February 12, 2014 § 7 Comments
Here is my second installment on What is Quakerism for? — Evangelism Reconsidered.
I ended my first post on evangelism by saying that I believe that the Christ should stand at the center of our collective message, whether we personally have experienced him there or not. In my opinion, a presentation of “the Quaker message” that does not include our message about Christ isn’t a Quaker message.
In this post, I want to explain why I believe “the Quaker message” must include the Christ. For me, that message is essentially about the Christ, but not about salvation from divine judgment, as traditional evangelism claims.
Private experience and public message
“The Quaker message” is not the same thing as our own personal theology (or non-theology) or our own ideas about what Quakerism is. We are representing the whole Society when we speak to non-Friends about Quakerism. The testimony of integrity requires that we do not presume that our own experience is normative or even descriptive of all Friends, let alone prescriptive.
(“Prescriptiveness” is precisely what we Liberal Friends dislike so much about “evangelism” as traditionally practiced, the claim that salvation in Christ is the only thing that really matters and you better believe or else. We would be quite disingenuous to decry evangelical prescriptiveness while practicing it ourselves by presuming that our form of Quakerism is the only legitimate one.)
Our theological diversity is one of the reasons we often are so paralyzed by the question, “What do Quakers believe?” We often don’t feel we can speak confidently for all Friends, and it gets so complicated to start off with a whole bunch of disclaimers, and it takes so long to cover all the versions of Quakerism—that we tend to say nothing at all. Or—we do in fact presume to share our own version of Quakerism as normative, against the testimony of integrity.
I feel very strongly that the Liberal Quaker message ought to be truly inclusive. Our collective openness to whatever the positive spiritual or religious experiences of other people are, which is so central to the Liberal Quaker identity, absolutely must include, not just openness to the experience that other Friends have had of Christ, but also openness to the messages they bring to us from that experience. Actually, “openness” is too weak a word. We should embrace the Christ when we evangelize—when we share Quakerism with others, when we are bringing the Quaker message into the world. And we should embrace the Christ-centered messages of our fellow religionists.
But I do draw the line at forceful exclusiveness, the assertion—by anybody—that someone else’s religious experience is not legitimate, not the truth, not enough. How dare we make such a claim? And on what authority? Our personal experience—or lack of experience—in the case of Liberal Friends? Or, in the case of some evangelical Christians, on our personal reading of a book?
That’s what it comes down to with some evangelical Christians—their authority for their claim to be right comes primarily from their personal interpretation of the Bible. This claim not only disrespects other people’s interpretation of Scripture; it disrespects Scripture itself, as though the Bible were not ceaselessly surprising, confounding, mysterious, and even sometimes, just plain opaque and self-contradictory; that is, totally open to varying interpretations and emphases.
But what about the assertion that someone else’s experience is not true Quakerism? Most of us do have our own ideas about what true Quakerism is, I suspect. Certainly I do. I am filling this blog with my opinions about “true Quakerism”. This post is my take on “true Quakerism”. So sometimes there’s quite a difference between the movement as it is in its various forms and our own ideas about what constitutes true Quakerism.
For instance, I have trouble accepting programmed, pastoral Quakerism because of the way it constrains and suppresses universal and open ministry, which, in my opinion, is one of the essentials of our faith and practice. On the other hand, I know Friends who feel that a Quakerism without Christ at its center is no true Quakerism. Well, about that I can agree, with some caveats.
So this gets really complicated. At least it does for me.
The Christ and the Quaker message
When we speak to people on behalf of “Quakerism”, I believe . . .
- we should not ignore the Christian roots of our history and the subsequent Christian history of Quakerism’s unfolding over the centuries;
- we should not ignore our current Christian demographics as a worldwide movement;
- we should not pretend that we have in good gospel order at some point “left all that behind” and redefined our movement as post-Christian; and
- most importantly, we should not deny the divine spirit that gathered us as a people of God in the first place and that still gathers the vast majority of Friends today. Even if this is not our own experience.
I believe in Christ. I believe that the Christ was—and is—the “gatherer” of this peculiar people, as George Fox envisioned from Pendle Hill and then effected at Firbank Fell—even though I do not experience the Christ this way myself. (Well, maybe I do, actually; this is where it gets complicated.) I cannot with integrity deny the testimony of so many Friends about Christ, his presence today, and his role in our origins. Can you?
Actually, as I just implied, I do have my own experience of the Christ. I have experienced something that presented itself as the Christ a couple of times, as a presence in meeting for worship, accompanying psychic manifestations that were pretty impressive at the time. I have several times experienced a deeply gathered meeting for worship and, as I have written in a couple of entries on the gathered meeting, I choose to call the consciousness of the gathered meeting the Christ consciousness, even though I have never experience his presence among us explicitly in a gathered meeting.
The consciousness of the Christ is all we can actually experience of the Christ. Even if we narrowly define Christ as the divine reality of Jesus of Nazareth, as traditional Christianity does, the risen Jesus is now a consciousness; we do not experience him in the body, through our eyes and ears and normal consciousness, as did his disciples. To experience the Christ in our time, one must enter an extraordinary consciousness, just as Paul did; and George Fox. One must “come up in the spirit through the flaming sword”. Well, it’s not always so dramatic. But the transformational experience of the Christ is a visitation of an extra-ordinary consciousness.
As I have also said elsewhere, I therefore believe that at times (quite often, actually), the Christ is gathering us now (and, in fact, has always gathered us) without his name tag on. Put another way, I choose to call the consciousness of the gathered meeting the Christ-consciousness, even when, as is mostly the case, he does not declare himself explicitly as Jesus the Christ, recognizing that this is theological speculation on my part.
Such speculation, such “notions”, are not “Quakerly”. We do not base our religious lives on theological ideas that we do not know experientially ourselves. So for me this “belief” that the Christ is the presence in our midst is a matter of personal intellectual choice, and it’s not really very important to my personal religious life as a result. It is my experiences that are of primary importance to me, not the ideas I’ve come up with to explain them.
But we are talking about our collective voice, what we say on behalf of the whole Society of Friends to those who are inquiring about Quakerism. Sharing our personal experience is probably the best way to share Quakerism with others, up to a point. But we inevitably come to a point where we must speak beyond our experience on behalf of Quakerism as a whole.
Nor would my experiences of the Christ pass a traditional evangelical litmus test. On the other hand, the assertion that true religion, true Christianity, true Quakerism, must proclaim Jesus as savior is also a theological idea, one interpretation of Scripture among many possible ones.
Once someone has experienced Christ as their savior, well now they know their own Truth. It is obvious that the Christ is the savior for many, many people. And what a blessing that is. But on what grounds could anyone with integrity claim that I must accept their experience as prescriptive for myself? Because that’s how they read the Book? And because they believe that not only is the Book the ultimate authority, but their interpretation of the Book is the ultimate authority?
Thus I am inclined to draw a line here: I cannot welcome with integrity the exclusive, prescriptive message that salvation in Christ is the only true religion. This is a matter of personal faith. It is based on an interpretation of one book (well, a library, really), filtered by thousands of years of (sometimes apostate) tradition, whose message was mutating even while its own books were still being written.
I believe that the essential Quaker message is that only inward experience of the Christ matters, and not belief in a certain religious ideology, however ancient and established that ideology might be. Thus we must respect that inwardness and eschew projecting our own inward experience on others. Others must be allowed their own inward experience.
But what is the Christ that we can proclaim? The Christ is a consciousness that tradition believes was the divine consciousness of the Jesus of Scriptures. But that consciousness has throughout history manifested itself in forms that run along a spectrum . . .
- from absolutely clear and personal experience of Jesus Christ as savior;
- through the rather more mysterious and uncertain experiences that Mary Magdalene and the guys on the road to Emmaus and Paul himself had of the risen Jesus, in which it took some time, teaching, and revelation to understand what was happening;
- to the modern gathered Quaker meeting in which, although we are certain that we are gathered, we are not certain how we are gathered, only that we sense a presence in the midst, perhaps, or at least, we sense each other sensing each other in some mysterious communion.
That is the Christ that I feel we can proclaim:
- that we were gathered originally as a peculiar people of God by a spirit, a consciousness, that those Friends testified was Jesus Christ;
- that throughout our history, the spirit of Christ has continued to guide us and strengthen us, heal us and save us, inspire us and reveal new truth to us; and
- that still today our meetings are gathered in Christ, in a spirit of love and truth, a spirit that we hold is continuous with the Quaker experience of the Christ’s revelation in Jesus himself and throughout our history, even though we do not—and never have—always explicitly experienced that spirit as Jesus Christ.
I believe we have a message to proclaim, and it should include—let me rephrase that—I believe it should be established on, not just the history of our experience of the inward Light of Christ as a people, but the reality that the Quaker Way points directly to the Light of the Christ, however we name it or experience it ourselves.
For myself, I choose to accept the testimony of so many Friends that the Light I have experienced is the Light of Christ, even if it dos not declare itself to me as such. I choose to accept that it is the Christ who gathers us as a people of G*d, whether we all recognize that consciousness as the consciousness of Jesus the Christ or not in that moment of gathering.
And I believe that the first thing out of our mouths when proclaiming the Quaker message—when we are evangelizing—should be the joyous promise and reality of direct communion with the Divine in the Light of Christ. We Liberal Friends can then go on to talk about the Light, or the Inner Light, or even, I suppose, that of God in everyone if we feel compelled to (even though, as I have written before, we misuse our tradition when we use this phrase this way).
In fact, many times our listeners will need this kind of bridge from Christ-language to more inclusive language in order to really hear our message. We know this because many of us need this bridge. But the Christ is the mainland and we “post-Christians” are on the island, and I for one am grateful that modern Liberal Quakerism offers me a causeway between the two.
Our tradition says that it was the Christ who awakened us as a people of G*d, that it is the Christ who gathers us even today. And our tradition has always claimed to be universal in this—that the light of Christ enlightens everyone who is coming into the world, as the gospel of John puts it in the King James Version.
Yet clearly, not every act of enlightenment comes with the name of Jesus Christ tagged upon it. Inward religious experience takes many forms and runs across a very wide spectrum of clarity and assignation. Even Luke, in his three different tellings of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, gives us three different accounts of what happened, and even Paul himself had to be taught by Ananias what his experience meant.
Thus, even if we cannot explicitly own the experience of the Christ’s “enlightenment” ourselves, it still could be true that it is Christ who “enlightens” us. We certainly can’t claim that it isn’t Christ. So when we are sharing the Quaker message—when we are speaking on behalf of the tradition—I believe that we should respect it enough to share it with integrity, and not project upon it the limitations of our own experience.
For me, the way to present this complicated message is to say that part of my evolution as a Liberal Quaker is the revelation that the message of Jesus is universal and that, for me, the communion I experience in the gathered meeting, the healing, the inspiration and guidance, and yes, the salvation, that I might experience inwardly as an individual, are the experience of the Light of Christ, even if I do not explicitly experience it as such. This obviously is a matter of faith, since I do not know it experientially. But it still belongs in my presentation of Quakerism, notwithstanding the limitations of my own experience. And finally, the people to whom I may be speaking are themselves free to experience the Light in whatever way it reveals itself to them, as the Christ—or not.
February 12, 2014 § 2 Comments
I have been surprised to find how much I have to say about evangelism. I think this is because it gets to what I feel are two essential questions, at least for Liberal Friends: what is our message and what is the place of Christ in that message? I had promised in my last post to offer a positive exploration of evangelism as one of the purposes of Quakerism, and when I got started, I ended up with two really long posts following different threads, but often crossing the same ground. So I am going to publish them separately but simultaneously, and hope you will accept the inevitable repetition.
Evangelism, the Quaker Message, and the Christ
In the Greek of Christian Scripture, evangelion means to proclaim the good news. For centuries, Friends have proclaimed the good news that salvation from sin can be found in the direct experience of the Light of Christ and needs no outward mediator—no priests, no outward sacraments, but only the direct experience of the Christ. Furthermore, this salvation through direct communion is available to anyone, for the Light of Christ is universal; it enlightens everyone.
I believe that Friends do have good news to proclaim. However, as I said in my last post, I believe that the Quaker message is bigger, more inclusive, and more positive than just salvation in Christ, though this obviously is one of the purposes of Quakerism and demonstrably a great blessing to those who find in him their savior.
Thus I propose that our purpose, our message, is to bring souls to Christ, irrespective of “salvation”, and inclusive of salvation. My Liberal Quaker readers might be more comfortable with “awakening people to the Light within them”. I think “bringing people to Christ” and “awakening people to the Light within them” are the same thing. And I do believe that the Christ belongs at the center of our message, even for those of us who have not personally experienced the Christ as Jesus Christ.
I want to diverge for a moment and talk about how we know such things, how we make the connection between the Liberal Quaker’s Inner Light (or “that of God”, or whatever you want to call it) and the spirit of Jesus the Christ, the spirit of the man who walked the deserted places of Galilee and Judea, who taught, enacted, and embodied the kingdom of God, and of whom people have had visions and visitations throughout the centuries.
Interpreting mystical experience of—and as—the Christ
I have had a number of “mystical” experiences. Two of them were of Jesus appearing in the midst of a meeting for worship as an apparition that connected me directly and psychically to inward things that were happening to others in the meeting. In both cases, he stood right behind someone who would in moments rise to speak powerful ministry. I felt that he was connecting me to them in some way.
In my own formative spiritual experience, I was visited by a presence in the midst of a very deep and overwhelming altered state induced by an intense sweat lodge ceremony. This presence had a name, a voice (made of sounds repeated in patterns), and a mission. It took me weeks to understand the voice’s message and the messenger’s mission. It took help from someone with a little shamanistic training to find my footing inside the experience right after it happened. I have conducted my spiritual life as a covenant with this spirit ever since. But what is that spirit, really?
Even really powerful “visionary” experiences are extremely subjective; the vague, “still small voice” experiences that are much more common are even more subjective. These experiences are full of mystery, of questions. Was it real? Was it real as it presented itself—can I take the experience at face value—or was it essentially symbolic in its manifestation? Where did it come from? Was I communing with an independent spiritual entity, or an archetype in the collective unconscious, or “merely” projecting from my own unconscious—or all of the above? What does this experience mean? What mental and spiritual tools do I need to better understand it? Is the help I get from others to gain understanding to be trusted, or are my human mentors just guessing or projecting, too, or at least limited by their own mental and spiritual tools?
You can see all these questions playing out in accounts in Scripture of such events. Peter, James, and John have no idea what’s going on at first in the transfiguration. When Jesus walks across the sea in the darkness, his own disciples do not recognize him. The men to whom the risen Jesus appears on the road to Emmaus do not recognize him, even though they walk with him for hours talking specifically about Jesus’s career and death—until they “break bread” with him. Paul gets help from Ananias in understanding his visitation. The disciples often don’t even understand Jesus’ parables, let alone their visions, and he has to interpret his stories for them.
I love thinking about these questions, but they don’t really go anywhere. I end up making intellectual choices based on what makes the most sense to me. But I know that really I am just speculating.
So my own approach is to accept transcendental experiences on the terms in which they present themselves; I take them more or less at face value. I wait to see what else is revealed. And I acknowledge to myself that what I’ve experienced could just be inside my head; or at least, that something else might be going on that I do not yet perceive or understand.
This is not skepticism. I do not doubt the experience. But I hold it lightly, gingerly, expecting that more about it may be revealed—but not necessarily.
This is why I accept at face value the testimony of Friends, both ancient and modern, who knew and know Jesus Christ inwardly. This is why I will not deny the testimony of others or try to redefine their experience into terms that work better for me, just as I don’t want others to redefine for me what my experience means. I do not translate other people’s messages into terms I like better, as many Friends do. I try to embrace their language as their truth, and potentially, therefore, as my truth, too. For how many stories do we have of some Friend awakened to a new truth by another Friend’s challenging vocal ministry? Margaret Fell and Elizabeth Fry come to mind immediately.
The Christ today and the Quaker message
And this is why I feel free to assume that the Christ is still working in people’s hearts and in the midst of Quaker meetings, still saving us, still gathering us, still teaching us, still healing us, still leading us into new revelation. Just because he is not wearing his name tag does not mean he is no longer alive, present, and active.
On the other hand, just because the Bible tells us he is alive, present, and active doesn’t necessarily mean that he actually is. This is all a mystery. Thus some would say that it is a matter of faith: we are left to simply believe it or not. I don’t agree. I won’t “believe” something I haven’t experienced. Instead, I “entertain” it: I give it a room of its own in my mind and heart and it is welcome to dwell within me while we try each other out. I will give it shelter, I will even feed it with my Bible study and prayer, share it with other visitors into my life, play with it, and try to learn from it.
Sometimes, a new belief—an idea I’m entertaining that does not rest on direct experience—starts paying rent. It bears fruit. It is confirmed by experience, or at least comes to feel so right that I now consider it a member of my inner household. Or not. I have a whole boarding house of ideas that I am still working with experimentally, using them to approach my life when they seem useful, but without the convincement that comes with direct experience.
The idea that the Christ is a consciousness, that, in practical terms, the Christ is the consciousness of the gathered meeting, seems increasingly right to me, ever since the opening that came while writing my series on the gathered meeting in this blog. And for years, I have been entertaining the idea that the Christ, the consciousness that the evangelists were trying to convey in the gospels, is still among us and still working within us, but without “a name tag”, as I put—without declaring his identity or demanding our confession.
Thus, in the same way that I entertain new ideas and beliefs, I feel that the Christ has been “entertaining” me, that as a non-Christian Friend, I am a guest in the house that Christ built. I am grateful that I have been welcomed. I try to respect the Master of the house and the human stewards who know him personally. I try to know him personally myself, through study and prayer and meditation.
I have arranged the furniture in the room I occupy in this mansion to suit my religious sensibilities, but I don’t try to move the furniture in the rest of the house around without sharing a process of discernment with the other inhabitants, hopefully with the explicit invitation to the owner—the Christ—to join us and guide us.
Put more plainly, I do not claim that my Liberal, post-Christian Quakerism is the only legitimate Quakerism, or, even worse, that traditional Christ-centered Quakerism is somehow illegitimate, or at least passé, or that we have somehow outgrown it or laid it aside. I do not claim that our core belief is that “there is that of God in everyone”, not at least without linking it to the Christ and acknowledging that this is relatively new light that is still being tested.
I said that I feel we should explicitly invite the Christ into our meetings for worship, our meetings for business in worship, and our other discernment processes. This is pretty rare in Liberal Quaker meetings. When we’re at our most attentive and faithful, we acknowledge that we labor under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our discernment, but we rarely name “the Spirit” as the spirit of the Christ. (And all too often, we are actually just trying to reach a consensus, anyway, rather than a true sense of the meeting.)
Well, if the Christ isn’t going to manifest himself clearly to us and, like me, we are not willing to just “believe” as a matter of faith without experience, then dropping back a notch in our language to “the Spirit” makes sense. Only never should we forget or deny the testimony of Friends over centuries and among us today that we actually are gathered in the Christ, or as I prefer, the Christ-consciousness. For that is what the Christ is—a consciousness, a spirit. Even if that consciousness was the same consciousness Jesus of Nazareth possessed, now, today, Jesus the man is gone, and all we presently have is the consciousness of the Christ.
This is why I believe that the Christ should still stand at the center of our message, whether we have experienced him there or not. And so, this is how I express the good news that we Friends can offer the world, as I presented it in my previous post:
There is in everyone a light that can guide and strengthen us to do the right, that can awaken us to the wrong we have done and are about to do, that can heal us, that can save us from our demons and relieve us of our inner suffering, that can inspire us to acts of kindness and to creativity, that can lead us to become the people we were meant to be, and that can open to us direct communion with God (however you experience God), both as individuals and as a community. We Quakers have experienced this light as the Light of Christ, as a Spirit of Love and Truth, as a Presence in our midst, as that which has gathered us as a people of God and continues to guide our meetings and the Quaker movement into the future, when we are faithful to its call. In this light, G*d is always trying to reveal to us the way of love and peace and truth.