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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