandings and traditions of the 17th Century to express what is essentially inexpressible. Those words needed to be understood by those who listened and were intended only to point toward the Experience, the Experience that can only explain itself.

    • Ellis Hein says:

      Don Badgley, this does not seem to admit another interpretation. The voice that spoke to Fox did not say, “there is one, lets call him Christ Jesus so others can understand what you are pointing to, who can speak to your condition.” This is a simple case of identification such as when Saul of Tarsus asked on the road to Damascus, “Who are you?” and the voice replied, “I am Jesus whom you persecute.” Again, with Burrough’s introduction to Vol. III of Fox’s Works, we are looking at revelation rather than a groping to explain the inexpressible. Yes, you are correct, the end (goal) of all the work of the early Friends was to point others to an Experience–Christ Jesus come to teach his people himself. In the two excerpts I quoted, we see two examples of this inward experience of Christ’s teaching “explaining itself”. Read through Fox’s Journal. Read through Edward Burrough’s Introduction. Yes, a long assignment, but a rewarding one! You will see a movement begun and carried on in God’s revelation of himself, his purpose, and his power in Christ Jesus.

      • Don Badgley says:

        Friend Ellis, we are very close on this. There is no doubt that Fox and other 17th Century Friends identified their Experience as Jesus the Christ. There is no doubt that this was the name Paul also gave. It seems to me, and based on my personal experience, that naming this Experience Jesus Christ is the language of a tradition that arises in scripture. I am easy with it until the moment that it becomes exclusive. The moment it excludes all who name it differently or do not name it at all, then I struggle. I give no authority to Fox or any other writer. These writings have essential value but only to the extent that they lead, point and confirm what I (and you) have experienced in the Light. I am not a Friend because of Fox’s writings or the writings about Jesus. Would Jesus exclude those who live in the Light but do not know his name? I am just a man, living my brief moment in flesh and have been blessed to experience that which is eternal. “The Spirit of Christ, by which we are guided is not changeable….” It is the Spirit that matters, not the traditional name or the often misguided and ossified religions and doctrines that have risen up to support exclusive human traditions. I trust to Love and trust that your experience and leading is pure and righteous. Beyond that, it is all just human words. “In the beginning was the Word…..” Now that I trust!

  • Ellis Hein says:

    To express this experience, early Friends did turn to their tradition.

    No, that gives the wrong impression of what happened. Consider Fox’s experience of coming to the end of himself, to the point of not knowing where to turn for help. The passage you know well:

    then, Oh ! then I heard a voice which said, There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.’ When I heard it, my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give him all the glory. For all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief, as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have pre-eminence, who enlightens, and gives grace, faith, and power. Thus when God doth work, who shall let it? This I knew experimentally. My desires after the Lord grew stronger, and zeal in the pure knowledge of God, and of Christ alone, without the help of any man, book, or writing. For though I read the scriptures that spake of Christ and of God, yet I knew him not but by revelation, as he who hath the key did open, and as the Father of life drew me to his son by his spirit. (Works of Fox, Vol. I, p.74)

    Also consider Edward Burrough’s statement:

    First the Lord brought us by his power and wisdom, and the word by which all things were made, to know and understand, and see perfectly, that God had given to us, every one of us in particular, a light from himself shining in our hearts and consciences; which light, Christ his son, the saviour of the world, had lighted every man withal; which light in us we found sufficient to reprove us, and convince us of every evil deed, word, and thought, and by it, in us, we came to know good from evil, right from wrong, and whatsoever is of God, and according to him, from what is of the devil, and what was contrary to God in motion, word, and works. (Works of Fox, Vol. III, p.12)

    These two quotes from early Friends portray God and Christ liberating people from man-made traditions and raising up a people who would live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

  • Don Badgley says:

    This is beautifully said and I unite with it in spirit and content. The understandings and Truth expressed in this post are the best hope of “Quakerism” surviving in the 21st Century. The “Church” appropriated and often perverted the Spirit of Christ as Experienced, taught and lived by Jesus of Nazareth. Friends were founded in an attempt to recover that Spirit. The task is unchanged today as is the Light and Source that anoints us.

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