Growing Together in the Light

A place for Friends and others to explore Quakerism. A place where, in the Light that comes from God, we may all grow and where we may hope to find a unity that underlies our diversity of language.

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Location: Arlington, Massachusetts, United States

Raised a Friend, I am currently a member of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, Mass. I am also active in Salem Quarterly Meeting and in New England Yearly Meeting.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Prop 2 Part 3 Christian Exclusivity


Right up front I want to acknowledge that this post contains a lot of traditional patriachal religious language. I am aware of that and I apologize in advance if this puts any of you off. It is not my intention to offend or exclude anyone with this. I am trying to work through one difficult issue, the perceived exclusivity of Christianity. I don't think that I can deal with gender issues at the same time and have this post be coherent and a readable length. I have often found that when I start looking at any one piece of Barclay or Quakerism that I soon find that it is connected to a whole array of other things. When that happens I try to stick to my initial topic knowing that there will be time for other things later.

Robert Barclay starts out his second proposition like this: Seeing "no man knoweth the Father but the Son, and he to whom the Son revealeth him". He goes on while developing his position to lay out the following arguments:

First, That there is no knowledge of the Father but by the Son.

Secondly, That there is no knowledge of the Son but by the Spirit.

Thirdly, That by the Spirit God hath always revealed himself to his children.

Fourthly, That these revelations were the formal object of the saints' faith.

And Lastly, That the same continueth to be the object of the saints' faith to this day.

This is troubling to some Friends because it seems exclusive. In fact some Christians do use this kind of language and the Bible verses from which it comes to insist that one must be a Christian to achieve salvation. This was not the position of early Friends. They said that you could be saved by being attentive and obedient to the Light you received regardless of the name that you gave to the Light. Barclay addresses this explicitly in a number of places. He goes into this in great detail in the fifth and sixth propositions on Universal Salvation. There is an expression that comes, I believe, from Zen Buddhism that says, “Do not mistake the finger pointing to the moon for the moon.” The words we use to describe the Divine or the names we give the Divine are not the Divine. We cannot comprehend the Divine. Our words cannot even fully capture what we can understand. At best when we talk about God, our words can only hint at what we only barely comprehend. A friend passed on to me a quotation from Flaubert that speaks to this well: "Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out crude rhythms for bears to dance to, when we long to make music that will move the stars to tears."

So recognizing the limitations of my words I wish to speak both to those people who feel rejected and marginalized by Barclay's words and those who feel that it is important to worship and pray in the name of Christ. These two views are the mirror images of a restricted view of the language. I want to propose another way of looking at it that, at least for me opens this up to be an inclusive and loving statement about the spiritual life.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. [John 1:1-5]

From the first time I heard this as a child I have wondered what it meant to call Christ the Word. It was clear to me that some people thought that it was important and significant but I just never got it. Then one day I had an opening. This is how I described it in a Bible Half Hour I gave at New England Yearly Meeting in 2003.

“What was opened to me last winter was the meaning of the Word. What does it mean to call Christ the Word? The Word, as I have come to understand it, is the Word of God spoken directly to my soul. It is the voice of God speaking to us directly. It is that “Aha!” moment when we see clearly what before had been hidden. That is Christ. This is what the early Friends meant when they said that Christ has come to teach His people Himself. There is a voice within us which is from God and we can trust it, and follow it, and it will transform us. It will lead us to live in a place which the gospel writers referred to as the “Kingdom of God.” This is the place where we find peace in ourselves, because we have been purified. We have put our ego in its proper place, as the listener to God that can then go ahead and make God’s words manifest and visible in the world.

“But think for a minute what else this passage is saying. The same voice that spoke the entire universe into being, the same voice that said “Let there be Light. Let there be heaven and earth. Let there be plants, Let there be creeping and crawling things, and walking and flying things.” The same voice, that, after everything was created, said, “It is good.” This same voice speaks to us in the depths of our souls and says, “Come live in my garden, in my Promised Land.” This is the voice that calls forth the Light within us. And the darkness in us cannot overcome this Light.”

Once I had this insight I saw these suppossedly exclusive texts differently. In that talk I went on to describe how I came to view John 14:6:

“Jesus said, ‘I am the way, and the truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” I cringe sometimes when I hear these words because there is a lot of baggage wrapped up in the idea that Jesus is the Way. I often hear it to mean, “You must accept Christ, as I understand Christ, and you must accept my theology, my agenda, and my politics, or you will be damned to hell.” But remember, we are translating now. Christ is the voice of God within us. So substituting, the sentence becomes “The voice of God within you is the way, and the truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through the voice of God within.” What had been prescriptive, what told us what we had to believe and do, becomes descriptive of the spiritual life. Listening to God within us is the way, the truth and the life, and the only way to come to know God. What had been dead and formulaic becomes filled with life. It becomes an invitation to find God for ourselves. This was the kind of spiritual discovery that empowered early Friends. They came to see the simple spiritual truth that they described as primitive Christianity revived. And their hearts did jump for joy.”

Barclay talks about the Spirit showing us the Son and the Son showing us the Father. This again is language that is making distinctions about God that are not terribly meaningful to me. I use God, Spirit and Christ more or less interchangably. But the other day I read a prayer in Paul's letter to the Ephesians that at least made a little bit of sense of it. Besides I think that it is a pretty neat prayer.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

[Ephesians 3:14-20 NRSV]

What is this about the father from whom every family takes its name. Then I realized that a family takes its name from the person who first engendered them. So the Father is that which brought the whole universe into being and also all of us as part of that universe. And the Spirit is that which comes to us from God and which we experience as having power and which gives us understanding. It is the Spirit which prompts us to speak in meeting for worship. It is the Spirit who opens up these words of scripture to our understanding. And Christ is that of God which we experience growing in our hearts. It is nourished by our faith and it grows in love and brings us to love. But all of these things exist even if we have different words for them. And it is the creating and strengthening and growing that are important and not the words.

God bless you all,


Thursday, June 22, 2006

Prop 2 - Part 2

First of all I want to thank my daughter Emily for taking the picture that now graces my profile. I had to wait for her to return from Spain with her digital camera but now you have a face to go with the words.

And now my face has been revealed, more about other forms of immediate revelation.

For the better understanding then of this proposition, we do distinguish betwixt the certain knowledge of God, and the uncertain; betwixt the spiritual knowledge, and the literal; the saving heart-knowledge, and the soaring, airy head-knowledge. The last, we confess, may be divers ways obtained; but the first, by no other way than the inward immediate manifestation and revelation of God's Spirit, shining in and upon the heart, enlightening and opening the understanding.

How much of the disagreements among Friends come from our head knowledge? How strongly do we defend those things we know in our minds to be true. Our unity comes from the heart knowledge, from the immediate knowledge of God which draws us into love and understanding. Quakerism has a long tradition of anti-intellectualism. There was a time when Quaker education ended at the end of what we would consider elementary school, or 8th grade at the latest. Friends felt that there was no need of education beyond what was necessary to run the farm or whatever honest business they were engaged in. There was an intense distrust of book learning. How ironic that Quakerism has become a religion of intellectuals. If you came to a town you were unfamiliar with and wanted to look for a Quaker meeting it could do worse than to start looking around the local college or university.

Barclay does not deny the benefits of education. He was well educated himself. He knew Latin, Greek and Hebrew and used that knowledge for the benefit of Friends. The Apology was originally published in Latin because he wrote it for the King and for theologians. His English translation didn't appear until two years later.

What he does say is that the true knowledge of God does not come from study but from the direct experience of God. It is the heart-knowledge that saves us and transforms us and not the “airy head-knowledge.” And that heart knowledge does not come from our studies or seeking but as a free gift of the Spirit working inwardly in us, enlightening us and opening our understanding.

After quoting a number of the Church fathers and Luther in support of this proposition, Barclay goes on to explain how it is that head knowledge has supplanted heart knowledge:

That this certain and undoubted method of the true knowledge of God hath been brought out of use, hath been none of the least devices of the devil, to secure mankind to his kingdom. For after the light and glory of the Christian religion had prevailed over a good part of the world, and dispelled the thick mists of the heathenish doctrine of the plurality of gods, he that knew there was no probability of deluding the world any longer that way, did then puff man up with a false knowledge of the true God; setting him on work to seek God the wrong way, and persuading him to be content with such a knowledge as was of his own acquiring, and not of God's teaching. And this device hath proved the more successful, because accommodated to the natural and corrupt spirit and temper of man, who above all things affects to exalt himself; in which self-exaltation, as God is most greatly dishonored, so therein the devil hath his end; who is not anxious how much God be acknowledged in words, provided himself be but always served; he matters not how great and high speculations the natural man entertains of God, so long as he serves his lusts and passions, and is obedient to his evil suggestions and temptations.

The problem with head knowledge is that it tends to feed our pride and our ego. It encourages the natural man and causes us to ignore the experience of God within us while we engage in lofty thoughts and debates about God. But coming from our own will and imagination, those thoughts are not really about God but about us.

What need we set up our own carnal and corrupt reason for a guide to us in matters spiritual, as some will needs do? May it not be complained of all such, as the Lord did of old concerning Israel by the prophets (Jer. 2:13): "For my people have committed two evils, they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water." Have not many forsaken, do not many deride and reject, this inward and immediate guide, this Spirit that leads into all Truth, and cast up to themselves other ways, broken ways indeed, which have not all this while brought them out of the flesh, nor out of the world, nor from under the dominion of their own lusts and sinful affections, whereby Truth, which is only rightly learned by this Spirit, is so much a stranger in the earth?

How often do we accept the counterfeit when the real thing is close at hand? I have heard it said that the longest journey is that from the head to the heart, but that is the journey we are called upon to make.


Thursday, June 15, 2006

Proposition 2 - On Immediate Revelation

Seeing "no man knoweth the Father but the Son, and he to whom the Son revealeth him"; and seeing the "revelation of the Son is in and by the Spirit" (Matt. 11:27); therefore the testimony of the Spirit is that alone by which the true knowledge of God hath been, is, and can be only revealed; who as, by the moving of his own Spirit, he disposed the chaos of this world into that wonderful order wherein it was in the beginning, and created man a living soul, to rule and govern it, so, by the revelation of the same Spirit, he hath manifested himself all along unto the sons of men, both patriarchs, prophets, and apostles; which revelations of God by the Spirit, whether by outward voices and appearances, dreams, or inward objective manifestations in the heart, were of old the formal object of their faith, and remain yet so to be, since the object of the saints' faith is the same in all ages, though held forth under divers administrations. Moreover, these divine inward revelations, which we make absolutely necessary for the building up of true faith, neither do nor can ever contradict the outward testimony of the Scriptures, or right and sound reason. Yet from hence it will not follow, that the divine revelations are to be subjected to the test, either of the outward testimony of the Scriptures, or of the natural reason of man, as to a more noble or certain rule and touchstone; for this divine revelation and inward illumination, is that which is evident and clear of itself, forcing, by its own evidence and clearness, the well-disposed understanding to assent, irresistibly moving the same thereunto, even as the common principles of natural truths do move and incline the mind to a natural assent: as, that the whole is greater than its part, that two contradictories can neither be both true, nor both false.

And that is just the proposition. Barclay is not brief. Anyway there is a lot here and I have a number of things to say so I will spread my discussion of it over a number of posts. But basically what he is saying here is that God is revealed to us by the Spirit and God has always been revealed to us by the Spirit, both in Biblical days and today. These revelations of God will not contradict Scripture or right reason but neither reason or Scripture are above the Spirit. We will know the revelation to be true because it is self-validating.

To modern readers, or at least modern Quaker readers, this section can seem to be much ado about nothing. What with Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement and an increased interest in mysticism, the idea of the direct experience of God does not seem strange or particularly controversial. This was not the case in the 17th century. At that time Puritan orthodoxy proclaimed that God had stopped speaking directly to people. The Westminster Confession of Faith, which was adopted by the English Parliament in 1648 starts out with this statement: (Emphasis added)

Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Church; and afterwards for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which makes the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God's revealing His will unto His people being now ceased.

They are saying that we need to read the Bible because God no longer speaks to us directly.

This is the context in which Barclay is writing. He starts off by pointing out the difference between the early church and the church of his day: “Whereas of old none were ever judged Christians, but such as "had the Spirit of Christ" (Rom. 8:9). But now many do boldly call themselves Christians, who make no difficulty of confessing they are without it, and laugh at such as say they have it.” Later in the Apology, Barclay will similarly mock the so-called Christians on a number of other points.

There are Friends today who have an aversion to Christianity or Christian language or to the Bible because of either their own past experiences with Christian churches or individual Christians. Likewise there are some who have a similar aversion based on the historical record of the church which includes its record of antisemitism, its complicity in imperialism, its oppression of women, its oppression of gays and lesbians, the political stance of the Christian Right or any of its other multitude of shortcomings. In my more curmudgeonly moments I have thought that the greatest enemy of Christianity is Christians.

The early Friends talked about being primitive Christianity revived. They believed that sometime after the first couple of centuries, the Christian church had become corrupt and had abandoned the true teachings of Christ and the early Church. They were trying to reform Christianity to remove the error that had come in and restore it to its primitive and more authentic state. This was why Christ had come to teach his people himself, the church had made a mess of it and so he had to set things to right.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul says, “For it is the God who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” The clay jars of our lives and of the institutional church can sometimes hide the Light. But the light still shines forth and we can see that it is from the grace and love of God and not because of our efforts.

Enough for now. More to follow.


Thursday, June 01, 2006

Navigating Rapids

Rich, the Brooklyn Quaker, commented on my earlier post, Some Housekeeping and a Proposition. In doing so he included the following quote from Chuck Fager.

"When I hear or read of questions about such things as "normative Quakerism," or "authentic Quakerism" or "traditional Quakerism," it usually means one of two things: either a person or group feels very much confused and at sea, and is honestly looking for some certainty to cling to, some rock to stand on; or it often means that some person or group is looking for a club, with which either to beat other people into submission or to drive them away as interlopers and heretics."

I certainly do not intend my writings to be a club. And while I may be confused, I do not feel that way. If anything, people are more likely to comment that I am too sure of myself. The goal that I have in mind is to come to an honest and usable understanding of Quaker belief that will allow Friends to be more effective in outreach. How can we expect people to become Friends if we cannot tell them what Quakerism is?

But the quote did send me to Google to see if I could find the context and here is a link to the entire article The Core Quaker Theology: Is There Such a Thing?

One thing that he discusses is God Wrestling. I hope that we can all wrestle with God and Quakerism. I present this material for your wrestling pleasure. In fact, I suspect that this is the spirit behind Barclay. One of the fascinating things about Robert Barclay is that while he was a prolific writer for a period of 10 years, he pretty much stopped writing after the Apology. It may be that he was too taken up with the affairs of his estate and being a proprietor for the East Jersey colony but I think that there may have been more to it. Before he wrote the Apology he wrote a Quaker catechism, and a work on church government called The Anarchy of the Ranters. My suspicion is that he was an orderly and systematic thinker and his writings were his way of wrestling with Quakerism and coming to understand it. And once he had done that, he went on to other things. This is entirely speculative on my part but it makes sense for me.

Anyway, I recommend the article.

Then Rich went on to say:

I think what you are trying to do on this blog is very important as a way of responding to questions from the lost, confused, or simply seeking (i.e. most of us). But I think that's hard to do without raising a suspicion in some that you are threatening to shame or exclude someone. I wish you the best in navigating those rapids.

First I want to say that I appreciate the aplomb that Rich seems to be navigating the same rapids on his blog, The Brooklyn Quaker .

My initial inclination was to go on about some of the issues around exclusivity and inclusion that came up for me but as I sat with these issues longer I realized that might not be the best way through the rapids. As I said in my last post, the whole point and basis of Quakerism is the direct experience of God. There is nothing exclusive about this. God wants each of us to know God. Everyone has the capacity to experience God. No one is excluded from the love of God. We are commanded to love as God loves us. Jesus excluded no one. Jesus's ministry was to those who had been excluded. Part of the story of the early Christian church was the continual reaching out to those who had been excluded.

Michael Sheeran in his book Beyond Majority Rule talks about the fundamental distinction he found among Friends had nothing to do with whether they were Christian or Universalist but whether or not they experienced a gathered meeting or not. Perhaps we need to add to this the question, "What has been our experience of God?" We may use different and even conflicting words to describe these experiences but one who has experienced God can hear echoes of that experience in the words of others even if they are based on a different theological framework. One of the best things we can do to build unity is to simply share our experiences of God. From that we can go on to how those experiences shape the way we express ourselves. Out of that we can understand each other better and perhaps come to some common language. One of my aims in this blog is to include the voices of some earlier Friends in that conversation.