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.