January 13, 2020 § 8 Comments
For years I have carried a ministry of seeking ways to reconnect liberal Friends to our root tradition. A recurring concern in this ministry has been to reconnect us to the Christ.
Now a lot of Friends are allergic to the word Christ, in most cases, I suspect, because of its connotations in traditional Christianity and its focus on sin and salvation, the cross and atonement, on Jesus’ divinity and the trinity. But traditional Christianity has redefined the Christ into something quite different than what Jesus himself meant, at least in the Synoptic Gospels.
In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus unambiguously claimed to be the Christ and explained what he meant by this claim in Luke, chapter four. In this passage, he has just been baptized, during which the holy spirit descended upon him. The spirit then drove him into the wilderness, and after forty days he emerged and went home to his home town. There, on the sabbath, in the synagogue, as the “visiting rabbi”, he was invited to read from the prophets. He chose Isaiah 61, verses one and two, which read as follows:
The spirit of Yahweh God is upon me, because Yahweh has anointed me [a clear reference to his baptism]; he has sent me to proclaim good news to the poor . . .
Now that word “anointed” is the word “christ” in Greek, “messiah” in Hebrew. He is saying, “the Father has christed me”.
For Jesus, being the Christ meant being anointed in the spirit of God. Being the Christ meant having been called by God and empowered by His spirit to do His work in the world. For him, that work was ministering to the suffering and the condition of the poor.
The Christ is the consciousness of having been called by the Spirit and empowered by the Spirit to do the Spirit’s work in the world.
That is as good a description of Quaker spirituality as any I have ever heard.
Post-script: I am not saying that the Christ is limited to this one understanding. Certainly Friends have come to know the Christ in a variety of ways in their own direct experience, and I take their testimony at face value. For many Friends, in fact, their experience of the Christ accords well with the understanding that “traditional Christianity” has given us, or at least with the Quaker version that we see in the testimony of early Friends, which rests more on the gospel of John and the writings of Paul. I am simply trying to recover the Christ whose ministry we see being born in the gospel of Luke.
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?
December 13, 2018 § 2 Comments
Liberal Friends have replaced prayer with the practice of “holding people in the light”. Maybe in their minds, the Light has a capital “L”, a kind of stand-in for the deity that is the object of prayer as conventionally practice.
I believe in the power of “holding people in the light”. But I also believe, based on my own experience, that just an inward lip service to the idea of holding in the light is not likely to be enough to effect the desired result. I believe that holding people in the light has become (maybe always was) an outward form without much real power.
Yes, it’s actually an “inward” form in that we do it in our heads. But I call it outward because it’s virtually empty. It’s a verbal and inward ritual. We do not give it the kind of attention it needs or deserves. We say it. We do some kind of inward wish-thing for just a moment. And then we move on.
I’m describing the practice in the context of meeting for worship or some other collective gatherings. I realize that individuals may bring this practice into their personal devotional life with more substantive attention.
My own experience with prayer—and especially with holding in the light—is deeply influenced by my experience with Silva Mind Control, and that experience involved holding someone in the light. Mind Control is a pop-psych, pseudo-scientific self help program that was somewhat popular in the 1970s. It has an unfortunately sinister-sounding name but it is actually quite effective. Half of the program is dedicated to various self-help techniques, many of which are focused on personal health, and half is dedicated to techniques for spiritual healing. I taught Silva Mind Control for several years in the early 1970s, mainly because I witnessed, and I myself performed, spiritual healing so extraordinary as to seem miraculous using its techniques.
As a teacher, I used to lead meetings of Mind Control graduates in which healing circles were a regular feature. They sometimes worked. Not all the time, not even very often. But sometimes.
So I know from personal experience that spiritual healing at a distance, both by individuals and by groups, is real.
Focused and healing prayer
Mind Control’s healing exercises—both the individual techniques and the group work— have three components that I believe really make a difference in actually healing people:
- intention and emotion to supply healing energy,
- centering to deepen consciousness and tap the energy, and
- visualization to focus the energy.
It’s all about energy. The group visualization usually used light as the primary image vehicle, and many practitioners, myself included, use light in our personal work, as well.
Thus I believe in the power of “holding people in the light”, as I said But I also believe in the power of these other components. To move beyond the outward form of holding in the light, to increase one’s chances of an actual positive outcome from the practice, I suggest the following, based on my experience:
- Supplying the energy. One needs to settle into the emotions involved, to connect meaningfully with one’s caring for the person or situation. This generates energy.
- Tapping the energy. To tap the energy, one needs to center down. One needs to take some time and, preferably, use an effective centering technique. I believe that an altered state of consciousness improves your chances for “successful” prayer by an order of magnitude. Sometimes grace happens, a gift born out of simple intention and attention. But not very often. “Success” is rare enough even when you’re doing all the things I’m suggesting here. That’s my experience, anyway.
- Focusing the energy. Finally, developing and using a set of psychic prayer tools seems to really help with focused prayer, and especially with healing prayer. In Mind Control, this includes having “imaginary” allies to turn to for help, specific ways to visualize focusing your energy—tools, as it were—and practice, especially at visualization in general and visualizing the body in particular. Mind Control spends two whole sessions just teaching anatomy and visualizing organs and systems of the body; this works.
So a “prayer” session works like this: You center down using whatever technique works for you. You greet your allies, if you have them. You gather your tools. You visualize the person you’re working on, and then follow your instincts. Openness rather than forcefulness is the key. The “force” comes from the love, the caring. But the healing comes through rather than from.
Wait in silent expectation until the problem you’re addressing presents itself somehow in your imagination. This can take many forms: pulsing somewhere, discoloration, enlargement—some irregularity in the way the person’s body or organs appear or feel to your imagination.
Then do whatever comes to mind. Maybe you’ll use one of your “tools”. Maybe you’ll ask for your ally’s help. Maybe something else will occur to you. Again, openness rather than forcefulness is the key.
Does this not sound rather Quakerly in spirit, if not in form, that is, in the form of techniques and “tools”?
Mind Control healing circles work like this: You sit close together in a circle and join hands, left hand up and right hand down. You visualize energy—light—cycling through the circle from left to right, pouring out of yourself into the person on your right and pouring into you from the person on your left. When the facilitator feels the energy is up and running, she asks everyone to visualize it rising in a kind of cone, slowly, until it peaks at a point of convergence above the group in the center. Once this feels solid, then you send it to the person for whom you’re “praying”, whether they are at a distance, or someone sitting in the center of the circle.
Granted, this isn’t something that a group of Friends gathered for meeting for worship would do, unless maybe it’s a rather small meeting. But some meetings do have gatherings or meetings for healing, where this approach might be something to experiment with.
For some Friends, such an approach might feel too technical—too “technique-al”. It might seem like another outward form. It might feel ritualized. Can’t really argue with that. I stopped teaching Mind Control because I eventually felt like my life was too full of tools and I wanted to touch my experience with my bare hands again. But I was teaching it, and using it all the time. Now, it’s as natural feeling as meeting for worship itself, and it’s confined primarily to my daily practice. Like everything else, it becomes easy and natural with practice.
I hope some readers find this useful.
December 13, 2018 § 2 Comments
Of all the changes in the character of silent, waiting worship among liberal Friends, one of the most significant, I think, is the loss of vocal prayer, and it’s among the most invisible or unregarded.
In thirty years of worship among Friends, I may have heard vocal prayer maybe a dozen times in meeting for worship, not counting the somewhat more regular prayers of a Friend in New York Yearly Meeting with whom I’ve worshipped a lot and who has the gift of prayer. I have only prayed out loud in meeting for worship twice myself.
Most liberal Friends, I suspect, don’t miss it. Most of us don’t hold dear a God who is “theistic”, whom one could address as an external sentient being who’s capable of hearing, let alone answering, one’s prayers. For many of us “God”, if the word works for us at all, is a much more amorphous—what? Not being; idea, maybe. Nor do most of us believe in a divine Jesus Christ to whom we might pray.
Instead, we liberal Friends “hold each other in the light”. More about this in a subsequent post.
But, for a sense of what we might be missing, listen to what William Penn has to say about George Fox in his introduction to Fox’s Journal:
“But above all he excelled in prayer. The inwardness and weight of his spirit, the reverence and solemnity of his address and behaviour, and the fewness and fullness of his words, have often struck even strangers with admiration, as they used to reach others with consolation. The most awful, living, reverent frame I ever felt or beheld, I must say was in his prayer. And truly it was a testimony that he knew and lived nearer to the Lord than other men; for they that know him most will see most reason to approach him with reverence and fear.
The lack of vocal prayer in meeting for worship reflects, I suspect, a lack of prayer (understood in the conventional sense) in our personal devotional practices. My dictionary defines prayer as an approach to deity in word or thought and, as I’ve said, I suspect most of us don’t resonate with the “deity” part. We may do something else and call it prayer.
In my own practice, I “pray” and I “meditate”. I’ve been trained in several kinds of meditation and I use several of them quite regularly. And I also pray fairly regularly in the conventional sense of addressing—well, not God, as conventionally understood, as a supreme being, or as the Father of Jesus Christ in the Trinity. I pray to the spirit of Christ, and I communicate with several spiritual allies or companions in a more shamanistic sense.
I am careful to say “spirit of Christ” here because I have no experience of Jesus Christ understood in the conventional sense; that is, as the divine, immortal, resurrected spirit of the biblical Jesus who is still with us today, albeit in heaven, or whatever you call the spirit realm in which the saints and Christ are said to dwell—which definitely isn’t here on the material plane.
That is to say, I’ve experienced something, and I call it the spirit of Christ. I have experienced something transcendental, which has come to me as a sense of presence and as eidetic imagery in the form of some generic devotional wall-painting form of Jesus. The metaphysics of these experiences is a delightful, intriguing mystery to me and I don’t fuss about it too much; I think about it, I have ideas about it, but I don’t take these ideas very seriously—unlike the experiences themselves, which I take very seriously.
So I pray to a “spirit of Christ”, a transcendental sense of presence that has clothed itself in familiar form in my spiritual apperception, and addressing it works for me. It focuses me. It satisfies something in me.
And this is the power of conventional prayer. It feels good, it feels right, somehow, to speak to someone, to communicate in a spiritual relationship that feels like communicating in our other relationships. It comes naturally—if you believe in or sense a “someone” at the other end.
This “spirit of Christ” whom I address is not the only “spirit” I’ve encountered in my journey. There are three others. Let’s call them angels, for want of a better word. They all have in common that they present themselves as beings with whom I can have—and do have—a relationship; they have a kind of personhood, they have moods and personalities. I could say that they are just in my imagination, except that they each have demonstrated their power on my behalf. They have done things that have improved my life, both inwardly and outwardly. Or more accurately, addressing them, bringing them into my devotional life, seems to be associated—causally—with little miracles; or big ones. Changes in my life that I am so grateful for, blessings that I sought and that were delivered, however that actually worked out in the spirit realm.
So I pray.
But these relationships are private, intimate, personal, and it’s complicated to share them with others. So vocal prayer doesn’t come naturally to me. Both times that I’ve prayed aloud in meeting for worship, I had the very rare experience for me of feeling ripped up from my seat, of being under some influence or power, of having hardly any choice in speaking or in what I said.
Did my prayer bring others into the Presence with me? I wonder. I doubt it. But maybe.
In my next post, I want to explore “holding in the light” as our go-to alternative for conventional prayer.
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.
January 4, 2018 § 9 Comments
I want to make a case for Quakerism as a religion.
I suspect that many Friends prefer to think of their Quakerism as a spirituality rather than as a religion. For one thing, “religion” implies belief in God and beliefs in general, and for many of us, “belief in God” isn’t as straightforward as it was a generation or two ago.
Also, “religion” implies tradition, a legacy of beliefs and practices that one has had no part in shaping, leaving you to either accept or rebel against them; religion implies an authority in the community that in some ways supersedes one’s own individual preferences. By contrast, “spirituality” implies individualism—personal sovereignty over one’s own ideas, beliefs, and practices.
For many Friends (in the liberal tradition, at least), one of the most appealing aspects of Quakerism is this freedom to believe and practice what you wish. You can escape the constraints of religion, and for many of us those constraints have been enforced with abuse. Thus, for many Friends, joining a Quaker meeting means joining a group of like-minded people who accept that each of us is practicing our own form of spirituality. In this view, meeting for worship becomes, in essence, a form of group meditation.
For me, however, Quakerism is both a religion and a spirituality. Let me explain by trying to define spirituality and religion as integrally related.
For me, spirituality is the ideas, attitudes, emotions, and practices one embraces in order to align one’s inner life toward personal transformation and toward the transcendental and to align one’s outer life toward right living.
For me, religion is the collective spirituality practiced by a community. Religion is the ideas, attitudes, feelings, and practices the community embraces in order to align its inner life toward collective transformation and toward the transcendental (God—more about this in a moment), and to align the community’s outer life toward justice, peace, equality, earthcare, and service in the world.
For religious communities have a collective inner life, just as individuals have a personal inner life. (Some Friends, especially in the 18th century, called this collective inner spiritual life of the meeting the angel of the meeting, after Revelations, chapters two and three, which are letters written by Christ to the angels of the meetings of seven churches in Asia Minor.)
Actually, all communities have an inner life. Clubs, professional associations, businesses, municipalities—all these communities have some kind of inner life. But these communities are rarely self-conscious enough, self-reflective enough, small enough, or organized in such a way as to manifest a collective consciousness coherent enough to work with in a deliberate and meaningful way. These communities can still experience transformation. On very rare occasions, they can even experience the transcendental. And they can bend toward justice (or toward oppression) in their presence in the world.
But the thing about a religious community is that it’s designed to work with its collective consciousness. It’s designed to provide shape and context for the spirituality of the individuals who comprise its collective consciousness; but it also works directly at the collective level with ideas, attitudes, emotions, and practices that only the community as such can embrace.
For most religions, this direct attempt at collective faith and practice is limited to the worship service. Friends enjoy a number of other “venues” for collective spirituality in addition to worship: worship sharing groups, clearness committees, even committee work itself—we conduct all of our gatherings and discernment as meetings for worship, at least in theory, as shared tools for aligning our collective inner and outer lives.
What really makes Quakerism a religion, in my view, though, is that our practice of collective spirituality sometimes manifests in collective transcendental experience. We call this direct experience of God the gathered meeting. By “God” I mean here the Mystery Reality behind our experience of the gathered meeting. We may not be able to collectively articulate what that presence is very well—it’s a mystery. But we share the knowledge of its reality.
The direct experience and knowledge of that reality puts “belief in God” in a new light. We don’t believe in God as a matter of faith in a legacy or tradition of ideas. Rather, we know God collectively through direct experience. As individuals, we may elaborate in various ways on that immediate apperception of the divine which we’ve experienced in the gathered meeting for worship—we may have certain beliefs about what’s happened.
The community may do the same thing with its collective experience and develop a “theology”, as early Friends did, as a way of sharing the experience—with each other, with our children, with potential converts. But, for early Friends, such evangelizing did not aim at converting people to a set of beliefs, but at bringing them into that experience, bringing them into direct relationship with God. So also today, our theology, our ideas about what’s happening in our collective spiritual life as a meeting and as a movement, are only tools for pointing toward the Presence we experience in the gathered meeting and/or in our own hearts.
Thus Quakerism does have a tradition, it does have a legacy, and that legacy does include ideas, attitudes, feelings, and practices for the individual to practice as the Quaker way. But these are not as fully developed as in some other religions. This is mostly because we are so inwardly focused and have abandoned outward forms to such a thorough degree. We don’t light votive candles, pray rosaries, have stock hymns or a religious calendar lectionary. Technically speaking, we don’t even have a religious calendar at all. We don’t have a Benedictine Rule. We don’t have the formal elements of the Eightfold Path, breathing exercises and asanas, like yoga does.
Even to “turn toward the light” or to “sink down in the Seed”, favorite phrases of George Fox representing spiritual “practices”, are very ambiguous as actual practices; it’s taken Rex Ambler to “systematize” the former to some degree as a spiritual practice, and to my knowledge, no one has done this for sinking down into the Seed. And even Ambler’s Experiment with Light is a collective practice, as well as an individual one.
This leaves us as individuals free to hold onto any more fully developed spiritual practices we may have picked up from other traditions, as I have done myself. And we can take some of these with us into our collective Quaker practice; I use some of the same deepening techniques I use in my personal practice to deepen when I attend Quaker meeting for worship. These don’t just help me as an individual to experience worship more deeply; I think they deepen the collective worship, as well.
But the collective practices of the Quaker way are what make it a religion, because, through them, we come to know God in ways that are not possible for us as individuals, in ways that transform the community as community. These practices and these experiences are what make us a peculiar people of God—that is, a religion.
This post is getting pretty long. In the next one, I want to explore how the collective spiritual practice of a religious community is shaped by its founding collective, transcendental, spiritual experience; how the focus of the practice evolves as the community moves away from this foundational experience in time, through the generations; how this kind of evolution has shaped the legacy we have inherited as liberal Quakerism today; and what all this means for us.
January 1, 2018 § 7 Comments
I have a close friend who feels that seeking to live a “Spirit-led life” is inviting delusion. That certainly there is no “Spirit” who might lead us, that there are many such “spirits” who might lead one astray, and that what we’re dealing with here—Spirit, or spirits—are only impulses that come from within ourselves. Some of these impulses can be trusted; some cannot.
I’m reading an article in The Atlantic about Vice President Mike Pence in which a former aid wondered to the author whether Pence’s religiosity might be a rationalization for what he wants to do anyway. I wondered the same thing about George W. Bush. I wonder the same thing about myself.
Friends have a fairly robust framework for “discerning spirits”, as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 12, for winnowing the true leading from the delusional. At least we do in theory. In the reality of many of our meetings, we are barely holding on to the mindset and the tools we’ve developed for discernment over the centuries. This mindset and these tools serve both personal discernment and corporate discernment.
Regarding personal discernment, the first of these, I think, is regular spiritual practice. It takes regularly setting aside time for turning inward and listening for that voice. Over time, one maps one’s inner landscape, one learns how the spirit moves through that landscape. Deepening techniques help with this a lot.
Then, the “voice” itself. Rarely does one hear an actual voice. I have only done so twice, and one of those times, it was a kind of “language” I could not decipher; the message was the messaging itself, not its content, the establishment of a relationship between myself and that which was offering to lead.
But from then on, for decades now, the “voice” has been “silent”, utterly subjective, internal, devoid of “content”. It feels more like a magnetized needle swinging inside me toward a certain direction for thought, feeling, or action than like a clear command or prompting. It’s perfectly capable of deluding me.
In the everyday surrender of self to the leadership of the Holy Spirit (whatever that is, however it works), one has to discern the truth of such inner directing on one’s own, basically moment to moment. In the day to day life, the range for delusion is rather small and the consequences rarely very important. The needle flutters lightly on its pivot and one is hardly conscious of its working.
But often enough the needle gains enough mass to break through everyday consciousness and we find ourselves consciously deciding what to do about something. Here is where a regular devotional life pays off. Here the practice in meeting for worship of discerning whether one has some vocal ministry for the meeting—whether your message is spirit-led—pays off.
My problem is that, in these moments, I almost always forget to employ this discipline. I forget to stop for a moment and go inward before I go forward. I forget to check where I am in my inner landscape, to check my belly (as Bill Taber often recommended) and other physiological signs, and to listen for the voice, to seek the light in my conscience. I let the momentum of my current direction, the forces at work on me from the environment and the people around me, and my fears and desires guide my steps instead. I follow the surface “spirits” of my conscious and unconscious mind.
Most of the time, that’s okay. I get away with it. I make an okay decision, nothing terrible happens. But I’ve lost the opportunity to go deeper first, to be more fully spirit-led.
That’s everyday life. But sometimes a leading takes on more weight than that. Sometimes one feels led out of the everyday into an uncharted landscape. Sometimes one feels called to new action. Now the possibility of delusion really matters. With these stronger leadings of the Spirit, corporate discernment really matters.
I have had several such leadings and these have evolved into sustained ministries. Very rarely in the evolution or conduct of these ministries have I enjoyed meaningful corporate discernment or support. Well, to be honest, I have allowed my initial disappointments to deter me from seeking further support. Once I was settled in my discernment and after finding that these ministries were not just sustaining themselves but getting deeper and expanding, I felt I was on my way and haven’t sought further support since. But I should have.
One of these ministries is to recover and renew with experimentation the faith and practice of Quaker ministry itself. It’s one of the reasons for this blog and one of this blog’s recurring themes. Many meetings are not well equipped to nurture our members’ leadings and ministries. We have deliberately laid down the traditional culture of eldership that nurtured Quaker ministry for centuries and many meetings have not replaced it with anything else.
Well, we have worship and ministry committees, and we have clearness committees. But in my experience, worship and ministry committees do not necessarily have unity about even the existence of divine leadings, let alone solid knowledge of how to “discern spirits” or how to handle a member’s leading. And many meetings are not clear about how to conduct clearness committees for discernment, either.
We use clearness committees for four different kinds of discernment, and they each are constituted and conducted in different ways. Many Friends are not clear about these differences and many meetings have too little experience with discernment committees to feel confident in their use. (See my post “Gospel Order—Four Types of Clearness Committees” for more about the four ways we use clearness committees.)
So some of our meetings need to do a better job of supporting the spirit-led life of their members. Our worship and ministry committees need to gain both clarity and unity about how to support leadings and how to conduct clearness committees for discernment. And I think we need an ongoing conversation in our meetings about what the Spirit-led life is for us and how we might nurture it.
This includes, at the very least, the one thing we all have in common—vocal ministry. What does “Spirit-led vocal ministry” mean? How do we discern whether a message is spirit-led? Or is “Spirit-led” vocal ministry what we’re hoping and aiming for in the first place?
June 8, 2012 § 7 Comments
A response to Marshall Masssey’s comment
Marshall Massey’s strongly worded comment to my post on Obstacles to Quaker Earthcare rightly corrects a tendency I have to make just the kind of broad generalizations that flaw Lynn White’s article and a similarly White-like tendency to indulge in extreme rhetoric. So I have been struggling to clarify for myself and now for my readers what I am getting at, since I still feel I have something to say along these lines. And my response has become so long that I’ve decided to make it its own post.
I had claimed, along with Lynn White, the author of “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” which blames Christianity for our ecological woes, that traditional Christian faith and practice have stripped ‘nature’ of the sacred status it enjoys in indigenous spiritways; that this desacralization allows Christian cultures to treat their landbases as spiritually inert ‘resources’ over which they can exercise dominion (modified in theory by earth stewardship); and that religiously motivated earthcare requires that we go a step further: that we spiritually reinhabit our landbases, recognizing them once again as ‘sacred’ through a religious culture of place and incorporating them into our spiritual practice, in just the kinds of ways that traditional Christian culture resists; and finally, that Quakerism itself has no clear pathway to such a religious culture of place, either. Marshall disagreed.
The first problem is that I think Marshall and I are talking about two different ‘Christianities.’ Marshall may be right about the “articulately religious members of the Christian community” in his impressively long list of Christians who have celebrated the presence of God in creation and so on. I’ve not read even a small portion of these people’s works and haven’t even heard of quite a few of them. But I don’t think they represent “Christianity in general,” as Marshall puts it. I study this stuff somewhat and if I have not heard of Heinrich Suso or Andrew Linzey, the chances that the worshippers in the pews of Hopewell Second Baptist Church in my town have internalized their insights is not very good.
It’s not writers and theologians that mine uranium in the Black Hills, sacred to the Lakota, or who burned Europe’s sacred oak groves and its female herbal healers in the Middle Ages. It was/is ecclesiastical authorities who do these things, or religiously motivated mobs, or institutions that have no understanding of or respect for sacred place and whose leaders have no religious impulse to think of place as sacred. A clear example of this appeared in the May 27 issue of the New York Times Magazine, in an article about the Wisconsin governor recall titled “Land of Cheese and Rancor,” by Dan Kaufman. At the end of the article, on page 47, Kaufman is talking about the mining company Gogebic Taconite’s (GTac) attempt to open a large open-pit mine in the Penokee Hills near the reservation of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa in Wisconsin, whose chairman is Mike Wiggins Jr. The mining bill was narrowly defeated, with one Republican Senator voting against it, Dale Schultz. Here’s part of the next to last paragraph of the article:
Schultz was sympathetic to Wiggins and the Bad River Chippewa. “For them, this place is like Bethlehem is for our Christians,” he said. “So they’re obviously going to fiercely defend their territory. If you read some of the comments from Assembly members, they’re saying, ‘We don’t have to listen to them.’ So there is an unbelievable amount of anger and fear that’s built up in the tribal community. When Mike first came to see me, I said: ‘I’m for mining, and I know that you’re never going to be for mining, and I understand that. But I want you to know I appreciate the fact that you’re here.’”
This is a very current example of what I call spiritual ecology in action and of our culture’s disrespect for religious culture of place. One of the sources for this disrespect is our Christian prejudices against peoples who practice a landbased spirituality—or at least, the fact that our own religious culture does nothing to prompt that mining company or that state Assembly to see that land as sacred.
Moreover, theologians that do get too close to true reverence for creation, like Matthew Fox, Thomas Berry, and Teilhard de Chardin, all too often face institutional censure. This is the Christianity that I claim has desacralized nature, not the exploratory thinkers and the reforming voices, but its Powers—the elements of the tradition that actually exercise power in the world. This reaches from the very top of church hierarchies down to the personal and micro-level. For instance, in my personal case, my pastors and conventionally religious parents taught me as a kid that there were no mosquitos or poison ivy in the world until the Fall—that nature itself is anti-sacred; it participates in sin along with us.
Second, these voices that speak for the sacredness of creation have utterly failed to reform their tradition. The people in the pews have hardly ever heard their ideas from the pulpit. The seminaries don’t even send their students into the wilderness for testing and communion with the voice of God as part of their spiritual formation, notwithstanding the stellar example of their own God. The synods, dioceses, and other denominational organizations have done a little to witness against creation’s destruction, but you wouldn’t know it unless you looked pretty hard.
As for Christian communities “speaking of local landbases and ecosystems,” I want them to do more than just “speak.” No Christian community, as far as I am aware, has designated a place as sacred and put institutional and ecclesiastical weight behind its protection, the way that the Bad River Band fought to protect its landbase, or the Lakota have fought to protect the Black Hills. As for Marshall’s examples, Eden is not a local landbase and the Promised Land, as a theological idea, is arguably the very religious/rhetorical foundation of American Manifest Destiny and the ethnic cleansing it engendered, beginning with the Puritans and their City on a Hill and continuing at least until Oklahoma was stolen from the First Nations and made a state in 1907 because oil had been discovered there. “This land is your land . . .”
The actual land of Israel—now that’s another matter. Jesus did in fact have a deep spiritual bond with his landbase and actively used its landscape in his own spiritual practice, a topic to which I will return in later posts. I have actually read Brueggemann’s The Land (though not the revised edition) and it’s a good book. But again, it’s great theology that hasn’t had any visible impact on “Christianity in general.” And anyway, Israel is not the landbase of any Christian community in North America. If “Christianity in general” is not hostile to the faith and practice of sacred place, then it is at least almost totally missing in action.
When I say that Christian practice is “virtually the same everywhere and through the centuries,” I mean that congregations generally worship indoors in services that focus on the written and spoken word, rehearsing themes that come mostly from interpretation of the Bible, and the central theme is salvation from sin through Christ’s atonement. Ecocide is sometimes added to the list of sins for which we will be judged, but when does that judgment take place? When we die or at the End Times, whichever comes first. The Christian tradition holds us accountable for our ecological behavior—when it does so at all—after we’re dead, or after the whole world is dead. This is not a foundation for meaningful earthcare in real time in the real places in which we live.
I still feel that meaningful earthcare requires a religious culture of place in which specific local religious communities treat real places as sacred, that is, as places that deserve their deepest religioius commitment, along the lines demonstrated by the Bad River Chippewa. The heart of such a religious culture of place, at least among the Iroquois, the First Nations with whom I have direct personal experience, is thanksgiving. Every traditional Iroquois gathering I ever attended, and even events not directly hosted by the traditional community, began with a thanksgiving prayer. I have known that prayer to take 45 minutes, enumerating an incredibly comprehensive list of gifts from the Creator and always including virtually every kind of creature. Except for short mealtime prayers, this kind of thanksgiving is rare in Christian practice. It might get a mention in one of the spoken prayers on a Sunday, but giving thanks for creation is not an integral part of Christian gospel. Giving thanks for the Atonement is; but that’s not what I’m talking about.
This kind of deep religious commitment and reverence would require the community to know its landbase intimately, the way Jesus knew his. You can’t love something until you know it. And its ecological health and integrity would have to be integral to your community’s physical health and spiritual integrity. Since most of us do not rely on locally grown food, the primary connections left between our religious community’s health and integrity and our landbases are our water supply and, of course, our air.
At the very least then, speaking in practical terms, Christian communities should treat their watersheds and their aquifers as sacred. That’s exactly what the Bad River Chippewa were doing. (In my next post on this topic, I want to look at the Black Hills and the Lakota as a case study of how this could work.) Churches that practice water baptism have a natural avenue into such a practice. Friends don’t practice water baptism, so for us, as I said in my original post, the inward and abstracted character of our religion poses an obstacle to this kind of earthcare.
Furthermore, just as we don’t single out “days and occasions” for special religious attention (though, of course, we do now, mostly, at least with Christmas), so we’re not inclined to single out places for special religious attention. There is no obvious avenue built into our traditional faith and practice for spiritually reinhabiting our landbases in the way I am proposing. The best we can do so far is add earthcare to our list of testimonies, which is our version of adding ecocide to the list of sins for which we’ll be held accountable somehow when we die and stand before the Judge. I don’t believe that testimonies and minutes—theology and words—are enough. Not so far anyway, based on empirical evidence.
June 1, 2012 § 13 Comments
We are hard-wired to protect ourselves when we’re threatened. The environmental movement often invokes this reality in its appeals to care for the earth, claiming that, since we and the earth’s other creatures and processes are all interconnected, we protect ourselves when we protect the environment. This is especially true regarding climate change.
This sounds good and it is sound ecological science. But for most of us in the West, at least, this idea is what Friends used to call a ‘notion’—just an idea that has only very shallow roots in our actual experience. Even for those of us who have had profound spiritual experience of the natural world, these experiences tend to be isolated events that struggle to remain vivid in the face of modern life’s overwhelming alienation from a sense of relationship with the ecosystems we depend upon. And our communities—our meetings—only very rarely have had collective, land-based religious experience. Why? Some claim religion—Christianity, to be specific—is the reason.
In 1967, medieval technology historian Lynn White published a landmark article in Science magazine, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” (Science, 3-10-67; vol. 155, no. 3767). In it, he blamed Christianity for our ecological crisis. Many have found fault with aspects of his argument, but its central thrust has the ring of truth: by desacralizing creation, by denying the presence of spirit in nature and locating spirit elsewhere and elsewhen instead, Christianity has abstracted the human from the natural world and removed the spiritual impulse to care for the creatures and processes that are our ecological relations.
This stands in stark contrast to the indigenous peoples of the world, for whom religion is defined by place, by spiritual practices that build relationships between communities and their landbases. These practices deeply involve, not just the sustenance patterns, the creatures and processes that their local ecosystems require for sustainable preindustrial civilization, but also the social, political, psychic, and religious lives of the community and its individuals. For these communities, spirit not only dwells in the heart of the natural world but also communicates directly with the human, through visions and other shamanic practices employed not just by their medicine people but by everyone in the community. The faith of the animist worldview and the practice of shamanic religion and spirituality guided indigenous peoples in ‘lifestyles’ that remained remarkably ecologically sustainable for centuries before contact with ‘civilized’ peoples.
I would take this argument a few steps further. Christianity is both a ‘cosmic’ and a universal religion. It speaks of ‘earth’ and ‘creation’ rather than the local landbases and ecosystems of its communities. And it claims to be spiritually relevant and valuable (if not spiritually necessary) for all peoples in all times in all places. Religious practice is virtually the same everywhere and through the centuries, with very little change (at least within any one tradition). Most importantly, our religious practices have nothing to do with where we live. We have almost no religious culture of place.
Christianity’s focus on Jesus Christ as the primary god of our religious attention and on his atonement for sin on the cross as God’s primary function has tended to devalue Jesus’ Father and the Father’s role as creator rather than judge. Furthermore, Christianity actually inverts the moral view of creation that prevails in animist and preindustrial and aboriginal spiritways: far from being sacred, creation is anti-sacred, even evil. Christianity views creation as the stage upon which the drama of sin, judgment and salvation plays, yes, but creation is not a morally inert ‘environment’; it actually shares in the sinfulness that lies at the heart of the drama. Nature is not just a stage upon which the salvation story plays; it is a character in that story. Sin came from a fruit, an animal, and a woman, after all.
Furthermore, from the cosmic battle between Yahweh and Baal in ancient Canaan through the conversion of the pagan peoples of Europe and the Western Hemisphere to the witch burnings in the Middle Ages to the war against ‘New Age Spirituality’ today, people who have felt drawn back to concrete spiritual relation to the land have often suffered violent persecution for answering that call.
Quakerism has spiritualized religion even further, doing away with all the religious practices that call to the senses: no music, no incense, no genuflections or sacred bodily movement, no art, no food. Most importantly, perhaps, we’ve done away with the two outward practices that could actually serve as channels back into relation with our landbases, baptism and the Eucharist. To be fair, these land-based sacraments don’t reconnect worshipping Christian communities to their landbases, anyway: how many parishes know where their baptismal water comes from or how it’s treated, let alone use rivers or lakes for baptism? How many know where the grapes for their wine are grown or whether the workers in those vineyards breathe and touch pesticides for a living, let alone make their own wine? But they could know and do these things if they chose. We Quakers can’t.
So how do Friends find their way back to the ‘earth’ if not to their local landbases? We have precedents: Fox and his days and years walking about England outdoors, his very localized visions and the way they opened the ‘virtues of the creatures’ to him; Woolman and his earthy compassion for the creatures around him. But naturally, inevitably, perhaps, we Quakers are drawn outside our tradition for meaningful ways to connect spiritually with our landbases.
The Quaker Pagans (Quagans) are trying. I haven’t followed this movement, so I don’t really know what they’re up to. But I was very close to some Wiccans for a while, some of them Friends, and the neo-pagans I’ve known have not found a way to get free of their European psycho-religious background. They are still attached to European gods and goddesses, for one thing. And what role would Demeter, for instance, have in a North American land-based spirituality? She’s the goddess of wheat, and we’ve used wheat as the standard bearer for European agro-imperialism on this continent: we have ‘ethnically cleansed’ the indigenous grasses of North America, especially of the Great Plains, and almost wiped out the indigenous strains of maize, the primary grain of indigenous North America, and we’ve imported European grains instead. More catastrophically for the health of the continent, we have also imported European cattle culture, when the continent once teemed with its own indigenous ungulates. The European deities who embody the spiritual power of European sustenance patterns are no less ‘invasive species’ than the plants and animals these European patterns cultivate.
So also with the popular members of the culture-hero pantheons we’ve inherited from our Indo-European ancestors: the king-smith-warrior-herald (etc.) paradigm that has given us Zeus, Hephaestos, Thor, Hermes, etc. These gods reinforce the socio-political power dynamics of ancient monarchical Europe. Is that what we as Friends want to embrace?
Of course, most neo-pagans (and Quagans?) are women and they have gravitated toward the goddesses—Gaia, Persephone, Isis, Astarte, Innana, even Lilith—all Old World Powers who have nothing to do with New World ecosystems. And goddess-oriented neo-paganism tends, in my experience, to be a Jungian, depth-psychology spirituality: the goddesses are archetypes of female power through which women can rediscover sources of identity, meaning and power within themselves. This is a potentially powerful spiritual path, don’t get me wrong, especially in a social-political-religious milieu that suppresses female power, like ours does. But it has nothing directly to do with reconnecting to the spiritual presence of the land.
So where would Friends turn to resacralize the natural world in which we live, upon which we depend for everything, and which does have inherent spiritual presence? We know this latter claim to be true experientially. I’ve been part of many Quaker workshops and conferences on environmental concerns and these events almost always have opportunities to share personal stories that illustrate why we were attending. Everybody has stories of spiritual opening that took place in ‘nature.’ Many Friends have been profoundly affected by these experiences. Very often, they were childhood experiences.
So many of us have the experience. But our religion provides scant opportunity, either in its faith or in its practice, for exploring this experience, or for deepening and expanding it into a land-based spirituality or a religious culture of place. We have added earthcare to our testimonies. And many Friends have done a great deal to alter their lifestyles to make them more sustainable. But we still are far from a spirituality that would transform our landbases into sacred places that would demand that we protect them by direct spiritual communion.
We still tend to speak of earthcare rather than of care for the Sourlands (where I live in central New Jersey), or Lake Cayuga, or the White River in Richmond, Indiana. We still fly thousands of miles to attend continentally constituted committees of environmental concern rather than attending meetings of the local planning board or environmental commission. We still tend to name our macro-organizations after cities or politically defined geographical regions (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Pacific Yearly Meeting, Indiana Yearly Meeting), rather than watersheds or bioregions. We still worship indoors using an inward-focused spirituality of silent waiting. We do nothing to open ourselves to the spiritual presence(s) waiting for us in the ecosystems in which we live.
Assuming we think this is desirable (and many of my readers may question this), I see three possible avenues forward. The first is the potential for leadership in our farming communities, especially those in the Conservative branch. They still have the intimate communion with the land that a religious culture of place requires and, because they are still essentially Christian, they will not veer off into ranterist paganism (though paganus means farmer and ‘heathen’ comes from heath—both meant country people originally).
Then there’s Christ himself. Jesus used his landbase in his own spirituality so intensely that it’s one of the most bizarre and telling indications of just how much our tradition has desacralized nature that we don’t think of him that way. He is always going off alone to “a deserted place” to pray, or taking his disciples with him, from the call of the twelve to the feeding of the multitudes to the last night in Gethsemane. I will talk more in a later post about what I call the spiritual ecology inherent in Jesus’ spirituality. Here let us just note that every major revelation associated with the Christ took place outdoors and many through natural agency. And this is true, not just for Jesus, but throughout our religious tradition, beginning with creation itself, the first revelation, through the Exodus and lawgiving to Fox’s vision on Pendle Hill and the conversion of the Seekers on Firbank Fell. The God of this tradition obviously prefers meeting God’s people outdoors, often on mountains, often in the ‘wilderness.’
Finally, there are our young people. They have environmental concerns in their spiritual DNA. Baby Boomers like me remember the birth of these concerns; we acquired them by choice. Our children have grown up with our secondary awareness built into their awareness as a primary reality. And they are just disaffected enough with our spirituality—with its abstractness and its apparent lack of meaningful transformational experience (as I discussed in my last post)—to be ready to seek something else. Maybe they can still hear the screams and pleading of the lands we inhabit and learn to spiritually reinhabit them.
May 11, 2012 § 23 Comments
A few weeks ago I had a freelance writing job reporting on the discussions in two breakout sessions at a conference for leaders of Jewish camps. The two sessions I covered were titled Connecting Camp to College and Beyond and Keeping Up with the Changing Face of the Jewish World. In both sessions, the attendees were preoccupied with the process by which young people form their religious identities and with the problem of how to serve young people in that process when their young people don’t care a hoot about the institutions and traditions that sponsor and support their camps. I could have been listening to a discussion at a Quaker yearly meeting or conference center—the same heartfelt concerns, the same conflicts and confusion in the face of forces both within their institutions and their traditions and in the wider world, that are hard to understand and even harder to deal with creatively.
Just a couple of weeks later, I had a long conversation with my younger son, who is 38, has a young family, and was raised Quaker. For many years, he and his brother went to New York Yearly Meeting sessions and its Junior Yearly Meeting program and to the youth programs at the Yearly Meeting’s conference center, Powell House. They loved it. In fact, it was their love of NYYM sessions that brought me into Quakerism. They both self-identify as Quakers. Neither one attends meeting or participates in Quaker institutional life, which they find boring and irrelevant to their lives. Specifically, Adam mentioned meetings for worship in which the same blowhards could be expected to say the same things week in and week out and meetings for business obsessed with process and with trivial concerns, while the world around them burned.
Adam exemplifies the issues with which both Quakers and those Jewish camp leaders are struggling:
- young people who are forming personal and spiritual identities seemingly independently of their religious traditions, and often in reaction to those traditions;
- who have formed very strong bonds with their peers in the bosom of religious institutions, and with those peers, have been exploring what their spirituality is, having rejected the identities offered to them by those very institutions;
- who, under the circumstances, are cobbling together spiritual identities with elements pulled from here and there, using whatever beliefs, ideas and practices they’ve come across more or less accidentally in their journeys so far;
- who clearly embrace “spirituality” and often clearly reject “religion”;
- young adults who feel disconnected from their original religious homes for lots of reasons, many of these reasons merely a result of their life circumstances, and who are drifting farther away from their religious homes the older they get;
- and young adults with young families who want to raise their kids in a community that is at least values-based if not religious, who I think trust Friends meetings to do right by their children in this regard (since it did right by them), but who find that meeting does little to nurture them as adults.
- Meanwhile, they call themselves Quakers—at least they do so selectively, when it seems to properly identify them in a given situation—but they aren’t actually being Quakers in community.
I felt very similar things about the Lutheran church that I grew up in. I left the Lutherans mainly for two reasons: most of the parishioners (including my father) supported the war in Vietnam; but more importantly, I didn’t know a single person in that church who was having the kind of transforming religious experience for which I yearned. Well, there was one: Pastor Harmony, the associate pastor, who was, fittingly, our organist and choir director. He was an uninspired sermonizer, quiet and uncharismatic, unlike our main pastor. But he loved Bach. He was really getting off on those Bach preludes. And he described to me mystical experiences that, at the time, I didn’t fully understand, but I knew that something real had happened to him.
I think that’s what’s behind our young people’s dissatisfaction. The adult Quakers around them are just going through the Quaker motions and those motions are not visibly getting them off. They don’t see anybody having profound religious experience as Quakers. They want something more, something real and relevant.
A big part of the relevance problem is the relative inexperience of youth. When you’ve never owned property, or managed a large, complex budget, or had employees, or tried to organize the collective life of a community, especially without the help of professional staff, then the business of all that management holds no interest. But this does not account for the glaring lack of items on the business agenda that address the woes of the world. Often the best that it gets is a too-long and often whacky and belabored discussion that finally leads to a minute—just a minute, words on a piece of paper that are lost to memory by the next business meeting.
More problematic, though, is the apparent lack of genuine religious experience, especially when the history of Friends is so full of such experience—George Fox having visions, John Woolman working against slavery, Elizabeth Fry in the prisons, the emotional depths of Thomas Kelly. Our kids hear these stories and then wonder what happened. Why isn’t the same thing happening today?
Why are so few meetings being gathered in the Spirit with enough frequency, in ways that are truly palpable, that would demonstrate to our young people that this tradition is still alive with that Spirit? (Maybe it isn’t.) Why are those among us who are prophetically led so few and so invisible that our young people don’t know about them? Why do we so consistently resist prophetic leadings among us?
Meanwhile, I think the Holy Spirit may just be moving among our young people—or about to be. The Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, the fervor and anger evinced when Philadelphia Yearly Meeting cut its Young Adult Friends staff position, the tiny bit of buzz that reaches my aged ears here on the periphery of our youth community—I believe these events and trends suggest that something is happening, or is trying to happen, anyway, among the young people of the world, including our own.
Will our young people, who are putting together spiritual identities that they call Quaker, but which don’t look like anything we elders would call Quaker, bring those gifts back to us? Or will they split, like I did, and try to figure it out on their own? Will young adult Friends give birth to a movement for renewal, as young adult Friends have done so many times before in our history? And if they do, will we resist it or nurture it? Will we recognize and welcome spiritual identities that they’ve cobbled together from here and there (just like many of us did), even though none of it reflects the Quaker tradition? Does our tradition have anything to offer them that would work for them?
We will resist whatever they do, of that I’m certain. We have every other time in our history that young people have tried to move us in a new direction. But some of us might try to nurture it, as well. And in the past, we often have finally said “yes” to God’s new direction.
In the meantime, in anticipation of the rising of the Spirit, we have work to do. First, we have to listen and keep our eyes open. We have to go beyond the anguished insistence that, yes, young people are the future of Quakerism and we do love you, claims that are both empty and lame when nothing else happens. I’m not talking, necessarily, about restoring funding to YAF staff positions or other purely institutional responses. The institutions themselves are the problem here. I am talking about the kind of openness to leadings that we bring (theoretically) to meeting for worship, brought in humble attention to our young people, to their lives and words, to their yearnings and their anger and disappointment.
Second, we must experiment. We must open ourselves to new forms of Quaker faith and practice, if only to keep ourselves nimble and in the habit of entertaining new ideas. This means challenging ourselves, forcing ourselves to let things go. Can we focus specifically on the things that turn young people off and try to do something about them? About blowhards, for instance, or boring business agendas?
Third, and most important, I think, we need to learn, explore, teach and practice techniques for deepening our spiritual and religious lives. I would start with Richard Foster’s A Celebration of Discipline and start playing with Quaker versions of all of the disciplines he discusses. I would focus especially on meditation and fasting, two disciplines that, for thousands of years, have reliably led to genuine religious experience. Specifically, I would start with centering prayer: make sure every meeting and every member and attender knows how to do it (it could not be simpler) and has had a chance to experience it. We already know these things work. Just sitting quietly in a meetinghouse once a week doesn’t seem to deliver spiritual experience that is transforming enough often enough to convince our young people. Or to attract many newcomers, for that matter.
And how could it? Attend meeting just one hour a week and then pepper that hour with a blowhard or two, and your chances of meeting God are pretty slim.
Now an awful lot of Friends do not “believe” in a “God” you could “meet.” Many Friends have drastically lowered the bar for what constitutes “religious experience.” One only needs to listen to the vocal ministry in our meetings: messages that are simply personal, heartfelt, and uplifting qualify as “religious experience.” Very heartfelt and uplifting messages are as good as it gets. The warmth of shared community is evidence enough of the Light.
Don’t get me wrong. This is great stuff and absolutely necessary for healthy religious community. But comfortable sharing amongst ourselves will not bring religious renewal to the Quaker movement. And we’ve already taught our kids how to do it. They have sharing down solid. Do we have anything else to teach? And, more importantly, are we ourselves teachable, if the Holy Spirit should light a fire among them? I am praying that it does, and I am praying that we are.