Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
I am feeling frustrated with Christian Quakers in the liberal branches (and liberal meetings, wherever they are) within the Quaker world. I say these things as a crazy liberal myself...and I believe I am actually making a complaint here that is far bigger than Quakerism but is afflicting the Quakers as much as it is other people of faith.
I've been hearing a recent stream of examples (in a much longer-term stream of examples) of Christian Quakers who feel that there is no place for them to get their nourishment among the Quakers or among the liberal ones anyway, and they feel like a black sheep or feel vilified or lonely or...whatever it is in their case.
I feel for that, I really, really do. And I know what it's like to feel that. AND I also really believe that we need to get our spiritual needs met and not give that short-shrift.
But that said...this keeps feeling like something is wrong. Essentially: Christians aren't here to get their needs met. This is not the spiritual path for "getting my needs met." This is the spiritual path by which our lives of service to others, wherever God sends us, transcends whatever we thought we needed...and gives us a joyful and redemptive life in which epic experiences unfold by a power greater than ourselves.
I know that some people who crave more Christian expressions of their Quaker faith are seeking exactly this: "the life of service to others, transcending (personal needs)" etc. But others (probably most of us Christian human beings) would much rather go somewhere with enough other Christians around who say the same things we would say or believe... and that's not living the life Christ calls us to live.
Right? I mean...Isn't that the gist of it? Please tell me if I'm wrong.
If what I'm saying here is accurate, then when we feel an ache in our gut, or feel vulnerable, or experience a wave of loneliness (or a whole bunch of waves, persistent loneliness!) then I believe God is calling us to really sit and murk around in that and just feel it, just ache and tell God all about it and ache some more, just letting it all be known to us and wherever that ache leads us... and we're supposed to ache... But this doesn't mean that we're supposed to be relieved of duty.
Our society has taught many of us to be consumers, and even our Quaker upbringing or other experiences may not have been able to heal us of this consumer impulse entirely. One way this can show up of course is that we think we are to go to a church or meeting that meets our needs. This is (most likely) consumerism or a calling to be a hermit and replenish the self...but is not the Christian directive on the whole. It just may be that we are being led to go to a church or meeting that fails to meet our needs and makes us restless until it requires us to begin to meet our own needs there, among these people!
Perhaps our willingness to meet our own spiritual need among the people God has put us with will lead us to acts or activities that become our ministry to others.
OR perhaps our willingness to feel unsatisfied by other people will (as Mary Glenn Hadley suggests) lead us inward toward Christ who wants to be the only one to meet those needs anyway.
Perhaps we will be called, as Mike Shell alludes to in the beginning of his post on Christian Universalisms, to grapple with and gain insight about our "belief systems and their enforcers (that) may have reinterpreted (Jesus') ministry to suit their own theological or political notions."
We may have to learn to see God in people who call their faith something we are not comfortable with, such as "nontheism" perhaps. If we feel we "must go to a better church" we may be called instead to sit there, in this same exasperating community, hating it and hating it until it dawns on us one day the judgment that is in our own heart masquerading around as some sentiment like "YOU PEOPLE aren't of God and it's getting on my nerves!" Only after we wrestle that out of us might we find that Christ was in these people all along and we couldn't see it...
There are a zillion versions of this that could play out and I suspect that the majority of them involve what happens if we stay right where we are.
I'm not recommending stagnation. It's important that we come to know what is within us and let is rise up and slowly get cleared out to make room for God's new ideas. We should not assume that God has placed these irksome people with us due to some arbitrary mistake that we have a right to correct. You never know who may turn out to need to be set straight -- it may be us. In fact whomever else it is too, it IS most likely us that needs to be set straight.
Underneath all this need of processing our grief or coming to know our judgement or loneliness or fear... on the other side of that discovery... I feel very sure is what our ministry is actually supposed to be among this crowd.
This is what troubles me.
Because while we don't do the inner work and stay with the wider community and humble down... the wider community ultimately fails to get any benefit from our Christianity.
I don't mean to even hint that we are ever supposed to evangelize to others. But I see that we are called to be exactly who we are, in exactly this place, among exactly these people. We are called to be dissatisfied here, and to be fools here, and to be grace here. I believe that when this is done authentically and humbly, it has natural power to heal others or minister to them in some needed way.
If our own Spirit lacks power to minister to others....that is feedback then about the condition of our own Spirit. Perhaps Christ is not flowing through us as fully as intended, out into the world. No matter how clear we may be to the contrary, we may not be ripe yet, we may not be humble enough yet, we may not be transparent enough yet, or broken enough, to let the Light shine through and minister to others.
But what is achieved by skipping that whole journey and going in search of less exasperating people...an easier community that already believes what we believe, in the hope that we don't have to BE THAT to others?
William, thanks for prayers! It was an interesting bunch this morning; a few of them were visitors; but several local people were here for the first time.
"In the end, there was a meeting for business, where a woman advocated eliminating the word God from our pamphlet for newcomers. Only one person spoke out against it."
It's very important for someone to be that 'one person'! Other people there might well share the concern but not feel the need to repeat something that's been said for them.
Meanwhile, I'm glad you've found a group that feeds you and welcomes your participation.
Thanks for sharing more about your experience. This sounds wonderful to me:
"In the end I started being who I was openly and firmly."
even before the rest of it which is also nice -- "I had to go outside the meeting for my spiritual nurture and growth. I found it in the Way of the Spirit program (west coast version of School of the Spirit). I began exploring other meetings in the area. I found a meeting that is truly open and affirming. A meeting that fed my soul."
I think that my meeting is (in the ways we're discussing) a combination of the one you have recently moved to that's inclusive, and the former one. That is to say: There are people present who would love for us to remove all God references and they are also permitted here, but they are not running things.
That said, neither are the Christians. In a super-large, urban meeting (too large!) we tried to gather a few Quaker Christians together to see if there was interest in continuing to meet. There was really not enough interest even then. Maybe 2-3 of us would have, but there wasn't anyone who felt led to run that and it hasn't met.
But we do have a lot of perspectives represented here, among us, and people don't hesitate to speak out about express what they feel about these things. This is a large meeting that has multiple meeting for worship times. I have found myself most at home at one of the smaller meeting times. The largest meeting is filled with too much talk and too little receptivity to it being divine and guided.
There are attempts to try to educate people about message-giving, but even these attempts can sometimes seem in the wrong spirit (such as suggesting that messages should be kept short...when the idea is more that they should be listening to Christ and keep to that length given by the Spirit, which usually shortens things but may run long sometimes!) The smaller meeting for worship is more quiet and more guided, with good spirit. A question has been raised within our larger Quaker community that perhaps having smaller meetings for worship there doesn't allow us to all build community as One -- clearly this was brought up by those who value the larger, more talkative meeting for worship and who don't realize what we gain from our little (sometimes gathered) meeting.
I notice that God is mentioned in our materials in a somewhat educational way:
"Members of the blah-blah community seek to live their lives based on the values of the Religious Society of Friends -- the promotion of peace, a commitment to all humanity, an understanding that love is a manifestation of God, and a belief that ”there is that of God in everyone”. We are an inclusive, spiritual community that sincerely welcomes anyone seeking a spiritual home. Our community includes individuals of all races, faith traditions, genders, sexual orientations, ages and socio/economic backgrounds."
And "Holy Spirit" seems to have more prominent placement and more universal recognition than "God". Christ is not named.
I have a leading that to me is very Christ-oriented and I initially felt that a) there was no way they would accept that here, and b) I would not be able to get the spiritual support I need in the process, as one under a leading can need and wants to be able to seek from their community. Especially with this crowd I felt need of the support.
I tried to work through the systems of the meeting to seek this support for my leading. Clearness was a wonderful process and was very guided (committee members were chosen carefully and educated about what was being asked of them as a committee). But moving this leading forward to the whole meeting is not an option and I've been told so, directly. Three years into seeking the way through, with them, and giving them a lot of my information, my journey, and my love to consider...they've ultimately told me they "don't care" about my leading or what I do with it.
Of course this is not what we want -- those of us who seek Christ and see the potential for divine community, and seek divine encouragement of one another. But the grace I was describing is mortifying, as usual. Those who can receive and value what I have to give are there and WILL, those who can't are simply letting me know they don't care one bit about this! But they aren't stopping me from doing it. I see that the Way that has Openned is that moving forward in this profound, spiritual work is not an option by their initiative or support. But it IS an option by Christ / by God and by those given me to help in this journey...and the meeting hasn't taken that away from me or tried to.
At the moment, I'm seeing this as a victory... permission to continue. I feel a leading to help others with spiritual healing...I can't expect to find myself somewhere where they don't need that.
That's what I'm thinking about with all Christian Quakers -- we have (potentially) some insight about the Spirit that leads us to be unsatisfied with anything less: why not commune when there is THAT to commune with!? But others may simply not have this insight or experience. They are not going to be able to rally around us and our mission(s), they are not going to fight for all that we feel needs to be fought for, or protect all that we find sacred in our community interactions.
It's making sense to me right now that they don't have that to offer us. They don't have that to offer us -- so it would be wrong of them to have structures and practices that mask that. And they don't have that to offer us but they still need that redemption as much as any of us do.
And we have it. WE have it. We have it enough to know that we get dissatisfied when we can't find that echoed around us. And we know why -- we know the Source that we want to see things hooked up to! We know that our Christ is a power beyond measure, for healing, for redemption, for release and forgiveness.... So we must not blame and feel bitter toward our meetings for not bringing us this support when we need it. WE must find it WITHIN -- we must seek the way within that is opening to divine power, divine forgiveness, divine healing, so that our communities may benefit.
OMG Olivia!!!! Perhaps the most powerful post I've ever read ANYWHERE. Such a ministry in your words.
I've learned during my first few years as a Quaker that: "I've seen the enemy and it is I". After half a lifetime of being disappointed in others, I finally gave up on depending on others to make me whole. Starting out as a Christocentric Quaker in a liberal meeting, for a few years I mused privately that many of the Friends in my meeting were "missing the boat". Over time, I finally realized the Friends whom I was "judging" (without admitting that to myself) were so more Christ-like in their manner of living than I was. And they were self-proclaimed Buddhist, Universalist, Atheist, whatever. Yet, their spirits were the same Spirit that resided within Jesus. Who would Jesus have chosen to evangelize: me (the Christian), or them? I think we know the answer.
Upon being so humbled, I no longer relied on my ego-mind to guide me in anything (how could I ever trust it again?). I turned whole-heartedly to the Spirit for guidance and renounced ALL labels. Now, some days I feel like a Christian, some days I feel like a Jew, some days I feel like a Buddhist, some days I feel like a non-theist. And it doesn't matter - as long as I am giving up my own ego to rest in the Spirit.
I really think it was simply Jesus' mission to bring the Jewish society of his day to this very realization - because it was time. It is obvious that his parables and sayings are sprinkled with Eastern religion philosophies and universalism (yet he wisely never disclosed this). He cleverly used Jewish tradition and culture and scripture to AWAKEN his Jewish brethren. And, in the process he awakened the non-Jewish world to love, forgiveness, and compassion. And we should whole-heartedly embrace these three truths wherever they are found - period. Let's give up the ego-joy of exclusivity by making conditions in order to be spiritually OK. Of what value is it to put labels on these three spiritual qualities that can (and should be) just universal. I for one celebrate any who embrace these self-evident truths. This I think is the liberal Quaker message for the world.
Those first few years when I exhibited my haughty Christocentric positions; yes, some in my liberal meeting made me uncomfortable by their comments back to me. I needed to be uncomfortable so I could come to the place where I should be. As a result of that discomfort my eyes were finally opened to all the beautiful spirituality that is present in people everywhere no matter what their label.
Seek the Light in others - and it will be there, my Friends. And it will make us One.
I am wondering if declared "Christians" are viewed with more suspicion simply because many Christians (even non-fundamentalist Christians) are fairly exclusive in their positions. Just the common belief that one must accept Christ in order to be right with God - is very exclusive and offensive to anyone who is not a Christian. Whereas, Buddhist, Hindu, Nature, or Pagan traditions really have never embraced this believe in exclusivity to the degree that Christianity has. This non-acceptance of others' eternal value (even when they embrace the truths of love, forgiveness, and compassion) would be offensive to most liberal Quakers.
I have found that whenever I say "I embrace the teachings of Jesus - but I'm not a Christian" (Jesus never used that word, incidentally), I don't get that 'rejection reaction' that you describe, Jim. In fact, whether the liberal Quaker I'm speaking to is Buddhist, Atheist, Hindu, Pagan or whatever - they whole-heartedly agree with me. I no longer say "I'm a Christian" because of the bad name Christianity has given the teachings of Jesus. I don't want to embrace all of that. But I do want to embrace the spirit of his teachings in the new testament. (caution: to embrace the exact words, recorded as from Jesus, may be fool-hardy; we can not be sure of exactly what he said, and plus changing one word in translation can change what he was saying; better to grasp his Spirit - that's what he wanted to convey anyway).
Jim Wilson said:
Olivia, I found this a moving and heartfelt post. It seems to me the question is if God has called someone to be in that difficult context. If so, then it is ultimately a good thing to be there.
Like you and others, I have given this question much thought. Some of my thinking has to do with what I am calling 'liberal atmospherics'. This is tentative, as I am still kind of sifting and churning these observations, but my sense is that the atmospherics of liberal meetings are in a thoughtless kind of way problematic for someone who is centered in Christ. Individual meetings vary, naturally, so my comments may not apply to a specific case. By 'atmospherics' I mean a kind of givenness as to what is going to be allowed or acceptably decalred in a liberal meeting context. For example, if someone comes to a liberal meeting and declares that they are a Buddhist, or a Pagan, or a non-Theist, this is viewed as at least acceptable. However, if someone declares their commitment to Christ, this is viewed with suspicion. I have observed, for example, that Pagan identified Quakers feel free to suggest that referencing the Bible should be restricted and this is not viewed as problematic.
Another aspect of the 'atmospherics' is the intense, and time-consuming, focus on activism. At meetings much time is used up in political commitments. The consequence of this is that there is almost no time left over for contemplation, scriptural study, and the cultivation of holiness. This is a problem for American religion across the board, as far as I can see; it is not peculiar to Quakers. I believe it is one of the main reasons for the decline of membership in mainline denominations which the most recent Pew Research poll reveals. My view is that meetings should in some sense be a refuge, a sanctuary, from the world, a place where people can, for an hour or so, free themselves from the concerns of everyday existence. Activism creates an atmosphere which is more like wandering into a life-action Hugginton Post than finding a sanctuary and a place of rest and renewal on a spiritual level.
None of these comments are put here to negate your observations, which I think are spot on. Thanks for being so eloquent and taking the time to post them.
Howard, it sounds to me as if you may be blaming the victims by claiming that Christians subjected to abuse in liberal meetings are really at fault for it themselves.
Certainly, no one should ever be abused in a Quaker meeting. I just offered my own experience. There is a difference between discomfort when being exposed to a conversation and being abused for one's belief. I'm not in a position to judge (for anyone commenting here) which is which. Abuse of any kind should always be offensive to any spiritual community and not tolerated.
My current meeting has many professed Christians who are important members of our spiritual community. I have not seen the rejection that others have seen in their meetings. I have also not seen the political emphasis that others have experienced in their meetings. I couldn't even tell you who has voted Democratic or Republican. Politics is never brought into the life of the meeting.
William F Rushby said:
Howard, it sounds to me as if you may be blaming the victims by claiming that Christians subjected to abuse in liberal meetings are really at fault for it themselves.
So much could be responded to -- please forgive me for starting here...
I feel both a solidarity with the mystics here and a divergence perhaps... It's difficult to consider what to say next about it because I fear that that will sound exclusionary (Howard, your point and concern).
This is one of the things that I've written on "my page" here at QQ -- it seems relevant:
It turns out that it DOES matter what you believe, but this doesn’t
mean what we once thought. The truth is a narrow and uncompromising
path, but it is found everywhere. You must follow it to the
letter, but only down the path it is calling YOU.
So it is in that Spirit that I say the following...
Howard, you wrote: "I have found that whenever I say "I embrace the teachings of Jesus - but I'm not a Christian" (Jesus never used that word, incidentally), I don't get that 'rejection reaction' that you describe, Jim. In fact, whether the liberal Quaker I'm speaking to is Buddhist, Atheist, Hindu, Pagan or whatever - they whole-heartedly agree with me. "
What it made me think of -- which is just my experience and maybe my filters -- is that of course this is fine with them -- this is what people say when they mean to convey that Jesus is not their Savior. This is not a way (in my view) that people express that they are Hindu or Buddhist or whatever...it's a way that they specifically take issue with Christianity and say "Jesus is not my Messiah." It's also a way that they feel that they are saying I really love Jesus, while still emphasizing "he's not my Messiah." That's how I've always heard that anyway... It seems to be a common view among the liberals, and yes, I expect it does go over well and wouldn't ever get any flack, because it avoids what they may have hang ups about by saying "I'm not into THAT Jesus..the 'Son of God' guy." If this is how you feel, then I do respect that and am very fine with it! But just thought I'd bring this point up.
For me: I feel a bit more alone when people say that. I feel like I'm always getting that message that (I perceive them saying) "I'm going half way with God, not more than that...and if you're going all the way there, I'm not really going to be cool with it. So I just thought I'd bring this up first...."
I feel quite clear that God / Christ / Holy Spirit, etc. is my lens on something that is bigger than me and my understanding. But I recognize too that if someone wants to say "I'm into Jesus if he's just a man who was a good teacher" they are emphasizing that they place limits on how big and crazy they are willing for their faith to be...and that they are not going full in on the actual call that is Christianity.
This is hard to talk about because I come across as reeking of the exclusionary stuff that you spoke against I think. I mean instead to emphasize what I said at the beginning of this reply: "The truth is a narrow and uncompromising path, but it is found everywhere. You must follow it to the
letter, but only down the path it is calling YOU."
Howard, I don't really see you this way -- needing this point I've brought up -- so perhaps I have misinterpreted how you feel. Chances are! I see you as simply filled with so much light and beautiful mysticism -- and that everything you say is right on.
Oh and by the way, when you wrote "OMG Olivia!!!! Perhaps the most powerful post I've ever read ANYWHERE. Such a ministry in your words."... I just wanted to tell you my ego thanks you. My ego REALLY thanks you. ha
It's all OK Olivia. We each are where we are when we are. Stay on the path you are called and honor the calling.
Just be aware that others can have a BIG faith that is as good and powerful as yours - just not dressed the same as yours. You don't need to understand this or even believe it is possible. Just keep a very little opening in your heart that this MAY be possible.
You see, I have experienced the Light as bigger than just the lens of Jesus. He is indeed a marvelous lens that God (the Spirit, the Way, etc.) has provided, and no one will go wrong seeing true reality through that lens. But perhaps, just perhaps, others are experiencing that same Light through another lens that has the same life-changing effect as the lens of Jesus can have. By not being afraid to experience this Light in other people who are not Christians, you will come to know this as undeniably true.
One thing being a Quaker has taught me is that Truth is very important - no matter where it leads us. Being obsessed with Truth leads us to all kinds of experiences in the Light.
One of the first Truths that confronted me is that the Bible is just a book compiled of experiences that humans have had with God in the Jewish religious tradition (including the Jewish sect we call Chrisitianity). To view it as any more is simply idolatry by any definition. So where does that leave one? It opens you up to read it and pick and choose what resonates as true and good for our time. But there are other wonderful inspirational works that certainly match the Bible to provide that inspiration. This is the Truth. And, again Truth is most important for anyone who wants to be fully opened up to the Light.
If you have ever known an Atheist who is full of the Light, you will not be able to deny that the Light that was so personified in Jesus is so encompassing and universal that it can be experienced by anyone who wants to experience it. If this isn't true, then it can't be the ultimate reality.
Friends, let's not put limitations on the Light, on God, on Love. Ask yourself, would Jesus want us to do so?
This is reminding me of something I heard at Pendle Hill: "If you've got a 'low Christology' and a low anthropology" -- ie if you're seeing the situation as 'Jesus was just a man; and a man is just a form that meat takes sometimes' -- Then no matter how much you like Jesus' teachings, you won't understand the guy or how he came to those insights.
"If you've got a 'high Christology' and a low anthropology" -- The speaker thought this was okay; but I feel such views render Jesus' humanity as unimportant.
She also thought you could see the truth via 'a low Christology' and a high anthropology -- which I consider to be really How-It-Is: 'Jesus was just a man; and a man is an incarnation of God.' That's basically how I understand what I do like about 'John': that Jesus has come to recognize himself as 'a child of God' and knows that it's true of the rest of us, even though we have trouble growing into it.
Thanks for the framework to hang this on, Forrest. I think what I'm dealing with is that God, the Light, the Source of all possible religious views, calls me to be a grounded individual (this is not said as a reflection on anyone else! just a reflection of my own challenges in the past.) and as such, I keep being called more and more deeply into THIS faith. While simultaneously knowing that the truth is as big as simply Light and all its wavelengths. I don't feel myself reflected accurately by Howard's assessment.
So in this framework you mention... I think it is that I have a very high Christology (am called to see this man as a Messiah) and.... my own anthropology (where people fit in all this) feels kind of that that's irrelevant. Because when you are loved and when you are in the flow of love, it doesn't matter...no one's telling you to get in your place or stick with heirarchy of things... But that my ego -- a good way of saying this that you speak of, Howard -- worries about where I am in all this... and doesn't need to. It just needs to be a part of the flow. Just keep giving it up, all the things I believe and feel need to be true.
My Christianity doesn't reduce well to your views of it, though. It's pretty much kind of like what Jodie Foster encounters in Contact...only bigger. ha ha
(note to self: must later get back on topic to the call on Christians in liberal meetings, which does include being reduced by others all the time, yes...)
A few observations:
First, I want to correct what may be a misleading impression I have given. I love my liberal Quaker Meeting. I attend every First Day and eagerly look forward to it. I feel a need to say that in order to offer a balance to some of the other things I have posted.
Howard, I am not convinced that exclusivity is the issue here; it may be a piece of the puzzle, but I don't think the discomfort that is sometimes exhibited is reducible to this single factor. First, to take just one example, Paganism is a view that is just as significant as that of monotheism or Christianity in particular. Buddhism is also a view; it has its own metaphysics (well worked out over centuries) and ontology. It has a system of ethics, etc. It feels to me that referring to Paganism, as one example, as less exclusive than Christianity is a kind of dodge because Paganism entails, and is grounded on, a particular understanding of how the world, and how the divine, works. For example, generally speaking, Paganism takes the view that the divine is immanent in the world; deities in Paganism are representations of the immanent reality and/or the cause of that reality. In contrast, monotheism takes a transcendental view towards ultimacy. God is prior to creation and transcends all of existence. This difference may seem abstract; and on the level of ideas it is. But it has implications on the ground as they are worked out in every day life.
What I am getting at is that Paganism rests upon a view of the world that, when investigated, is just as restrictive, and singular, as that of Christianity or Buddhism (or any other religion). So the idea that Christians are somehow being exceptionally exclusive in their claims does not seem to me to be valid. As someone who studied and practiced Buddhism for decades, I can attest that Buddhism has a strongly held view of existence that is rooted in an understanding of causation. It is because of this view that Buddhism has no creation story, to pick one difference between Buddhism and Christianity.
My suspicion is that we think traditions like Buddhism and Paganism are less restrictive than Christianity because, by and large, we don't know enough about them. They are new to us westerners and so it takes some time and effort to become familiar with their world view and how that impacts their relationships to other traditions.
To pick one example of how restrictive these non-Christian traditions can be, I refer to you to Stephanie's post and her story about how a group in her Meeting wanted to remove the word 'God' from the Meeting's material. It has been my experience that non-Christians at Quaker Meetings are very sensitive to what I refer to as 'A Manner of Speaking'. Some Quaker Pagans openly advocate for restricting members speaking from the Bible. Non-Theists are uncomfortable with God-speak and seem to want to control the manner by which members express themselves by, again, restricting God-speak. What I am getting at is that there is nothing neutral, or open, or spacious, or even tolerant, about how some non-Christian Quakers seek to shape our speaking to their own preferences. Now, they get to do that; that's how liberal Meetings work. I'm not complaining. But I am suggesting that if you look at the behavior it isn't always open and accepting.
This is a good thread. Thanks, everyone, for the contributions.
Monotheism logically implies immanence. Yes, God 'transcends' the world, is not strictly contained within it -- but neither could any part of it be considered separate.
But yes, the issue is seldom 'exclusion' of minority views; it's conflict between them that disturbs people. (And is also what makes it worthwhile to discuss anything whatsoever. We might have to learn something, learn to stretch & perhaps blend viewpoints.) Some people simply have to dismiss some views, rightly or wrongly; and when other people insist & persist otherwise, resolving it takes effort & acceptance of discomfort.