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.

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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.

The Gathered Meeting and the Christ

April 28, 2013 § 1 Comment

Toward a “Theology” for Liberal Friends, Part 7

As I wrote in the last post, the experience of gathering in the gathered meeting is a psychic bonding of the worshippers in a shared consciousness of presence, unity, and joy. The worshippers are present to each other, aware of each other’s presence, and we share a unity of mind and spirit. And the knowing and the sharing fill us with a sometimes marvelous joy.

This shared consciousness, this meeting of the worshippers’ consciousnesses, this intimacy between our minds and our spirits, this being conscious of each other’s intention, creates a super-consciousness—a living synergy of mind and spirit that is greater than the sum of our individual consciousnesses. This “greater-than-ness” suffuses us individuals with a fullness of mind, a fulfillment of spirit, and a transcendental joy. At least, that is how I have experienced it.

This synergy of the gathered meeting, the psychic sharing, the oneness that is greater than the sum of the one-nesses—what is this? How shall we name it?

Suppose we name it the Christ. (Let’s put aside for a moment the relationship between the Christ and Jesus—just for a moment.) I say “the Christ” because “Christ” is not a name but a title. In the Greek of Christian scripture, “christos” means anointed. (In the Hebrew of Hebrew scripture, “messiah” means anointed. Christos is the word the Greek-speaking evangelists used to say “messiah” in their gospels.) This word means a lot of things in a lot of different contexts. Let me try to describe what I think it means in the context of the gathered meeting.

First let me define the Christ in terms of consciousness, working from the testimony of scripture. Usually we define Christ as the person Jesus, in his aspect as God’s son, almost as though “Christ” was his surname. (I want to get more deeply into what “God’s son” means in a later post.) I will therefore most often speak of “Jesus the Christ” rather than of “Jesus Christ”. But here, let’s think about what “the Christ” means in terms of consciousness. I want to approach it from two different angles—the meaning Jesus himself gave to his role as the Christ, and the meaning that the tradition has given—and I want to put them both in the context of the gathered meeting.

The consciousness of the Christ—as Jesus defined it

“Christ-hood”, “messiah-ship”, as Jesus himself defined it can be found in Luke 4:16-30. This is the only place in the synoptic gospels in which he explicitly defines his role as the Christ, and this makes it, in my opinion, the most important passage in Christian scripture.

Luke emphasizes this importance in several ways with the structure of the narrative. These are the first words Jesus utters in his public ministry in Luke’s gospel. Luke puts these words in a formal setting: Jesus has just emerged from his sojourn in the wilderness after his anointing of the spirit at his baptism and his testing by the Adversary in the wilderness, and it is a homecoming—Jesus has returned to his home town to make a formal pronouncement about his mission, much as a modern politician will declare her or his candidacy in their home town. He sets the vignette in Jesus’ home town synagogue, a place dedicated to worship and teaching, to proclaiming God’s world. And the words themselves are formal—he first reads a quote from the prophet Isaiah, then makes a formal pronouncement that he is fulfilling the prophecy here and now.

Because of their importance, I quote at some length (Luke 4:17-21):

He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it is written: “The spirit of Yahweh God is upon me, because he has anointed me [‘christ-ed’ me, ‘messiah-ed’ me]; he has sent me to proclaim [evangelion, the root of our word evangelism] good news to the poor/oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted; to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year that Yahweh favors” [the year of Jubilee mandated in Leviticus 25, in which all debts are forgiven, all debt slaves are released, all families that have lost their inheritance to foreclosure are returned to their family farms, and all fields are to lie fallow].

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

(Note that the text I have quoted Jesus as reading comes directly from Isaiah (Isaiah 61:1-2); it is not the text given in Luke. Luke, a Greek speaker, was working with the Septuagint, an early translation of Hebrew scripture into Greek. But the synagogue in Nazareth where Jesus has been invited to be a guest rabbi and read the Torah would have used a Hebrew text, not the Greek. The text reads slightly differently in Hebrew and Greek and, for reasons I won’t go into here, I prefer the original Hebrew.)

Jesus has just declared that he is the one who has been promised by Isaiah, who has been anointed by God’s holy spirit. “Christ-hood”, as Jesus defines it in his own case, is an anointing of the spirit. Christ-hood is a consciousness. It is the anointing, the inspiration, of the Holy Spirit, which has imbued him with the spiritual authority to proclaim God’s kingdom on God’s behalf, with the knowledge of the kingdom’s essential elements (its contents, if you will, his teachings), and with the charismatic power to implement it, to heal, teach, convince, and forgive in God’s name.

This consciousness was personal—it was Jesus’ consciousness. But it was also collective—it could be shared. Jesus could raise it up in others, as he did for Peter, James and John at the Transfiguration, and when he healed people or persuaded them with his preaching. And the community shared in this consciousness when the community itself was imbued with the Holy Spirit, as it was at the Pentecost, as it was when it met for the common meal, for community teaching and distribution of poor relief, as we see in Acts 2 and 4, and when it met to decide on Paul’s Gentile mission (Acts 15). The Transfiguration, the Pentecost, the lifestyle of discipleship that we see glimpses of in Acts—these we could describe as gathered meetings for worship.

“The Christ” (among other things) is the consciousness of the gathered meeting, in which the worshippers are imbued with the same spirit that anointed Jesus as the Christ.

Now this has all been my interpretation of scripture, just the kind of top-down, ideas-driven handling of our legacy that I said at the beginning of this series I was not going to rely on. I didn’t say I wouldn’t do it, only that I would not rely on it as the starting point or benchmark for my project of Liberal Quaker theology. Instead, I resolved to rely on experience, which we know to be true because we have experienced it. I diverted to this kind of theologizing in order to establish a context for what I will say in a moment. But first, let’s focus for a moment on the more common and traditional definition of the Christ—as savior. From there we will segue into the experience of the gathered meeting.

The consciousness of the Christ—as the tradition defines it

“The Christ”, according to traditional Christian theology, but here restated in somewhat new terms, is the consciousness raised up by God in Jesus for the salvation of God’s people, for their redemption, for their healing. It is the consciousness that saves us from the Adversary—from our tendency to do wrong and from the conflicts that prevent our unity. “The Christ” is the consciousness that redeems us from our debts (“forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”), in which we are forgiven because we forgive each other for our failure to give each other what we owe each other—that is, love. The Christ is the consciousness that makes us whole as a worshipping community, and in doing so, it also makes the individual members of the community whole, if only for a moment. The Christ is the consciousness of those who live in the kingdom. The Christ is love.

That’s also a description of the gathered meeting. “The Christ”—among other things—is the consciousness of the gathered meeting, in which the worshippers are reconciled to God and made one, made whole, set free from the captivity of the self.

I am reversing the vector of semantics here: Instead of defining the gathered meeting as the work of the Christ, I am defining the Christ as the spirit of love, unity, and joy that we experience in the gathered meeting.

The gathered meeting is an anointing of the spirit, an ascent, if you will, into Christ-consciousness.

But where does Jesus the Christ fit into this? I will explore this question in the next entry.

What is the gathered meeting?

April 27, 2013 § 2 Comments

Toward a “Theology” for Liberal Friends, Part 7

The following is an excerpt from an article I wrote for New York Yearly Meeting’s newsletter Spark. The January 2013 issue was devoted to the gathered meeting and you can read all the articles on the gathered meeting in that issue here: Spark, January 2013. You can read my article in its entirety by clicking here: The Gathered Meeting.

We have two wonderful discussions of the gathered meeting in Quaker writings, that of Thomas Kelly in his classic little pamphlet of that title, and William Taber’s discussion in Four Doors Into Quaker Worship.

I would like to add my own observations and meditations, based on my own experience of the gathered meeting.

Several of the gathered meetings I’ve experienced have occurred during a meeting for worship with a concern for business, in moments when seemingly insurmountable obstacles to unity suddenly melted away and the body was able to go forward in joy, usually following some powerful vocal ministry.

In that moment, the worshippers are present to each other, aware of each other’s presence, and we share a unity of mind and spirit: we see our way forward together and the sharing fills us with a kind of joy. Joy—that is the hallmark of the corporate religious experience of gathering—a thrilling sense of knowledge, a bonding of the worshipers in a shared consciousness of presence, unity, and joy.

This shared consciousness, this meeting of the worshipers’ consciousnesses, this intimacy between our minds and our spirits, this being conscious of each other’s intention, creates a supra-consciousness—a living synergy of mind and spirit that is greater than the sum of our individual consciousnesses. This “greater-than-ness” suffuses us individuals with a fullness of mind, a fulfillment of spirit, and a transcendental joy.

In the gathered meeting, we are lifted up, and when we look around us, we see that others have been lifted up, as well. And we all know.

We know the truth, the truth of that moment, a momentary miniature of a transcendent truth that is deeper than what we are experiencing at the moment and yet one with it. Usually, this t/Truth comes through some inspired vocal ministry. When experienced in the meeting for business in worship, this vocal ministry gathers all the threads of seeking together into a bundle of greater truth that opens the way for the meeting into unity of purpose.

In the silence of a meeting for just worship, it can come as a cascade of increasingly powerful vocal ministries, in which each offering sinks us even deeper into that peace that passes all understanding.

In that moment, we also know each other. Not in some outward sense, but inwardly and psychically. We sense each other as present. We each know the truth of that moment, and somehow we also know that the others know! And they know that we know. And we know that they know that we know. We all have been gathered up into a cloud of all-knowing—not that we know all, but that we all know.

All this is real. We know that it is real because we have suddenly found ourselves in unity and in joy.

And yet it is transcendental. It transcends the senses, certainly, since no one has said or done anything to confirm its reality—we just know. It transcends usual consciousness. And it transcends individuality—it is a collective experience.

And this knowing of each other and of the Truth and the joy that comes with it—this is knowing God. Or, to turn the semantics around, the mystical collective knowledge of God is, for Friends, the concrete experience of being gathered, of being lifted up into the cloud of all-knowing in the gathered meeting for worship.

So I’ve brought God into the conversation again. In the next post I want to be more specific. I want to connect the gathered meeting to Jesus the Christ.

The Gathered Meeting—The essential experience of the Quaker religion

April 26, 2013 § 2 Comments

Toward a “Theology” for Liberal Friends, Part 6

The importance of the gathered meeting

I’ve repeatedly said that I want to start with experience as the foundation for my “theology of Liberal Quakerism”, and I’ve talked about a lot of different kinds of experience, most of them personal. But it is the experience of the gathered meeting that is really my starting point. The rest has just been laying the groundwork.

I start from the gathered meeting because it is collective experience. It is experience that you and I can share. It is transcendental, in several ways. And it is real—it transforms the meeting when it happens and it transforms the people who experience it. This is most obvious when a meeting for business in worship is gathered, because everybody feels it psychically and transcendentally, both collectively and personally; and everybody sees the concrete result—the body has come to a decision, often veering toward a new truth from a morass of confusion.

I start from the gathered meeting because this is the experience that protects Quakerism from “ranterism”, from the dangers of individualism, from being the kind of “do it yourself religion” that means that anybody can do whatever they want. It protects us from the very strong trend in Liberal Quakerism toward this kind of individualism because it is by definition not individual experience. It brings with it the assurance of collective unity in the Spirit. It is the soul and the goal of our way of discernment.

I start with the gathered meeting also because it connects us to Friends of the past and it leads us into the future. It connects us to Scripture. And most importantly, it connects us to God*.

The gathered meeting is literally our source as a people of God. (Well, God was our source, but it was in the gathered meeting that God first came to us.) On Pendle Hill George Fox had a vision of a “great people to be gathered” and his vision was fulfilled when the Seekers to whom he preached at Firbank Fell became a gathered meeting and emerged as the seed of the Quaker movement.

Throughout our history ever since, new seekers have found their home with us in the gathered meeting. One thinks of Robert Barclay’s famous testimony in his Apology, in which he describes how he found his home among us in such a meeting:

For when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart. And as I gave way to it, I found the evil in me weakening, and the good lifted up. Thus it was that I was knit into them and united with them.

Barclay’s Apology in Modern English,
Dean Freiday editor, p. 254

And where does this idea that individuals gathered in worship can collectively experience the divine? Fox and the Seekers and other early Friends believed in the gathered meeting as their spiritual inheritance because of Jesus’ promise in Matthew 18:20 that, “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I also,” and because of the description of the gathered “business” meeting in Acts 15, in which the early disciples of Jesus decided to sanction Paul’s mission to the Gentiles.

In the gathered meeting, Friends rediscover the truth of the unique claim and contribution of Quakerism, that God calls each individual to a direct, unmediated relationship with the divine, yes—but also that God calls the community—the gathered collective—to a direct, unmediated relationship, as well. Very few religious communities can truthfully claim to deliver direct collective experience of the holy spirit consistently throughout the ages. What an extraordinary gift it is!

And yet, my sense is that, at least among Liberal Friends, the experience of the gathered meeting has become rather uncommon, if not actually rare; that many of our members and attenders have never actually experienced it or, if they have, they do not recognize it for what it is. The gathered meeting is not a promise that we can expect to be fulfilled by simply gathering in the silence. The gathered meeting requires more than a passive faith. We must “work” to bring it about.

How we do that is a matter for a later blog entry. First I want to clarify what I mean when I say “the gathered meeting”, with a focus on the nature of the experience, especially the collective character of the experience. That will be my next post.

 

* Just to reiterate, because it’s been a while, I define “God” as the Mystery Reality behind our religious experience, whatever that experience is.

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