Quaker Universalist Conversations

“The Faces of God”

Excerpts from “Transition Quaker”

Craig Barnett, Transition Quaker http://transitionquaker.blogspot.com/ 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 creed1 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 Flammarion engraving (1888)
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….

Vine
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.


note

1Behavioural creed” is a phrase explained by Pink Dandelion in An Introduction to Quakerism (2007, p.137).

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.

Image Source

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….”

Comments

It is interesting that someone bring up the “behavioural creed” of Quakers while some Quakers do not have creed.

Without going into details of Dao or Zen, I think personal experience of our conscience is universal but it became impersonal when we try to put them into words or creeds.

My experience is that the comfort of God’s presence is often unexpected as if at God’s whim or choice, not my own. This tells me that the God I trust is not an object under my control to be manipulated by me, but a powerful Person who makes His/Her presence known, not as I will it, but as God does. Yet, at the same time I’m left with the lingering consiouness of God’s unyielding presence.

Friend Yun Choi,

Thank you for raising this question. I have added a footnote to the blog post to explain Craig Barnett’s use of the phrase “behavioural creed.”

“Behavioural creed” is a phrase explained by Pink Dandelion in An Introduction to Quakerism (2007, p.137).

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.

Listening is one of the gifts I received from attending meeting for worship. I learned that different people used the same words differently. This led me to a better understanding of the difficulty we have as a community when we try to describe whatever each of us calls G-D.

Perhaps this is because I was raised in a faith where we were taught that no one could see G-D and live. That eliminated all the conflict over who “really” was created in G-D’s image. Nobody could know the race, gender or nationality of G-D for clearly, if you were still alive you could NOT have seen G-D.

That is also why the Jewish bible is careful to avoid using the name of G-D and there are many adjectives describing G-D. Anyone who uttered THE name would die on the spot. End of argument!. This is also why I use the dash in the word most use to describe the “unknowable”

I don’t know where Jung got his story about the rabbi, but no Jew I know would say they know anyone who had “seen the face of G-D.” Maybe he is using face to mean something else or maybe someone passed on the story incorrectly? I appreciate many of Jung’s insights and perhaps he was more interested in making his point than in being historically accurate.

The Jewish straw man has been used by many over the centuries, so it is interesting to see how Jung used Jews in a positive light to make his point. He may not known that there is at least one branch of Judaism that have mystical beliefs. I was blessed to have lived with some them long enough to appreciate the gifts they gave me.

Thank you Craig for sharing your message and helping me to better understand my own journey, which is something Friends excel at.

Friend Craig speaks to me.

I have struggled for almost 15 years with the spiritual dryness of my own Meeting, where Friends with diverse theist, nontheist and secular humanist perspectives remain silent during worship and worship-sharing.

I have almost no idea what other Friends experience during our meetings for worship.

We “sit together separately.”

Friend Mike,

Thank you for your clarification but it makes no difference between with or without a written creed because they will limit certain human behaviors. As a universalist there should be no difference between the law of the conscious and the written law or cod of conduct. As a Quaker there is no difference between the light within and the Light of Jesus as “the spirit of a man is the Lord’s lamp” (Proverbs 20:27).