Trust, direct revelation and church teachings

A response to  a post by Jess East­er on Quak­erQuak­er, “My Quak­er Rela­tion­ship with Jesus”:

It’s not anti-Christian to say you have doubts about your rela­tion­ship with Jesus. It’s per­fect­ly human. Most of us would get bogged down in the intel­lec­tu­al­ism if we tried to map out a pre­cise God/Christ rela­tion­ship. One thing I’ve always liked about Friends is our rad­i­cal hon­esty in this regards. A priest in a strict­ly ortho­dox litur­gi­cal tra­di­tion is expect­ed to preach on top­ics on which they have no direct divine expe­ri­ence and to base their words on church teach­ings. When a Friend ris­es in min­istry they are expect­ed to be speak from a moment of direct revelation.

We also have church teach­ings of course. Robert Bar­clay is our go-to guy on many the­o­log­i­cal mat­ters, and cer­tain jour­nals have become all-but-canonized on the way we under­stand our­selves and our tra­di­tion. It’s just that this second-hand knowl­edge needs to be pre­sent­ed as such and kept out of the actu­al wor­ship time. As my Quak­er jour­ney has pro­gressed, I’ve direct­ly expe­ri­enced more and more open­ings that con­firm the tenets of tra­di­tion­al Quak­er Chris­tian­i­ty. That’s built my trust.

I’m now will­ing to give the ben­e­fit of the doubt to beliefs that I haven’t myself expe­ri­enced. If some­one like William Penn says he’s had a direct rev­e­la­tion about a par­tic­u­lar issue, I’ll trust his account. I know that in those cas­es where we had sim­i­lar open­ings, our spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences have matched. I won’t min­is­ter about what he’s said. I won’t get defen­sive about a point of doc­trine. I’ll just let myself open to the pos­si­bil­i­ty that even the more intel­lec­tu­al­ly out­landish parts of ortho­dox Chris­t­ian doc­trine just might be true.

It’s tempt­ing to go to “holy” sites to expect some spe­cial rev­e­la­tion. In her post, Jess reports feel­ing a sense of feel­ing “bored and indif­fer­ent” when vis­it­ing the West­ern Wall and the Gar­den of Geth­se­mane. I think this is per­fect­ly nor­mal. There’s the sto­ry of the Quak­er min­is­ter trav­el­ing through the Amer­i­can colonies with a local Friend as guide. They come to a cross­roads and the local Friend points to tree stump and proud­ly pro­claims that George Fox him­self tied his horse to that tree when it was alive. The trav­el­ing min­is­ter dis­mounts his horse and walks to the stump. He stands there silent­ly for awhile and walks back to his trav­el­ing com­pan­ion with a sober look. The local is excit­ed and asks him what he saw. The trav­el­ing min­is­ter replied: I looked into the face of idolatry.

The Holy Spir­it is not con­fined or enshrined in any place – be it the West­ern Wall, the gild­ed steepled church or the tree George Fox sat under. Jesus’ death tore the Tem­ple shroud in two and His spir­it is with us always, even when it’s hard to feel or see. I think the bore­dom we expe­ri­ence in “holy” sites or with “holy” peo­ple is often  a teach­ing gift – a guid­ance to look else­where for Spir­i­tu­al truth.

  • As a preach­er — We are oblig­at­ed to preach each Sun­day we take a ser­vice, and while we have to con­form to church teach­ings, if we are not preach­ing from per­son­al rev­e­la­tion and direct inter­ac­tion with the liv­ing God of the scrip­tures, we might as well stand there recit­ing nurs­ery rhymes. We aren’t trained just to be good litur­gists, but are test­ed to see if we have a true call­ing to serve Christ. Nor are we (in my denom­i­na­tion) to preach things of this world — pol­i­tics, for instance — but to tes­ti­fy to the liv­ing Word. Oth­er­wise, we are clang­ing cym­bals and use­less noise.

    • Hi Mag­dale­na: I’m sure the rela­tion­ship between priest and church teach­ings dif­fers wide­ly across Chris­ten­dom. Because of fam­i­ly cir­cum­stances, my expe­ri­ences are most­ly with the more ortho­dox end, specif­i­cal­ly Roman and Ukrain­ian Catholic priests, who will defer to church author­i­ty and tra­di­tion in their ser­mons and pas­toral work. I’m not sure we need to com­pare it to nurs­ery rhyme recita­tion. I appre­ci­ate that it has its own type of rad­i­cal trans­paren­cy, though like most prim­i­tive Chris­tians I think it flirts with the same issues as the Phar­isees did in Jesus’ time.

      I’d be inter­est­ed how you nav­i­gate the inter­sec­tion of per­son­al rev­e­la­tion, church author­i­ty and the mod­ern impulse to cre­ativ­i­ty that affects us all. Maybe a blog post? In the mean­time, I’ll edit the piece above to more clear­ly state I’m talk­ing about the more ortho­dox end of the litur­gi­cal churches.