Friday, August 19, 2005

Treading down all reasoning about religion

Elizabeth, commenting on an earlier post, said, in part:

I think this is one of the main reasons that I'm having trouble with our meeting's rather diffuse spiritual focus. By the time everyone has translated a shared experience into language that works for them, and then had their own time to process whether or not they feel antagonistic towards "God language," there's not a lot of energy left over to help me figure out what to do with my experiences of God, or how to interpret them.
I made one response to her comment as a comment. But I've been thinking about it ever since.

And then today, a day that I've spent sitting on the front porch with the cats and the laptop, doing work for the Meeting and reading the Quaker blogs, I ran across Johan Mauer's posting of a lengthy excerpt from Frances Howgill's description of what happened in the north of England about 350 years ago. Here's an excerpt from the excerpt that made me think of Elizabeth and her comment (paragraph breaks and emphasis added):
The Lord of Heaven and earth we found to be near at hand, and, as we waited upon him in pure silence, our minds out of all things, his heavenly presence appeared in our assemblies, when there was no language, tongue nor speech from any creature. The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net, and his heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds to land.

* * *

And from that day forward, our hearts were knit unto the Lord and one unto another in true and fervent love, in the covenant of Life with God; and that was a strong obligation or bond upon all our spirits, which united us one unto another. We met together in the unity of the Spirit, and of the bond of peace, treading down under our feet all reasoning about religion.
Wow. "Treading down under our feet all reasoning about religion." I'm afraid I wouldn't have been welcome in that crowd. Or, maybe if I was part of that crowd, I might have dropped reasoning about religion, too.

So it made me wonder about Elizabeth's concern: "Translating the shared experience into language that works" and processing "God language" isn't exactly the same as "reasoning about religion", but it's in the neighborhood. What is the problem here?

Is it the the need people seem to have to "translate" the experience in order to share it with others (particularly those who aren't there)? Or is it that too many people go in with their minds so full of language, tongues and speech that they wouldn't realize the Presence of the Living God if it bit them on the nose?

My inclination -- confession, really -- is to blame the latter: Too many Friends (i.e., me for sure, maybe thee, too?) come to worship with their filters on and tuned up. Everything they experience in the meeting is filtered (or translated) in terms of race, nationality, gender, sex, class, childhood religion, traumas, politics, this morning's newspaper, professional expertise, (dare I say it?) Quakerism, etc. ad infiinitum. With these multiple and overlapping umbrellas in the meeting place, the Living Light is kept at a safe distance, vaguely ascertained, maybe making the room a little brighter now and then, but not nearly as revealing as it could be if the umbrellas were left at the door.

To switch metaphors, I keep thinking that meeting for worship is something like making love. For one thing, no one in his or her right mind would rather talk about making love than actually making love. The only point of talking about it has to be to make the next experience more satisfying in some way.

I don't think that the different ways partners may talk about their lovemaking experience with each other afterwards -- is it like a rocket exploding or a gigantic wave washing onto the shore? -- necessarily has to affect the quality of their lovemaking. But I do know that going into the encounter with preconceived ideas about what it is supposed to be like can jinx the experience.

Rather, what we seek -- as lovers of our lovers and as lovers of God -- is to be as one with each other, "knit unto the Lord and one unto another in true and fervent love." When this happens, reasoning about religion -- or sex -- simply drops away as in irrelevancy. In the future, if we want to have the ecstatic experience again, we have to leave the filters that we use to define our "selfs" at the door of the meeting room.

* * * *

That's it for now. Off to the ball game to see if the Twins can make it six in a row. . . .


Liz Opp said...

Paul, I appreciate this post very much. It touches on the duality among Friends of experiencing the Presence and explaining how we open ourselves to the Presence.

Liz, The Good Raised Up

Quev said...


Greetings from a fellow shape-note singing Quaker. I hope we have the opportunity to sing together at some point.

I also very much appreciated your post, particularly the Howgill quote, which I had not read before. To touch on what Liz said, I believe that the experience and explanation she mentions are co-dependent. Without the actual experience of worship, all discursive analysis is meaningless and without foundation. Without the words, we would have no signposts to point us in the direction of direct experience.