Being Quaker and Radically Christian in Our Time
Quakers can play a powerful and transforming role in our world today, but to do so we must be something more than a liberal people with a welcoming faith. After three and a half centuries, God is still calling us to the challenging, uncomfortable condition of being radical Christians.
When I first joined with Quakers, I thought I had outgrown Christianity. Over time, however, I discovered that I had only outgrown the limits of mainstream Christianity, and that I was being called by the Light of Christ into a radical, experiential faith far more true and powerful than what I had known as a child.
I was raised to love Jesus. One day at parochial school, after becoming sick, I stood up on the bed in the infirmary and kissed Jesus on a little crucifix hanging over the bed. It suddenly occurred to me, however, that I was not worthy to kiss him, and I felt ashamed. In Sunday School I was taught rituals, rules, and doctrine. Expecting something miraculous to happen on the day of my first communion, I was disappointed. By my early teenage years, I was bored by the sermons at Mass on Sundays, and often critical of ideas that were preached. Deciding that admitting my sins directly to God in my prayers was sufficient, I stopped meeting with a priest for confession.
One day during Sunday School in tenth grade, the priest who was teaching us asked what we thought hell was. During the minutes he gave us to consider the question, it came to me that hell was a state of mind and that you could live in hell while you were still alive on earth. This understanding felt so complete to me that the explanation he gave added nothing. That was the last time I attended Sunday School. That same year, Transcendental Meditation was being widely introduced in the United States, and I did a research paper about it. With my saved-up babysitting money, I paid to learn TM, and for a few months practiced 20 minutes of meditation regularly in the morning and again (sometimes) in the evening.
During my first semester at college, while studying the French Existentialists, whose philosophy of life was based on the conviction that there is no God, I became agnostic and stopped attending Mass. I thought that would be the end of my spiritual life, but I eventually found that, for me, it was a doorway into a deeper spirituality. I had to discover for myself the nature of reality, the purpose of existence, moral guidelines for living, and whether or not God was real. In my senior year, I was shocked by the sudden death of an acquaintance and the end of my relationship with my college boyfriend. My heart was ripped open by loss and grief. I encountered frightening feelings, including anger. I received some unexpected inward instruction, guiding me to actually feel my turbulent emotions rather than suppress them. Big questions opened up. Did my human life result from mere chemical and biological processes and random evolution? Or was something more involved? Suddenly I needed to know the purpose of life, especially my life. To find calm stability, I began to meditate regularly again.
Years of searching followed. I looked within myself, and also explored ideas offered by other religions, including concepts about the nature of my consciousness. I eagerly read books that expanded my sense of what life might be about. During a period of intense, heart-felt inward seeking, I had some powerful mystical experiences of a radiant inner Light that flows through everything and a divine power that can heal any problem. My experiences convinced me that God is, indeed, real but much more vast, cosmic, present, and all-pervasive than anything I had been taught in church.
I found a meditation teacher and took up an intensive daily meditation practice for many years. I learned ways to turn my attention to the place of deep, peaceful inward silence, and I took time regularly to seek and receive direct spiritual guidance in prayer. I began to experience myself and everyone as part of what God is. At moments, everything became vibrant, filled with more life than I had previously imagined. Through dreams and images, I was shown that my life had a purpose, and that I was being inwardly guided, one small step after another, towards that purpose.
Following a leading to read the gospels, I was amazed to read the words of Jesus in a new way, a way that affirmed what I was experiencing. In dreams and prayers, as well as in some nighttime visions, I experienced Jesus as a divine teacher suffused with the Light. He invited me to open to the fullness of existence—in that Light —in God. However, I was embarrassed and repulsed by the judgmental proclamations and politics of many in the public realm who called themselves Christian. I had not rejected Jesus, but my ideas about who he was and what he came to teach had expanded, and my experiential faith was different from mainstream Christian beliefs. Because others who called themselves Christian might not accept me as such, I stopped defining myself that way.
I searched for a faith community where I could find support as someone with a sense of being directly guided by God, from within. Finally, I found Quakers. After reading a biography of George Fox, I felt I had found my spiritual home. I attended worship at many meetings but did not join one until I came to Newtown Square in Pennsylvania. There, sitting in the old meetinghouse, in a silent, deeply gathered meeting for worship with just a handful of people, I had a sense of Jesus present among us. I sensed that if I attended that meeting, I would experience him as an inward teacher, teaching me as he had taught his disciples. In Sunday morning meetings for worship and in gatherings of the Quaker Contemplative Community (which met there monthly for extended periods of worship), I often experienced the invisible presence and teaching of Jesus. Inwardly, he guided me to join a Quaker ministry of presence in the inner city of Philadelphia; he encouraged me to participate in a year-long course on the New Testament with radical Christians committed to social justice; he accompanied me in after-school work with inner-city children; and eventually he led me out of a romantic relationship when it stopped being life-giving for me.
I began to read the writings of seventeenth-century Quakers, starting with the Journal of George Fox. After learning more about the social context and writing of the first Quakers, I began to read other early Friends, as well. It was clear that they were committed, passionate Christians, and at the same time that their deeply experiential understanding of Christianity was radically different and more expanded than the conventional notions and practices of their time. Those of other denominations denounced them as heretics. Puritans in both old and New England persecuted, whipped, imprisoned, and killed Quakers because they experienced and spoke about Jesus in ways that were radically different. The first Friends, in turn, condemned the formal religion practiced by other churches of their time, in which people were not taught to look within to find the living presence of Christ—the Light —teaching and guiding them.
As I read the writing of the first Quakers, I recognized that my experience of being directly, inwardly guided by Christ—sometimes experienced as an inner Light—was a quintessentially Quaker experience. I recognized that I am a Christian, practicing a radical, experiential Christian faith, like the first Friends. Like them, my understanding of the reality of the inward Light comes from direct experience and is confirmed by passages of Scripture. Like them, I—and other contemporary Quakers—find the experience of the divine Mystery to be too vast and awesome and beyond words to encapsulate in a creed or pin down with limited doctrines.
In our contemporary culture, in which many who identify themselves as Christian espouse policies antithetical to the loving, inclusive teachings of Jesus, I still find it challenging to identify myself as a Christian. Some Liberal Friends who reject the dogma of many Christian churches and who don’t have an inward experience of Jesus as inward teacher look with disdain on fellow Quakers who call themselves Christian. I have struggled with how to define my faith to others.
In the decades since I first started worshiping among Quakers, I have continued to find help in my spiritual growth among people of other faiths, including Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Sufis, and Native Americans. My faith and spiritual experience have been deepened by engaging in the spiritual practices of other faiths, and I have met inspired teachers of different religions. I am convinced that many people of other faiths also know and are guided by the inward Light of God, including those who would not identify that Light as the Light of Christ and who do not experience Jesus as their inward teacher. I don’t believe that any faith has captured the full understanding of divine Reality, nor do I believe that growing in intimacy with God is limited to one religion. I am also convinced that different religions have important contributions to make to our understanding of consciousness, the nature of human life, and cosmic reality.
At various points in my spiritual journey, I have wondered why I need to call myself a Christian. Why not just emphasize the universality of God’s call through all faiths based on divine love and truth? Recently I dreamed of a large stained-glass window being made to represent Christianity, with different colorful images to show the various expressions of that faith today. Words were given to me in the dream: “Stay in it.” The radical Spirit of Christ does not want to be confined by rules and rituals and doctrine, but wants to be known, inwardly, in radical fullness. Wanting to confer spiritual power to those who are willing to be servants of Love and Truth, the Light of Christ guides us to be bold and to go beyond conventional boundaries. It asks us to open our hearts and pay attention.
During their last supper together, Jesus told his disciples that they were not ready to hear (or understand) everything he wanted to tell them. We, too, while blinded by cultural expectations and approaching him through analytical understanding, are unable to fully imagine what he might be trying to teach. Only by paying attention to the subtle, invisible work of the Spirit within our own hearts can we sense the larger possibilities of life into which we are invited, through the transformation of our hearts, minds, consciousness, ways of living, and our society. Let love and truth tender and open us to a deeper relationship with the divine Mystery and all of the life. The Light of Christ, as inward teacher, wants to show us the way.
Dedication to one path, along with others of the same faith, generally leads to a deeper experience of God and faithfulness. While other religions offer true paths to spiritual growth, Christianity has a unique and essential contribution to make to world religions. Jesus was more than a prophet. He not only spoke truth on behalf of God, as prophets do, but he incarnated the divine Spirit in a conscious way, as we are all called to do. He said that God was not just his father, but our father as well, and that everything he had done, his disciples were also called to do—and more (John 14:12). He quoted Psalm 82:6, which says, “all of you are children of the Most High.” The role of Jesus in history and in the salvation of the world is unique, but he challenged everybody to live as a child of God. Like him, we are all called to be obedient to the divine will and, as children of God, to manifest God’s love and divine miracles of healing and justice. In 1656 the first gathered group of Quaker elders, at Balby, referred to themselves as Sons of God. Some of the early Quakers, including William Dewsbury, used inclusive language when citing Romans 8:14, saying that all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons and daughters of God.
Those early Friends experienced what they felt was a return to the original form of Christianity, experienced by the first Christians after the death of Jesus, when the risen Christ guided individuals and the community directly, from within, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The first Quakers, like the earliest Christians, experienced a faith based on substance rather than form, on reality rather than notions, on Truth rather than falsehoods. The Presence and Power that gathered them in their meetings for worship and guided them in solitary prayer gave them the courage, strength, and conviction to challenge their society in numerous ways; bear the persecution that came; and model an alternative way of life based on love, truth, justice, simplicity, and equality. Over the centuries since then, many societies and Christian denominations have gradually accepted the truth of revelations proclaimed by Quakers starting in the seventeenth century.
Quakers in our time are still called to model a radical, alternative Christianity. We are not meant to freeze our faith to the exact version proclaimed by Quakers in 1652. Revelation has continued, and contact with other faiths in our time has provided both confirmation and amplification of many truths proclaimed by the first Friends. Like the early Quakers, we are called to sense God’s Truth directly and allow the Holy Spirit to speak through us in prophetic ways that will challenge ourselves and everybody else. Growing into our inheritance as children of God, we are called to allow divine Life and Love to flow through us into the world. Regarding Christianity, we are called to “stay in it” and to be leaven, continuing to help other Christians to a fresher, fuller understanding of Christ’s teaching, inviting everyone to experience the divine Light within us, as we have done since our beginning.