Liberal Quakerism and the History of American Liberal Theology

November 21, 2019 § 1 Comment

I have just finished reading Gary Dorrien’s The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805–1900 as part of my deep interest in the history and character of liberal Quakerism. It wasn’t as fruitful as I had hoped and in one case, quite disturbing. The disturbing part was learning how racist Elizabeth Cady Stanton was.

The book never mentions Friends; it’s mostly about Presbyterians and Congregationalists. But I do see definite overlap in the ways that liberal Quakerism and liberal Christian theology in general evolved. And I did find some definitions and characterizations of liberal American theology useful. So, hoping that my readers might find this material interesting, here are some sharings from Dorrien’s book.

From someone named Daniel Day Williams comes this definition: Liberal theology is a modern Protestant movement “which during the nineteenth century tried to bring Christian thought into organic unity with the evolutionary world view, the movements for social reconstruction, and the expectations of a ‘better world’ which dominated the general mind. It is that form of Christian faith in which a prophetic-progressive philosophy of history culminates in the expectation of the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth.”

The movement tried to address three modern developments: the theory of evolution, German biblical criticism (so-called “higher criticism”), and the rapidly industrializing social order.

Evolution theory did not just challenge certain pseudo-historical claims in the Bible or, more broadly and importantly, the authority of the Bible itself. It opened the way for a new attitude toward religious authority even more broadly: it shifted the emphasis from external authority to inner authority and personal experience. Furthermore, the embrace of evolution theory transformed the very understanding of religion. Liberal theologians, and liberal Quakers, now came to believe that religion itself and our understanding of God and God’s will was also evolving. It paved the way for our current emphasis on “continuing revelation”.

Biblical authority was also challenged along another front, as liberals increasingly embraced the insights about the Bible that higher criticism was providing. German thinkers, working with the kinds of literary criticism tools being use by the Grimm brothers to analyze folk tales, concluded that more than one person had written parts of the book of Isaiah, that Moses could not have written all the books of the Penteteuch, and so on. Put another way, liberal Quakers embraced scientific method as a friend of forward-thinking Christianity, and this demanded a new approach to what God was doing with scripture. They strove for credibility rather than adherence to authority.

Thirdly, they redefined the mission of the church. They demanded that religion be relevant and even progressive, that it work to bring the kingdom of God on earth. They rediscovered Jesus as prophet and teacher, not just as priest and king. In this, they joined in spirit with the Progressive movement in politics and social and economic thought and with the social gospel movement that emerged at the same time in answer to the ravages of industrial capitalism unchecked by other social forces.

In spite of these profound challenges to the evangelicalism and traditionalism that had dominated Quakerism through most of the nineteenth century, liberal Quakerism remained unquestionably Christian in its language and worldview. They felt that science and these new ways of thinking brought them closer to realizing Jesus’ hope for his church, not farther way.

They did step away from the traditional understanding of the blood atonement of the cross, however. Rather, they found themselves moving toward a moral concept of the atonement that more resembled that of early Friends—salvation from sin came, not from Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, but rather from surrender to the spirit of Christ working within us to overcome sinful impulses.

How liberal Quakerism lost its center in Christ is a subject for another time.

From the Particular to the Universal

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.

Christianity and Quakerism

September 26, 2019 § 9 Comments

Several months ago, Friends Journal dedicated an issue to Christianity and Quakerism, whose articles I read with great interest. When I had finished them, however, I ended up feeling that the real issue was different than the one posed by the issue’s title theme. The important questions aren’t about the relationship between the “isms”—between Quakerism and Christianity. The important questions are about the relationship between meetings, their members, and the Christ, and between the meeting and its Christian members and attenders. They are about worship and fellowship, not history and theology.

Do we fully welcome Christians into our worship and into our fellowship? By “fully” I mean the way many meetings now fully welcome LGBTQ Friends, for which the signature action is marrying under the care of the meeting. That is, do we not just tolerate Christian and biblical vocal ministry, for instance, but want it, even need it? Do we pray for the spirit of Christ to enter our worship?

Of course, many (most?) liberal Quakers do not “pray” in any traditional sense, do not believe that a theistic, sentient, spiritual entity exists who could “hear” or answer such a prayer—and specifically not Jesus Christ as traditionally understood.

This is because they have not experienced it. If they had experienced it they would “believe”. Nor do they trust the testimony of those who have experienced Jesus Christ. That is, they do not trust Christians, do not at least trust the foundational experience and truth of Christians. This in spite of the truth and testimony of the Friends who founded our movement and have carried the tradition faithfully to the present.

This disconnect damages our meetings.

For one thing, it is out of the testimony of integrity to deny a truth that has been essential to our movement throughout our history, and still is for the majority of Friends worldwide even today, when we have not actually explicitly abandoned that testimony in meetings for business held under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

We have never forthrightly faced the question of our relationship with Christ, but only allowed Christianity to slip out of our books of discipline gradually and basically unconsciously as our culture has become increasingly post-Christian. Now, we presume our post-Christian character. We treat Christian Friends as, in some ways, outside this tacitly defined cultural consensus.

Self-identified nontheists usually carry the ball in this process in a weird manifestation of projection: Christian and biblical language makes many nontheists feel excluded, as though the cultural consensus was theistic—but it’s not. It’s the other way around, at least in many of the meetings I know. When nontheists express their sense of exclusion, they act to exclude theists from the nontheist cultural consensus that actually dominates in many meetings.

The tag for this behavior is “inclusiveness” or “diversity”, ironically. But God forbid we should fully include Christians and theists.

Full disclosure here: I have not experienced Jesus Christ, as traditionally understood, myself. But I’m not a nontheist, either, because I have experienced “theistic” spiritual entities—let’s call them angels or devas. Or at least that’s how these experiences presented themselves to me. They could be experiences projected from my unconscious, or memes or archetypes that “dwell” in the collective unconscious. I can explain them away any number of ways. But I choose to honor the form in which they presented, rather than rewrite my own experience out of some arbitrary fidelity to “science” or “reason” or some other Enlightenment trope. And I respect those who do not try to explain away their experience of Christ either; I completely understand.

For I am clear that these spiritual entities—like Jesus Christ—do “exist”, in the sense that people experience them as real, that is, as transforming in their lives, even if the experience transcends normal experience and consciousness, the physical senses, reason, and the apparent “laws of nature”. Spirit is by definition transcendental.

But back to my concern. Here are my queries: Do we not want everyone to see themselves reflected in the meeting’s worship, fellowship, and culture? People of color, LGBTQ folks, nontheists—and Christians? Or not?

And why, especially, would we not welcome—nay, actually pray for—the presence of the spirit of Christ, who first gathered Quakers as a people of God and who has been guiding both the movement and its members ever since—at least according the testimony of our most trustworthy guiding lights?

The obvious counter-argument is that he has not been manifesting lately. So many of us do not, in fact, have any experience of the spirit of Christ, myself included. Why? Because he doesn’t exist? If he does exist, then what is he up to? Is it his fault we don’t know him—or ours?

Or—has he been in our midst all along, just without his name tag on? Take the example of the very first disciples. In the vast majority of their first experiences of the spirit of Christ—that is, of the risen Christ as spirit rather than embodied man—THEY DID NOT RECOGNIZE HIM or they doubted. Why should it be different for us?

For me, the question is about the character of our worship and the respect and loving welcome in our fellowship. It’s about what we do and whom we embrace.

Ego-theism

August 30, 2019 § 12 Comments

Ego-theism

I have come across a phrase that I think aptly describes what modern liberal Friends are doing when they interpret the phrase “that of God in everyone” to refer to a divine spark in everyone. The phrase is ego-theism. The phrase was coined by William Henry Channing in the 1820s to denote the blurring of “the distinction between the self as a partaker of divinity and divinity itself” and the understanding of God as “the human spirit writ large”. The quote is by Gary Dorrien, author of The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805–1900 (page 48), which I’m reading right now.

This idea was the germ of American transcendentalism as espoused by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who prefigures liberal Quaker thinking by three quarters of a century. I would love to know whether Rufus Jones, who gave us the divine-spark understanding of Fox’s “that of God”, was a fan of Emerson. I have always thought he got this idea from the neo-Platonists, but maybe Emerson and Jones drank from the same well.

Darrien quotes Emerson, and might be quoting Jones: “God in us worships God,” and “God must be sought within, not without,” and “Make your own Bible”. Emerson “[identified] God with consciousness or the world spirit” (Darrien). “[T]he simplest person, who in his integrity worships God, becomes God,” wrote Emerson. (Darrien, p 62) “[Christianity] is a rule of life, not a rule of faith.” And most tellingly: “The highest revelation is that God is in every man.”

Channing was an early eighteenth-century Lewis Benson, a sharp critic of this emerging Transcendentalist idea who strongly believed in God as a supreme and transcendent being who had nevertheless created humans in his image. It was this image, the attributes of divinity we have been given, that makes it possible for humans to understand God. It allows us to project onto infinite divinity qualities we had been given in finite measure.

This is close, I think, to Rufus Jones’s own theology. He believed in God as a supreme being, also, if I’m not mistaken. But a divine spark is a big leap from qualities given us by virtue of having been created in God’s. Liberal Quakers have taken that leap and then left that gulf between the human and God behind. We have walked on into a new neo-Platonist spiritual landscape and no longer see the divine-human gap, but only the enticing and self-satisfying idea of our own micro-divinity. Hence, ego-theism.

As I’ve said many times in this blog, I’m not saying this interpretation is not true. I’m saying that we can’t know whether it’s true or not. It’s pure speculation; it’s just theology. Unless one can express with integrity one’s direct experience of the divine spark in every human, one can pose the idea as attractive, maybe even as reasonable, especially as it mostly does away with the very difficult proposition of a supreme being. But it remains what Fox called a “notion”, an idea. We cannot establish it—with integrity—as the foundation of our faith.

Did Emerson directly experience his neo-Platonist divine spark? Or was he, too, speculating, having found the idea of a supreme being hard to justify but still keen to understand religious experience somehow?

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?

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.

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