From the Particular to the Universal

October 15, 2019 § 2 Comments

A Friend commented on my previous post and my reply got so long that I decided to make it its own post. I had started out focused on what different people want from the life of the spirit, but soon found myself in deeper territory.

An awful lot of Friends, in my experience, are not in the life of the spirit for the radical personal transformation Ellis Hein describes (though I am myself). They want religious community, meaningful companionship in their journey. Or they want a spiritual grounding and a tradition from which to work as transformers of our world. Or, even if they are “mystics”, they want to engage with the world and with other seekers after truth, rather than to withdraw from the world—they are attracted to the Quaker way of “practical mysticism”; and, again, they want religious community in which to deepen their relationship with whatever they are experiencing. And most, I suspect, do not want someone to preach at them about how they must do all this or someone demanding that they name their experience a certain way.

This is the genius of liberal Quakerism, it seems to me, that we recognize that there are a lot of totally legitimate desires, temperaments, or even desiderata, for anyone on spiritual journey. In fact, these are the impulses that have shaped Quakerism from the beginning. I suspect that George Fox wanted some of the things I list in the paragraph above himself, maybe all of them. But I think he got ahead of himself.

Fox was a genius, but he fell into the same trap he sought to escape: he didn’t want anybody to tell him what he should do with his soul, then he turned around and started telling others what they should do with theirs. He demanded faith in Jesus Christ, and not just any Jesus Christ—his understanding of Christ.

I would love to ask Fox and Burrough and Penington how they knew that what they were experiencing was Jesus Christ. And why they took the leap that Don Badgley alludes to in his comment on my last post, the leap take by traditional Christianity itself, from the proclaimer to the proclaimed. Jesus pointed his disciples toward the Father; now we point to the son. How did we get from the universal to the particular, and why is the particular more precious, more deserving of worship, than the Deeper Truth and Source of Love that the Galilean mystic had found the way to.

This narrow gate to heaven was built almost immediately, certainly by the writing of John’s gospel: no one cometh unto the father but by me. Really? One might claim that hundreds of millions of Buddhists (for instance) are writing with a cheap Bic pen—though that’s a very arrogant thing to say—but to claim that they can’t write at all is just ridiculous.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the particular. Airy, lofty statements about the absolute and universal and eternal God, who is too transcendent to put into words, seem to me to be speculation that meets some kind of need for the importance of our own way of believing and worshiping, but not very spiritually satisfying in the life I’m living. Yes, some of us get hints about how cosmic “God” is. But where do you go from there? Most of us want something more relevant to our lives. Hence the experience of Jesus Christ.

But my question is, what about the experience of “Jesus Christ” suggests, let alone proves, that the spirit we’ve encountered inwardly is the risen spirit of Yeshua, the Galilean we encounter in Christian scripture? (And which Jesus are we talking about—John’s preach-the-long-sermons Jesus? the Lamb of Revelations? Mark’s much more accessible and “human” Jesus?) And why would we leap to the conclusion that this particular spirit is, in fact, nothing less than God God’s self?

The answer to the first question—how do we know we’re experiencing the Yeshua of Christian scripture resurrected?—or put another way, where does our experience get its name tag?—pretty much has to be the cultural context in which we live. Would a Babylonian mystic in 585 BCE have named the spirit he encountered Jesus Christ? Or are we claiming that she either did not have a legitimate spiritual experience at all or that the spirit she experienced was some kind of demon, a false god. That’s the traditional exclusionist answer I was taught as an evangelical Lutheran child.

The answer to the parenthesis—which Jesus are you experiencing?—is also, I suspect, a matter of accident and subjective preference: which tradition are you drawing from, which Jesus appeals to your own temperament? Quakers have always loved the Jesus of John’s gospel, never mind his relentless anti-Semitism and wordy theologizing. I happen to prefer Mark’s Jesus. My point is that they are not at all the same. They have all been filtered for us already by the cultural contexts and subjective preferences of the evangelists, Paul, and the other writers of the books of Christian scripture.

The tradition claims, of course, that God, or God’s spirit, inspired all these writers and therefore their Jesuses are all the same, even though they talk and act differently. But how do we know that? Objective observation contradicts the idea. This is just a canonical decision made by the tradition for doctrinal reasons.

The answer to the last questions—how do we conclude that, in experiencing Jesus Christ as risen spirit, we are at the same time experiencing God God’s self—again, this conclusion seems to me to depend on culture. The trinitarian idea of the Son’s equality with the Father wasn’t even settled at the Council of Nicea in 325, whatever the writers of the Nicean creed would like to have hoped. In fact, it was still in debate in George Fox’s time.

On top of this cultural accident of whether we are Quakers or Baptists or Catholics—or Buddhists, or traditional Hopi—we add our own need to make our religious lives as significant as possible. At least, Christian communities do. In practice, actual individuals seem quite content to talk about universals and absolutes, but what really matters to them is a sense of personal relationship, a meaningful and coherent way to understand their experience, and a community with which to celebrate and explore their experience.

But back to the Quaker particular. The spirit of Christ—my name for whatever spirit answered Fox’s condition and gathered the first Children of Truth into a people of God, which assumed a name more or less determined by cultural accident—is not a figment of cultural imagination, in my opinion. I believe the spirit of Christ is real.

For I am not saying that our forbears and contemporary Christian Quakers are wrong about their experience of the Christ; I am saying that they and we have usually overlaid that experience with interpretations that go beyond our own personal experience and come to us through our culture, the legacy of the tradition through which we attempt to understand our experience.

Nor is that overlay wrong, either, just because it’s essentially an accident of birth place, time, and culture. It’s just that we cannot with integrity make universal and absolute claims about it. We can only testify to its value for us, as individuals and as communities.

In my next post I want to get into why I believe Jesus Christ is “real” and why I think it matters to Quaker meetings.

The Spirit

June 30, 2018 § 1 Comment

I have been reading Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, and the book really speaks to me. One of the reasons is that he begins with his own personal journey as a religious person, and my story mirrors his quite closely. Also, the “theology” that follows this autobiographical chapter retains this personal feel and is quite accessible. I’m used to reading dense theology and detailed biblical commentary, but it’s refreshing to read something so direct and yet so full of truth.

Borg’s book also builds an elegant bridge between our root Christian tradition and the religious sensibilities that now characterize the liberal Quaker movement. He offers an understanding of God, Jesus, and the religious life (he calls it the Christian life) that I think would appeal to many of us. Not, perhaps, to the dedicated non-theists among us, though his understanding does not require a traditionally theistic faith. The book’s Christian language may be off-putting to some, if they’ve come to experience it as toxic, but the ideas—the ideas speak to me, just as Borg’s personal story does. This book is for those of us who are not willing to jettison the core of the Quaker tradition, as non-theists must, but who still can’t buy the traditional theistic understanding of God that dominated our tradition until the maturing of the modern liberal Quaker movement.

In his initial broad outline of who Borg thinks the pre-Easter Jesus is, the Jesus we can glimpse from the gospels who is still unburdened by what the tradition has subsequently added or reinterpreted, he defines “the Spirit” in a way that I suspect might resonate with many liberal Friends.

First, he describes Jesus as a “spirit person”, “a ‘mediator of the sacred,’ one of those persons in human history to whom the Spirit was an experiential reality.” (p 33) Then, in a note, he talks about “Spirit”:

I use the phrase the Spirit in as generic a sense as possible, and not the specifically Christian sense of the (Holy) Spirit. By the Spirit I mean the sacred, understood as that nonmaterial reality or presence that is experienced in extraordinary moments. Religious traditions name it various ways. In Christian terms, Spirit is synonymous with God, so long as God is understood as an experiential reality and not as a distant being. (p. 42, note 26)

Borg goes on to talk about the implications of such a view for the Christian life: “It shifts the focus of the Christian life from believing in Jesus or believing in God to being in relationship to the same Spirit that Jesus knew.” (p. 39)

God as an experiential reality rather than as a distant being—to me, that is simple and elegant, and, for me, it’s true. My own definition of God for a long time has been the Mystery Reality behind our religious and spiritual experience—whatever that experience is. It’s real; we know it is real because the experience has changed us for the better. But it’s also mysterious. It transcends normal experience, normal consciousness.

And it’s transpersonal—it comes to us from beyond the boundaries of the self. At least it does sometimes, for example, in the gathered meeting, which has a psychic dimension of communion with the other worshippers. That dimension, that medium for the communion between the worshippers, that transcendental, transpersonal sharing of consciousness that takes place in the gathered meeting, is the sacred, the Spirit, for me. It’s not a distant being; it’s an experiential reality.

Many spiritual and religious experiences are solitary experiences, utterly internal and subjective, and so perhaps merely projections of our own inner workings, our subconscious minds, if you will. But we should not say “merely”. For there is nothing “mere” about it. These solitary experiences are also mysterious and real, and for the same reasons that the collective experience of the gathered meeting is real and mysterious. To say that the same Spirit we encounter in the gathered meeting is also that which we experience in these solitary experiences is a statement of faith; or more accurately, it testifies to a feeling of inward—and therefore unverifiable—knowledge.

Finding the Quaker path has integrated these two levels of experience in my life—my personal spiritual experiences, many of which have taken place outside the Quaker tradition, and the shared experience of Quaker community. The Quaker faith has given me a way to understand both in common terms. Quaker faith offers a common framework for meaning between my personal experience and our collective experience. And Quaker practice, especially, of course, the meeting for worship, has given me a way to renew that experience, to return to that dimension where the sacred mystery waits, waiting for me and for us to wash in its baptism again.

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