Kwakersaur: Jesus vs Christ vs Discernment

“Inter­est­ing short post”: from Kwak­er­saur about the dif­fer­ent ways Friends have relat­ed to God cir­ca 1660, 1950 and today. A snippet
bq. [The first gen­er­a­tion of Friends’] lan­guage lacked the me-an-Jesus kind of spir­i­tu­al­i­ty that marks the 1955 min­utes and char­ac­ter­izes a lot of Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al­i­ty of today. For ear­ly Quak­ers — and I sus­pect ear­ly Chris­tians — it was not so much Jesus as a friend­ly affa­ble fel­low who loved us in a warm and com­fy positive-strokes-I’m-OK-You’re-OK kin­da way.

Here’s my own com­ment I left on Kwakersaur’s post:
I’ve noticed that Quak­ers have tend­ed toward an ever-depersonalized expres­sion of the divine. Our pre­ferred word has gone from Christ to Jesus to God to Spir­it to Light. Every tran­si­tion has made the divine more the­o­ret­i­cal and metaphor­i­cal. It’s kind of sad. I like read­ing ran­dom pages from an old Quak­er text like Woolman’s “Jour­nal” just to see how many evoca­tive descrip­tions of God he can get into one page (“High Priest of the Order of Melchizedek,” wow I’ve missed that one!). Nowa­days we lim­it our lan­guage more and more so as not to offend, but it seems like Friends once expand­ed their lan­guage in a relat­ed cause: not to get locked into an soli­tary set of labels for God.
I’ve been sur­prised over the years to find that I’ve got­ten to the point where I’m not being hon­est when I try to describe Quak­erism with­out talk­ing about Christ and the Seed. I can do it, but it’s become like trans­lat­ing: I’m think­ing in tra­di­tion­al Quak­er lan­guage but then sub­sti­tut­ing inof­fen­sive words.
I notice that a lot of Friends do that. A year ago I noticed that the lat­est issue of my year­ly meet­ing newslet­ter had “Christ” list­ed twice, “God” list­ed four times and “com­mu­ni­ty” list­ed two dozen times (more or less). I know one of this issues con­trib­u­tors quite well and know him as a very ground­ed Friend so I asked him why his arti­cle had “com­mu­ni­ty” six times and what he meant by it. He con­fessed that when he uses that word he’s sub­sti­tut­ing “Body of Christ.” But why? And how are we going to teach the next gen­er­a­tion when we’re afraid to even use our lan­guage? Why are we keep­ing our vocab­u­lary so secret? Why not just use the lan­guages we have and trust that we’re being inclu­sive even when using the “C word?”

  • John Jere­mi­ah Edminster

    I’m sur­prised, Friend Mar­tin, that this post hasn’t got­ten respons­es yet. Three things occur to me on this sub­ject of nam­ing Jesus Christ:
    1. If Friends had remained sen­si­ble of their cry­ing need for sal­va­tion, they might not have been so ready and able to cov­er their Savior’s name up with euphemisms in the inter­est of pleas­ing men and women. (I’m not dis­parag­ing them; I’m just now, going on 62, learn­ing to speak of Jesus Christ bold­ly. I know how daunt­ing it can be to risk becom­ing a fool for Christ, and how tempt­ing to deny the depth of one’s neediness.)
    2. If Friends had remained sen­si­ble of the pow­er of prayer in Jesus’ name, they might not have become so shy about using it open­ly. I sus­pect that many Friends drift­ed away from the prac­tice of pri­vate prayer alto­geth­er over the past cen­tu­ry or so — though I have no way of know­ing this, and I solic­it correction.
    3. Jesus Christ always has the pow­er to rebuke us if we’re hid­ing our Light by avoid­ing nam­ing Him. If we haven’t heard His rebuke, and it’s not because we’ve stopped our ears, then per­haps He’s had a rea­son to be patient with us about it — like, for exam­ple, because we Chris­t­ian Friends need­ed to be taught humil­i­ty and true Chris­t­ian uni­ver­sal­ism before the pen­du­lum was to swing the oth­er way and we were to has­ten back to His cross in embar­rass­ment and learn to be bold again. But I think that you and I, at least, may now be feel­ing the pendulum’s change of direction.
    John Jere­mi­ah Edminster
    Fif­teenth Street Meet­ing, New York City
    I find myself unable to post to your blog direct­ly, so I’m e-mailing this to you. You’re wel­come to put this into your blog as a response if you think it worth your effort.

  • Hi John, thanks for the email, as you’ve seen I’ve put it up as a com­ment. I agree with you most­ly, except that I think Friends have also got­ten into trou­ble with a rote nam­ing of Jesus Christ as Sav­ior. As a reli­gious soci­ety I think we have to be in that uncom­fort­able place where we both name and expe­ri­ence with­out tak­ing either as the be-all of our reli­gion. I don’t know if I’m explain­ing that well, but I sense that if we need to have that pen­du­lum swing­ing if we’re to hold true to the Quak­er under­stand­ing of the Light of Christ.
    I find that I can sucess­ful define and describe the expe­ri­ence of Quak­erism with­out using Chris­t­ian lan­guage. My prob­lem is that as I learn more and descend more into Quak­erism I see how fun­da­men­tal­ly Chris­t­ian it is. When I think of some Quak­er prac­tice and start try­ing to artic­u­late it to some­one, I find myself inex­orably think­ing of its Bib­li­cal roots and how it ties in with the teach­ings of Jesus and how ear­ly Friends named it as a Quak­er path fol­low­ing Chris­t­ian gospel order. It’s not that I want to evoke the name of Christ to prove par­ty affil­i­a­tion or earn sal­va­tion; it’s just hard to talk about Quak­erism with­out talk­ing about Chris­tian­i­ty. As you can see, this is all still a sur­prise for me!

  • Mar­tin:
    I was sad­dened 22 years ago when I first came to unpro­grammed Quak­ers after many years in more or less ortho­dox Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ties. I became more evan­gel­i­cal than I had been before. I felt led to use reli­gious lan­guage in most of my mes­sages. I wel­come the pres­ence of (a few) oth­er quak­ers who have that free­dom, and would like to see their tribe increase.

  • Liz Oppen­heimer

    I have been sit­ting on a mes­sage for a few days now, and read­ing these com­ments makes it rise up. Like Mar­tin, I am com­plete­ly sur­prised by what occurs as I “descend into Quak­erism” more ful­ly. But my cir­cum­stances on the sur­face seem very dif­fer­ent from Martin’s.
    In talk­ing about my Quak­er faith and prac­tice, I don’t use Jesus lan­guage, and I used to strug­gle with feel­ing includ­ed when fel­low Friends used the J-word, or the C-word, or the J-C word. But wow, am I in a dif­fer­ent place…
    What’s changed is a cumu­la­tive result of two spe­cif­ic things. First was a book dis­cus­sion group I con­vened at my meet­ing, on Lloyd Lee Wilson’s “Essays on the Quak­er Vision of Gospel Order.” Dur­ing that dis­cus­sion group, a Friend spoke of her (or his, I can’t remem­ber) inter­pre­ta­tion of “Christ,” that Christ was not a per­son but was a Divine Prin­ci­ple that has always exist­ed and always will; that this Christ prin­ci­ple lives in all of creation.
    As I lis­tened to that Friend, in that moment, Christ no longer was the per­son who died on a cross and rose again a few days lat­er; no longer a per­son who died for our sins. Rather, Christ became the Liv­ing Prin­ci­ple that is in each of us. …I now hear vocal min­istry from Chris­t­ian Friends with new ears, and I can _join_ the mes­sage rather than resist it.
    The sec­ond expe­ri­ence is but a few weeks old. The month­ly meet­ing has a group called Friends of Jesus, an affin­i­ty group for Friends whose the­ol­o­gy and Quak­erism is root­ed in the life/teachings/Divinity of Jesus. Most of the wor­ship group in which I par­tic­i­pate had plans to go to a retreat led by that group, and more than once, I was approached with the enthu­si­as­tic ques­tion: “So, Liz, are you gonna go to the Friends of Jesus retreat?!?”
    After com­ing to terms with the ini­tial anx­i­ety of what it would “mean” to go, and after sev­er­al days of dis­cern­ment, I became clear that I could go to the retreat – if I remained true to my own expe­ri­ence of the Divine. Dur­ing the retreat, sur­pris­ing­ly, I found that the more firm­ly I ground­ed myself in my lan­guage, my beliefs, and my Quak­erism as I expe­ri­enced it, the more _open_ I was to hear­ing about the lan­guage, beliefs, and Christ-centered Quak­erism from oth­er Friends.
    Bless­ings, –Liz from Minnesota

  • Bar­bara

    Hi Mar­tin,
    Some of us aren’t “lim­it­ing our lan­guage so as not to offend.” Some of us …OK, I’ll speak for myself!… just see Jesus a bit dif­fer­ent­ly. I believe that he was a Spirit-filled teacher — a Hasid, as Geza Ver­mes has described him– and that he was killed by the “pow­ers” (as Wal­ter Wink would say) because he taught that God was on the side of the poor and the oppressed. As Jesus him­self said, I wor­ship “my Father and your Father… my God and your God” (Jn 20:17). I am very aware that this is a depar­ture from what ear­ly Quak­ers believed.
    I may be all wrong, but I feel it’s more impor­tant to for­give as we are for­giv­en, to be peace­mak­ers, to do good to all as our heav­en­ly Father makes it rain on all, to feed the poor, wel­come the stranger, in oth­er words, to do my best to live Jesus’ teach­ings, than to declare that Jesus is God.
    I have no prob­lem, how­ev­er, wor­ship­ping in the com­pa­ny of those who wor­ship Jesus as God. I respect their belief. I think it is beautiful.
    After some of the ungra­cious exchanges that I have read on some Quak­er dis­cus­sion lists, I am begin­ning to con­clude that Quak­ers are more tol­er­ant and open toward per­sons of non-Christian faiths than they are toward their Quak­er broth­ers and sis­ters who claim mem­ber­ship in the Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion (I cher­ish the Chris­t­ian Scrip­tures and read them dai­ly — I some­times read the scrip­tures of oth­er reli­gions, but they will nev­er be cen­tral to my life) but who believe dif­fer­ent­ly about Jesus.

  • Hi Bar­bara:
    thanks for set­ting that good exam­ple of speak­ing for your­self. We all need to remem­ber to do that, yep! I quite agree that we all have dif­fer­ent con­cepts and rela­tion­ships to God, Jesus, the Light, etc. Self-censorship like I described can be a prob­lem, but so too is using Chris­t­ian lan­u­age with­out real­ly feel­ing that lead­ing to do so. The Spir­it trumps all the con­cep­tu­al lan­guage we bring to explain it.
    >After some of the ungra­cious exchanges that
    >I have read on some Quak­er dis­cus­sion lists
    Yes, well inter­net reli­gion lists are a refuge for the doc­trinare, yep. There’s a core of peo­ple that obses­sive­ly sign up for every list and post dozens of mes­sages a week to a dozen lists. I’m not sure Quak­erism is best rep­re­sent­ed by the inter­net in gen­er­al, but it’s cer­tain­ly not well rep­re­sent­ed on the var­i­ous dis­cus­sion lists!

  • Oh boy, I’m being test­ed here. I’m fill­ing out an appli­ca­tion ask­ing for my “com­mit­ment to the Quak­er faith and val­ues as you under­stand them.” There’s about two lines to answer that. How can you answer a ques­tion like this with­out resort­ing to some­thing vague­ly creedal. Can you use lan­guage to hint at the truth as you see it with­out just blind­ly affirm­ing words. Here’s my attempt:
    bq. I believe we’re a Soci­ety gath­ered togeth­er to wit­ness to the Truth of the Spir­it, dis­ci­plin­ing our­selves as a body to fol­low God’s rule. Our val­ues and tes­ti­monies artic­u­late our under­stand­ing of our­selves as a com­mu­ni­ty in the body of Christ and our activism is most effec­tive when inspired and sup­port­ed by the Spirit.
    I didn’t want to omit the Christ word but I didn’t want to just name-drop as if to show what team I’m on.