Quaker Universalist Conversations

Mysticism: Quaker and Universalist

By Rhoda Gilman

During the past three years the Quaker Universalist Fellowship has discussed the possibility of following up its three QUF Readers with a book-length collection of Quaker universalist publications on mysticism.  Lack of resources and energy have stalled the project, but it has led me to read and compare a good many of the pamphlets and articles that have been published in the last 25 years by QUF in the USA, QUG in the UK, and by other Quaker organizations and authors.

Mysticism is a burning topic these days.  In the past 60 years science has transformed our view of the universe, and technology has transformed our world.  The two have complemented and reinforced each other.  The dizzying speed of change, plus the failure to find a new worldview that will explain the mysteries of relativity and quantum theory, has turned many philosophically-minded people, including some scientists, to exploring intuitive ways of knowing.  Meanwhile violent religious conflict has erupted as people have been faced with terrifying new crises and have clung desperately to the familiar orthodoxies of the past.

For three thousand years doubt and mysticism have gone hand in hand, and both have been persecuted by religious authorities everywhere.  A third companion is universalism, and although the relationship is complicated, it is very close.  Among Christians, Quakerism, along with a few other metaphysical offshoots, has been led to explore its roots in late medieval mysticism and its newer relationship to Far Eastern mystical traditions, Vedic, Buddhist, and Taoist.

Although science makes no such claim, it is implicitly seen in our time as the touchstone of what is real.  With its formulas and equations, its controlled experiments, and especially its power over nature, it has become the doubters’ dogma.  Yet of the Quaker works I have been reading, only three acknowledge its importance in discussing mysticism.

Jack Mongar’s The Universal Sense of the Numinous is largely a historical account of the dialog between science and mysticism that has gone on since 1900.   He ends with a brief discussion of the tensions within the Society of Friends that led to the founding of the Quaker Universalist Group in Britain in 1979, followed by the QUF in 1983.

James Riemermann is a nontheist and skeptic, who denies that any meaning exists in the universe outside our own accidental consciousness.  Yet his essay on Mystery: It’s What we Don’t Know concludes:  “Part of that ineffable mystery of self-awareness is a built-in longing for eternity, for a connection with ultimate meaning.  We don’t know why we have it, but we have it.”

Quaker author Mary Conrow Cuelho’s book, Awakening Universe, Emerging Personhood: The Power of Contemplation in an Evolving Universe, is rooted in the “new story” of expansion since the “Big Bang” that has been popularized by Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme.  She extends it to include the development of self-awareness and the quest for self-actualization, leaning heavily on psychiatric theories, especially those of Carl Jung.

In the Pendle Hill pamphlet, Quaker Views on Mysticism, Margery Post Abbott, like Thomas Kelly, makes little distinction between mysticism and traditional faith in the existence of a loving god.  Mysticism consists in a personal feeling of divine presence, a thing which cannot be described.  She tells of steps in her own spiritual journey, and numerous sidebars tell the stories of other Friends.

Personal experience of a more dramatic kind is recounted by Patricia A. Williams in the QUF pamphlet Hazardous Engagement: God Makes a Friend.  Instead of a journal, a series of letters addressed to God record encounters in which the divine makes appearances in various forms over a period of 14 years.

Mulford Q. Sibley’s Quaker Mysticism: Its Content and Implications originated in a lecture addressed to non-Friends.  He briefly affirms mysticism as an experience of true, ineffable reality then goes on to recount Quaker acceptance and rejection of it over a history of 300 years.

In What is Spirituality? also originating as a lecture, but in one addressed to Friends, Harvey Gillman provides a preface to what may be a long personal struggle with the meaning of mysticism.  Poetry and metaphor are his preferred languages.

Paradox haunts even the title of Daniel A. Seeger’s essay The Mystical Path: A Journey to The One Who Is Always Here.  With little reference to Quakers, he describes the perceptions of what mysticism is and what it is not, returning in the end to the sacredness of pure silence.  His words have a Taoist feeling.

Finally, my own QUF pamphlet, The Universality of Unknowing:  Luther Askeland and the Wordless Way, contrasts the insights of a non-Quaker and virtually unknown contemporary mystic to the distinctly Quaker approach articulated by Rufus Jones and others.  Like Eckhart, Spinoza, and some Eastern mystics, Askeland asserts the unitive nature of reality and its inaccessibility to human thought and language, which rest on differentiation.  Along with him and with Dan Seeger, I am drawn by the power of inner silence.

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