Republished from Quaker Universalist Conversations (10/4/2015)

In “Seeing beyond the Projections” (9/7/2015), I voiced my concern that modern Friends across the spectrum tend to perceive liberal or universalist Quakerism as representing anything but Christianity. As Wendy Geiger has put it so gracefully in her comment, I wanted to suggest an alternative view, a way “to keep one’s heart-mind supple and expandable and inclusive.”1

To give the discussion historical context, I cited James G. Crossley’s 2015 Jesus and the Chaos of History: Redirecting the Life of the Historical Jesus. Crossley’s scriptural studies and his analysis of social disruption in 1st century Galilee show how the earliest Palestinian tradition of the Jesus movement was led to embrace the power metaphors of “kingdom language.” The tragic irony is that within a few generations such metaphors were being used to rationalize a doctrinaire and authoritarian hierarchy in the early Christian church.

My personal discomfort with institutional Christianity arose during my young adulthood as the response of a self-affirming gay man to that tradition’s condemnation, but also as the response of a first-year seminary student to doctrinaire exclusion of non-Christians and to two millennia of global violence, both done, allegedly, in Jesus’ name.

As I explained in a follow-up comment on “Projections”:

I usually avoid calling myself a Christian out of respect for those who experience Christianity as a creedal religion with an orthodox theological belief system.

Nonetheless, Jesus has been my spiritual master since my earliest childhood. He is the human face of God for me, a “perfect type” of what God tells us we can ourselves become as human beings.

I became a convinced Quaker in my adult years because I understood that the first Friends had centered Quaker faith and practice in the witness of Jesus, indwelling as a teacher in our hearts. This primitive focus on the reality of Jesus, rather than on the theology about Jesus, speaks to my condition.

In other words, I became able to lay down the personal hurts I was projecting onto Christianity, able to discern the faith and practice of the historical Jesus, which transcends the abuses done by the human institution of the church. Now I can reembrace “Christian” as my native religion, the faith language my soul was taught from infancy.

In joy or despair, I can again listen to Jesus, I can seek rescue from Mother-Father God, without stumbling over the conceptual constraints of human doctrine or theological debate—and without distancing myself from those who speak other faith languages.

However….

That “however” involves complex, interwoven challenges.

One commenter on “Projections” objected that Crossley’s thoughtful textual and socio-political reconstruction of the 1st century Palestinian Jesus movement is merely “a contemporary projection that universalists find congenial.” He alleged that “those who disagree with this interpretation are psychologically analyzed as being in some way deficient.” In modern Quaker communities, he wrote, “Christians often fell marginalized (at best).”

This objection represents well the hurt reaction of some creedal Christian Friends to their exclusion by hurting anti-Christian Universalist Friends. That my soul can embrace a non-creedal, universalist “Christ within” does not mean that I can readily share unity in worship with hurting Christians and hurting Universalists who misperceive and therefore mistrust each other as opponents. How do we all become “supple and expandable and inclusive” enough to receive such unity?

Religion is always bound up with identity. More specifically, it is bound up with collective identity: that is, with belonging.2 This in itself would not be a problem, save that the suffering which human beings perpetuate against themselves and each other is frequently the result of believing that “identity” is something real, rather than (at best) a mere poetic shorthand for a complex of shared characteristics which are forever alive and in flux.

During my “radical years,” I used to reply jokingly, if asked my religion, that I was a “Lutheran-Buddhist-Faggot-Witch.” In other words, there was—and is—no name for the religion I share with others, because that religion is not a thing. What is the reality encompassing all named religions which binds together all beings? That is my “religion.”

When we cling to “identity”—worse, when we imagine that identity entails boundaries between “who is” and “who is not”—worse still, when we trick ourselves into ideological stances over “identity politics”—then we deny each other the unity of being which comes from knowing that we sit together around the one and only reality. We separate ourselves from each other by imagined boundaries, instead of worshiping a common center with boundariless horizons.

In the evangelist Matthew’s parable of “The sheep and the goats” (Matt 25:31-46), there is a rarely noticed paradox. The King does not divide those whom he calls “sheep” from those he calls “goats” according to their identities or their belief systems. He does so according to how they have treated each other. That challenge contains its own paradoxes, yet I am referring here to a more elusive paradox.

If I reject the goats, if I do not welcome and bless them as if each were the King, then I, too, am a goat.

My old radical joke was: “We all get to heaven or nobody does.”

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,
Michael


Notes

1 I invite readers to visit some of the earlier posts which have explored aspects of the concerns expressed here:

2 Possible etymology of the word “religion”: re-ligare, re- (again) + ligare (to bind, connect) or “to reconnect.”

Image Sources

Christ of the Desert,” an icon by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM.

Two sheep and two goats resting together in a field.” Lithograph with gouache by A. Ducote. [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Views: 505

Comment by Forrest Curo on 10th mo. 25, 2015 at 1:40am

"Is consciousness 'a biological phenomenon' or 'a supernatural one'?"

No.

Nature is a product of consciousness.

There's nothing either 'natural' or 'supernatural' about consciousness, but it transcends the limited thing people often imagine 'nature' to mean.

Comment by Keith Saylor on 10th mo. 25, 2015 at 12:19pm

Mike, I apologize for my delayed response. I just did not see your response to me question. I copy it here:

Keith, you write:

Query: Is it possible you have tricked your-self by mixing "ideological stances" ((viz. Universalism, inclusiveness, unity, etc.) with a testimony to an experience that is essential non-ideological....

That's possible. However, though I edit the blog for the Quaker Universalist Fellowship, I personally am not interested in Universalism, "inclusiveness" or "unity" as ideologies.

Through several paths of exploration—Buddhist psychology, quantum physics and neurobiology of consciousness research—we are beginning to recognize that the cosmos simply is, and that it is human observers who draw boundaries and assign names.

Boundaries and names are tools which the organ we call the brain uses to help navigate the animal it lives in.

Consciousness and "sense of self" may be higher order constructs of the brain, even more powerful "navigation tools," yet they are still constructs.

A challenge we might choose to play with (one I think Jesus also played with) is to relax our grasp on "self"—not deny self but simply relax our grasp—and observe how experience changes and flows.

I don't know, Keith, if I am at all on the track you suggest with you query.  Help me out a bit.

Blessings,
Mike

"Consciousness and "sense of self" may be higher order constructs of the brain, even more powerful "navigation tools," yet they are still constructs."

What do you think of this:

Briefly, I agree it is normally the case that consciousness, selfhood, meaning, identity, is a construct mirrored through (outward) navigation tools. Who we are is normally a construct of our sensual content through the five senses and brain content through thoughts and heart content through feelings, desires, will, etc. That is, the conscious is anchored in and the conscience is informed by this mirrored content connected to the function of the body. There is also another form of consciousness wherein the self-conscious no longer exists through the refracted light of the mirrored content of the body it rests in; but upon the un-refracted Light itself. This self-conscious does not reject mirrored content of the body, it merely no longer exists in reference to it. This un-refracted Light settles down into the conscious and conscience so that being and awareness are anchored in the Light itself and this un-mirrored Light becomes the beacon guiding the conscience ... no longer outward navigation tools. And what is so powerful about this experience of a conscious anchored in and a conscience informed by the un-refracted Light itself?  Consciousness, identity, meaning, purpose, direction is experienced and lived in an eternal content. That is, self-conscious is experience as eternal in the un-refracted Light, even while being in the body, because it is no longer anchored to bodily or mirrored content. The loss of the functioning of the body, that is, death and the decaying of the brain to reflect or abstract thoughts, ears to hear, eyes to see, nerves to touch, tongue to taste, and nose to smell, is no longer feared. This is because the self-conscious is anchored in and experiences the inward un-refracted Light itself that sustains being and consciousness even upon the death of the bodily and the bodily nature. This inward un-refracted Light is the bridge by which the self-conscious experience eternal life.

Comment by Olivia on 10th mo. 25, 2015 at 5:37pm

Hey All,

Mike that article will speak better to what I mean than what I may say here, if I can manage. 

I'll try:

Everyone will of course need to find out their own sense of things from the vantage point of their own bodies.  My perspective diverged from the "normal" one, from the one I'd been taught, at a time in my life in which I unhooked (in a sense) from my own anxieties and decided to kick that stuff to the curb.  I don't mean, by saying this, that I did anything.  But this was a time in which I stopped "doing" and "constructing" and basically stopped listening to my own scripts and dramas and such...     Through sitting in the silence with God for extended periods but also through learning about and experiencing alternative forms of bodywork such as acupuncture, Rosen Method bodywork, craniosacral therapy, etc..   I was discovering how true it can feel that our entire body holds our experience.  Parts of our body can retain the conscious experience of trauma or injury, parts can retain the trained tendency toward particular fight or flight type of response, and parts of our bodies can be free of those things and simply work well and let all things flow or "go to God".  

I find that the aspects of us that tell us the meaning of an experience and that inform the rest of the body can be located somewhere other than the brain.  Perhaps western medicine would simply call this a weak organ, or wouldn't even see it until a condition develops or a seemingly unrelated condition manifests that is actually because this organ (or whatever) can't carry its own load.  But anyway...  I find that the random parts of our body inform the brain and inform the nervous system and inform the digestive system or the liver or the hormones or whatever....every bit as much as the brain informs the body.  I guess what I am saying is that the whole body is consious or is broken and needs more healing and consciousness. 

I see consciousness (in one way) as the divine impulse of sentience that energetically has created life force. 

I now feel that I must conclude as this is too much woo woo for me, even though I'm writing it.

"peace out!"

ha ha

Comment by Mike Shell on 10th mo. 28, 2015 at 5:09pm

Nature is a product of consciousness.

Okay, Forrest. I didn't realize you were coming at it from that perspective.

Not criticizing that approach. Also not wanting to put words in your mouth. But curious.

Are you saying that consciousness precedes existence? Creator before Creation? Brahman awakening from his dream so that the world can come into existence?

I'm not being flippant, but I'm wondering what "consciousness" is in the sense you describe it.

Thanks,
Mike

Comment by Mike Shell on 10th mo. 28, 2015 at 5:27pm

Thanks, Keith.  You write:

There is also another form of consciousness wherein the self-conscious no longer exists through the refracted light of the mirrored content of the body it rests in; but upon the un-refracted Light itself. This self-conscious does not reject mirrored content of the body, it merely no longer exists in reference to it….

The loss of the functioning of the body…is no longer feared. This is because the self-conscious is anchored in and experiences the inward un-refracted Light itself that sustains being and consciousness even upon the death of the bodily and the bodily nature.

This inward un-refracted Light is the bridge by which the self-conscious experience eternal life.

I think we are singing similar songs in very different languages.

Personally, I don't know whether "self-conciousness" figures in that consciousness which you call "un-refracted Light," or whether the "self" is simply a temporary yet essential spark of the greater consciousness interacting in incarnation.

What I've just posed is what Gautama Buddha called an "unprofitable question." It cannot be answered by mortal beings, and it distracts us from mindful, compassionate life in the present.

In either of our songs or others like them, the key point is not denial of the self. It is recognition of the incarnate self as as simply a vehicle through which consciousness can embrace all beings.

Blessings,
Mike

Comment by Forrest Curo on 10th mo. 29, 2015 at 1:05am

Okay, it isn't necessarily "my" consciousness.... Smullyan talks about his view of things as maybe being "collective solipsism" ; if you posit that in conjunction with the (logically-invalid but perhaps existentially-true) ontological argument you might have something closer to how it be than the conventional view of existence.

Or as my old Sacramento State 'Old Testament' prof described things, God originally split Godself to become us, while tacitly retaining 'His' incognito existence as a unified whole.

In some level of thought below the surface of [the content of] our consciousness we are one connected being, being-it all into the only kind of existence it has -- our tacit unconscious agreement on what is perceptible & what ain't. [Anything not perceptible either directly or via inference from its effect on what we do perceive is ... intrinsically moot.]

Comment by Olivia on 10th mo. 29, 2015 at 7:09am

Mike:  "In either of our songs or others like them, the key point is not denial of the self. It is recognition of the incarnate self as as simply a vehicle through which consciousness can embrace all beings."

I agree!  I do think that this is where we lose a lot of people though.  For me, it's one of those failures of cultural Christianity, especially among women who are encouraged to be self-sacrificing anyway -- denial of the self may be easier for most of us to fathom than incarnation (especially because personal will is soooo strong and -- sometimes -- is pretty clear to us that it's  outside of God's will).   There are few ways to learn about this in western society but I believe, in hindsight, that looking at the body as a road map to divine connection and revelation is most helpful. 

It allows us to connect with all our physical realities and say to the Divine "really?  you meant something by that too?" or  you and God can marvel together at "what in the world are we going to do with THIS messy bit here?!"  Hanging out without drawing conclusions then opens up some divine breathing room, built on that incarnated reality.  Yeah, maybe it's an aim toward mutual Consciousness, together with God...or even "as One". 

By the way, isn't your statement saying the same thing as Forrest's?  "the incarnate self as as simply a vehicle through which consciousness can embrace all beings"  --  Consciousness being an active figure in the story?

Comment by Howard Brod on 10th mo. 29, 2015 at 8:56am

Not sure if this categorization offered at my meeting this coming Sunday at our Circle of Friends discussion from a Sufi mystic helps or detracts from this discussion.  It puts spiritual realization into categories that we can look at and then become more self-aware.  I would say many Quakers attracted to the liberal tradition are somewhere in the third category, and I have known a few (perhaps Keith) who are in the fourth category.   Certainly, this is the category that Jesus hoped we would join him in - an incarnation of the Light as this awareness consumes and becomes our being.

The Four Stages of Spiritual Realization

 In his book Alone to Alone – From Awareness to Vision, Syed Hasan Askari outlines the four stages of spiritual realization as understood by Sufism, the mystical spiritual practice of Islam. As is true with mystics within the Christian spiritual tradition, Sufis strive to obtain direct experience of God.  Therefore, some Muslim opponents of Sufism consider it outside the sphere of Islam.

Have some fun with this!  What stage(s) have you experienced?  What stage are you in now?  Do you desire to be in the next stage?

Stage One – Invested in the Outward World

There are those who do not look beyond this world and its appearances, who are attached to its fortunes, however fleeting, and who insist, either on account of their personal conviction or under the influence of some dominant ideology, on a materialistic outlook. They are to be found in every age, country and culture. They are distributed into various conflicting identities.

Stage Two – Invested in Religious Forms

There are those who call themselves religious but are strongly attached to the outward forms of their beliefs and practices. They seem to have substituted religious forms for the material forms, and as they are fanatic about them, they bring about a far greater degree of discrimination and conflict in the world than their materialistic counterparts. Though they may belong to totally conflicting religious interests and traditions, they are still like mirror images of one another.

Stage Three – Invested in the Inward Oneness

There are those who look beyond the outer forms of this world and of their religion and culture. They look at their inner meanings and correspondences. They are not many. They are to be found in every age, country and religion. They are the ones who embody the one indivisible humanity. They are the true humanists. They are one community on account of their inwardness, their interconnection across religious, cultural and historical boundaries. They reflect a deep positive patience. They may stand in one or another house of worship or they may constitute one unbroken fellowship of the spirit. They are the salt of the earth. They are the peacemakers.

Stage Four – Oneness with the Source of All

And there are those who have gone beyond both the outward and the inward. They have gone beyond themselves. Though they appear as present, they are in reality absent. They are very few, some known and others hidden, even from themselves. They are past even human identification, neither man nor woman, they are a being, pure and transparent. They are the elect. They are the horizon towards which the people of the inward look.

Comment by Keith Saylor on 10th mo. 29, 2015 at 9:03am

Hello Mike,

I wonder what you mean by the phrase "denial of the self" in the context of what I wrote because I pointed to both a self anchored in outward forms (ideology, doctrine, thoughts, feelings, desires, sensations, and perceptions) and the experience of a different foundation for self, that is, the direct experience of the unrefracted Light anchoring the self. This different self does not exist in reference to outward forms, it exists in living in the unrefracted Light itself.  The essence of selfhood living and experiencing the unrefracted light in this world is that awareness or consciousness is not anchored in the light refracted through the organs of the body. This unrefracted experience is a different experience of self ... a new self. So, in that sense it is a denial of the self-conscious ego anchored in outward forms, however, it is explicitly not a denial of self. It isn't even a denial of outward forms (refracted light) is it an acknowledgement of the prism of the body but not a living in and through the refractions of the prism. 

Comment by Olivia on 10th mo. 29, 2015 at 12:15pm

I'm finding that I agree with Keith's comment here.  The experience can be one of the absolute Presence (including Presence of self, and a profound awareness).  Howard, your words don't detract at all.  However stage 4, as you relay it, doesn't speak to me for this same reason.  It describes "oneness with the Source of all" as "Though they appear as present, they are in reality absent."   

That may be some powerful spiritual state of it's own.  But I would describe "oneness with the Source of All" as certainly including those states in which a person is finally Present, and discovers that perhaps they have never been quite so Present before.  I'm speaking of a type of being Present that others notice as well and find powerful.  Something to be contended with, or something that feels directly like spiritual power, or perhaps similar to a gathered meeting.   It's important to me that we reclaim the sense that Oneness with God can be (or even must be) being HERE NOW. 

When a person is more Present in this very moment than the rest of us usually are, they are very effective in this world, very aware of what is going on, and that moment is very powerful.

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