Monday, February 28, 2005

Non-Mystical Quakerism?

Liz Opp has asked me to explain my view that Quakerism is not a mystical religion. Before I do, I'm going to retreat a little from the flat statement about that that I made in a comment on a previous post. I do not literally "go around saying that Quakerism is not a mystical religion" as I flippantly stated in a previous post. But I do occasionally demur slightly when I think someone else claims too strenuously that it is. And probably I should avoid characterizing what Quakerism is or isn't anyway, since it has become a pretty diverse phenomenon. Strictly speaking, I should have said that George Fox did not found a mystical religion and that I do not personally practice a mystical religion (as I understand the term "mystical"). What Quakerism in general may be, especially today, is another question.

I did think of Quakerism as "mystical" during the time I was first exposed to it. At that time I tended to place views of the world on a spectrum running from rational/objective/cerebral at one pole to mystical/religious/intuitive at the other. On that spectrum Quakerism as I had experienced it was much much closer to the mystical pole than the rational, because it involved inner experiences, spiritual ecstasies, and passionate commitments. Within my first Friends Meeting, the meeting in Albany, New York, I also viewed the members of the meeting itself as falling at different points along that spectrum, and I tended (especially in reaction to my pre-Quaker agnostic humanism) to identify with those on the "mystical" end. (Interestingly, it seemed to me at the time that these "mystical" Friends were also the ones less concerned about respectability and more open to a bold witness against the then-raging War in Viet Nam.)

The first challenge I encountered to this one-dimensional way of categorizing religions was Lewis Benson's book "Catholic Quakerism: A Vision for all Men", which I read in 1969 a few months after I became a draft resister. I also heard Lewis speak at a meeting of the Quaker Theological Discussion Group that year. Lewis was not an academic professional. He was a retired printer and a self-taught student of George Fox, the early Friends, and the early Christian Church. His interest in Fox stemmed from a spiritual struggle against personal despair in many ways quite like Fox's.

Many Friends had a hard time understanding Lewis in those days, since he didn't fit into any of the theological categories that Friends were used to. They tended to patronize him at first and then to grudgingly concede that he knew what he was talking about, even if his take on it was unconventional. Some thought that his interest in 300 year-old documents was excessive and that the kind of Quakerism he talked about was a dead issue with little contemporary appeal. Yet, my experience was that whenever the radical young Friends of the 1970's came across his writing they were very excited and engaged. I never became a thorough-going adherent Lewis's ideas, but they did greatly influence me. Lewis took the trouble to actually read George Fox's Journal, his epistles, and his doctrinal writings - a common enough undertaking today among serious Friends, but relatively rare at that time. (For one thing, most of those books were then long out of print). From this reading, Lewis concluded that the essential message of early Quakerism was a message about Jesus Christ, but a quite different message from those of the mainline churches and fundamentally incompatible with them. He thought this message had been eclipsed in succeeding centuries and replaced with a variety of poor substitutes in the various branches of modern Quakerism. One of these poor
substitutes was the idea that Quakerism is essentially a mystical religion arising within the Christian tradition, and that it was in some ways a closer cousin of mystical Islam, mystical Buddhism, and so on than to other Christian groups.

The message of Quakerism itself, in Lewis' view, had to do with calling forth a community that would "hear and obey" its Creator through listening to the voice of Jesus Christ as a "Living prophet". I invite and encourage people to look up Lewis Benson's writings and learn more about this approach for themselves. Rather than try to summarize all that he had to say (and then distinguish it from what I believe), I'll move on to state some of my own views more directly. First, I feel compelled to point out that I was over-simplifying things in my early Quaker years by identifying "mysticism" with a focus on inward spiritual or religious experience. There are many spiritual traditions with a heavy emphasis on such experiences that we would not normally call "mystical". The Methodist Church in which I grew up was the spiritual heir of John Wesley, whose life was changed by what he called a "heart-warming experience" of God's free grace. The Methodist pastors in my home town hoped to lead their flocks to a similar experience, and we Methodists often participated with other churches in evangelical revival-style retreats and rallies much more focused on spiritual feelings and inward spiritual
struggles than on any dry recitation of doctrine. But no one calls Methodists and Baptists "mystics". The same could be said, only more so, for the various pentecostal and charismatic churches and the charismatic movements within more mainline denominations. All very big on feeling and experience: none classified as "mystical".

That's because there is more to "mysticism", as that term is usually used, than a focus on feelings and spiritual experiences. The word doesn't have a single definition that fits all cases. But people described as "mystics" tend to view their spiritual experiences, perhaps in conjunction with various disciplines or "spiritual practices" as pathways to some kind of exalted spiritual state: whether it is a state of union with God or of self-emptying nirvana or simply of detached egoless enlightenment. Often these aspirations are related to a kind of pantheism: the belief that the very universe IS God. Alternatively, some mystics see the material universe as an illusion ("maya") and aspire to penetrate the illusion. Finally, some mystics see individual human beings as "divine". (Indeed, this is the interpretation some Friends today give to George Fox's phrase about "that of God in everyone", but I don't believe Fox himself would have approved of that interpretation.) I, as a Quaker, on the other hand, do not aspire to lose my identity in some kind of fusion with God or with the universe. Nor do I seek to obliterate my ego and achieve nirvana. I do want to overcome and see through my various illusions (and they seem to be legion), but I don't anticipate that this will involve coming to think of God's material creation as unreal and only the Spirit as real. I aspire simply to live as a creature of God who loves and tries to serve my Creator and His creation.

I wait on God in silence and often feel that God's spirit moves within me and among the gathered community of fellow-worshippers. Guidance comes to me and I try to be faithful to it. Moreover, along the way I have had some very vivid experiences that I suppose some would classify as "mystical". I don't view these experiences as the goal of my religious life, but as helps that Christ has given to me (usually in my hours of greatest need, greatest sin or greatest weakness) to help me find my way back toward Him. I do not believe that God is a part of me, nor that His power is available to me for my private and personal wishes. I believe that God is the Creator of all that is, but that He is different from and greater than that which He has created. In all of these things I feel I am in harmony with the witness of George Fox and early Friends. But I don't think that makes me a mystic.

- - Rich

P.S. I fear in rereading this that I have stated some things too strongly. One way in which I am temperamentally different from Lewis Benson is that I usually try to look more for points of contact with other people's views than points of contrast. I hope I have not said anything here to offend any sincere and earnest mystic or anyone who prefers to classify herself or himself as such.

Labels: , ,


Blogger Martin Kelley said...

Hi Rich,
Fabulous post. I agree that while Quakerism has mystical elements, it's not really a mystical religion. Redefining it as such was part of the 20 Century trend toward individualism in the RSoF: we're all independent beings with our own individual lines to God and our Meetings should simply be spiritual nurture centers of fellowship and comfort. All these new and newly-revived terms like "continuing revelation" and "that of God in everyone" are part of the Quakerism as mysticism branch. I've liked the little bit of Lewis Benson's stuff I've read, I really should get Catholic Quakerism--thanks for the recommendation. In Friendship, Martin Kelley (who should now get back to his bookstore job selling the dern book)

9:17 AM, March 01, 2005  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

Many thanks to Martin Kelley for his comment. I think there is a relationship of some sort between contemporary Quaker mysticism and contemporary Quaker individualism, but it isn't necessarily one-to-one or otherwise clear cut. It gets complicated when you think about particular Quaker writers/thinkers. Thomas Kelly, author of Testament of Devotion, sounds like a mystic (and almost makes me want to be one myself whenever I read him), but I'm not sure his writing gives any aid and comfort to the more rampant forms of individualism.

Likewise, Rufus Jones (if I remember correctly what I read by him many years ago) was pretty receptive to mysticism. But even though he may be cited by individualists today, I think he also upheld many of the very corporate testimonies of Friends: beginning with the peace testimony.

I think Lewis was pretty critical of Rufus Jones and thought he had misunderstood early Friends, and I think Lewis may have been right. But I wouldn't blame Rufus for all the sins of subsequent generations.

11:43 AM, March 01, 2005  
Blogger Martin Kelley said...

Hi again Rich, well sure Rufus Jones was part of a whole group of neo-mystics. It seemed like they wanted to get rid of anything that smacked of pecularity and the abstraction of the testimonies they redefined has made them easier to slip around (I guess mysticism and abstraction are two sides of coin).

Ah, but yes: Thomas Kelly, he makes me want to be a mystic too. I'm not sure why I love him so much when his cohort gives me the jeevies. He seems to be speaking of the Spirit from the authority of having experienced it. Wonderful stuff really.

5:30 PM, March 01, 2005  
Blogger Joe G. said...


Wonderful post. Very thought provoking.

Although I agree that Martin's point may seem too cause-and-effect, I agree with him that much of what underpins the rampant individualism within liberal Quakerism is often buttressed by "arguments" that Quakerism is the "western version" of Buddhism (read: it's mystical).

(Then again, the Buddhism expressed here in the States is pretty indivualistic, too! My friends who were raised in primarily Buddhist cultures often describe how communally focused their cultures are.)

11:06 AM, March 02, 2005  
Blogger Amanda said...

Rich, thanks for this post. It is extremely thought provoking, as usual.

I think that the reason mysticism can be so easily put to the use of militant individualism is because it so greatly stresses the experiential ("experimental" in Fox's language). However, I do believe that true mysticism (Kelly being the current example) is necessarily united with something much larger.

The whole concept of "revelation" particularly in the context of "continuing revelation" presupposes an object which is being revealed.

I tend to call this object God, or Truth. It is constant, and unchanging. I also believe it is both unfathomable to the human mind, and fully knowable by our souls, guided by “That of God in us”. (here I could go on and on and on about the Light and omnipresence and God reaching out to God, but I’m trying to be good.) This knowing comes through revelation, which includes but cannot be limited to intellectual understanding. Experience, mystical experience is necessary. “Mystical Experience” however, is both more and less than the caricature of rare spiritual ecstasy/emotional upwelling often given exclusive rights to the name.

As the simplified purported purpose of all religion is to “know, love, and serve God” (my apologies to the Baltimore) and I believe direct experience of God is necessary for knowledge of God, and of how to love and serve him, I find it difficult to separate “mystical religions” from “non-mystical religions”. The most basic difference I can see is that there are religions which stress adherence to previous revelation, and religions which stress direct experience and knowing of God. By this light, I would consider Quakerism more mystical.

As this Truth, or God, is unveiled, through study, through mystical experience/communion, through the emergence of openings and leadings in silent waiting, we are experiencing revelation. Because what is being revealed is intellectually unfathomable in its entirety, what is revealed may be new and surprising. Because what is being revealed is unchanging and constant, what is revealed is unlikely to contradict past revelation. It may give new light, new interpretations, new understanding. However, these understandings and revelations must serve to only bind us closer to the unified Truth, and not spiraling off into a separate individualism.

I want to quote Rich here...

"But people described as "mystics" tend to view their spiritual experiences, perhaps in conjunction with various disciplines or "spiritual practices" as pathways to some kind of exalted spiritual state: whether it is a state of union with God...I, as a Quaker, on the other hand, do not aspire to lose my identity in some kind of fusion with God...I aspire simply to live as a creature of God who loves and tries to serve my Creator and His creation."As far as God being a part of me, rather I feel we are a part of Him. Faithfulness to this revelation of truth, and attempts to make one's life reflect it perfectly, can and have been described as "dissolving one's Self into God". I believe that this "union" is accessible to all, in fact, already achieved and realized, in Christ. Our created selves and identity, once perfectly realized in faithfulness and truth, are not lost, but raised up in unity to glorify the Whole. It is our constant and daily failure to be faithful and perfect in every way which separates us from God, this Whole. I understand this is understood differently by different people, ie Rich's statement of

"I believe that God is the Creator of all that is, but that He is different from and greater than that which He has created."(I could go on and on and on here about a mathematical metaphor of God being a Set, and we merely integers, God the Vine and we the branches, etc, but I won't, because I am trying to be good. This also sets off all sorts of wonderful fireworks in my head about the meaning of Christ...aaah, must. shut. up!)

Far from being license to an unbridled individualism, the revelation we receive in mystical experience must bring us into greater unity, closer to the full realization of the Truth, allowing us to know God, that we might love and serve Him.

It is this revelation which is termed "mystical" and it is only in this unity that God can be known. Therefore, "mystical experience" which detaches us from the fullness of Truth is to be rejected wholeheartedly as false and dangerous.

2:34 PM, March 02, 2005  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

I am thoroughly enjoying this interchange, though I admit I am not a scholar of Quaker classics, such as Rufus Jones and others. They'll find their way to my bookshelf as Way opens, of course. ;)

I'm intrigued by the discussion about mysticism as it relates to Quakerism. Rich, I'm glad you took the time to share more of your thoughts on the subject. Apparently a number of us are!

It's an interesting paradox for me to live with: inwardly, I sense a BOTH/AND dynamic. For me, Quakerism is both an inward, receptive, mystical faith tradition and an outward, witness-oriented, practical (i.e. put into practice) one. I live my life according to and as an expression of the inward transformation I have experienced. (See Michael Birkel's book Silence and Witness for more on these two "pillars," as he calls them.)

This exchange on mysticism among Friends reminds me of a presentation that Friend Christopher Sammond once gave at a yearly meeting session, about spiritual types. If I recall correctly, and with the help of a diagram about spiritual types in the lower half of this page, one way to look at ourselves spiritually is if we experience:

1. Kingdom spirituality (pragmatic)
2. Head spirituality (thinking)
3. Mystic spirituality (contemplative)
4. Heart spirituality (affectionate)

Of course, since I am more mystic and heart in my experience of my faith, I am likely to project those attributes onto Quakerism--and experience it as, in my case, a mystical tradition. But I have to wonder, then, if a certain politically active Friend in monthly meeting, who I experience as having a more pragmatic expression of his faith, won't also project his spiritual type onto Quakerism and claim it is a pragmatic faith: "We must go out and fight for justice, witness for peace!"

Marty Grundy has a wonderful article about the balance and tensions we face in our meetings and in our faith as Friends. When I remember the "see-saw" balance between the inward-outward, receiving-witnessing, individual-corporate, human-Divine, horizontal-vertical elements of Quakerism, I am usually restored to a sense of peace, able to offer greater acceptance and forgiveness to those Friends who perhaps merely sit on the other side of the teeter-totter.


8:59 PM, March 02, 2005  
Blogger Editor Choice said...

Quality blog, enjoyed it. I will comeback.
I wanted just to mention an interesting site about Religions. With more than 500 pages, Religion News and Articles: Religion Universe: Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Taoism (Daoism) and many others

6:42 PM, October 11, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting post.

I see Quakerism as a mystical religion.

I see George Fox as a mystic, for only a mystic would write the following:

"Now was I come up in spirit through the flaming sword, into the paradise of God. All things were new; and all the creation gave another smell unto me than before, beyond what words can utter. I knew nothing but pureness, and innocency, and righteousness, being renewed up into the image of God by Christ Jesus, to the state of Adam, which he was in before he fell. The creation was opened to me; and it was shewed me how all things had their names given them according to their nature and virtue. And I was at a stand in my mind whether I should practice physic for the good of mankind, seeing the nature and virtues of the creatures were so opened to me by the Lord. But I was immediately taken up in spirit, to see into another or more steadfast state than Adam's in innocency, even into a state in Christ Jesus that should never fall. ...Great things did the Lord lead me into, and wonderful depths were opened unto me beyond what can by words be declared; but as people come into subjection to the Spirit of God, and grow up in the image and power of the Almighty, they may receive the word of wisdom, that opens all things, and come to know the hidden unity in the Eternal Being."

If you rise to speak in Meeting to deliver a message that comes from the Spirit, you're a mystic.

If you believe in God as a moment by moment reality that can be experienced, you're a mystic.

But then again, if you have a vision like that described in the opening books of Ezekiel, you're a mystic, so, in my opinion, the dichotomy between mystic and prophet is a false one.

For that matter, if you have a vision of the Holy Spirit descending upon you in the shape of a dove, you're a mystic, whatever and whoever else you may be. So if you're a mystic, you're in the best possible company.

Taking it back a little further, if you hear God speaking to you out of a burning bush, you're a mystic.

If you wrestle with an angel, you're a mystic.

Yours In The Light,

10:39 AM, December 09, 2005  

Post a Comment

<< Home