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.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

This is Eternal Life

As I was editing my last post on Barclay's Proposition 1 I was struck by a phrase that I had not fully appreciated until then. I thought briefly of trying to include it but I was mostly done and the post was already long enough. I decided to let it season a while.. What struck me was the parenthetical quote in Proposition 1 that is from John 17:3. “This is life eternal, to know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.”

Eternal life is not heaven. It is not the afterlife. It is the knowledge of God. Eternal life is living in the knowledge of God here and now in our present condition and our present confusion and in the midst of the muddle of our lives. This isn't the book knowledge of God. This is not knowledge that comes from the syllogisms of theologians. This is what Barclay refers to as the “saving heart knowledge.”

I had an experience that provided a taste of what this can be. I was attending a weekend retreat sponsored by the FGC traveling ministries program. Both mornings were given over to two and a half hour meetings for worship. On Sunday morning we fell into a very deep and gathered worship. I was wanting to go deeper and deeper but I felt that I was blocked in that by some rocky and dry places in me that still needed to be healed. And at the same time I felt that we had dropped down until we had come into the gathered silence of the Meeting for Worship that has been going on since before the world was formed and which will continue on until after the world has ended. The world is being held, will always be held, has always been held, in this worship. I was blessed to step into this worship briefly but it is still going on. Now, even though I cannot usually feel it, and sometimes I forget, I know that the world is being held in this worship. All of our sorrow, pain, joy and gladness is being held in this silence. The pain of the war in Iraq and the war in Darfur and all of the other wars going on today are being held. All the hunger and disease and injustice and also our ecstasies and joys and celebrations; our weddings, our births, our dancings, our running and our singing, all of it to the heights and depths is being held. Everything that we are and know is only a thin skim on the surface of the earth and it is all being held in such a depth that we cannot comprehend or imagine how deeply and completely we are held.

This deep silence can be seen as the River of Life that flows from the throne of God. It flows deep under everything and nourishes and heals all that is.

The world does not rest on turtles. It rests in the silence of the love of God. That love waits in patience. It is like a gentle rain soaking through the shell of a very hard and very dry seed and nothing seems to be happening until one day the water soaks through the shell and a shoot breaks out. Our world has a very hard shell and it has been soaking for a very long time and it needs to soak longer but one day the silence and the living water will bring forth a shoot from that hard and dry seed and all things will be made new. But even before that day comes, we can come to live in the soaking and patient love of the silence of God.

And now that I have thought more about it I understand that this knowledge of God in the deep and silent places is the foundation which is most necessary to be known and believed in the first place. This is where we have to start. This is where everything starts. This is where the world itself began.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Some Light Housekeeping and a Proposition

First some housekeeping. I intend to proceed through Barclay's Apology talking about those parts that I find interesting or provocative. I realize that not everyone will know much about the book itself. So I have provided some links in the sidebar. One is to the 15 propositions. These are the theological points that Barclay addresses in his book. This will at least provide an overview of what is in the book. Secondly, I have provided a link to the Quaker Heritage Press page which contains the complete Apology. This is probably way more than you would want to read on line but it might be useful in small bits. This is the version my quotes will be taken from. The third link is to the Earlham School of Religion Digital Quaker Collection. This contains a number of works by Barclay and by many other Friends as well.

There was a very early Pendle Hill pamphlet entitled Barclay in Brief. I believe that it was after this came out, someone came out with “An Even Briefer Barclay” which was a very concise summation of the Apology in verse. If someone knows where I can find a copy of it please let me know.

Whenever I give a talk I encourage questions and this website is just like that. Feel free to use the comments section to ask for clarifications, or to ask about things you would like to know more about, or to say that you think I have something completely wrong.

Now on with Barclay. While Barclay's Apology may be the most systematic work on theology produced by early Friends, it is not comprehensive. Robert Barclay was primarily interested in addressing those areas in which Quaker views were in conflict with the views of other Christians in England. It provides us with a systematic view of what early Friends considered important. As such it provides a way of getting an understanding of Quaker concepts so that you can better understand what Fox and others were saying in sometimes much more colorful and symbolic language.

Concerning the true Foundation of Knowledge.

Seeing the height of all happiness is placed in the true knowledge of God, ("This is life eternal, to know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent,") the true and right understanding of this foundation and ground of knowledge, is that which is most necessary to be known and believed in the first place.

In other words, he is saying that, since happiness is based on the true knowledge of God, you must have a proper understanding from the beginning. He then makes almost no elaboration on this because he feels that this is self-evident and where there is no controversy he wants to be brief. But he does have something to say about this which I think we 21st Century Friends might do well to consider.

This is also abundantly proved by the experience of all such, as being secretly touched with the call of God's grace unto them, do apply themselves unto false teachers; where the remedy proves worse than the disease; because instead of knowing God, or the things relating to their salvation aright, they drink in wrong opinions of him; from which it is harder to be disentangled, than while the soul remains a blank, or tabula rasa. For they that conceit themselves wise, are worse to deal with than they that are sensible of their ignorance. Nor hath it been less the device of the devil, the great enemy of mankind, to persuade men into wrong notions of God, than to keep them altogether from acknowledging him; ... so that not from their denying any Deity, but from their mistakes and misapprehensions of it, hath proceeded all the idolatry and superstition of the world; yea, hence even atheism itself hath proceeded: for these many and various opinions of God and religion, being so much mixed with the guessings and uncertain judgments of men, have begotten in many the opinion that there is no God at all.

In my more curmudgeonly moments I might think that he was describing a modern Friends meeting. :^)

I think that this concern for proper beginnings stands in contrast to our difficulty in introducing new Friends to the basics of our faith. Quakerism is not difficult to write about or describe. The collected works of George Fox, after all, run to 8 volumes, James Naylor to four and Robert Barclay to three. When Fox came down from Pendle Hill and preached at Firbank Fell, he spoke for three hours. So I don't think that the problem is with the subject matter as much as it is with us.

First of all, we are socialized to not talk about religion. Religious conversation is actively discouraged in most social settings and our schools and workplaces are often aggressively secular. Secondly, even in our meetings we do not necessarily talk a lot about what we believe and we certainly are not used to making a short summary of our beliefs. When I first started giving talks on Quakerism, it was hard for me to make such a summary. It was even harder when I tried to do this in conversation with a newcomer after meeting. Partly this was my own natural shyness and partly it was that it made me very vulnerable to say words to the effect of “I believe that God speaks to each of us directly and I am trying to make listening to that voice the central part of my life on a daily basis.” Thirdly we are often exquisitely sensitive to not appear to be forcing our beliefs on anyone. And finally it is hard because Friends no longer have a common set of shared beliefs or a common language that lets us set out the essentials of Quakerism without a lot of caveats and disclaimers.

I have heard some people propose that Quakerism is really based on orthopraxy, right practice, rather than orthodoxy, or right belief. The truth of the matter is that the meetings I have attended have often not done a good job of teaching either. We don't provide the basics of Quaker belief and we don't do much about teaching about what it means to live as a Quaker either. We may give some guidance on how to center down in meeting but often people are left to their own devices. How much do we talk about daily spiritual practice or how to live a life of scrupulous honesty or what does it mean on a daily basis to live in the life and power that takes away the occasion for all war?

We comfort ourselves by saying that Quakerism should be caught and not taught. As a result newcomers to Quakerism are often left to figure things out for themselves. We might think that we are leaving them to be taught directly by God but what may happen is that they end up making sense of things using whatever frameworks and understandings they brought with them. As a result they may not come to understand what is unique about Quakerism. Is it any wonder that in matters of basic understanding of doctrine that we are a cacophony not a consensus and certainly not a sense of the meeting?

I do not mean to imply that we should have a creed or statement of belief but that we need to find a core understanding of Quakerism that we at least agree to wrestle with to be able to continue as a religious community. After all if “the spirit of Christ, by which we are guided is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil and again to move unto it...” is true in regard to our peace testimony might it also be true in other areas of our belief?

Monday, May 15, 2006

What does radical condemnation mean to you?

A friend to whom I had sent a draft of my last post sent me an email with the following question and observations:

I understand the descriptions of the two "mistaken ways" but I don't understand the reference to the way of the cross as "radical condemnation and yet radical grace for all."

... What does "radical condemnation" mean to you?

And having asked that, I went and looked at your revised post on the site, and found that you have added, " readers face the reality of the darkness that lurks within their own being, which can be penetrated and dispelled only by God, who is light".

That reminded me of the statement in your first piece that the first thing we experience when we open to the Light is an awareness of our faults.

Here my own experience differs profoundly from yours. My first experiences of opening were of profound joy, gratitude, and a powerful sense of connectedness and unity with other people through that light. And of course, as you know, I don't experience people as containing darkness which can only be dispelled by God. Yes, we are capable of darkness, and yes, experience of the transcendent can be healing and clarifying, but...

In some ways the question of what I mean by radically condemnation is the easy part. What it points to, for me, is there are other seeds within us besides the seed of Light. In my experience there is something in me that strives to keep me from the Light, and that it lies very deep in the unexplored core of my being. I find myself powerless to remove it or to overcome it. I do know that if, as I become aware of them, I hold pieces of it to the light, they are healed. But that is God's doing and not my doing. So the radical condemnation is the showing us our faults at a deep level. And radical grace is the healing that is available to us once we have seen our faults.

The radical condemnation, especially in situations of conflict as this passage is dealing with, is to all parties. All have taken some piece of the truth and then have twisted it to something that is not the truth, either through pride and self-righteousness, or through wanting to avoid conflict or any of the myriad ways the other seeds have of nudging us out of the Light. We have all fallen short in our own ways, and in that we are condemned. But the grace of God is also available to all of us to heal us and to show us a larger and less partial Truth. We can find unity in having been humbled and having been healed.

There is another issue here that is harder to deal with because I may have only spoken a partial truth and it may not have been congruent with the things of God that I have seen with my own eyes and touched with my own hands. I know that I have been influenced by reading Hugh Barbour's description of the “The Terror and Power of the Light” in his book The Quakers in Puritan England. Perhaps even more than the book itself I have been influenced by people talking about the book. Certainly I have experienced God showing me my faults and healing them. But this is often not our very first experience of God or the Light. Certainly it was not mine. I remember that when I was attending meeting at Cambridge that I likened my experience at meeting to being a cat curled up behind a wood stove just basking in the warmth. This lasted for quite a while and in retrospect I realize that it was a time of strengthening and rest before I began a more active period of spiritual growth.

In fact it makes sense that our first experiences of God should be positive. Otherwise what incentive do we have to stick with it through the hard parts. There is faith that it will get better but that faith is grounded on our previous experiences of the love of God. The experience of the Light showing us our faults is a first step in the process of healing and transformation. But unless we have that personal experience of God's love and care for us, it would be difficult to see love behind our being broken open and being remade. Even Jesus had the experience of being blessed at his baptism before he was led into the wilderness to be tempted.

So my talk about being shown our faults or of radical condemnation is not because I think we are hopelessly evil or incorrigible sinners. It is meant as a corrective to our pride, denial and self-satisfaction. It is similar to the first step in 12 step programs, the recognition that there is a problem and we are powerless before it. The purpose of it is to bring us to a place of humility where we can open ourselves to God's healing love and grace. A more precise formulation would probably be that when God (or the Light, or Christ or the Spirit or ...) begins the work of transforming us, the first thing that happens is that we are shown our faults.

We all create some sort of theological framework to make sense of our spiritual experience. But the frameworks can come to overshadow the experience and rather than helping us to understand what has happened to us, it keeps us from seeing other parts of our experience because that doesn't fit in our framework. This is true for any theological system. Each is limited in its own ways because each is the product of people who are by their nature limited and none can hold the fullness of the experience of God. So we need to hold our theological frameworks lightly, even as we treasure our experiences of God and we need to value the stories of other peoples experiences.

It is also helpful at times to look at our experiences through a different framework. I can look at the same process I described above through a Buddhist lens of the struggle to overcome ego. It is the same struggle but it is described in different language. The Buddhist version may carry less judgmental baggage with it. However I find comfort in the personal images of God found in the Christian tradition as opposed to the atheistic world view of Buddhism.

I don't really have a conclusion to all of this, except perhaps to note that paradox is an integral part of spirituality. It is often necessary to recognize that two seemingly contradictory things can both be true and to just be able to sit with that. Maybe life really is just a Zen koan. Oh, and even when dealing with a koan, it pays to be very careful and precise with your language.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Beginning with Barclay

Now that I have introduced my site and myself I need to get on with what I said I wanted to do, which was to explore Quakerism through the writings of early Friends. My starting place will be with Robert Barclay because he is the early Friend I am most familiar with. I intend to start with his Apology, working through it in small doses because the blog format lends itself to shorter articles. Also, unlike a workshop, I have the luxury of time. I do not have to try to get everything into a couple of hours or even a couple of sessions of a couple of hours. I also expect that I may get distracted from time to time as I come across other things or someone's comment leads me off in some other direction. But I intend to keep coming back to this.

One of the things that I like about Barclay's Apology is that is a treatise on spiritual development disguised as a work of theology. At other times I have looked at it and thought that it is really a Bible commentary. It is so full of Biblical quotations and references that it serves as a good way of seeing how early Friends looked at the Bible and the threads of meaning that they found in it. What they found was certainly not what other Christians were finding in the Bible at the same time.

This is clear even from the title, which in true 17'th century form is actually a complete sentence:

An Apology for the True Christian Divinity as the same is held forth and preached by the people, called, in scorn Quakers, being a full explanation and vindication of their principles and doctrines by many arguments deduced from scripture and right reason and the testimonies of famous authors both ancient and modern with a full answer to the strongest objections usually made against them.

Quakerism began as a critique of Christianity as it was understood at the time. Quakerism looks at Christianity in a very different way than most other denominations. When I hear contemporary Quakers discuss their difficulties with Christianity I sometimes wonder if they are aware of those differences.

In his introduction, Barclay lays out the approach that he is taking:

For what I have written comes more from my heart than from my head; what I have heard with the ears of my soul and seen with my inward eyes and my hands have handled of the Word of Life, and what hath been inwardly manifested to me of the things of God, that do I declare; ...

[Barclay's Apology, p 8. Quaker Heritage Press edition]

I just love that phrase, “what my hands have handled of the Word of Life.” I get the image of being in a workshop making something out of the Word of Life like a carpenter making something from a block of wood. I like the idea that our spiritual life, experience and reality is just as real and tangible as the material objects of our world.

Only later did I discover that this comes from 1 John 1:1, which in the New Revised Standard Version goes:

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.

This can be seen as John, the beloved disciple, referring back to his experience of knowing Jesus. And of course, Barclay would be referring back to his experience of knowing Christ. I can understand how the Quakers came to be so often accused of blasphemy. They were claiming for themselves the same experience of Christ that the original disciples had. How audacious. Yet are we willing to even admit to the possibility that this same depth of experience is available to us today, much less claim it for our own?

When I was looking up the reference to John, I came across this from the introduction to 1 John, written by Kerry Dearborn, in the Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible:

In times of disagreement it is natural to respond in one of two mistaken ways: the way of moral laxity and cheap grace, as if truth is not all that important or discernible; or the way of arrogance and self-justification, as if one can pridefully claim ownership of the truth. The letter pushes back the veil of discouragement leading one to believe that discord allows only these two options. Behind the veil the light of God radiates to reveal a third way, the way of the cross – radical condemnation and yet radical grace for all. Costly darkness confronted by everlasting light. With this exposure to the light, readers face the reality of the darkness that lurks within their own being, which can be penetrated and dispelled only by God, who is light.

I read this and it seemed to apply to the state of the Society of Friends. I can identify with the way of arrogance and self-justification as that is a tendency in myself that I wrestle with all the time. How can we lay claim to the experience of Christ comparable to the original disciples and yet remain humble and not be puffed up in our pride? More to the point, how can I do that?