Craig Barnett is a Quaker living in Sheffield (UK), and currently serving as an elder of Sheffield and Balby Area Quaker Meeting. The following are excerpts from the 12/31/15 post on his blog, Transition Quaker. We encourage you to read the complete blog post.
“There is a fine old story about a student who came to a rabbi and said, ‘In the olden days there were men who saw the face of God. Why don’t they any more?’ The rabbi replied, ‘Because nowadays no one can stoop so low.‘”
—Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1963)
For many Friends today, it is difficult to know how to make sense of Quaker worship, given the radical differences in religious understanding within Britain Yearly Meeting.
When we do not share our spiritual experience and beliefs with each other, differences are easily ignored. So long as we abide by the ‘‘behavioural creed’1 of the Quaker meeting for worship (ie sitting still, and speaking without any suggestion of certainty) we all appear to be doing the same thing. But this only works if Friends are careful in their vocal ministry to avoid words or topics that they suspect may generate strong reactions from others….
Needless to say, this is not a recipe for spiritual vitality or prophetic ministry. So perhaps it is a hopeful sign that there seems to be a growing level of open disagreement in some of our meetings, as more Friends are finding the courage to discuss their beliefs with each other. This can be an uncomfortable process, and it may be tempting to try to suppress conflict by returning to a culture of inhibition. But conflict can signal the potential for renewal….
The mystical traditions of many religions testify that the mystery of spiritual reality is greater than any of our concepts of it. This suggests that understandings which appear to be very different, and even incompatible, may reflect fragments of a greater whole seen from the perspectives of people with different temperaments and experiences. One of the most obvious differences is between personal and impersonal understandings of spiritual reality (or ‘God’, used as a symbol for the totality of spiritual reality beyond our limited categories).
The Christian mystic Simone Weil once wrote that God has both ‘personal and impersonal aspects….’ Spiritual reality is known as an active, intentional, loving, guiding and protecting presence. This understanding reflects an extraordinarily common experience among people from very different religious traditions….
Another common way of experiencing God is as an impersonal energy, principle or universal interconnectedness. This perspective is particularly emphasised in religions such as Zen Buddhism and Taoism. It also runs through the Christian tradition from very early times, especially in mystical writings such as Meister Eckhart and The Cloud of Unknowing, as well as modern theologians such as Paul Tillich….
Of course, this distinction between the personal and impersonal faces of God highlights only one dimension of the diversity of religious experience. It is also possible to experience and understand the divine in a multitude of other ways, including an agnosticism which is attached to no definite views or concepts, but is simply open to the possibility of encounter with that which one does not yet know….
It is profoundly unhelpful to turn our different experiences and images into a game of identity politics; saying in effect ‘I am a nontheist and I need to stand up for nontheists against theists’ (or vice versa). This kind of thinking is premised on mutual suspicion and only tends to escalate it. We would do far better to refuse to play this game, and instead practice listening to each others’ experience in order to enrich our own understanding of the inexhaustible breadth of spiritual reality….
Anyone who is open to the possibility of encounter with some kind of reality beyond our own thoughts and opinions can enter into Quaker worship expecting to be changed, challenged and illuminated by a reality that is outside our control…..
How do personal or impersonal images of God speak to you? Has the practice of Quaker worship changed your experience and understanding of spiritual reality?
This post is a response to the ‘Reading Quaker faith & practice’ project of the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group…. The full calendar of readings for use by local meetings, writers and individual Friends is available here.
Liberal Friends affirm their opposition to creeds. If pushed, they resist more firmly. In other words, Liberal Friends Collectively agree that they do not have creeds. I have called this paradoxical collective affirmation of belief in not having creeds a ‘behavioural creed’ (Dandelion 1996, chapter 3). In other words, a creedal attitude to form or practice exists, visible through its opposition to more traditional kinds of creed.
The Flammarion engraving is a wood engraving by an unknown artist that first appeared in Camille Flammarion’s L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire (1888).
The image depicts a man crawling under the edge of the sky, depicted as if it were a solid hemisphere, to look at the mysterious Empyrean beyond. The caption underneath the engraving (not shown here) translates to “A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet….”