January 17, 2021 § 7 Comments
A Friend of mine recently shared that some other Friends in his meeting experience “negative reactions—even visceral ones—when reference is made to Jesus or Christianity during worship”. I’ve been one of these people, actively hostile to Christianity and the Bible, in vocal ministry, in First Day School curriculum, and so on. I’ve changed my mind since then. So I have a tenderness for Friends who feel this way, on the one hand, and a convert’s zeal for pushing back, on the other.
As a result of this transformation, and because I’m a theologian by calling, I have labored a long time and very deeply with how I now identify regarding my own Christianity. I like the response Friend Don Badgley uses when asked whether he is a Christian: What do you mean by “Christian”? But actually, almost no matter how someone might define being Christian, my answer will be no. The main reason is that I have never felt directly called by him into his discipleship.
However, clearly, many, many people have felt so called, some of whom I know intimately and personally, and some of whom, like Fox, have convinced me of the genuineness of their experience through their powerful testimony. Because I respect and trust their testimony, I therefore believe as an article of faith that there is a spirit of Christ who calls some people into his discipleship and who, according to the testimony of the first Friends, originally gathered Friends as a peculiar people of God and has guided the movement for most of its history.
Thus I consider myself a guest in the house that Christ built. I believe he is real and the house is his. Thus, I believe the Religious Society of Friends to be a Christian religious movement. Which is not the same as feeling free to answer unequivocally that Quakers are Christians. The majority of us are Christians, by far. We have been so for most of our history, by far.
And even those Quaker communities in which some members are deeply uncomfortable identifying as Christian—none of these meetings have, to my knowledge, ever tested their identity in a meeting for worship with attention to the life of the meeting and then declared, by a sense of the meeting gathered under the guidance of the Spirit, that they are no longer Christian. Technically, then, according to “Quaker process”, those meetings retain their ancient historical testimony as Christians until they discover themselves otherwise in a gathered meeting.
Meanwhile, I would describe many meetings in my experience in the liberal branch as post-Christian. They may not have formally declared themselves post-Christian, but most of the members don’t identify as Christian and their testimony—their vocal ministry, their witness, and culture—do not express a Christian worldview, however you might define that. Post-Christians have moved into the master bedroom and Christ has been thrown out onto the living room couch—or out of the house altogether.
I don’t feel that way, and I can’t act that way anymore. I feel grateful to be included in the Quaker fold as a lamb who has been invited in, and I gladly sleep on the couch in Christ’s gracious big-tent tabernacle. This means two things, a negative and a positive: I do not (any longer) persecute those who testify to their Teacher, and I actively welcome, desire, pray for, Christian and biblical vocal ministry and the other ways in which my Christian Friends testify to their Guide. They are at home in the house he built—or should be.
It is quite weird to be a member of a Christian movement and not be a Christian myself. This paradox has defined my religious life ever since I became a Friend. The only thing that mutes the dissonance this creates is the fact that the meetings I have belonged to and participated in have all been (non-declared) post-Christian in their culture. Which means that they are comfortable with my non-Christian-ness (though they sometimes act surprised when I sound like a Christian).
On the other hand, however, I will not countenance anti-Christian behavior in any meeting I am a part of. Someone should have eldered me when I did that, and Friends who act that way can expect me to ask some questions.
October 15, 2019 § 2 Comments
A Friend commented on my previous post and my reply got so long that I decided to make it its own post. I had started out focused on what different people want from the life of the spirit, but soon found myself in deeper territory.
An awful lot of Friends, in my experience, are not in the life of the spirit for the radical personal transformation Ellis Hein describes (though I am myself). They want religious community, meaningful companionship in their journey. Or they want a spiritual grounding and a tradition from which to work as transformers of our world. Or, even if they are “mystics”, they want to engage with the world and with other seekers after truth, rather than to withdraw from the world—they are attracted to the Quaker way of “practical mysticism”; and, again, they want religious community in which to deepen their relationship with whatever they are experiencing. And most, I suspect, do not want someone to preach at them about how they must do all this or someone demanding that they name their experience a certain way.
This is the genius of liberal Quakerism, it seems to me, that we recognize that there are a lot of totally legitimate desires, temperaments, or even desiderata, for anyone on spiritual journey. In fact, these are the impulses that have shaped Quakerism from the beginning. I suspect that George Fox wanted some of the things I list in the paragraph above himself, maybe all of them. But I think he got ahead of himself.
Fox was a genius, but he fell into the same trap he sought to escape: he didn’t want anybody to tell him what he should do with his soul, then he turned around and started telling others what they should do with theirs. He demanded faith in Jesus Christ, and not just any Jesus Christ—his understanding of Christ.
I would love to ask Fox and Burrough and Penington how they knew that what they were experiencing was Jesus Christ. And why they took the leap that Don Badgley alludes to in his comment on my last post, the leap take by traditional Christianity itself, from the proclaimer to the proclaimed. Jesus pointed his disciples toward the Father; now we point to the son. How did we get from the universal to the particular, and why is the particular more precious, more deserving of worship, than the Deeper Truth and Source of Love that the Galilean mystic had found the way to.
This narrow gate to heaven was built almost immediately, certainly by the writing of John’s gospel: no one cometh unto the father but by me. Really? One might claim that hundreds of millions of Buddhists (for instance) are writing with a cheap Bic pen—though that’s a very arrogant thing to say—but to claim that they can’t write at all is just ridiculous.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the particular. Airy, lofty statements about the absolute and universal and eternal God, who is too transcendent to put into words, seem to me to be speculation that meets some kind of need for the importance of our own way of believing and worshiping, but not very spiritually satisfying in the life I’m living. Yes, some of us get hints about how cosmic “God” is. But where do you go from there? Most of us want something more relevant to our lives. Hence the experience of Jesus Christ.
But my question is, what about the experience of “Jesus Christ” suggests, let alone proves, that the spirit we’ve encountered inwardly is the risen spirit of Yeshua, the Galilean we encounter in Christian scripture? (And which Jesus are we talking about—John’s preach-the-long-sermons Jesus? the Lamb of Revelations? Mark’s much more accessible and “human” Jesus?) And why would we leap to the conclusion that this particular spirit is, in fact, nothing less than God God’s self?
The answer to the first question—how do we know we’re experiencing the Yeshua of Christian scripture resurrected?—or put another way, where does our experience get its name tag?—pretty much has to be the cultural context in which we live. Would a Babylonian mystic in 585 BCE have named the spirit he encountered Jesus Christ? Or are we claiming that she either did not have a legitimate spiritual experience at all or that the spirit she experienced was some kind of demon, a false god. That’s the traditional exclusionist answer I was taught as an evangelical Lutheran child.
The answer to the parenthesis—which Jesus are you experiencing?—is also, I suspect, a matter of accident and subjective preference: which tradition are you drawing from, which Jesus appeals to your own temperament? Quakers have always loved the Jesus of John’s gospel, never mind his relentless anti-Semitism and wordy theologizing. I happen to prefer Mark’s Jesus. My point is that they are not at all the same. They have all been filtered for us already by the cultural contexts and subjective preferences of the evangelists, Paul, and the other writers of the books of Christian scripture.
The tradition claims, of course, that God, or God’s spirit, inspired all these writers and therefore their Jesuses are all the same, even though they talk and act differently. But how do we know that? Objective observation contradicts the idea. This is just a canonical decision made by the tradition for doctrinal reasons.
The answer to the last questions—how do we conclude that, in experiencing Jesus Christ as risen spirit, we are at the same time experiencing God God’s self—again, this conclusion seems to me to depend on culture. The trinitarian idea of the Son’s equality with the Father wasn’t even settled at the Council of Nicea in 325, whatever the writers of the Nicean creed would like to have hoped. In fact, it was still in debate in George Fox’s time.
On top of this cultural accident of whether we are Quakers or Baptists or Catholics—or Buddhists, or traditional Hopi—we add our own need to make our religious lives as significant as possible. At least, Christian communities do. In practice, actual individuals seem quite content to talk about universals and absolutes, but what really matters to them is a sense of personal relationship, a meaningful and coherent way to understand their experience, and a community with which to celebrate and explore their experience.
But back to the Quaker particular. The spirit of Christ—my name for whatever spirit answered Fox’s condition and gathered the first Children of Truth into a people of God, which assumed a name more or less determined by cultural accident—is not a figment of cultural imagination, in my opinion. I believe the spirit of Christ is real.
For I am not saying that our forbears and contemporary Christian Quakers are wrong about their experience of the Christ; I am saying that they and we have usually overlaid that experience with interpretations that go beyond our own personal experience and come to us through our culture, the legacy of the tradition through which we attempt to understand our experience.
Nor is that overlay wrong, either, just because it’s essentially an accident of birth place, time, and culture. It’s just that we cannot with integrity make universal and absolute claims about it. We can only testify to its value for us, as individuals and as communities.
In my next post I want to get into why I believe Jesus Christ is “real” and why I think it matters to Quaker meetings.
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.
June 20, 2017 § 7 Comments
Jesus, the Christ, and I—Part 8
In my last post I asked why it matters what we call the Mystery Reality behind our religious experience as Quakers and I implied that we should call it Christ.
First let me say that I think we should name our own personal experience whatever we experience it as. I am not trying to force some idea or obligation on anyone. In fact, for many of us, naming our experience really isn’t important, and it shouldn’t be. This freedom to name our own experience is one of the great gifts of liberal Quakerism.
The naming only becomes important for the community. We, as meetings and as the Religious Society of Friends, do need to name our collective experience, I feel.
But why? And why call it Christ?
Why name our collective religious experience at all?
I have one negative answer and three positive ones. One is empirical, the second is sociological, the third is experimental, and the fourth is a matter of faith.
First, what happens when we don’t name our collective experience? Second, we need a shared vocabulary in order to talk to each other, and to our children, and to newcomers and seekers about the Quaker way of worship. Third, the experience we seek and proclaim in our meetings for worship—gathering in the spirit, direct communion with the Divine—might be more common and more powerful if we shared a common understanding of it. And finally, and most important, and most controversially, I suspect, we should name our experience because we know from our experience that there is a there there, and it already has a name; that is, we should name it, and name it Christ, because the Mystery Reality behind our religious experience, both personal and collective, is real and already has a name.
Let’s look at the negative reason for naming our collective experience, the empirical one.
In the “liberal” unprogrammed tradition, we don’t name our collective religious experience anymore. Well, we call it the gathered meeting, but what I really mean is that we no longer have a common object of worship. We are no longer all aligning ourselves inwardly toward a common spiritual reality in meeting for worship.
We are all doing our own thing. Some of us are bringing techniques, thought and belief systems, and even gods from other traditions into worship. Many of us are just inwardly focused and rather vague about any supra-personal, transcendental reality in worship. Some considerable number of us have no experience or faith in “God” at all and may even be hostile to the idea.
So how’s that been going?
Not too well. Our numbers are steadily dwindling. Our children leave us. Support for our meetings, both financial and in service, is waning. Most importantly, to my mind, gathered meetings are few and far between.
The evidence is in. We have lost something that could animate our members, attract newcomers, and back up our claims that you can directly experience the Divine in your personal life and in collective worship. The “Religious” in the Religious Society of Friends is slowly fading away.
I was tempted to say that we now know experientially that cutting yourself off from your tradition weakens the movement. But we can’t really name the cause for this decline so simply or definitively. I think a lot of things are going on. Furthermore, you could say we’ve been in decline since 1700. John Woolman writes in is journal about an elderly Friend in his meeting that complained of decline when he was still a boy. We will always have hand-wringers, and I’m one of them.
But I am pretty sure that tearing your movement off its foundation is going to weaken the structure. Pull your tradition up by its roots and you can expect some damage to its fruits.
We know from direct experience, which we liberal Quakers have (properly) made into an essential benchmark of spiritual authority, that our decline correlates with our abandonment of the roots of our tradition.
You can’t prove anything with a negative. And this observation doesn’t offer any solutions. So in the next post, I want to explore the sociological case for greater definition and clarity about the Mystery Reality behind our experience.
June 6, 2017 § 2 Comments
Jesus, the Christ, and I—Part 7
So I’ve had these experiences of Jesus. But what of the Christ? What of Jesus Christ?
In the name Jesus Christ, Christ has become a kind of surname denoting Jesus as the Son of God. In traditional Christian theology, Jesus was already God when he incarnated, was always God, and so there would be no real distinction between the Jesus I have come to know and love from the gospels and the Christ, the one anointed by the Father to become the savior of humanity.
In my experience, however, there is a distinction. First of all, the Jesus I know from the (Synoptic) gospels is a much more complex and multi-faceted figure than Jesus-Christ-as-savior, which seems to me to be mostly a later Pauline mutation or emphasis.
More importantly, however, I have never experienced Jesus Christ as my savior, let alone as the savior of the human species. But I feel that I have experienced Christ. Or rather, that’s what I have chosen to call it. In none of my experiences of the Christ has the Christ come to me with a name tag on, clearly identifying himself/herself/itself to me as Jesus Christ.
As for my transcendental experiences of Jesus, I have projected onto them material from my unconscious that gives him the visual aspect of the kind of stereotype common in popular religious pictures, one that is decidedly European looking, not Semitic. I cannot know, in fact, whether I was really experiencing Jesus Christ, the resurrected and divine spirit of Jesus. But something transcendental was definitely happening. Some kind of spiritual, or even religious, connection was manifesting.
So also with the gathered meetings for worship I’ve experienced. Something transcendental yet real is happening in the gathered meeting. I know this because we collectively, psychically share the experience of it.
I call that something the Christ, the spirit of Christ. I call the medium in which these collective psychic experiences take place in worship the Christ. I call the emergent phenomenon of shared religious experience the Christ.
Why the Christ? Since these experiences come to me without a name, I am free to name them according to any criteria. I could call it brahman from my background in yoga. Or the Buddha-mind, or some such.
However, because I feel called into the Quaker way as my path, my tradition, and my community, I choose to use its criteria. Because thousands of Quakers before me have already testified to the Christ as the Spirit in whom they worship, in spirit and in truth, I embrace their testimony. They testify that we were first gathered in the spirit as a people of God by Christ and that we have been sustained by him ever since.
It seems to me nonsensical and deeply disrespectful to reject their testimony. Who am I to insist that my experience is superior to theirs (or rather, that my non-experience nullifies theirs). Or that their experience is something other than what they testify, some projection of their unconscious, say.
On the other hand, my experience does not correspond to theirs in some fundamental ways. Early Friends and their spiritual descendants equated this inward experience, which I call the Christ, with Jesus the Nazorean, with the figure in the gospels. They experience him as a him, not as an it, as a discreet spiritual entity with personhood, capable of relationship, who has a name and a story. I’ve not had that experience.
I don’t reject the possibility of such an entity. In fact, my own metaphysical background and leanings and personal experience suggest that “angels” do exist, discreet spiritual entities capable of relationship. I have my own ideas about what’s going on there, but my point is that I suspect that Jesus Christ does exist in the forms that early Friends and others have experienced. I just have no experience of him as such myself.
At the same time, I suspect that, just as I have, these Friends were projecting onto their experiences material from their own unconscious minds after all (and perhaps from their movement’s and their society’s collective unconscious, also—I am this much of a Jungian). How could they not?
I hold both views at the same time without paradox or contradiction. Jesus Christ is real, and at the same time, the experience of the Christ as a spirit by a person or a by a community is an emergent phenomenon that is shaped in part by social, psychological, and cultural forms and norms. I call it “emergent” in the way that harmonies emerge when two compatible notes are struck; or more aptly, perhaps, the way DNA expresses differently based on the bio-chemical micro-environment, so as to make even identical twins with the very same DNA quite different people in some ways.
This is just a metaphor, of course. The spiritual reality is quite a mystery. Quakers experience a transcendent spiritual reality in the gathered meeting, and occasionally in their own spiritual journeys. We may call this reality different things, but we share the experience of it.
Some Friends—many Friends, I suspect—think that it doesn’t really matter what you call it. I think it does. And I call it the Christ.
Why do I think it matters? And why the Christ? Why do I side with the weight of our tradition? Why make this choice as a matter of faith?
Because the micro-environment of the meeting for worship and the ecosystem of a Quaker meeting in which the Spirit manifests, these affect the expression of a community’s spiritual DNA. And our movement’s DNA is the Christ and the ChristianQuaker tradition.
I want to go into this in my next post.
June 3, 2017 § 6 Comments
Jesus, the Christ, and I—Part 6
In my last post, I talked about how Jesus has appeared to me as a presence and apparition a couple of times in meeting for worship and how this has informed my faith and practice. But those experiences, as important as they were, pale in comparison to a more recent one. Jesus came to me, and to my father, the night my father died. Or at least, that’s how I experienced it.
My father suffered from pretty severe dementia in the last few years of his life. I became quite engaged with his care and we became quite close, in an odd but sweet way that was shaped by both his dementia and our karma. I think he was completely surprised that I stepped up the way that I did.
Soon after receiving the call that he had died, I began weeping uncontrollably. This lasted a long time and was so violent that my wife began to worry.
Then I had a powerful sense of my father’s presence. I asked him to forgive me for all the pain I had caused him; he asked me to forgive him. I was overwhelmed with grief and gratitude and with joy and sorrow. I cried out from my soul.
Then Jesus came. All these feelings, both good and bad, intensified, when I thought that that couldn’t be possible. He had come for my dad, but he stayed with us both for what seemed a long time—many minutes. He did not speak. No one “spoke”—we just stood in each other’s presence.
Then this portal opened, with the light streaming down, the whole thing—only it was for my dad, not for me. And then they left together, but again, all in extremely slow motion, as though they were strolling.
The time that it took and the sense of presence and the intense, light-filled image baked something into my opened and suffering soul. I knew a beautiful, sorrowful peace.
It was maybe half an hour before I could explain to my worried wife what had happened.
I treasure this experience, but I did not come away absolutely convinced that it was “real”. I fully accept that the whole thing could have been a projection of my deep need to reconcile with my dad. And it did not utterly erase my feelings of guilt and sorrow over our relationship, though it has helped a lot.
Nor did it did generate a new kind of relationship with Jesus, at least not in the traditional forms that I recognize in my Christian friends, one that is central to my religious life. No more than did the earlier experiences of Jesus did this one “convince” me to be a Christian, meaning “convincement” in the traditional Quaker sense of conversion.
However, the experience did deepen and strengthen the relationships that I already had with Jesus. It added a profound thankfulness to the deep respect I felt for the figure I had found in the gospels, who had manifested for me as a reconciler, just as the scriptures had proclaimed. And the figure that had heretofore been a vague and rather distant or abstract visitor in meeting for worship—the experience brought him up close and personal, manifesting in at least a momentary intimacy. And it deepened this germinal faith that I had developed from those prior “visitations”; it confirmed my impulse to act as though there might be a there there, even though I had not been given the full assurance that I see in many of my Christian Friends.
June 2, 2017 § Leave a comment
Jesus, the Christ, and I—Part 6
Soon after my return to Bible study for my book on Christian earth stewardship, while at Pendle Hill in the winter and spring terms of 1991, a time almost exactly bookended by the first Gulf War, I had an extraordinary transcendental experience of Jesus.
Pendle Hill has a meeting for worship every morning and I attended faithfully. Those were some of the most gathered meetings for worship I’ve ever known—there’s something about that room. And I suspect that it really helped that Bill and Fran Taber were there then, as were Doug Gwyn, Chris Ravndal, and a number of other deep Friends, both staff and students.
One morning, I was feeling very centered when suddenly I became acutely aware of a woman sitting diagonally across from the meeting room from me. My focus just zoomed in on her. After a few short moments, I had an eidetic image of Jesus standing behind her, a figure in the classic mold—white robes, long hair, placid face—but apparitional—vivid and well-defined, but also transparent. I could see through him to the people sitting behind him. Very much like the painting The Presence in the Midst.
Then that woman stood up and spoke.
I was startled, electrified. I don’t remember the message, but I never forgot the feeling of prescience and connection. The psychic dimension of the experience was undeniable, and I accepted the vision as a legitimate aspect of the experience, a manifestation of the Spirit, maybe even an actual visitation of Jesus himself.
The same thing has happened one other time, though not so vividly. In fact, I no longer remember the details of this second instance.
Since then I have pondered these experiences, but delicately and experimentally—I am careful not to overcome the mystery and the sense of presence I have felt with too much analysis. (In this, I feel a certain kinship with Mary, Jesus’s mother, pondering her own experience of visitation.) I tend to identify these manifestations as Jesus, but as I think of them, I ascribe them to Christ, that is, to the non-historical Spirit in which a meeting for worship is gathered.
Also since that first experience, I have felt led to envision Jesus standing behind anyone who offers vocal ministry in meeting for worship as a form of supporting prayer. A few years ago, I took this prayer a step farther: I began asking Christ to come into our midst, as in the painting. Once, in a rare for me instance in which I felt my vocal ministry was pulled out of me without any control on my part, I found myself on my knees asking Christ out loud to come among us. Other times, sometimes, I feel something . . . .
This combination of occasional manifestation, my pondering, and the practice of praying Christ’s presence has given rise to a certain kind of faith. For decades that faith has remained rather vague and inarticulate. I just have felt sure that something was happening that deserved my respect, even though the encouraging experiences are few and far between. But they have occurred often enough to keep me in my practice of faith, hope, and tentative expectation.
June 1, 2017 § Leave a comment
Jesus, the Christ, and I—Part 6
In 1990, Buffalo Meeting (NY) asked New York Yearly Meeting’s Friends in Unity with Nature Task Group, of which I was a member, to bring them a program for the twentieth anniversary of Earth Day, which was still being celebrated on Sundays then. Another Friend in FUN and I answered that call.
On the Saturday night before our program, I went over my notes and then meditated, and in that meditation I was given an opening that changed my life. I saw that if Christ was the Logos, the Word through whom “all things were made that were made” (John 1:2) and in whom all creation was sustained, and toward whom all evolution was moving (a la Teilhard de Chardin), then destroying creation was re-crucifying Christ. Matthew Fox had already articulated this idea, I think, but I didn’t know that at the time. If felt new and revolutionary, at least for anyone who took the gospel of John seriously.
The idea kept expanding and the next morning, I had a new message; I had discarded my original notes. Buffalo Meeting was a little cool to the message, as I remember. I was unsure myself. I had spent years pulling up Christian and biblical messages from Quaker meetings as though they were weeds.
But the opening kept expanding over the weeks after this experience until eventually, I realized I was led to write a book of Bible-based earth stewardship. A classic “cross to the will”, as elder-day Friends used to say: my own will as an anti-Christian was being crucified by God’s prompting to do something that until then I had abhorred.
I was familiar with the Bible but I had never really studied it in a focused way. I didn’t know what I needed to know to write this book.
I went to Pendle Hill for two terms to begin my research and then took a course from the School of the Spirit in The Prophetic Tradition. Bible study at Pendle Hill, with Doug Gwyn in class, and in the library on my own, immersed me in an environment that felt like home.
Then decisively, the course on The Prophetic Tradition included in its reading list John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus. In that book was a chapter on the economics of Jesus’s gospel as presented in Luke, and it focused especially on Jesus and the Jubilee. The Jubilee (described in Leviticus 25) called for the cancelation of all debts, the release of all debt slaves, the return of all families that had lost their family farm to foreclosure back to their ancestral inheritance, and for fields to remain fallow for the year. That chapter set me on a new course and sparked a love affair.
I studied the Jubilee and the rest of the “economic” instructions in Torah and dove more deeply into the gospels. Once I had learned the principles and the vocabulary of debt, redemption, and release in Torah, I saw it everywhere in the teachings and the actions of Jesus (at least of the Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke; John’s Jesus and John’s Christ have been stripped of the radical economics).
I ended up abandoning my first book on Christian earth stewardship after virtually finishing it because I became convinced that Christian earth stewardship theology was a dead end. But discovering what I have come to call the economics of redemption in the common-wealth of God in the teachings of Jesus led me to write a second book, which eventually went beyond its original focus on earthcare to become a new reading of the gospel of Jesus as a whole.
I had been led to Jesus, and to Jesus as the Christ. For the one place in the (Synoptic) gospels in which Jesus unequivocally declares himself the Christ (Luke 4:16–30), he defines his “Christ-hood” as the one sent by God to declare and fulfill the Jubilee, the “year that Yahweh favors”. Relief for the poor was the heart of the gospel and the mission of the Christ!
The excitement of that discovery has lasted to this day. I fell in love with this new Jesus I had discovered hidden in the gospels, whose truth had never been taught to me before.
This love is peculiar to my type of religious temperament: it is the love of study, of learning, and of deeply reverent appreciation of the subject of one’s study. You see this love in the work of Teilhard de Chardin and Martin Buber. It is the love of a person for whom the life of the mind and the life of the spirit are conjoined, for whom the openings that come with intense, spirit-led Bible study bring a kind of ecstasy and transform your soul.
This love is not an arid intellectual thing. It is mystical. It is, I suspect, at the heart of the rabbinical way to God. It is much more at home in Judaism than in Christianity. In Judaism, study of Torah is the highest religious calling, and a path to communion. And it keeps breaking out in specifically mystical forms in Judaism, of which the Kabbalah is the most well known.
To me, the more interesting manifestation is Merkabah mysticism, the mystical practice of studying the first chapter of Ezekiel leading to visions of Yahweh’s throne chariot (the “wheel within a wheel” from the African-American spiritual). I am fascinated by Merkabah mysticism because this mystical tradition is much older the the Kabbalah, and in fact, is, some think, its root tradition. It seems to reach back almost to Jesus himself. I believe Paul was a proto-merkabah mystic. But that’s another story.
My study of the Jubilee-prophet Jesus has yielded dozens of near-ecstatic openings, two books, and a decades-long love of the man, the teachings, the mission, and the Christ he declared himself to be.
May 31, 2017 § 1 Comment
Jesus, the Christ, and I—Part 5
In 1979, a “chance” encounter with a story in the New York Times brought me into contact with the traditional Mohawk community in upstate New York, which has not only retained their traditional spirit-ways but also included at the time the most sophisticated political philosophers in the indigenous world. Thus began a years-long and intense period of study of First Nation history, culture, and spirituality—and with it the traditional indigenous critique of Christianity and Christian Europe.
At the same time, I was immersing myself in radical feminist thought, especially radical feminist spirituality and theology. Mary Daly’s Beyond God the Father had an especially powerful influence on me.
I became rather rabidly anti-Christian. I now had two new frameworks in which to articulate feelings I’d had for a long time. The roots, no doubt, lie in my conflict with my evangelical father. But the long history of violence and oppression by the imperial church in all its forms gave me reason and argument. The seemingly ceaseless religious wars, the witch burnings, the genocide of indigenous peoples, the hunting of heretics, the sanction of human slavery, the institutional corruption and wealth, the ideological contradictions and hypocrisy, Paul’s corruption of Jesus’ gospel into a Greco-Roman mystery religion, all in the name of Jesus—I got angry and stayed angry for a long time.
I couldn’t help but hold Jesus Christ accountable. If he existed; if Jesus Christ really was a sentient spiritual entity who was shepherd to his flock, who answered prayers, who paid attention to history or even played a part in its unfolding, who had a “plan” for the salvation of the world—who was a god not only in history but of history—then where was he when all this evil was taking place in his name? I had no use for a god who was awol from his own religious domain, especially when the church claimed paradoxically that he was uniquely involved in history.
By then, I had separated Jesus from the Christ in some ways. The Jesus I found in the Bible was okay. The christ as a spirit of divine manifestation, as an avatar of some kind, made sense to me, but had no direct connection to the Jesus of scripture. Jesus Christ, the god that Paul had invented and bequeathed to history, was incomprehensibly selective in his attention to individuals and altogether negligent in his attention to the world he had created—if he existed at all.
And that was just the distant, negligent, unreliable son. The father seemed in some ways a jealous, vengeful, and bloodthirsty monster, if you took the biblical accounts seriously. And I did.
When I finally found Quakers, I expressed this hostility. I harassed the Christians in my meeting for their Christian and biblical vocal ministry. I kept my meeting from teaching my kids the Bible. I was at war with Jesus, or at least with the religion he had allowed to grow to such demonic power in his name.
It would be a few years before he found me again and took me back. Well, that’s one way to put it. I’m still not sure whether he is a he there who could do such a thing as come to find me, and I’m not sure whether I’m “back”. I still don’t think of myself as a Christian. What I do know is that a powerful opening with the Christ at the center healed me of my anger and turned me one hundred and eighty degrees.
May 29, 2017 § 6 Comments
Jesus, the Christ, and I—Part 4
I entered college hungry to find meaningful religious experience. I didn’t give up on my Lutheran roots right away. I became very close to the Lutheran campus pastor at Rutgers College and spent many long hours struggling over my faith with Pastor Strickler. But my questions only got more demanding and more refined.
Then in my sophomore year, I got turned on to pot and early in my junior year, LSD. There I found some of the experience I had been looking for.
It’s common to hear people proclaim that drug-induced experiences are not real religious experiences. That may be true, insofar as “religious” experiences take place within the context of a religious tradition or their “content” relates to a deity. But these psychedelic experiences were “spiritual” for sure; they were transcendental, inwardly transforming, and for me, beneficial, a positive influence, especially on my inner life. They awakened me to the presence and workings of the Holy Spirit.
Psychedelic drugs showed me that my search for religious experience was not in vain, that the transcendental was real, that my own consciousness was vastly more subtle, beautiful, capable, and connected than I had thought, and that everything was infused with the Holy Spirit, especially other beings. The very structures of consciousness itself were revealed to me, in some modest degree, by those acid trips.
Still, these experiences were limited. And drugs are hard on you. I never got into the really dangerous non-psychedelics, the opiates, speed, cocaine, downers. But it takes a couple of days to fully recover from an acid trip, and being stoned all the time on pot isn’t good for you, either.
But the doors of perception had been opened for me. I now knew that there was a there there. I kept searching.
My perspective on religious experience deepened again when I became a serious student of yoga, which I dedicated myself to as a spiritual path for a number of years, beginning almost at the same time as I discovered psychedelics. I began with Transcendental Meditation in 1968 and soon became a student of Kriya Yoga in the school started in America by Paramahansa Yogananda.
I had the best yoga teachers imaginable, humble, truly expert practitioners who were gifted teachers and deeply spiritual themselves. Moreover, this was a path that was healthy, sustainable, scientific, and intellectually very satisfying. More important, it delivered.
As a science of consciousness, yoga is thousands of years old, extremely sophisticated, and fully tested; it works in ways that no Christian path does that I know of.
Some claim that Jesus traveled to the east, that he was an avatar, an incarnation of Krishna, or at least, that he was a mystic in the eastern mold. I see no evidence of this. He seems very semitic to me. He wouldn’t have had to travel anywhere to learn a mystical practice, anyway; the Greco-Roman world was full of its own mystical traditions. More importantly, so was Judaism.
There are hints, I think, that Jesus may have practiced some form of “meditation”. At least he recommended praying in private in a “closet”, in contrast to the prevailing Jewish practice of his time, in which people prayed publicly and out loud. He had visions, led his disciples into visionary experience, and in Gethsemane, seems to have expected some form of prayer to effect some form of divine manifestation. And Paul was some kind of mystic.
But subsequent Pauline Christianity basically never integrated a meaningful science, metaphysics, and practice of deepening consciousness in its worship or in its lay devotional practice, let alone one that can compare with yoga. And it has historically been hostile to its own mystical movements, often violently so.
The strength of Christian practice is devotion, love for God, what yogis call bhakti yoga—music and singing, focusing rituals involving the senses, religious art, rosary beads and lighting candles, and appeals to surrender the will in faith and righteousness. These devotional tools can be very satisfying for people with a bhakti temperament. But bhakti yoga is not my path.
So I let Jesus go. He seemed irrelevant, with no real path to experience him directly and reliably that appealed to me. High church ritual seemed empty to me and the altar call, the “low church” appeal to surrender the will to Jesus as my savior, seemed an answer to a question I wasn’t asking. Meanwhile, I had found what I was looking for: a door inward to my spiritual center, practices that got me there consistently and reliably, a thought system that explained and supported the practice in a coherent and “scientific” way, all presented in a tradition that was ancient and venerable.
It would be decades before Jesus and I reconnected.