Quaker Universalist Conversations

Listening in Tongues

In his blog, The Empty Path, Mike Shell shares his quest to understand how to “hear or to be heard across the boundaries of our differing belief systems.”  How do you speak of your spiritual experiences among Friends, and to the world at large?  Do you find yourself “translating” what others say, or have a hard time listening because of the language they use?  Or do you find yourself struggling to find language to express your spiritual experience?

From Mike’s blog:

In a recent post on Quaker Pagan Reflections, the blog he shares with his helpmate Cat, Peter Bishop of Mt. Toby (MA) Friends Meeting has given me a phrase which I believe speaks to the heart of Quaker faith and practice.

Peter writes about “how difficult it is to express in words what worshiping in silence means to us,” even across the perceived barriers within Quakerism itself:

I see [some] Friends…using Christian language and Biblical reference points to anchor themselves in the deep, spiritual dimensions of their practice. It works for them—works so well, in fact, that if they were asked to give up the particularity of Christian myth, they would feel robbed of their voice, unable to speak about their religious experience at all.

That same Christian language is deeply alienating to [other] Friends, who often come to Quakerism as refugees from Christian churches of the kind Jesus was talking about when he said,

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.“                                         Matthew 23:13 NIV

Talking to one another across this kind of theological divide is hard. It is hard enough that many liberal Friends shy away from talking at all about what happens in worship, afraid of giving offense or of being offended, afraid of being shut down or told to shut up. We worship together in the deep intimacy of silence, but…often we rely on mind-reading when really we need to be talking.

Peter continues by describing the situation in New England Yearly Meeting.
As part of both Friends General Conference and Friends United Meeting, NEYM includes a wide spectrum from the very liberal to the evangelical. In past years, I used to describe us as “teetering on the brink of schism,” but this past year we seemed to push through to a place of greater unity.

The phrase that came out of the 2011 Sessions was “listening in tongues,” and it describes the way liberals and evangelicals can try to hear into one another’s language, metaphors, and mythology, getting down to the root experience of worship that we all share.

There is the key phrase: listening in tongues.

Peter describes clearly the dilemma of all people of benevolent faith in this pluralistic modern world.  The first Friends all “spoke Christian”—though in bold and idiosyncratic ways—because all the Europeans of their day shared the common Christian mythos.  Now, knowing that people across the world express such faith in many religious and non-religious languages, we long to affirm and embrace them all, yet we often do not know how to hear or to be heard across the boundaries of our differing belief systems.

I experience this dilemma in my own meeting, as well as in the larger non-Quaker world.  The predominant mode of public expression both in meeting and among my many friends and colleagues is liberal humanism.  Even if individual faith and practice arise for some from private religious experience, these dear folks do as Peter describes so well.  They never speak publicly in religious language.  They rarely describe whatever faith sustains them in private.

I share this shyness, yet increasingly it leaves me uncomfortable.  My discomfort has to do with the disconnect between the way I experience my faith and practice personally and the carefully non-religious language of my meeting and my friends.  I am universalist in my beliefs, yet I am also one of those Peter describes as “using Christian language and Biblical reference points to anchor themselves in the deep, spiritual dimensions of their practice.”

My father was a Lutheran minister, my mother, the daughter of a Lutheran minister.  They were both 1950s liberals.  In their parenting they witnessed to a welcoming God who knows no boundaries between people, not a jealous God who imposes orthodoxies.  It was therefore easy and natural for Christianity to become my “native language” of faith and practice.

By the time I reached seminary in 1972, though, I was wrestling with Peter’s dilemma.  Along with my teachers and fellow students, I was seeing more deeply into the personal and communal realities to which Christian theology and practice at its best can point.  Even so, I stumbled over this religion’s perceived exclusion of the non-Christian people whom I had come to know and affirm in college.

More immediately crucial for me, inner truth was finally compelling me to come out as a homosexual man.  At that time the Lutheran church did not yet welcome such people into the ministry.  After one term I left seminary, found a gay-friendly community in which to live and work, and gradually learned to integrate this essential dimension of myself into my personal and public life.  Without intending to, though, in the process of coming out of the gay closet I hid Christianity away in a closet of its own.  My faith in God went with me, but for several decades I could not in good conscience use the religious language of my birth.

What brought me back to that language, some years after my becoming a convinced Friend, was the leading to reclaim the religious awareness of my childhood.  Not the belief system, but the experience.  Doing so revealed to me that the Jesus of my childhood—Jeshua, the historical man of Galilee—is still my master and teacher.

I know privately what such religious metaphors represent for me.  I do not mean “master and teacher” in the doctrinally defined Christian sense, nor do I mean it in the mundane sense of a historical “wise man” whose teachings I follow.  In the way my brain uses its imaginative powers to symbolize and personify transformative inner experience, it is as if I know Jesus as a person who is still present, teaching me.

Here is Peter’s dilemma on the most intimate level.  How do I speak with either orthodox Christians or refugees from Christendom or non-Christians or non-religious people, without their learned associations with “Christian language and Biblical reference points” getting in the way of hearing what I actually long to share with them?  How do I hear them past my own assumptions about the deeper meaning of their various languages?

Some years ago in my blog, The Empty Path, I wrote:

I have come to understand that no religious language, whether in scripture, in doctrine, in written or spoken ministry, or in personal testimony, describes the ultimate Reality in any objective way. Rather, at its best such language can only describe the human experience of interaction with that Reality.

This is not because the Real is unknowable, but because human language is limited. Even at its most articulate, the human brain is not able to abstract its intimate experience into concepts and symbols which are at once fully nuanced and also wholly unambiguous to others.

How can we share with each other our common experience of this one Reality, and yet allow that our individual relationships with it are idiosyncratic and, in their inmost core, inexpressible?

This challenge remains at the heart of my efforts to live my faith with others and to help them give voice to their own faiths.  How do we teach each other—how do we allow ourselves to be taught—the blessed talent of “listening in tongues”?

Blessèd Be,


(please note: additional comments may be found at the site of Mike’s blog, The Empty Path)


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