For saith Christ, which is the Word of God, My sheep hear my voice and they follow me; and I the Word will give them eternal life, and none can pull them out of his hand, which is that living Word, from whence this testimony of mine proceedeth. Oh how my bowels [heart] yernes in that living Word! Yes, that ye may not fall short, but be crowned with Immortality and glory.
—Sarah Jones, 1650
Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life."
I am quite clear that theological reflection is invaluable in learning to live as a Friend. And I believe that we, in unprogrammed Friends meetings, do have an implied common theology. We have found something deep, rich, and life-renewing. Our seeking, while lifelong, is not aimless. Our seeking is driven by the need to live closer to that inward fire that warms, refines, and draws us to the heart of Life. We know something of the unity of all beings and all creation in God. The mystery of God has a reality whereby we cannot limit God to any one religious path or definition. Divine wisdom, holy actions, and the names by which we speak of the Eternal are varied and beyond what any one person can grasp. No matter what name we call the source of Love and Truth in the universe, we leave room for other understandings and experience. Some of us know a close, personal, loving, guiding Spirit. Some know Jesus as our brother or as a prophet or as God embodied in human flesh. Some find a river of Love flowing through the universe and dip into its waters. Others may find a mother, strong and wise. Others are not sure "God" exists, but experience a compelling desire drawing them to justice, mercy, and humility. This entity, force, mystery, known as God, has dimensions beyond measure.
I have met individuals who come to Friends from other Christian churches, loving the words and message of Jesus, and seeking a community that lives as Jesus lived. They find this in Friends meetings—whether it is because of, or despite, the fact that we place a low value on formal teachings about what we have to believe about Jesus—a community seeking to live in the same Spirit as Jesus. Rather than recognizing fellow travelers by the name they call God or the way they define Jesus, we believe the work of the Spirit is known by its fruits. Perhaps some of the features of modern, liberal Quaker belief might be expressed as follows, emphasizing its roots in the Christian story:
- There is a Way of Love, Truth, and Unity that we can tap into, and that can guide our lives. This Way is what many call God’s way or God’s will and is the creative energy of the universe and all that is.
- The Way can be described as to "love mercy, act justly, and walk humbly with God." It can be described in terms of the Sermon on the Mount. The Way is "content with the low places that people disdain" so that "when you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you" as expressed in the Tao Te Ching. It can be expressed in the teaching of Buddha. It is the Way of peace.
- All people have access to the Way. The Way beckons every child, woman, and man. It is ours to respond to and to seek, or to close our inner ears to and stay bound in the ways of the world, caught in the lure of personal self-gratification.
- We are all wounded in some way, by life, by circumstances, by deliberate actions, by random events. Some of us actively turn away from the Spirit for a time and do conscious damage. We all regularly make mistakes and harm others even while attempting to be helpful or to do what is right.
- Asking for forgiveness for the wrongs we have participated in and forgiving others is an integral part of the Way. Divine forgiveness is complete when we ask for it out of a contrite heart. Knowing forgiveness is healing and transforming. Offering forgiveness to others releases us from the snares of bitterness and revenge.
- Wholeness and healing of our lives and spirit are possible. In this healing we will become full persons whose hearts, minds, bodies, and souls unite as our lives become more attuned to the Way. In this holiness, neither our egos nor the pulls of the world will be our guide, but rather, the Spirit.
- Those who walk in God’s Way will know the fruit of the Spirit, and their lives will show patience, love, peace, joy, gentleness, self-control, kindness, generosity, and faithfulness in contrast to jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, enmities, strife, licentiousness, conceit, and competition. The Way has strong ethical and moral dimensions that are not easily captured in rules.
- The encounter with the Spirit is an inward one that can be painful and difficult when it shows us our limitations and how we fall short of what we might be. The process of growth and change is before us as long as we live, although some few might achieve completion as Jesus did. Cycles of small, inward deaths and births are one way to see this process.
- Thus we are called to right relationship with one another and with all that exists. This is an active process grounded in humility and leavened with humor. This is both an individual process and a group dynamic. Both will be reflected in the institutions and communities we create.
- It is possible to visualize the City of God: what the world might be like if all people would abide in God’s Way. This City is an ideal. Yet it is realized in part among us on Earth today insofar as individuals and communities seek to live in accord with the Spirit.
- Much is wrong in the world. Defining this wrongness in terms of pain and suffering as the Buddhists do, or through psychological explanations, takes away the human tendency to act as judge and leaves whatever judgment is to be made in the hands of God, where it belongs. Our place is to do what we can to right what is wrong and help mend what is broken. We can stand clear and strong for justice. We can create the space and hope for healing and coming right; but ultimately, that work is the work of the Spirit. For us to think we are the healers rather than vehicles for the healing of the Spirit is to be caught up in the traps of the ego and of conceit.
- Jesus fully embodies the Way and thus can be seen as both human and divine.
- Jesus, Buddha, and all saints of all faiths and no faith, whose lives define compassion, even to the point of death, embody the Way and are our true guides. Life is more than the limits of the physical body. And both heaven and hell can be experienced in this earthly lifetime. They embody the hope, forgiveness, and the means by which we might "hit the mark" and be free of "sin."
- This Way is part of all of us and thus we are all both human and divine. But the Divine is a seed that can be nourished or ignored, watered or allowed to wilt and be stunted.
- The Way can be found in waiting and listening, even in the midst of energetic action or outward lively sound. As we learn to use and trust our inward eyes and ears, we become more in tune with the Way.