Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Modern Council of the Church

My spiritual language is "Christian." For me, the "Way of Life" is embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus and is stated in essence in the "new commandment" in which Jesus calls us to love one another just as He loved us. Ask any Christian what the heart of the Gospel is and most likely they will agree that it is "The Sermon on the Mount" as reported in Matthew 5-6. Ask them what the heart of that "sermon" is and they will be likely to say "The Beatitudes." I disagree

For me, the heart of the message is found in Matt 5:43 to the end of the chapter, which is essentially about loving our enemies, stating that God loves everyone and we should try to be more like God. To my mind Jesus was just picking the most glaring example of where to expand our consciousness of relationship, and the idea applies equally to anyone who is different from us in any way. I doubt that very many would disagree on that part.

That's it in a nutshell. Anything else is about how to acquire a heartfelt appreciation of that principle and then apply it, or it is about personal perceptions of our relationship to God.

It is clear that the first followers of the Way that Jesus embodied remained in the Jewish religion. They continued to meet in the Temple court and used Jewish practices such as water baptism. Until Peter and Paul expanded the horizons of the fellowship. Then a huge question arose as to what was required of a follower of Christ; was a convert required to convert to the Jewish religion?

The council of the Church at Jerusalem recounted in Acts is a fascinating study, but the result hinges on one perception: the report by Peter and Paul that the Spirit manifested in gentiles without the need for them to do what was necessary to come under the covenant with Abraham and with Moses as representative of the Hebrew nation. The Way is not dependent on at least that particular religion.

Within the diverse Society of Friends there is currently a question about whether a profession of faith in Jesus as the mediator between God and man is necessary for membership in that Society, an organization that has always professed to follow the Way embodied by Jesus. The more theologically liberal elements of the Society have pretty much decided for inclusiveness for any who wish to join and work together to make the basic element of the Way work in our lives and our relationship with others. The more theologically conservative are adamantly opposed to any but professed "Christians" becoming members.

"The Doctrine of the Light" was from near the beginning of the Society a foundational element of Quaker perception, though I understand some elements of the Society have relatively recently repudiated it. That doctrine states essentially that God speaks to everyone in the world and an appeal to "that of God" in a person may bear fruit in causing that person to come nearer into alignment with the Way. There have been various perceptions of how that works, but exposition of the doctrine by Barclay and expressions of the kinship of those who work for an increase of love as active principle in the world regardless of religion by such as William Penn indicate that the perception was that one need not know the name of Jesus to work in the Way.

I think we need to examine the direction perceptions were moving even before the Ministry of Jesus in such prophecies as that of Jeremiah in which he indicated that there would be a new covenant in which God's precepts would be "written on the heart" of the people. I think that means that actions would be the natural result of the attitude of love held by those who have come close to God AS love. The statement in Hosea 6:6, "For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings," seems to me to be a clear direction that love of God is to be practiced in relating to others as opposed to simply religious observances. And the same thing is true of Micah 6:8

What IS "The Religious Society of Friends?" That is the question we have to answer when we ask whether it is a community based on a religious perception of Jesus AS "the" Christ, or on following the Way that we have said God makes available to all men through the light Christians see as the light of Christ. This is the choice that faces the Society as some face it and others choose to ignore. I love Jesus for what I see Him as having done for us, and relating to the Divine in the Light of the message and the person of Jesus is a source of joy to me, but that love and joy in no way precludes fellowship with those who live in love and have different perceptions.

To me the question hinges on whether the Spirit can be seen to be operating (as at least some early Friends said it does) within the framework of other religious structures or philosophical perceptions which can be seen as vehicles for the Light insofar as they really do express the same way that Jesus said His disciples would be recognized: by their love. If the Spirit is to be our "guide" as stated by Jesus, can that Spirit be seen at work in members of the Society who do not share religious perceptions with the Christians who have historically made up the majority of the Society?

I have seen it working. End of question for me, it only remains to see how we can work out the details of living together in the Light.

So, if it's that simple, what's the problem?

Perhaps it's the weight of 2,000 years of catering to the propensity of humans to make a religion, a set of forms around the conduct of our life. Veneration of the messenger is a natural response, especially when the message is so much embodied in the ministry or life of the messenger, but is it appropriate to make that veneration a requirement for participation in a Society based on the message? Is our language to be restricted to one description of how the Spirit moves? Is "renewal" to be merely a matter of getting back to earlier forms rather than expanding our perceptions to see what the root of our faith rests in?
I hope not.


  1. I can't believe you wrote this... Here I've been agonizing over finding a voice for much of what you've written here for the past, I don't know, many months. And I visit your blog, and there it is: you wrote it for me.

    Thanks, Nate!

  2. Perhaps under the current circumstances, the "voice" needed to be from the Christian perspective to get some kind of ball rolling as far as online discussion.

  3. Thank you Nate -- thee has also put words to my thoughts. I was led here by a link from Cat's facebook page, and I'm glad I was. The image of conversion of the gentiles without converting to Judaism is helpful to me. Can someone convert to being a Friend, simply by experiencing the Light directly, or must they first convert to Christianity? I shall be pondering this for awhile.

  4. Thank you for stopping and commenting, Haven. Indeed, I think it is a good thing for those of us who are "Christian" to step back and look at what it means to us to BE "Christian." How much beyond James 1:27 should we really participate in the constructions that are "religion?" The first Quakers lopped of a LOT of extraneous stuff, did they get all of it or is there still dross from the tendency to construct forms for our lives rather than living in the immediate perception of where the Spirit leads.

  5. Those constructions we call "religion" are, by and large, constructed for people's benefit. They add to the variety and beauty of life; they emphasize elements of the Message that didn't necessarily get their due in other constructions. They can serve as cages or jungle gyms; if people insist on confining themselves inside it's hardly a structure's fault!

    Anyway. "Renewal." People try to make it happen by "getting back to earlier forms," but those forms were simply an outgrowth of your "root of our faith." So renewal precisely is a return to that root, not the revival of lost forms that people find so much easier to try instead.

  6. Well said, Forest. It's not the forms that are a problem nor should they be a goal of "primitive Christianity revived," though examination of the value of forms may well be called for as really useful processes have lost place in our Meetings.