Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Republished from Quaker Universalist Conversations (10/4/2015)
In “Seeing beyond the Projections” (9/7/2015), I voiced my concern that modern Friends across the spectrum tend to perceive liberal or universalist Quakerism as representing anything but Christianity. As Wendy Geiger has put it so gracefully in her comment, I wanted to suggest an alternative view, a way “to keep one’s heart-mind supple and expandable and inclusive.”1
To give the discussion historical context, I cited James G. Crossley’s 2015 Jesus and the Chaos of History: Redirecting the Life of the Historical Jesus. Crossley’s scriptural studies and his analysis of social disruption in 1st century Galilee show how the earliest Palestinian tradition of the Jesus movement was led to embrace the power metaphors of “kingdom language.” The tragic irony is that within a few generations such metaphors were being used to rationalize a doctrinaire and authoritarian hierarchy in the early Christian church.
My personal discomfort with institutional Christianity arose during my young adulthood as the response of a self-affirming gay man to that tradition’s condemnation, but also as the response of a first-year seminary student to doctrinaire exclusion of non-Christians and to two millennia of global violence, both done, allegedly, in Jesus’ name.
As I explained in a follow-up comment on “Projections”:
I usually avoid calling myself a Christian out of respect for those who experience Christianity as a creedal religion with an orthodox theological belief system.
Nonetheless, Jesus has been my spiritual master since my earliest childhood. He is the human face of God for me, a “perfect type” of what God tells us we can ourselves become as human beings.
I became a convinced Quaker in my adult years because I understood that the first Friends had centered Quaker faith and practice in the witness of Jesus, indwelling as a teacher in our hearts. This primitive focus on the reality of Jesus, rather than on the theology about Jesus, speaks to my condition.
In other words, I became able to lay down the personal hurts I was projecting onto Christianity, able to discern the faith and practice of the historical Jesus, which transcends the abuses done by the human institution of the church. Now I can reembrace “Christian” as my native religion, the faith language my soul was taught from infancy.
In joy or despair, I can again listen to Jesus, I can seek rescue from Mother-Father God, without stumbling over the conceptual constraints of human doctrine or theological debate—and without distancing myself from those who speak other faith languages.
That “however” involves complex, interwoven challenges.
One commenter on “Projections” objected that Crossley’s thoughtful textual and socio-political reconstruction of the 1st century Palestinian Jesus movement is merely “a contemporary projection that universalists find congenial.” He alleged that “those who disagree with this interpretation are psychologically analyzed as being in some way deficient.” In modern Quaker communities, he wrote, “Christians often fell marginalized (at best).”
This objection represents well the hurt reaction of some creedal Christian Friends to their exclusion by hurting anti-Christian Universalist Friends. That my soul can embrace a non-creedal, universalist “Christ within” does not mean that I can readily share unity in worship with hurting Christians and hurting Universalists who misperceive and therefore mistrust each other as opponents. How do we all become “supple and expandable and inclusive” enough to receive such unity?
Religion is always bound up with identity. More specifically, it is bound up with collective identity: that is, with belonging.2 This in itself would not be a problem, save that the suffering which human beings perpetuate against themselves and each other is frequently the result of believing that “identity” is something real, rather than (at best) a mere poetic shorthand for a complex of shared characteristics which are forever alive and in flux.
During my “radical years,” I used to reply jokingly, if asked my religion, that I was a “Lutheran-Buddhist-Faggot-Witch.” In other words, there was—and is—no name for the religion I share with others, because that religion is not a thing. What is the reality encompassing all named religions which binds together all beings? That is my “religion.”
When we cling to “identity”—worse, when we imagine that identity entails boundaries between “who is” and “who is not”—worse still, when we trick ourselves into ideological stances over “identity politics”—then we deny each other the unity of being which comes from knowing that we sit together around the one and only reality. We separate ourselves from each other by imagined boundaries, instead of worshiping a common center with boundariless horizons.
In the evangelist Matthew’s parable of “The sheep and the goats” (Matt 25:31-46), there is a rarely noticed paradox. The King does not divide those whom he calls “sheep” from those he calls “goats” according to their identities or their belief systems. He does so according to how they have treated each other. That challenge contains its own paradoxes, yet I am referring here to a more elusive paradox.
If I reject the goats, if I do not welcome and bless them as if each were the King, then I, too, am a goat.
My old radical joke was: “We all get to heaven or nobody does.”
And so it is.
1 I invite readers to visit some of the earlier posts which have explored aspects of the concerns expressed here:
2 Possible etymology of the word “religion”: re-ligare, re- (again) + ligare (to bind, connect) or “to reconnect.”
“Christ of the Desert,” an icon by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM.
“Two sheep and two goats resting together in a field.” Lithograph with gouache by A. Ducote. [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
One comment for consideration: My feeling is that Universalism, particularly in its Quaker garb, is an identity. I think it is as much an identity as what you refer to as 'creedal' traditions. (I'm not clear if you are saying that Christian Quakers are 'creedal' by the fact that they identify as Christians or if you are referring to more traditional creedal based forms of Christianity.)
I don't mind Universalists having their identity and their interpretation; Universalists get to do that. But where I do part ways is over the idea that Universalism is not just as defined, just as sectarian, as other Quaker traditions. From my reading and interacting with Universalists they have very definite views about Spirit, tradition, modes of interpretation, history, etc.. And good for them. But I see it as simply another school of interpretation rather than one that somehow transcends the narrower interpretations of more traditional Quakerism. What I'm saying is that 'Universalism' is an 'identity' as you present the idea. I don't have a problem with that, I think it's fine for Universalists to have that identity even as I disagree with its interpretation. It's just that I don't think that Universalism has somehow escaped being an identity. Personally, I would like to see Universalists own their identity as an identity; I think this would create a more even playing field in discussions between Universalists and more Traditional Quakers.
Thanks for your insightful posts.
Christianity is universalist and Universalism is christian -- if they're done right.
Anything less _is_ factional; but the Quaker thing from the beginnings was univeralist-christian/christian-universalist -- not as a mixture but as the only logical outcome of universalist claims to include all truth and Christian claims to be universally applicable truth, of universalist inclusiveness and christian proclamation of God's unlimited love of each person.
'Religion' can come to mean an identity marker, but it's supposed to mean the way things really are, and the way we are consequently obliged to live.
Thanks, Jim. Your comments are helpful.
First a clarification. You write:
I use the term "creedal" to refer to religious traditions which expect their participants to "confess to" a shared doctrinal belief system.
For example, the Lutheran Church in which I was raised is a creedal or "confessional" church. To be acknowledged as a member, one must find clearness to be able to say publicly, "I believe in…," followed by the clauses of the Apostle's Creed.
Some Friends who call themselves Christians are creedal in this sense, and some are not. Having experienced confessional Lutheranism in my youth, I can respect Friends for whom creedal Christianity is an outward expression of inward faith.
As for the core of your comment, I think we are in agreement that folks who claim the term "universalist" usually claim it as an identity—consciously or not. I have no problem with what you say here.
The concern of this post is, rather, that all of us normally operate in terms of "identities," that identities have to do with boundaries between "belonging" and "not belonging," and that—this is the critical point—identities are figments of human conceptualization, not real boundary markers.
Whenever we frame conversations in terms of identity, whenever we assess each other in terms of identity, we are imagining dividing walls which are not actually there.
“We all get to heaven or nobody does.”
Friend Forrest speaks my mind: "'Religion' can come to mean an identity marker, but it's supposed to mean the way things really are, and the way we are consequently obliged to live."
It is interesting the way Paul describes the function of a creedal statement to the Corinthians: "...no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost" (I Cor. 12:3). That is to say, that if the Holy Ghost is not known as the person makes that statement, then the person is not making an honest statement, even if he intellectually believes what he's saying. A statement of belief in Jesus as Lord, according to Paul, is without meaning if the inward knowledge of him is lacking. There would be, according to Paul, those who make meaningless statements of belief and others who, knowing the Spirit, make meaningful statements of belief. A further distinction could be made that those who state that they do not think that Jesus is the Lord could be making a meaningful statement of their lack of belief. This of course would be a different awareness than those who make the statement that Jesus is the Lord by the Holy Ghost, or those who make that statement without that knowledge.
We have all kinds in Quaker meeting; we're not of one mind nor of one Spirit. To say that we are because we're all God's creatures, well...we're called beyond that to be the sons of God in Christ, not mere creatures of nature. If we were drawn by the Father to the Son by his Spirit, then we would be able to say with one voice: Jesus is the Lord. Such was original Quaker faith.
Mike, I wonder if your statement, "identities are figments of human conceptualization, not real boundary markers", makes sense. It sounds to me like postmodernist sloganeering.
For example, if I am hungry I want to distinguish, that is to say, 'identify', a pizza and distinguish it from a rock. Are you saying the boundary between a pizza and a rock is a figment of human conceptualization? That doesn't make sense to me. A pizza belongs in the concept 'food', a rock belongs in the concept 'non-food'. What is the problem?
In a similar way, I don't see a problem in identifying different spiritualities. Not all spiritual traditions are the same and it serves a useful purpose to clarify how they differ and where their views overlap.
Patrician: Thee speaks my mind.
What Paul does say is that anyone able to say 'Jesus is Lord' under the influence of a spirit, that spirit must be The Spirit. He doesn't say that nobody can say that dishonestly. If that had been what he'd meant, saying what he said instead would have been a remarkable ancient typo -- but it's more likely that supposing so is simply farfetched.
Jesus himself does say that people can call him "Lord, Lord" without getting his message -- and that doing so doesn't constitute his approval for them or for whatever things they do or say in his name.
People certainly differ in how well they embody God's spirit, in what degree they are attuned to that vs what degree they constitute a discord in this world.
To go from that to thinking and saying that anyone can be animated by anything but God's spirit, that God would have let one feather of one sparrow get lost -- except in the [sometimes long and painful] process of each person's redemption... is a crippling misunderstanding of God and his nature.
Yes, Paul was identifying what was necessary to make a true, meaningful statement of belief: knowledge of the Spirit.
I think that you're saying in your last two paragraphs that because God is love (would not "let one feather of one sparrow get lost") that therefore humans are animated only by God's spirit.
First, you've misquoted the sparrow passage. Second, the son of perdition is lost (Jn. 17:12), and that doesn't mean only Judas, but whoever betrays the inward Christ. From Fox:
Then I asked them, seeing Judas, who betrayed Christ, and was called the son of perdition, had hanged himself, what son of perdition was that which Paul spake of, that sat in the temple of God, exalted above all that is called God? And what temple of God that was in which this son of perdition sat? And whether he that betrays Christ within in himself, be not one in nature with that Judas that betrayed Christ without?
Forrest, your idea that human beings are to presume that they are animated by God's spirit—that, as such, they are in Christ—has no basis in Quaker understanding. More is required. Penn cautions against such notions in the preface to Fox's Journal:
Therefore, have a care how you presume to rely upon such a notion, as that you are in Christ whilst in your old fallen nature. For ‘what communion hath light with darkness, or Christ with Belial?’ Hear what the beloved disciple tells you: ‘If we say we have fellowship with God, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth.’ That is, if we go on in a sinful way, are captivated by our carnal affections, and are not converted to God, we walk in darkness, and cannot possibly in that state have any fellowship with God. Christ clothes them with his righteousness, that receive his grace in their hearts, and deny themselves, and take up his cross daily, and follow him. Christ’s righteousness makes men inwardly holy, of holy minds, wills, and practices. It is nevertheless Christ’s, because we have it; for it is ours, not by nature; but by faith and adoption. It is the gift of God. But still, though not ours as of or from ourselves, - for in that sense it is Christ’s, for it is of and from him, - yet it is ours, and must be ours in possession, efficacy, and enjoyment, to do us any good, or Christ’s righteousness will profit us nothing. It was after this manner that he was made to the primitive christians, righteousness, sanctification, justification, and redemption; and if ever you will have the comfort, kernel, and marrow of the christian religion, thus you must come to learn and obtain it (Works, 1:xlvi-xlvii). [Italics mine.]
I don't intend to continue this discussion, Forrest, as it is not the topic that the host had chosen.
I think it is quite relevant to topic: 'Universalist' views are implied by the fact that God does intend our redemption (and gets what He wants, ultimately!) while narrowly CapitalChristian views arise from the belief that God's spirit in us is an add-on, that God is alien to human beings as-is.
I don't believe I am putting words in your mouth, as you are (to my mind) putting words in Paul's mouth, and in mine.
It is not "because God is love" that I realize that God is our lives, is what lives us, and intends our redemption, and therefore provides all necessary help towards that [even, alas, suffering along the way!] --
that as Rabbi Smelke understood, re [even human beings] 'loving the Wicked': "If your hand slipped, and hurt you, would you then add to the injury by attacking your hand? -- and will you not take pity on God, who sees one of his precious sparks is in danger of going out?"
Things are as they are, whether or not it fits Biblical doctrines (reflecting the state of human knowledge at that time) or the conclusions of early Friends (reflecting the state of human knowledge in their time.) Or, of course, whether or not it fits the illusions of the present, or fits my own understanding.
I too can be mistaken, and know what I know now only because of God's merciful, ongoing teaching. But whatever I learn in future will be consistent with God's love, not with ancient human words.
" When we cling to “identity”—worse, when we imagine that identity entails boundaries between 'who is' and 'who is not'—worse still, when we trick ourselves into ideological stances ..."
"How do we all become “supple and expandable and inclusive” enough to receive such unity?"
Query: Is it possible you have tricked your-self by mixing "ideological stances" ((viz. Universalism, inclusiveness, unity, etc.) with a testimony to an experience that is essential non-ideological and is therefore not one of an ideology among other ideologies but of of uniquely different experience not of the impulse to outward ideological forms.
Yes, this is a leading Query. However, I am interested your reaction to where the query is leading. I will say I recognize the trick of which you speak because I am ever being deceived by it in my own life.