Religion and Spirituality

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.

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Worship and peace

October 23, 2017 § 6 Comments

I have spent the whole of this past summer furiously writing to meet a deadline early this month for two long essays, and so have had no time or focus for this blog. One of these essays was a short history of Right Sharing of World Resources, the other a very condensed version of the book in Quakers and Capitalism I’m writing, parts of which I offered here a few years ago. For the past couple of weeks I have been resting my brain and waiting for the Holy Spirit to guide my next efforts.

The Quakers and Capitalism piece got me started again on the research I need to do on the twentieth century in order to finish the book. Doing so, I stumbled upon the Official Report of the All Friends Conference of 1920, held in London, the first worldwide conference of Friends.

The Conference was called to deal primarily with the peace testimony in the aftermath of the Great War. The book features, among other things, short prepared messages on the following topics:

  • The Character and Basis of our Testimony for Peace
  • The Peace Testimony in Civic and International Life
  • The Testimony in Personal Life and Society
  • The Life of the Society in Relation to the Peace Testimony
  • Problems of Education in Relation to the Testimony
  • The International Service of Friends
  • Methods of Propaganda

Two Friends presented messages under each heading and that was followed by a time of worship with vocal ministry as commentary on the presentations. In the Discussion, as the book calls these offerings, on The Life of the Society appears a relatively long piece of vocal ministry by Rufus Jones. It brought me up short, and I decided to share it here:

“We shall be weak in our work and message for the present hour unless we greatly deepen our manner and power of worship. We are here, a selected group out of more than 150,000 Friends, and we are supposed to be, in some measure at least, leaders and representatives of the larger group. We have been together now for more than half our Conference, and we have had many occasions set apart for worship. I have been impressed myself with our weakness as a gathered body in reaching these marvellous (sic) depths of spiritual corporate life with God, as we meet together. We have hardly experienced in any very large and striking fashion yet, the tremendous power of silent community fellowship with God. We have found it extremely difficult to avoid saying the words that popped into our minds, when we should have reached so much power if we could have gathered into the complete unity of life with God. I do not discount words; I feel that words are often of the very greatest importance in interpreting what one has arrived at; but first of all I must arrive before interpreting. I feel as I have studied in the last ten years* the life of our Society, as contrasted with the life of our Society in earlier times, that we have a decided weakness in what Gladstone once called the work of worship. We do not succeed in anything like the way we should succeed, as a living body of Christ in the world to-day, in coming into union with God in our gatherings. We do not achieve that corporate effort of spirit that would bring us into parallelism with the divine currents that are waiting to unify and dynamise us with the living fire of the presence of God.

I hope we shall go, all of us, in our communities at home with this concern as a personal concern, to make our meetings for worship in the times of silence vastly more real and powerful than they are at present. It is perhaps the greatest thing we have to exhibit to the spiritual life of our age. It is perhaps our most unique contribution, and we must not fail in that.” (p. 132, All Friends Conference London, August, 1020; Official Report; The Friends Bookshop, London1920.)

This message dismayed me, but it didn’t surprise me. And how far have we come in answering his urgent appeal? In my own meeting yesterday I could almost smell the popcorn. Two messages before twelve minutes had passed and on and on from there. Our meeting was hosting quarterly meeting, so we had a lot of visitors from the other meetings in Philadelphia, which swelled our numbers from the usual 45–65 to maybe 75 or even 90. The bigger the meeting the more people who will speak, by statistical determination. But the wide range of spiritual discernment and self-discipline was stunning, from the relatively deep and valuable to the . . . well let me just leave it there. One never knows when some speech that seems weak and useless is actually answering that of God in someone else.

And with the president rattling his megaton saber with his own undisciplined mouth, we need a strong peace testimony now more than we have since the fateful wars following 9/11. How long has this nation gone without a war since 1920? Not counting the incursions and CIA-sponsored coups in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvadore, Nicaragua, Grenada, the Balkans, Chile, and Iran, just to name the ones I remember: twenty years to WWII; five years to Korea; ten years to Vietnam; ten years to the first Iraq War. ten years to Afghanistan and the second Iraq War. We’re overdue, according to this timeline, though the second Iraq War has never really ended, only morphed into the nebulous, terrifying, and unwinnable War against Terror.

I pray with Rufus Jones that we will recommit ourselves to true worship and in the Presence find our voice against the sea of darkness that is trying to drown the world. We need to start writing letters and Op-Ed pieces to the editors of our newspapers, letters to our political representatives, open letters to the other churches. We might get together with the Mennonites and Church of the Brethren to see what we might do together. But most of all, we need to recover deep worship and true communion, from which would spring the prophetic spirit that I know we all long for.

*  Jones is referring to his The Later Periods of Quakerism, the third in the historical series that he and John Wilhelm Rowntree and other leaders of the new liberal movement in Quakerism conceived after the Manchester Conference in 1895. The other two are William C. Braithwaite’s The Beginnings of Quakerism to 1660 and The Second Period of Quakerism. The Later Periods of Quakerism was published in 1921.

Worship as silent expectant waiting

October 23, 2016 § 6 Comments

We worship in silent expectant waiting.

Silent, because we want to take away any busy-ness or noise that would keep us from hearing that “still small voice” within us.

Expectant, because we know that in the human soul, and in the center of our worship, there is a wellspring of G*d’s love and healing and forgiveness and strength and guidance and inspiration and renewal and creativity; and that, if we turn toward the Light within us, if we attend to the Presence in our midst, then we can expect this divine grace to manifest in holy communion.

And so we wait, not with our thumbs twiddling in some passive quiet, but actively wait as a waiter does, utterly attentive to the needs of those who have come to the divine banquet, ready to serve; we wait as ladies in waiting do, as companions to our Guide, ready to take up any task that may be required of us. This may take the form of vocal ministry; or emerge as acts of love or pastoral care; or as leadings into social witness, in acts that seek to bring G*d’s healing and peace and justice and progress into the world.

* I write the word G*d with an asterisk as a way to bypass the freight that the word often brings with it, in order to connect more directly with my readers. The asterisk stands in for whatever your experience of God is, rather than whatever connotations and associations it might bring from popular use, or even what I myself might mean by the word.

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