The Soul

May 18, 2019 § 12 Comments

I saw David Brooks speak the other day. David Brooks is a conservative columnist in The New York Times and on PBS and NPR. I have not always agreed with his views, but I have always appreciated his moral sense and reasonableness. He was terrific—very funny, very insightful, with a deeply encouraging spiritual message: that we’ve been snookered into investing value and identity in outward things, but what really matters is relationships.

In his talk, he raised up a definition of soul that expresses something I’ve been reaching for in my Quaker writing for a long time, a way to talk about Spirit that is not theistic but still deeper and truer than the pure humanism that often characterizes Quaker nontheism. A way to anchor a theology—a way to talk about and share—liberal Quakerism that takes us forward, that honors the impulse against simplistic theism that animates our nontheists, an impulse that I share, without jettisoning our tradition completely.

Let me quote from the book he was promoting with the lecture (The Two Mountains):

I do not ask you to believe in God or not believe in God. I’m a writer not a missionary. That is not my department. But I do ask you to believe that you have a soul. There is some piece of your consciousness that has no shape, size, weight, or color. This is the piece of you that is of infinite value and dignity. . . .

The soul is the piece of your consciousness that has moral worth and bears moral responsibility. A river is not morally responsible for how it flows, and a tiger is not morally responsible for what it eats. But because you have a soul, you are morally responsible for what you do or don’t do. . . . Because you have this moral piece in you, you are judged for being the kind of person you are, for the thoughts you think and the actions you take.

Because each person has a soul, each person is owed a degree of respect and goodwill from others. [sound familiar?] Because each person has a soul, we are rightly indignant when that dignity is insulted, ignored, or obliterated. . . .

The soul is the seedbed of your moral consciousness and your ethical sense. . . .

Mostly, what the soul does is yearn. If the heart yearns for fusion with another person or a cause, the soul yearns for righteousness, for fusion with the good.

This last sentence is exactly how George Fox defined “that of God” within us, not as a piece of God within us, but as something in the conscience (which in 17th century English had a meaning closer to what we mean by consciousness) that yearned for God. It was this yearning that we could “answer” with our ministry, as he expresses it in the famous epistle that liberal Friends like to quote so often.

Of course, Fox was a theist and he believed it was God for whom we yearned, not just “fusion with the good”. But this distinction is one of faith, not really of practice, of doctrine rather than of living and acting. For Fox, the soul was more explicitly your identity before this God, something eternal. At the same time, however, Fox and early Friends did not fuss much about the afterlife or some deferred judgment; this life was what mattered and judgment was here and now. The soul might be immortal but what mattered was what it was doing in one’s lived life. In practice, Fox’s treatment of the soul was very similar to what David Brooks is proposing. And in practice, I see very little distinction between what Brooks means by the soul and what liberal Friends mean by “that of God in everyone”.

I will say, however, that both liberal Quakers and David Brooks focus on the wrong end of the ethical dynamic regarding the soul/that of God: Yes, murder or rape are abominations against another person’s soul, and against one’s own soul, as he says in his book. But the ethical impulse that turns us away from such abomination comes, not from regard for another person’s soul, but from the guidance of our own soul. Our testimonies are not grounded in the belief in that of God in everyone, but in the experience of that of God within ourselves, which seeks to guide us through this yearning for fusion with the good.

With this understanding of the human soul, we are talking about consciousness in an explicitly spiritual and moral sense without having to invoke the sin-judgment-salvation framework that we’ve inherited from our Christian roots, but also without abandoning its essential import for human action, personal transformation, and community life. We can speculate about where the soul comes from and where it goes when we die, but that’s just speculation. Real life happens right here and right now, and now, and now, until who knows what. This reality of the soul we know and can affirm experientially.

Next, I want to explore what I will call the collective soul, that piece of the consciousness of a community that years for fusion with the good. This collective soul is the medium of the gathered meeting. And I think it could bring us even closer to a new understanding of “God” or Spirit that is practicable, reasonable, experiential, and transcendental, mystical—deeper than a purely humanistic understanding of Quaker community and worship. And for me at least, it pushes right up against the membrane that separates us from simplistic theism. I call it para-theism.

For (in my opinion) nontheism leaves important aspects of our individual spiritual experience and our collective worship experience unexplained, unarticulated, incapable of being shared with others in a meaningful way. But simplistic theism fails to answer essential questions and assaults the intelligence of the inquiring seeker. I am reaching for something that satisfactorily explains what we experience in worship when our worship is gathered, a way to answer the question, what is Quaker worship?

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Are Quakers Christian?

April 13, 2019 § 12 Comments

Last week I attended a viewing of a relatively new documentary on Friends titled Quakers the Quiet Revolutionaries by The Gardner Documentary Group. The principals of the group, Janet Gardner and Dick Nurse, are members of Princeton Meeting in New Jersey. The film is quite good. The production quality is excellent and they covered quite a lot of ground very well. There were a couple of egregious misrepresentations of Friends, in my opinion, but overall, I give it a favorable rating.

As for these misrepresentations, the film claimed, as many liberal Friends do, that the foundation of the Quaker faith is the belief that there is that of God in everyone, and the film explicitly invoked the notion of a divine spark as the meaning of “that of God”. As my regular readers know, I believe this springs from ignorance of Fox’s real intention when using that phrase and of its revisioning by Rufus Jones around the turn of the twentieth century. It just isn’t true that this is the foundation of Quakerism or our testimonies. But I’m not digressing now into that theme.

The film also highlighted the SPICES in a scene with kids in a Quaker school. This scene made it clear why the odious SPICES are so successful—kids get it and they can remember it, sort of. Problem is, they’re getting the wrong thing. But no digression here, either.

In this post, I want to address a question that came from the audience in the Q&A: Are Quakers Christian?

The MC, Ingrid Lakey, and Dick Nurse gave what I thought were fairly satisfactory answers, given how difficult this question is to answer with integrity in the liberal branch. Their answers were the usual disclaimers about how diverse we are (it depends on who you ask) and good personal answers about the Inner Light. Here, however, is how I would have answered that question: Are Quakers Christian? Yes, mostly, yes, and it depends.

Yes—historically. Some meetings have become post-Christian only since the middle of the twentieth century. By post-Christian, I mean dominated by Friends who either never were Christians or have left behind their Christian upbringing. But the roots of the tree are Christian and most branches still draw their spiritsap from the Christian tradition. We are a Christian movement even if some of our meetings no longer identify that way.

Mostly—demographically. The vast majority of Friends today are Christians.

Yes—technically. By this I mean that Friends hold that we retain a tradition, identity, or position until we change it in a meeting for worship with attention to the life of the meeting held under the guidance of the Holy Spirit; that is, in a gathered meeting. Some yearly meetings have drifted into a post-Christian identity by a kind of thoughtless default as they remove more and more Christianity from their books of discipline. However, I know of no meeting that has ever clearly declared itself not Christian in a gathered meeting for business—or even considered the question, for that matter. Without such discernment, we remain technically Christian by our own standards—unless, as we apparently do, we consider these tacit unconsidered deletions from our formal statements of identity to be some kind of true discernment; or unless we think that just because our meeting doesn’t have many Christians that means Quakerism isn’t Christian. I don’t think this blind drift in our books of faith and practice does amount to true discernment, but I admit that this backing-out effect does carry some kind of weight—if there’s no Christianity there, then it’s not there—even if that weight is a negative weight of absence and is freighted with unconscious violations of the testimony of integrity.

Ultimately, whether we are Christian or not depends, not on who you ask or what you believe, but how you worship. It certainly is the case that many unprogrammed meetings are, in fact, post-Christian in terms of what most of their members believe. But more to the real point, since belief isn’t really the point, most liberal Friends do not put Jesus Christ at the heart of their religious lives and neither do their meetings.

That’s the real answer to the question, Are Quakers Christian? It depends, not on how a given individual might answer, and not even on how a meeting answers, but rather on how the meeting worships. Does your meeting worship Christ? Or—stretching things a little here—does your meeting understand itself to be worshipping in the spirit of Christ?

This begs a bunch of questions based on definitions, of course. What is worship? Who, or what, is Christ? And, following the stretch I offered just above, what is meant by “the spirit of Christ”? Questions for another post. Meanwhile, I think the answer for most unprogrammed meetings I know is: no, we’re not Christian. But are we then still Quaker?

As I’ve said many times in this blog, I think we in the liberal branch need to be more forthright about what our post-Christian reality really means. How can we claim to be Quakers and not be Christians? How can we claim to be a true branch of the vine when we have cut ourselves off from its roots? How can we claim our worship is true when it does not draw its spiritsap from the spirit of Christ?

I am going to make a bold apology for a clarified liberal Quaker identity that retains its roots and recovers worship in the spirit of Christ, but yet releases us from the orthodox Christian preoccupations that no longer speak to so many unprogrammed Friends.

It will take a while to unpack my thinking here. For one thing, I’m not done thinking. For another, a blog is really not the ideal format for the kind of long-form writing that careful theology requires. But this is the platform I have.

The Spirit

June 30, 2018 § 1 Comment

I have been reading Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, and the book really speaks to me. One of the reasons is that he begins with his own personal journey as a religious person, and my story mirrors his quite closely. Also, the “theology” that follows this autobiographical chapter retains this personal feel and is quite accessible. I’m used to reading dense theology and detailed biblical commentary, but it’s refreshing to read something so direct and yet so full of truth.

Borg’s book also builds an elegant bridge between our root Christian tradition and the religious sensibilities that now characterize the liberal Quaker movement. He offers an understanding of God, Jesus, and the religious life (he calls it the Christian life) that I think would appeal to many of us. Not, perhaps, to the dedicated non-theists among us, though his understanding does not require a traditionally theistic faith. The book’s Christian language may be off-putting to some, if they’ve come to experience it as toxic, but the ideas—the ideas speak to me, just as Borg’s personal story does. This book is for those of us who are not willing to jettison the core of the Quaker tradition, as non-theists must, but who still can’t buy the traditional theistic understanding of God that dominated our tradition until the maturing of the modern liberal Quaker movement.

In his initial broad outline of who Borg thinks the pre-Easter Jesus is, the Jesus we can glimpse from the gospels who is still unburdened by what the tradition has subsequently added or reinterpreted, he defines “the Spirit” in a way that I suspect might resonate with many liberal Friends.

First, he describes Jesus as a “spirit person”, “a ‘mediator of the sacred,’ one of those persons in human history to whom the Spirit was an experiential reality.” (p 33) Then, in a note, he talks about “Spirit”:

I use the phrase the Spirit in as generic a sense as possible, and not the specifically Christian sense of the (Holy) Spirit. By the Spirit I mean the sacred, understood as that nonmaterial reality or presence that is experienced in extraordinary moments. Religious traditions name it various ways. In Christian terms, Spirit is synonymous with God, so long as God is understood as an experiential reality and not as a distant being. (p. 42, note 26)

Borg goes on to talk about the implications of such a view for the Christian life: “It shifts the focus of the Christian life from believing in Jesus or believing in God to being in relationship to the same Spirit that Jesus knew.” (p. 39)

God as an experiential reality rather than as a distant being—to me, that is simple and elegant, and, for me, it’s true. My own definition of God for a long time has been the Mystery Reality behind our religious and spiritual experience—whatever that experience is. It’s real; we know it is real because the experience has changed us for the better. But it’s also mysterious. It transcends normal experience, normal consciousness.

And it’s transpersonal—it comes to us from beyond the boundaries of the self. At least it does sometimes, for example, in the gathered meeting, which has a psychic dimension of communion with the other worshippers. That dimension, that medium for the communion between the worshippers, that transcendental, transpersonal sharing of consciousness that takes place in the gathered meeting, is the sacred, the Spirit, for me. It’s not a distant being; it’s an experiential reality.

Many spiritual and religious experiences are solitary experiences, utterly internal and subjective, and so perhaps merely projections of our own inner workings, our subconscious minds, if you will. But we should not say “merely”. For there is nothing “mere” about it. These solitary experiences are also mysterious and real, and for the same reasons that the collective experience of the gathered meeting is real and mysterious. To say that the same Spirit we encounter in the gathered meeting is also that which we experience in these solitary experiences is a statement of faith; or more accurately, it testifies to a feeling of inward—and therefore unverifiable—knowledge.

Finding the Quaker path has integrated these two levels of experience in my life—my personal spiritual experiences, many of which have taken place outside the Quaker tradition, and the shared experience of Quaker community. The Quaker faith has given me a way to understand both in common terms. Quaker faith offers a common framework for meaning between my personal experience and our collective experience. And Quaker practice, especially, of course, the meeting for worship, has given me a way to renew that experience, to return to that dimension where the sacred mystery waits, waiting for me and for us to wash in its baptism again.

Sin and Evil

April 27, 2018 § 11 Comments

Ever since Dick Cheney was our torturer-in-chief, I have been thinking about the place of sin and, especially, of evil in modern liberal Quakerism and I’ve had some trouble sorting my own thoughts out. But I recently returned to my research for my book on Quakers and Capitalism and focusing on the rise of liberal Quakerism at the turn of the century, I started reading Thomas C. Kennedy’s British Quakerism, 1860–1920: The Transformation of a Religious Community (a terrific and very thorough book). In it I ran across a bibliographical citation that I hunted down: “The Influence of Rufus Jones on the Quaker view of sin and evil,” by Wilmer A. Cooper (Quaker Religious Thought, Volume 66, Article 4; available here).

Cooper claims that no one has had more influence on modern faith and practice than Jones and I found his little article very compelling. It has inspired me to finally start a series on sin and evil, starting with this historical piece. So here are some excerpts and some thoughts about about Jones’s take on sin.

Origin of sin. Cooper claims that Jones believed the source of sin to be “inherited ‘relics’ of fears, of appetites, of impulses, of instincts, and of desires” that arise from our biological nature, not as ‘original sin’ but as “raw material which is to be reshaped and molded into character”. (quotes are from Jones) At some point in our evolution, instinct and moral insight “collided” to give us a conscience, knowledge of good and evil.

This evolutionary approach actually makes some sense to me, in contrast to the utterly impossible and historically catastrophic myth of a first couple who were tempted by Satan, gave in, and infected the whole human race with original sin.

Transformation, not forgiveness. Coming from this view, Jones did not see sin as a debt to be paid or a condition to be forgiven, but a condition that required a transformation of “personality”. (“Personality” is a term much used by Friends around the turn of the century and does not mean what we usually mean today—our style as a person; but rather it denotes our personhood, the full expression of who we are as persons.) So sin comes, not from some human breaking of our relationship with God, but rather from a surrender of our will to lower instinctive impulses.

To Jones’s evolutionary approach I would add psychology, impulses that come from the unconscious, from our woundedness and our conditioning, especially as children. And then there’s mental illness. I want to treat these things separately in subsequent posts.

Thus, according to Jones, “there is nothing fundamentally wrong or bad about persons as such. There is no essential perversity of will.” (Cooper) Therefore what we need in Jones’s view is “spiritual illumination and moral re-enforcement. Christ is the source of both of these.” (Jones) What we need is not repentance but enlightenment coupled with renewed effort in the spirit of Christ.

Sin and liberal Quakers. This seems to me an elegant modern refreshment of the original Quaker focus on “perfection”, overcoming sin over and again, day in and day out, temptation by temptation, by turning toward the light of Christ within us, rather than through a one-time conversion based on faith in the atonement of Christ on the cross.

And, except for the Christ part, it does jive with how many Friends of my acquaintance seem to view sin, not as some inherent corruption in human nature, but essentially as a mistake. I’ve heard many Friends, for instance, claim that the biblical word for sin actually means “to miss the mark”, as though a sin was someone trying to do the right thing and failing.

To me, that seems like a liberal, make-nice idea designed to back us away decisively from the old theology of blood atonement and cuddle up to the idea of that of God in everyone. Hogwash. I do “believe” in sin and it’s choosing to do the wrong thing, not missing some aim at the ideal.

Atonement. As for atonement, Jones “did not reject the need for Atonement but took the view that the atoning role of Christ was exemplary. . . . This view holds that Christ atones for our sin by providing an example, a model, which draws us toward God and excites us to emulate the life of Jesus and the way of the cross.” (Cooper)

I don’t think an “example” really qualifies as “atonement”; I would quibble with the semantics here. But I am clear that atonement through a propitiatory blood sacrifice required of his (sic) son by a judging deity is not only repellant to me as a moral person (talk of bad example!), but unthinkable in the the mind of Jesus himself, and thus a heretical, and dangerous, pagan belief. Such blood sacrifices were required by Baal, God’s arch-rival in Hebrew scripture (Baal was a sacrificed dying-and-rising god himself). Thus such human sacrifice was the ultimate abomination in the eyes of the Hebrew prophets. This rejection of filial sacrifice in the Jewish tradition goes all the way back to Abraham and Isaac. Or for that matter, in the negative example, to Cain and Abel, which was not a murder, but a human sacrifice on the model of Romulus and Remus and other brother sacrifices at the founding of a people.

What about evil? But this is all about sin, not evil. Cooper has really wrongly titled his article when he includes evil. So—next time, about the origins, and even the very existence, of evil.

January 18, 2014 § 3 Comments

Dear Friends:

In my post on “Doing G*d’s Work” two posts ago, I mentioned a blog entry by Howard Brod that touched on some of the same issues. I have gone back to reread that entry and, for the first time, I have read all the comments.

I think this entry and the discussion that follows is so good that I want to bring it to your attention again. Here’s the link:

Let’s Get Real

Here are some of the quotes from the comments that spoke to me:

Our wide acceptance of people does attract many seekers, but it will only hold a small percentage. When I’ve spoken to those who have moved on, the most common response is that they wanted to move deeper into their faith exploration, but that the meeting was either uninterested or was uncomfortable with it.

When I sit on clearness committees for membership, people speak of wanting to be in a community of like minded people who share their values. When asked about their personal spiritual practice, most don’t have a response.

About 2 years ago, I attended a Quaker spiritual retreat that drew from multiple meetings (liberal and evangelical) over a 2 state area. When the group was asked “why are you here?”, every single liberal (and all were long time Friends) said, “because I need something more and my meeting doesn’t get it.”

In a nutshell, we accept people where they are, but we leave it at that. In my experience, we not very good at sharing our faith with one another, about nurturing spiritual growth or about gently challenging each other to take the next step in the Light.

And this:

Our testimonies, Quaker process and even unprogrammed worship have become our golden calf. We forget that there is Something More behind them.

But this is just a random smattering. The entire discussion is really valuable written ministry, in my opinion.

The Gathered Meeting—Good News!

June 21, 2013 § 5 Comments

Friend John Edminster has been a very faithful reader and supporter of this blog. A while ago he shared with me a draft of a little piece of his that has reoriented me in this project of exploring a theology for Liberal Friends. One of his points is this:

We do not need a new theology; we need good news!

I agree. This has made me rethink how I approach this project.

In an earlier post, I defined “theology” as a way of talking about our religious experience. A “theology” can be thrilling, energizing, even transforming for a person like me, for whom the life of the mind and the life of the spirit are inseparable. But for most people, theology is just ideas, interesting at best, boring at least, and at worst, destructive and divisive.

“Good news”, on the other hand—a gospel—is a way to transform the world we live in and the lives we touch. Real “good news” won’t speak to everyone, either, necessarily. But for those it does reach, nothing will ever be the same.

For centuries the gospel of Christianity has been that Jesus the Christ has saved us from our sins. I’ve already said that, based on my own reading of Scripture, the gospel of salvation is mostly Paul’s good news, and that the gospel of Jesus is much more focused on ministry to the poor. But what is my good news?

I suspect that many Friends may find the question presumptuous and impertinent. Christian Friends, who deify Christ, may rankle at a mere mortal claiming an authority that they feel rests only in the Christ himself (or maybe in the Bible, though Quakers have traditionally held that, since Christ is a living presence to us all, he remains the ultimate authority, not the Bible).

Liberal Friends, on the other hand, may rankle at the idea of gospel itself: “gospel” smacks  strongly of evangelism, and even of evangelicalism, of proclaiming a message you think people should not just hear, but accept—or else. I myself am unafraid of evangelism. For I do believe we have something transforming to proclaim.

That is, I believe that I have good news to proclaim—not just some ideas I think are cool or that might be useful to Friends. It actually does feel presumptuous to me to say this, yes, but that is how I feel.

By comparison, my “good news” is not as profound or transformative as the “good news for the poor” that Jesus proclaimed in Luke 4—an answer to their poverty, relief from their suffering, and deliverance from their oppression. My “good news” is much more modest. Perhaps I should just say that I can testify to the joy I have found among Friends in the gathered meeting for worship. This my good news:

  • that each one of us is capable of direct, unmediated communion with G*d*—we know G*d directly through the  joy and transformation we experience in the gathered meeting;
  • that, even more astoundingly, our religious community—our Quaker meetings—are also capable of direct, unmediated communion with G*d; we know G*d directly through the collective healing and love and unity and joy and transformation we experience in the gathered meeting;
  • that G*d’s revelation continues unbroken from the beginning of creation until now—we experience G*d’s revelation personally in the form of leadings to ministry, and in other ways, and collectively in the guidance and healing and love and unity and joy and transformation we experience in the gathered meeting, especially in the gathered meeting for business in worship and our other gatherings for discernment; and
  • that G*d’s love inspires us and strengthens us to live outward lives that testify to the truths G*d has inwardly revealed to us individually and collectively—individually, we are called to live our lives as testimony to the Truth, while collectively, we have been gathered into unity on a gradually evolving and expanding set of testimonies.

My good news is that, in the gathered meeting, we have directly experienced wholeness of spirit, both as individuals and as worshipping communities. For hundreds of years we have seen the promise of direct communion with the divine fulfilled in the gathered meeting.

The world is hungry for this experience. It has come to doubt the promise of such a thing. We can testify to its ongoing reality.

 

*  Every once in a while, I remind my readers that by “G*d” I mean the Mystery Reality behind our spiritual/religious experience—whatever that experience is. I am using an asterisk instead of an “o” in order to wrest the word from the habitual responses we often give it when we read it.

Gathered by—what?

May 10, 2013 § 1 Comment

Toward a theology for Liberal Friends, Part 8

In my last post, I argued that the consciousness we enter when we’re in a gathered meeting corresponds in some ways to the consciousness of the Christ as we see it defined in Christian Scripture: the consciousness of being anointed in the Spirit, as Jesus claimed to have been in Luke 4, and especially as we see manifested in the disciples at the Pentecost and repeated at Firbank Fell and in Quaker meetings ever since.

This was the testimony of early Friends, that they were being gathered as a people by Christ himself and that he was gathering their meetings for worship, as well.

For who else would it be? or what else would be going on? We have the testimony of scripture and the testimony of generations of Friends to confirm it and it is a reasonable assumption to make if you believe in the Christ and his promise to be with us “whenever two or three are gathered”. But what if you don’t believe in the Christ as a spiritual Power capable of being present with us today? Other answers are possible.

In my conversations with a couple of nontheists about what gathers us, they answered, “We gather ourselves.” Personally, I don’t see how “we ourselves”, the individual worshippers, as the agents of our own “gathering”, can alone account for the transcendental, psychic character of the gathered meeting. If it is just we ourselves who perform the miracle of gathering, then there must be something transcendental within each of us to accomplish it, something in human consciousness capable of psychic interaction with others. And there must be some medium in which this interaction takes place. What do you call these things?

Many Liberal Friends are ready with an answer to the first question: it is “that of God” within each of us that unites us in the gathered meeting. They say that “that of God” in me is capable of communicating transcendentally with “that of God” in you. One Friend I’ve talked to about this referred to a passage in Barclay’s Apology in this regard:

[God] causeth the inward life (which is also many times not conveyed by the outward senses) the more to abound when his children assemble themselves diligently together to wait upon him; that as “iron sharpeneth iron,” so the seeing of the face one of another, when both are inwardly gathered unto the Life, giveth occasion for the Life secretly to rise and pass from vessel to vessel; and as many candles lighted and put in one place do greatly augment the light, and makes it more to shine forth; so when many are gathered together into the same Life, there is more of the glory of God, and his power appears to the refreshment of each individual for that he partakes not only of the Light and Life raised in himself but in all the rest; and therefore Christ hath particularly promised a blessing to such as assemble together in his Name, seeing he will be “in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20).

This Friend posited “that of God” within each of us as analogous to the candles and “the Life” in Barclay’s metaphor. She or he (I don’t remember who it was anymore) equated “that of God” with Barclay’s “glory of God” and “Light and Life”.

I am inclined to agree that these may just be different names for the same thing. The rich and varied vocabulary used by early Friends for God and Christ makes some room for the use and meaning of “that of God” among Liberal Friends today. If “continuing revelation” could lead Fox and early Friends to coin nearly a hundred new and distinctive terms for the Spirit and its work within us and among us, including “Light and Life”, why could it not lead Rufus Jones and modern Liberal Friends to do the same with “that of God”?

This doesn’t get us very far, however. The phrase “that of God” just begs the question of what we mean by “God”, and what we mean by “that of”. So we are forced to backtrack toward Barclay and talk about God anyway, something that most Friends who use this phrase do not do. In fact, ignoring ironically the presence of God in their phrase, many Friends use the phrase “that of God” to avoid talking about God; they use it virtually in place of God.

Since the belief that “there is that of God in everyone” is the essential tenet of Liberal Quaker faith (if not virtually the only tenet), I will return to it in some depth in later posts. Indeed, because it is so ubiquitous and significant among Liberal Friends, I could very well have started this whole project with a discussion of this phrase. But I wanted to start closer to the historical core of our tradition.

As for the medium for the psychic dimension of the gathered meeting, this, I believe, is the real question. I know of no Liberal Quaker explanation for the psychic or metaphysical mechanism for the phenomenon of the gathered meeting. To be honest, though, Christian Quakerism isn’t any better. George Fox was hardly interested in metaphysics at all, Barclay is satisfied with “the glory of God” and “the Light and Life”, and Friends have followed their lead ever since. It has been enough to say we are “gathered in Christ” without bothering to unpack what that means or how Christ does it.

Metaphysics is by definition speculation; it therefore is not essential to a vital Quaker faith and practice. But it is fun (at least for me) and not irrelevant. In fact, I feel that, to be faithful to the testimony of integrity, we owe it to ourselves to be more robust in our thinking than we have been so far about something that is so important to us. So I want to delve more deeply into the psychic or metaphysical mechanisms of the gathered meeting in a later post.

Right now I want to continue exploring this thread of the Christ’s role in the gathered meeting. To sum up my point in this post, it seems to me that the alternatives I’ve heard to our being “gathered in Christ”—that we do it ourselves and that we are gathered in “that of God” within each of us—do not explain its extraordinary psychic, transcendental character. These alternatives raise more questions than they answer. But I feel equally strongly that saying we are “gathered in Christ” hardly does any better.

What does “gathered in Christ” mean and how does he gather us? That’s my topic for my next post.

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