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,



Anonymous Andrew said...

You wrote: "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.”"

I will remember that translation. That is a very helpful way to approach a very difficult passage.

Take care, Will. I hope to see you again soon.

July 07, 2006 10:57 PM  
Blogger Dave Trowbridge said...

I just spent four days at Friends General Conference in a workshop devoted to Barclay's Apology. I wish I'd seen this post before I went; it has added an important piece to the understanding of Christian universalism that I'm slowly developing. Thanks!

July 08, 2006 9:51 PM  
Blogger Will T said...

I'm glad that you have found this useful. The idea of solving problems by substitution is one of the few things I remember from high school algebra. But I think it has a lot of theological potential. :^)

I think that in most cases understanding grows slowly like the way sediment gets laid down, or how trees grow. I have thought about most of what I am writing about a long time and even so I find myself seeing new things as I write.


July 10, 2006 9:57 PM  
Anonymous Will W said...

Appreciated your post on this subject. Do you have more writings on this?


Will W

December 09, 2007 9:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am in constant search for making Christianity fit in my life. Often it just doesnt, but I do my best to try. Ultimately, many non-christians including myself are thrown off by the exclusiveness in christianity. This is a great interpertation and gives me hope that all are not doomed.

January 18, 2011 8:08 PM  

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