The Sociology of Collective Religious Experience

November 4, 2017 § 5 Comments

Jesus, the Christ, and I—Part 9

In a previous post, written quite awhile ago now, I gave the first of four reasons why I think we should name our collective religious experience as the spirit of Christ. That was a negative reason: that the more diverse theologically and the more uncomfortable we have become with our traditional Christian identity, the more diluted our worship has become.

I have more to say about this, about whether our worship really has become more shallow and how theological diversity might have that effect, but it’s not seasoned enough yet. In this post, I want to explore the sociology of our collective religious experience. For collective religious experience is intensely social even while it is ineffably transcendental.

By “collective religious experience”, I mean the gathered meeting, primarily, plus those instances of profound vocal ministry that brings a meeting into divine communion, and the other extraordinary psychic experiences that arise in the practice of the Quaker way. I believe that coherence in our collective understanding, a shared framework for understanding and a shared vocabulary—or lack of it—has a real effect on the quality of our worship.

The group dynamics and psychology of a religious community act both as “drivers” behind its experience and as part of the discernment by which the community seeks to understand the experience that it does have.

The chain of our tradition is long and the links are strong. In Christian scripture, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit (in several places in the gospel of John) and to be present whenever two or three are gathered (Matthew 18). Then, according to the testimony of our forbears, the promise was fulfilled in the experience of the early Friends, beginning 1600 years after those promises and continuing as revelation for another three centuries and more of our history as a people of God. Jesus’ promise and fulfillment established a foundation of faith upon which many Friends have built their religious lives. That faith, and its fulfillment in continuing revelation, fosters what we now call continuing revelation.

But our tradition does not just encourage our collective religious experience; it also explains it. It gives us a framework for understanding our experience and for talking about it, amongst ourselves, to our children, to newcomers. For more than 300 years we have said that we were gathered together in Christ. In fact, the tradition gave us our very identity: “You are my friends, if you do whatsoever I command you.  . . I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard of the Father I have made known unto you.” (John 14:14, 15)

Or it used to explain our experience. Until sometime around the middle of the twentieth century.  Now, we in the liberal tradition don’t really have an explanation. And I suspect we don’t have the support for such experience that the tradition used to give us, either.

Nothing illustrates how the tradition comes into play after collective transcendental experience more powerfully than the resurrection experiences recounted in Christian scripture, of which there are ten or so accounts, depending on how many stories you consider accounts of the same appearance by different evangelists.

In all but two of the resurrection stories, the people to whom the risen Christ appears do not recognize him or they have their doubts about what’s going on. Some cases are extremely challenging. How, for instance, could Mary Magdelene, Jesus’s closest disciple, fail to recognize him in the garden until he says her name (John’s gospel)? How could those two fellows on the road to Emmaus walk with Jesus himself for several hours while talking to him about his own crucifixion and the rumors of his appearances, and still only recognize him after they have arrived at their destination and broken bread together?

The answer is in the breaking of bread, that is, in the communal meal inaugurated at the Last Supper. We know that this meal was the central practice of Jesus’ movement. Jesus’s followers would gather at someone’s house, share a meal, hear catechetical teaching, pray and worship together, and distribute food and resources to the poor among them (Acts 2:42).

Here’s my point: Some of Jesus’ followers were having visions of Jesus after his death, but the meaning of those visions had to be worked out collectively over time, and this took place in the context of the “daily bread”, the daily meal.  Put another way, Jesus did not come to these friends and disciples with his name tag on. It wasn’t obvious what they were experiencing. They had to discern together what was happening to them.

The resurrection experiences of the disciples are directly pertinent to my suggestion that we name the spirit of Christ as the center of our gathering. Even at the very roots of our religious tradition, doubt and confusion prevailed, and community discernment was needed to arrive at a conclusion.

Likewise, in our gathered meetings today, it is not immediately apparent what is going on; it is only obvious that something is going on. In the past, our collective discernment has concluded that we were being gathered in the spirit of Christ.

Now, however, the bathwater, the deep and rich tradition in which we have been steeped for three hundred and fifty years, has been thrown out the window. Is it any wonder that we now we look around and find that the baby is gone, also, that we wonder why we so seldom experience the gathered meeting?

Now, doubt, confusion, and most egregiously, disinterest dominate our collective (lack of) discernment about what is happening in the gathered meeting. When it happens, the worship has a center or we wouldn’t be gathered, but we have no way to articulate what that center is. We have no framework, no vocabulary with which to speak to each other, or to our children, or to newcomers about what we have experienced. As a result, we don’t speak about it much. Furthermore, we have no context, no cohesive religious ecosystem for nurturing the experience.

Now, as I’ve said in earlier posts, I myself have no direct experience of Jesus Christ at the center of the gathered meeting. In this I am like a lot of Friends in the liberal tradition. But I am not really talking about Jesus Christ as conventional Christianity understands him, that is, as a spiritual entity who was the Jesus of Christian scripture, who was crucified, dead, and buried and rose again according to the creed. I am speaking of the spirit of Christ—that mysterious experience of awakening, joy, comfort, and renewal that the two men on the road to Emmaus experienced—after they had been taught who had come into their midst.

My name for that spirit in which we are gathered in our collective religious experience as Friends is the spirit of Christ. For me, the relation of that spirit to the man who walked the roads of Galilee is a matter for speculation rather than one of direct revelation. And that’s enough for me, though I love the study, thought, and imagination that such speculation requires.

For me, the spirit of Christ is more than just a placeholder for whatever might be going on in our collective religious experience, though it is that. It is another link, made of faith, in the chain of our tradition, one that I refuse to break simply because I am still on the road to Emmaus and have not yet broken bread with Jesus as the Christ.


The Testimonies and “that of God”

September 10, 2016 § 17 Comments

Note: Something happened recently that set me off on this topic—again. I return to it over and over again from different angles, the way we use the phrase “that of God in everyone”.

It has become increasingly common for Friends to present some of our testimonies as based on the belief in that of God in everyone, that “there is that of God in every person, and thus we believe in human equality before God”, as the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting book of discipline puts it. In doing so, we also equate “that of God” with a divine spark, some aspect of the divine that dwells inherently in the human. We do this most commonly for the testimonies of equality, peace, and nonviolence; sometimes, also, for earthcare, claiming that there is also that of God in all creation.

This practice raises for me a number of questions.

  1. Is the divine spark/that of God really the foundation of these testimonies? I would answer no, not historically. But then again, maybe yes, since nowadays it’s such a common practice to make this claim. Does the fact that many Friends believe that our testimonies rest on this phrase make the claim true? Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, at least, seems to have established the case, having approved the claim when it approved its Faith and Practice, presumably in a meeting for business in worship held under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Or maybe not. Apparently no one stood up for our tradition when the book was approved, or when that section was written. Or maybe they did, and it seemed too small a matter in the larger scope of the matter to fuss about overmuch. I wish I had been there to know what happened.
  2. Should the divine spark/that of God be presented as the foundation of our testimonies? I would answer definitely not. Doing so misrepresents our tradition and the practice has not received the level of discernment that integrity would demand of our practice, PhYM’s decision notwithstanding. As far as I can tell, this practice has crept into our tradition through a back door left open by inattention.
  3. What really are the foundations of our testimonies? The answer is, foremost, the leadings of the Holy Spirit, confirmed over time in the hearts of countless individual Friends and collectively over time by innumerable meetings gathered in the Spirit for discernment—in theory, at least. Secondarily, but not insignificantly, early Friends also found confirmation of the proto-testimonies they held to be true in their distinctive readings of the Bible.
  4. What do we mean by a divine-spark that-of-God anyway? We are professing the belief that there is something inherent in every human being (and in all creation?) that partakes in some way of divinity. A “spark” implies something struck off from God, something that shares with God some substance, or perhaps just some aspect. In Hindu theology, it is called atman, the drop of spirit in the human that comes from the ocean spirit that is brahma. In the phrase lifted from Fox, we use “that of” to stand in for this spark. But defining “that of God” as a divine spark begs the question of what, in this context, we mean by “God”. We don’t answer this question; we don’t define “that of” in terms of “God”. In fact, rather than using a shared understanding of “God” to define “that of God”, we we go the other way: we use “that of God” to redefine God: God is that of which we have a divine spark. This, I believe, is the decisive theological turn that defines liberal Quakerism—defining God in terms of ourselves.
  5. Is the faith-claim of a divine-spark that-of-God in everyone true? I question this. Do we each possess a piece of the divine? On what basis can we claim this to be true? To be true, the claim must, first of all, be based on our own actual religious experience. I don’t personally have such experience. Well, I have experienced that something I referred to (I call it the Light), but it has not presented itself to me as divine; I seem all too human to me. I have only once heard a Friend speak at all convincingly about their experience of the divine spark in themselves; never in someone else. And that explanation was fraught with deep epistemological questions about how we know what we know, especially in the realm of religious experience.
  6.     My point is that we have adopted this practice mostly without grounding it in our experience in any meaningful way, in contradiction to one of our essential articles of faith, which we have encapsulated in the famous question, What canst thou say? But even if we had thousands of Friends testifying to their experience of the divine spark within themselves, how do we leap from that personal claim to the universal claim that everyone has a divine spark? How do we know that? How would we know that? This leap, it seems to me, is an exciting but rather ethereal conjecture; it is metaphysical speculation about the nature of the human. It is, in early Friends’ parlance, a “notion”, and one without substantiation, a shadow of a truth rather than its substance.
  7. Where did the idea of a divine-spark that-of-God come from? For this we have a clear answer: Rufus Jones. Rufus Jones was an avid student of mysticism. It was he who first cast Quakerism as a “mystical” religion. And he proposed as the common foundation of mystical experience in all traditions the divine spark that had been clarified and elaborated by Plotinus and the neo-Platonic philosophers who followed and advanced his ideas. My research here is incomplete; I have seen a reference that pointed to where in Jones’s work to look for his divine spark interpretation of that of God, but I have lost that reference. I had thought it would be in his 1909 book Studies in Mystical Religion, but I’ve just finished scanning it without luck. I hope that some of you my readers will be able to guide my search.
  8. Why and how has the divine spark/that of God come to supplant our historical tradition as the foundation of our testimonies? Okay, what follows is more of an exploration and speculation than a thorough historical analysis, but this is my theory. The hallmarks of liberal Quakerism opened the door to this practice. These elements were introduced into the tradition by Rufus Jones and by his dear f/Friend John Wilhelm Rountree and the cohort that championed what we now call liberal Quakerism beginning in the early twentieth century. These elements were in part reactions to the evangelicalism that had dominated Quaker culture for a century. But they were also a positive vision of a new kind of Christianity. They included
    • a new emphasis on experience over doctrine, which had ossified into dogma;
    • an openness to science, to healthy skepticism, and especially, to the new scientific approach to biblical criticism;
    • an optimism of spirit, including a passion for “progress”, as an antidote to the negative evangelical preoccupation with sin and damnation;
    • along similar lines, an embrace of the theory of evolution such as could now envision the evolution of religion, the evolution of Quakerism, a commitment to a religion that actively sought to adapt to its times in order to speak to the needs of the modern person and of a rapidly changing society;
    • a new openness to other traditions, recognizing not only their worth, but also their truth, the birth of a new kind of universalism, at least as regards the universal experience of the mystic, with a corresponding relaxation of the exclusivist claims that evangelicals made for the Christian gospel as they understood it.

But the birth of liberal Quakerism around the turn of the twentieth century (beginning decisively with the Manchester Conference in 1895) only opened the door to redefining the testimonies in terms of a divine spark and that of God. Other factors gradually pushed the practice into the front parlor. Perhaps the greatest factor was the Great War. Never had human “progress” been more challenged, or more necessary, or more on display. Machine guns, tanks, chemical weapons, aeroplanes—these developments desperately called for the evolution of a new religious message that could counter the terrors of all-out industrial warfare and the grind of emerging corporate capitalism. Jones himself helped form the American Friends Service Committee, a novel response to these forces that abandoned the old structures Quakers had used for centuries to organize whatever “witness” activities they pursued. More importantly, Quakers faced persecution for their faith (as pacifists) for the first time since the late 18th century. They were forced to explain themselves. The modern “peace testimony” was born. More testimonies were to follow. Social witness emerged as a new discreet category of Quaker concern. And the old evangelical answer to all social problems—evangelization, that is, preaching and handing out Bibles—no longer served. A new rhetoric was required.

It took a while to sever all the bonds that had been loosened—to fully embrace Jones’s mystical definition of Quakerism; to look beyond the Bible for language and rationale; to turn decisively to science for a replacement rhetoric; to shift from service to advocacy, as AFSC was to do, and to become more engaged politically, and thus to absorb progressive political perspectives and the language of the polis; and, most decisively, to welcome into membership more and more Friends who had no roots in Christian faith or, in many cases, actually negative experience with the gospel of Christ.

With the explosion in the 1960s and ‘70x of options for people with a mystical temperament, even the mystical recasting of Quaker faith became more a label than a reality; we became more and more the home of spiritual activists and less and less the home of active spiritualists. Then a bullet in Memphis, and many other such disasters, deeply wounded the God whose universe bent toward justice, and whose presence and power were already in question because of the second world war and the Holocaust. No use starting with that God to explain your testimonial stand for peace and justice and equality and against violence and oppression.

Meanwhile, we were sounding the depths in gathered meetings for worship less and less often. We liked Jones’s idea of a “practical mysticism”, but we increasingly lost touch with the reality of the experience that had been so profound for Jones himself and the other early visionaries of liberal Quakerism. And Jones had given us the perfect segue into a superficially hallowed but in reality hollowed out testimonial rhetoric that seemed mystical and religious without getting too specific about it—the phrase “that of God”, understood as a divine spark. It had the benefit of exalting ourselves while groping for the hem of a now-distant divine garment; never mind who might be wearing that garment.

We re-hallowed the phrase that of God by making it the foundation of our testimonies, and indeed, of our faith as a whole; never mind that we had flipped Fox’s meaning on its head, forgotten both its original meaning and its mysterious path into our canon, and ignored virtually all the other elements of our tradition by making it the single slender pedestal upon which our movement now perched.

So if we really are going to proclaim a neo-Platonic divine spark as an essential element of our faith and call it “that of God”, then let’s do so with integrity. First of all, let’s test the truth of it. Our benchmarks for discernment are our actual experience, both our own personal experience and the experience of our meetings gathered in worship; common sense and sound reasoning; the rest of our tradition; the testimony of Scripture; and the testimony of those prophets for whom this idea is a leading and of the lives they are already living under its guidance. Let’s pursue this discernment with informed knowledge of our tradition, with creative and energetic thinking, and with care for how we write and speak about it.

And if we decide that we do hold a divine-spark that-of-God as a new light of truth, let’s add it to our tradition, rather than using it to replace our tradition, as we seem to have done


May 22, 2015 § 1 Comment

I woke up this morning with an opening blooming in my mind. I actually had the opening a couple of days ago, and I’ve been circling round it for years, but when my eyes opened this morning, the sun was shining on some petals as they reached toward the light.

At the heart of the liberal Quaker experience lies Mystery.


My regular readers will know that my operating definition of God is the Mystery Reality behind our spiritual and religious experience—whatever that experience is. This is why I use an asterisk to spell “God”: the asterisk stands in for whatever your experience is. And the asterisk stands in for the Mystery.

We know that our spiritual and religious experience * is real because it has transformed us. Because of it we are healed; we are more whole; we are saved from our sin; we are relieved of some burden or pain or wound; we are inspired; we are more aware; we are more fulfilled; we experience the joy that passes all understanding—something has happened and are we are the better for it.

But it passes understanding. The experience is transcendental—it transcends our normal understanding; or it transcends our five senses; or it transcends the psychic boundaries between people; it transcends normal consciousness. Thus, it is a Mystery. Beyond, or behind, or within what we know and can speak about the experience lies something deeper, something we can only know with the soul, that is, with that part of us that knows this Mystery, that perceives beyond, behind, and within.

That Mystery Reality behind or within our religious experience I call G*d.


Part of the genius of liberal Quakerism is that it acknowledges that real religious experience comes in many, many forms, and they are all Real and they are all Mysterious. No one religion or spiritual path has exclusive claim on Truth—and no one is excluded from the Truth. We honor the asterisk.

The truth that every human can commune with the Divine makes the Truth universal without being absolute.


Because of the non-absolute universalism of Truth, many liberal Friends describe religion as a journey, as a project of seeking. I have never understood this approach. These Friends would not be Quakers if they had not found something. Ever since George Fox convinced the Seekers on Firbank Fell, Friends have proclaimed what they have found.

But the Mystery remains. We may have found Quakerism and with it a rich tradition that takes weeks to explore just to get through course 101. But still the Mystery draws us forward, seeking—what?

Seeking a name, I think. Seeking an opening into the mystery. Seeking more of the release, joy, and fulfillment that comes from spiritual and religious experience. Seeking deeper immersion in our communion.

Christ Jesus

Fox had a name for what he found—even Christ Jesus.

On the surface, it looks like a huge gap yawns between having a name—especially having that name—and not having a name, any name at all. To someone who knows the Name, whose life is filled by Christ Jesus, it might seem that to experience the Reality and still have a Mystery means that maybe you didn’t experience the Reality after all.

Yet we know that every human can commune with the Divine. That, as mysterious as the religious experience of a Cro-Magnon woman might be to us, nevertheless, Something Was Happening for her that made her more whole.

I think you can make subtle but fairly convincing arguments from Christian scripture for the universal Christ, for why any genuine religious experience could be experience of the Christ. But then you could do the same for Krishna. This is a mystery.

The Bible

Almost all arguments about the nature and the necessity of the Christ come from scripture. Those of us who have experienced Christ personally and directly can speak from our experience, but even these Friends will soon turn to scripture to fill in the details. It is ever so with religious experience. This is one of the roles of a religious tradition, to help its people understand their experience.

The problem with the Bible as authority is that you have to understand it, and everyone takes their own path into it, as is apparently the way with all religious experience. Interpretations abound. I have studied the Bible for decades and I have pretty settled ideas about what a lot of it means. But how do I know I’m right?

The very idea of biblical authority comes from the Bible itself. It’s age, its tone, and its power to transform us confer upon it some real authority. Then there’s 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

So says Paul. But why is Paul an authority? Because he’s in the Bible. The Bible is self-authenticating.

And meanwhile, it’s just wrong about a lot of stuff. And we have changed our minds about some things that it’s pretty clear about, like slavery and the place of women in the church and in the world. And it doesn’t even agree with itself sometimes. And right beside the soaring beauty of its poetry and the healing it can bring, other pages are soaked with blood and horror.

At this point, we remember Margaret Fell’s words:

And so he went on, and said, “That Christ was the Light of the world, and lighteth every man that cometh into the world; and that by this light they might be gathered to God,” &c. I stood up in my pew, and wondered at his doctrine, for I had never heard such before. And then he went on, and opened the scriptures, and said, “The scriptures were the prophets’ words, and Christ’s and the apostles’ words, and what, as they spoke, they enjoyed and possessed, and had it from the Lord”: and said, “Then what had any to do with the scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth? You will say, ‘Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;’ but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?” &c. This opened me so, that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat down in my pew again, and cried bitterly: and I cried in my spirit to the Lord, “We are all thieves; we are all thieves; we have taken the scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves.”

What do we know in ourselves? Are we children of the Light? What is the Light?

These are the real questions, and even when we have answers, mysteries remain. 


* “Spiritual” experience. Spiritual experience I define as transcendental experience that transforms us for the better. It transcends normal experience, or normal consciousness, or our normal sensory experience, so that we do not necessarily know where it comes from or even what it means, in its fullness. Yet it is real. We know that it is real because it has changed us in demonstrable ways for the better.

“Religious” experience. Religious experience I define as spiritual experience that takes place in the context of religious community or religious tradition. Either the tradition has led you to the experience, as when you find yourself in a gathered meeting for worship; or you find in a tradition a way to understand your experience, as we do when we speak of that mystery that enables us to commune with G*d directly as the Light.

“Religion”. Religion I define as the spiritual practice of a community. Religion is the things a community does to remember, invoke, and celebrate its communion with its god, the things it does to reconnect with the Mystery Reality that brought it forth as a community of Spirit.

January 18, 2014 § 3 Comments

Dear Friends:

In my post on “Doing G*d’s Work” two posts ago, I mentioned a blog entry by Howard Brod that touched on some of the same issues. I have gone back to reread that entry and, for the first time, I have read all the comments.

I think this entry and the discussion that follows is so good that I want to bring it to your attention again. Here’s the link:

Let’s Get Real

Here are some of the quotes from the comments that spoke to me:

Our wide acceptance of people does attract many seekers, but it will only hold a small percentage. When I’ve spoken to those who have moved on, the most common response is that they wanted to move deeper into their faith exploration, but that the meeting was either uninterested or was uncomfortable with it.

When I sit on clearness committees for membership, people speak of wanting to be in a community of like minded people who share their values. When asked about their personal spiritual practice, most don’t have a response.

About 2 years ago, I attended a Quaker spiritual retreat that drew from multiple meetings (liberal and evangelical) over a 2 state area. When the group was asked “why are you here?”, every single liberal (and all were long time Friends) said, “because I need something more and my meeting doesn’t get it.”

In a nutshell, we accept people where they are, but we leave it at that. In my experience, we not very good at sharing our faith with one another, about nurturing spiritual growth or about gently challenging each other to take the next step in the Light.

And this:

Our testimonies, Quaker process and even unprogrammed worship have become our golden calf. We forget that there is Something More behind them.

But this is just a random smattering. The entire discussion is really valuable written ministry, in my opinion.

What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Spirituality vs Religion

December 13, 2013 § 9 Comments

Religion as Corporate Spirituality

My one-line answer to the question, What is Quakerism for? is: bringing people to G*d and bringing G*d into the world. “Bringing people to G*d” has two parts: personal spirituality and communal spirituality.

The last post’s discussion of worship provides a segue from personal spirituality to communal spirituality—that is, to religion.

Several years ago I was a Friendly Adult Presence in a youth conference sponsored by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and in one of the exercises, the young people were asked to sort themselves out by whether they had a spiritual life or not and whether they practiced a religion. The vast majority said yes to spirituality and no to religion. This made me feel bad.

I suspect that quite a few adult Friends have similar feelings. They are much more comfortable talking about spirituality and not so comfortable talking about their “religion”. For many Friends, I suspect, “religion” conjures traditional belief in a “God”, a supreme being, maybe even the trinity of Christianity, whom the community worships, and aspects of this traditional definition of religion just don’t work for them. Many, like me, I suspect, have no direct experience of such a God. Many may have had negative experiences of traditional worship of such a God. And thus many may be uncomfortable with “worship” when defined as adoration, praise, and supplication of such a God.

And then there’s Jesus and the intensely Christ-centered legacy of our own Quaker tradition. For many Friends, “religion” is relationship with him, placing him at the center of our individual lives and at the center of our life as a community. And again, for many Friends, this just is not their experience.

I’ve written about my own struggles with this question quite a lot—how confounding I usually find it to belong to what I believe is a Christian religious community and not be a Christian myself. As is happening right this second, every time I get to a certain depth in exploring Quakerism, in this blog and in my other writing, I find myself trying to identify who Jesus Christ is for me, and what Quakerism means without experience of him. And I mean experience of him, not belief in him; I have the belief, but not the experience. It is one of the central questions of my religious life. I believe it is perhaps the central question for modern Liberal Quakerism in general. I’m still working on it.

In the meantime, I keep beavering away at other questions while skirting this elephant in the room. Why? Because I feel led to, is the basic answer. But also in the hope that circling this central question will eventually lead to some answers. And finally, because I know I am not alone. I feel that I am exploring the issues I write about alongside many other nonChristian Friends, and I hope to be useful to others in their search.

So I do have a nonChristian definition of “religion” and “worship”. And I have a concern to bridge the gap between “spirituality” and “religion”, which I see as a misperception. I do not want a religion that is little more than a society for practicing individual spiritualities together. I have done that and it is not enough for me. The reason it’s not enough is that I have had collective spiritual experience, experience shared with others of something deep and profound. I have had religious experience. So my definition of religion starts with a definition of spirituality.

By “spirituality” I mean the faith and the practices through which we as individuals seek to open ourselves to the Light within us—to the presence, motion, guidance, teaching, healing, strengthening, inspiration, and redemption of the ChristSpirit acting in us—and the ways in which we try to follow its guidance in our lives.

“Religion” I define as the faith and the practices through which the community seeks to commune with the Mystery Reality that lies behind and beyond the Light within each of us as individuals, that lies between us or among us as a community, and that becomes real for us in the mystery of the gathered meeting for worship.

For the Light, the kingdom of heaven, is not only within us; it is also among us, as Jesus put it. It is the presence in the midst. It is the motion of love between us. It is the guidance, teaching, healing, strengthening, inspiration, and reconciliation of the Spirit acting through us as individuals and among us at the center of our worship and our fellowship. The presence within us and the presence in our midst—these are the same. This is our faith, born of our experience in the gathered meeting for worship.

Thus I define “religion” as the spiritual life, the faith and spiritual practices, of a community, the things a religious community does to renew its communion with the Divine.

This begs the question (again) of just what we mean by “the Divine”, which is one of Liberal Quakerism’s placeholders for whatever it is we are experiencing, when we don’t think it’s the traditional triune Christian God. I have dealt with this problem by using “G*d”, letting the asterisk stand in for whatever your experience is. Speaking this way, however—speaking around a more explicit naming of God—just throws us back into individualism, casting ourselves again as a society of individuals practicing our own spiritualities, rather than defining ourselves as an integral community with a clear focus for our worship.

The only thing that belies this individualist reality, the only hope in all this mess, it seems to me, is to be found in the gathered meeting. As I have written earlier, the gathered meeting seems not to care about name tags. I have felt a meeting become gathered in spite of its theological confusion and diversity. I once felt a meeting gathered because of its diversity, reaching exquisitely joyous unity as the result of deep wrestling with the plurality of our experience.

Anyway, I hope that thinking of religion as the shared spiritual practice of a community encourages some Friends to warm up to the idea of Quakerism as a religion. And I, at least, find great encouragement in the fact that this practice now and again delivers genuine fulfillment—both spiritual fulfillment; that is, individual fulfillment, joy, healing, and inspiration; and religious fulfillment, a corporate experience of the presence in our midst, of love and the healing of conflict, of inspiration and prompting to corporate witness, and of unity and joy in the knowing of each other in that place where words come from.

If only it happened more often.

Liberal Quakerism, Part 5—Jesus and I, Part 2

April 17, 2013 § 3 Comments

Jesus, the Presence in the Midst

Several times, I have sensed a presence in meeting for worship, quite distinctly in a particular place in the meeting room. Twice when I opened my eyes, I saw (was it in my mind’s eye only?) an “apparition” in the image of Jesus, a stereotypical image similar to a painting I know. He is always standing behind one of the worshippers. Each time, just as I become fully aware of this presence and the person with whom it is associated, that person rises and speaks.

This always has had an electrifying effect on me, convulsing my body—I was quaking, I suppose—and flooding me with a powerful set of emotions, basically the same as those I have felt in the gathered meeting: a fullness of spirit, a deep gratitude, and a great joy, Wonderful feelings.

These experiences all took place a long time ago, now. But they remain with me as confirmation of the promise that, “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I also”. And ever since, I have imagined Jesus standing next to people when they rise to give vocal ministry in meeting for worship and I try to recover those feelings. It is how I now hold people “in the Light”.

Now we were not actually gathered in Jesus’ name in any of those meetings, and I suppose that the apparition presentation as a stereotypical image of Jesus could easily have been a projection of my unconscious. Fine. But the psychic prescience of knowing exactly who was going to speak and when cannot be explained away as just a projection of my imagination or unconscious desire for religious experience, or whatever.

Moreover, this kind of psychic experience has been, if not common among Friends, then at least not unknown throughout Quaker history. Something is going on.

It is this kind of experience upon which I want to build in this project to develop a “theology” of Liberal Quakerism. These experiences were real, they were transcendental, and they took place within the context of Quaker worship and Quaker tradition. Any attempt to express in new language what we believe, who we are, and how we practice must account for such experiences.

This is what I mean by insistence on “experience” as the starting point for this project. In an early comment, Micah Bales warned about Liberal Quakerism’s virtual deification of personal experience and the ranterism it has led to (I paraphrase). I want to honor personal experience, and yes, of course, my own experience in particular. But it is these truly transcendental, psychic, interpersonal experiences, like the ones I’ve described, and our collective experience in the gathered meeting that interests me most.

Individual transcendental experiences confirm us in our faith. But collective experiences, of both the interpersonal, psychic kind and the more inclusive gathered meeting, not only strengthen our faith as individuals but they also are what make us a gathered people of God. If we can articulate what these experiences mean to us in a way that builds upon our tradition and yet extends it or opens it, that makes it meaningful and attractive to Liberal Friends today, and—most important—true to the Spirit of Love and Truth that inspires them—that is my goal.

In my next post I will describe my experience of Jesus as the Comforter.

Liberal Quakerism, Part 5—Jesus and I, Part 1

April 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

Jesus and I

I said in my last post that I would turn next to the gathered meeting as the experience from which my exploration of Liberal Quaker theology begins in earnest. But I realized that I had at least one more important background entry, about my own relationship with Jesus. Because, while I have not had an experience of Jesus that would make me his disciple, I’m not exactly sure why, since the experiences I have had have been quite profound. There have been three kinds. It looks like I have so much to say about this subject that I’m going to have to dedicate a post to each one separately.

Jesus, the Christ of Christian Scripture

The most important of these experiences is my discovery of the Jesus of the gospels—the Synoptic gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke. The Jesus of John seems to me, if not a fabrication of John’s, at least such a radical reconstruction of what I consider to be the more historical Jesus of the Synoptics that I’m only interested his gospel as brilliant religious literature. There’s more to it than that, actually, because John reflects the Essene tradition even more than Luke and clearly there’s a mysterious but strong strain of Essene thought and practice in the early Jesus movement. So also with the wisdom thread in John; there’s something going on there. But, again, it feels to me like it has more to do with John, whoever he was, than it does with Jesus.

The Jesus of Paul—and especially, the Christ of Paul—is even more removed from the prophet and charismatic with whom I have fallen in love in my study of the gospels. In Paul, the proclaimer has become the proclaimed, and the kingdom Jesus proclaimed has been almost utterly lost, spiritualized and uprooted from its foundations in Torah. It’s the Synoptic proclaimer of the kingdom of God whom I find so compelling.

This started when I was writing a book on Christian earth stewardship and, after reading a score of books and articles, it became clear that that movement was almost wholly based on Hebrew Scripture, that Jesus had basically nothing to say about earthcare. I felt that, if a theology does not come out of the heart of the gospel of Jesus, Christians are very unlikely to embrace it. If Jesus doesn’t talk about it, why should we? So I determined to start my research over and focus on the gospel of Jesus on its own terms, and if there was nothing there that could inform our earthcare, then I would drop the project.

Then I discovered The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder while taking a course on The Prophetic Tradition under the care of the School of the Spirit. In that book I discovered what I call the economics of redemption in the commonwealth of God, and it launched me on a decades-long study of biblical economics. Once you learn to recognize the economic language in Torah and the unique, pervasive, and innovative ways Jesus uses this language and these principles in his teachings, you realize that the gospel is all about economics. I alluded to this in my earlier post on definitions of “Christian”.

This covenantal economic language is everywhere in the Synoptics—in the stories, in the parables, in the sayings, and in Jesus’ actions, even his healings. In terms of earthcare, while Jesus has almost nothing to say about land use, he is all about land tenure—who gets to decide how the land will be used. This has completely reoriented my approach to ecological issues in general. As I said, I talked a little bit about this in my post on definitions of “Christian”.

Furthermore, this fascination with Jesus and the kingdom he proclaimed goes beyond interest in just his teachings—his role as the anointed (messiah/christ) prophet of “good news for the poor”. I am just as interested in him as a charismatic, as one who manifested divine power as a preacher, presence, and healer.

Yoga has a fully developed “theology” of the siddha, the guru whose very presence is enlightening and who can psychically transform her or his followers and, at times, manifest in other ways. I have been in the presence of siddha yogis. I have seen psychic healing. I have done psychic healing. I know that many of the “miracles” Jesus performed are possible, and that makes the tradition’s claims for his divinity something to take seriously.

My quest to understand Jesus’ charismatic power and the roots of the tradition’s claim of his divinity have been just as important to my approach to this project of Liberal Quaker theology as my love of his teachings. And I think it sets me apart from many Liberal Friends. I take the idea of Jesus’ divinity seriously. Still, it has not made me Christ’s disciple.

Well, there’s lots more to say. I have written a lot about the economics of redemption, much of which is available in my first blog, BibleMonster. That blog has been dormant for a while, since it’s hard enough to keep up with one blog and this one now has my attention. I’ve studied, thought, and written a lot about Jesus the charismatic, as well, but have not published most of it anywhere.

This work, this intense study of the new covenant Jesus inaugurated and the charismatic dimension of the kingdom he proclaimed, has evolved into a deep love of the Jesus whom I have thus come to know. Christian tradition has never honored the discipline of study and the path of the mind to the love of God the way that Judaism has. We have the Jesuits, but especially in the Protestant tradition, while Bible study has long been an aid to personal devotion, it rarely has been a path unto itself, the way it is in Judaism.

I feel especially akin to the Merkabah mystics, Jewish mystics of the early Middle Ages whose path was the study of Ezekiel chapter one, the prophet’s vision of Yahweh’s throne chariot. Paul is sometimes credited with being the first recorded proto-Merkabah mystic. I think he learned this from his teacher Ananias, but that is a series of posts for BibleMonster. Anyway, I think I understand those rabbis.

But Quakerism (at least Liberal Quakerism) is even worse in regard to the path of the mind. Many Friends, in my experience, are hostile and/or contemptuous of “theology”, of the intellect, and of intellectuals. They are clear in their own minds that the community, the “spiritual”, and the “emotional” paths are superior to the path of the mind, at best; often, they deny the mind as a legitimate path at all. “Words are limiting and inadequate . . . “ goes the usual anti-intellectual mantra.

Yes, they are. So is everything else. What I am saying here in this little diversion/diatribe is that there are many kinds of religious temperaments, each has its legitimate place in the life of the spirit, and each person tends to experience one or more of these temperaments as dominant in their own spiritual journey. By temperament, I am a student and a mystic.

(It could be worse. If I were a “somatic”, someone for whom the way of the body is the path to God, Quakerism would be a coffin to the spirit; I would have to become a ballet dancer, or a yogi. It’s almost as bad for musicians. Now we have our John Bloods and our Jon Watts, thank God, but it took a while. Meanwhile, we have had centuries of Bach, Handel, Shaw . . . )

As a student, I have come to know the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels quite intimately. It feels like a kind of love affair. The more I learn, the more complete my understanding of Jesus becomes, the more I admire him. I have come to love him. I am in awe of the reach of his mind, the depth of his spirit, the mystical and personal power he manifested, the depth of his compassion for those who suffered, his gift as a poet and as a story-teller, whose stories had the power of zen koans. I am in awe of the heroic courage his anointing gave him, and the devotion he gave so utterly to his Father—and to his followers. I have fallen in love.

And yet I have not felt led to join his followers as his disciple. I don’t know why. But there it is.

In the next post I want to describe my experience of Jesus, the Presence in the Midst—my own “mystical” experience of the Christ in meeting for worship.

Where Am I?

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