Hi Friends -
I wasn't raised in a church; before I was 16, I had no religious training or education. For many years I considered that a loss, but I now perceive the providence of God in my life. Let me share some of my early experiences of God, which are rich and powerful but also void of any real metaphysical understanding:
1. One Christmas, when I was about 12 , I received a crystal radio set. I kept it under the mattress of my bed and listened each night to whatever was coming in. It was most often some religious broadcast. And for several years, that is how I fell asleep many nights, listening to some priest or evangelist talking about God. I had no clue what they were talking about, but I sensed a sacredness in the tone of sincere confidence in God that provided me great comfort.
2. When I was about 14 or 15, I found two copies of The Power of Positive Thinking in our family’s book cabinet. We didn’t have many books; what we had fit in a cabinet of two short shelves, and, except for the Norman Vincent Peale book, none of them were religious. But his message captivated me. What I learned was to sit quietly and repeat sacred words. My favorite was “tranquility.” Now, fifty years later, it remains my favorite.
3. I got my driver’s license when I turned 16. Years of radio programs and Thought Conditioners had planted a seed. I asked my parents to let me take the car to church on Sunday morning. The Sunday School teacher for high school kids was a Luzerne County social worker, Mrs. Mary Ward. She shared many stories about her work with disadvantaged people, and in the Spring, I asked if she would like a volunteer. That led me to the camps where migrant workers stayed while picking the Fall harvest. For much of my senior year, I accompanied church women each week when they drove out to provide the field workers with clothing and food and their children with books and games. I found community in the camps in the midst of extreme poverty. What I found in the church was compassion. In May, I asked the minister to baptize me.
I now have a significant amount of religious training. But I've come to see that religious training is not really a source of metaphysical understanding. Let me also share some recent mystical experiences I’ve had, again without any significant metaphysical understanding:
1. When the coronavirus lockdown began, I started studying New Testament Greek to cope with boredom. I discovered that the simple process of reciting Greek words led to conscious and subconscious impressions of the underlying truth they convey. A most powerful one is first person, singular of the verb to be, I AM: ego eimi. The verb has a series of four possible English translations arranged in descending spiritual quality: “I am; I exist; I live; I am present.” Without any theological study, these words began a healing work in me.
2. A year later, I lost my brother to brain cancer, the same illness that took the life of John McCain and Ted Kennedy. Dorwin Hicks was tough; in his early days, he lived life on the edge, and until he married and fathered a son, I was convinced that Don Henley and Glenn Frey had written Desperado just for him. In April 2021, two weeks after my vaccination, I flew down to visit. He died that weekend. I learned from losing my brother that the soul of a desperado understands life deeper than any metaphysical training can convey, that faith flourishes no matter the condition, and that love may flow without any need to explain.
3. Last Fall and this Summer, I attended Camps Farthest Out. And I will soon participate in two more. The camp is filled with personal testimony, joyful singing, creative arts, physical activities, and group prayer, all designed to open life to the activity of God but with no prescribed metaphysical teaching about who or what God is. In the CFO and JFO camps, I find spiritual community open to the immersion in Spirit with no clergy, metaphysic, or dogma.
These stories convince me that much of the metaphysical training we get in Unity is unnecessary for experiencing a rich spiritual life. Metaphysical training and spiritual understanding are important, but it is not necessary to experience God. These stories tell me that the experience of God leads to an understanding of God, that mysticism leads to metaphysics, and that love leads to truth.
This leads me to write about Rufus Jones, the most prominent Quaker of the 20th century, best known as the founding leader of the American Friends Service Committee, which received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1947. Quakers, as many know, are known for their work in achieving a peaceful resolution to war. The AFSC provided great humanitarian service in Europe after both world wars.
Rufus Jones’ life-long project was peacemaking, but his peacemaking focused on achieving peace within his denomination. By 1900 the Quaker faith had separated into three branches: traditionalists, evangelicals, and universalists. They were split over the nature of what they called the Inner Light, defined as “something of God present in every man.” Traditionalists saw the Inner Light as a “spark of divinity” within human nature, evangelicals saw the Inner Light as a supernatural influence but not a human quality, and universalists saw the Inner Light as an essential attribute of human nature.
These are theological differences. They might be better understood using legal terms instead of theological terms. The traditionalist believes the Inner Light gives agency, which is the ability to act on behalf of someone else. In this case, human beings have agency for God because of the spark of divinity within. The evangelical believes human beings have no agency whatsoever. Calvinist belief in depravity shifts the Inner Light outside human nature into a supernatural realm to which human beings have little influence. The universalist goes beyond agency and sees the Inner Light not as agency but as autonomy. The universalist sees human power as independent from God and self-sustaining for the universalist.
There are also differences in historical interpretation. Many traditionalists claim that Quakerism is rooted in piety, which is based on religious practice. Evangelicals claim that Quakerism is rooted in radical puritanism, which is confessional, Christ centered and Calvinist. Universalists, however, claim that Quakerism is rooted in mysticism, which based on experience.
Regardless of historical interpretation, the fundamental cause of the divisions was theological. So Rufus Jones’ solution was to shift the defining character of Quakerism away from theological (metaphysical) understanding to mystical experience. He did this two ways.
First, he distinguished mystical experience from metaphysical understanding (which he called mysticism). He declared that mysticism is a doctrine, an “ism,” like communism or other philosophical belief systems. He says, “Mysticism [metaphysical understanding] would ... be thought of as a doctrine, sometimes theological and then again metaphysical; while mystical experience is the emergence of a type of consciousness, or super-consciousness, which would belong in the sphere of psychology, or rather in that higher brand of knowledge, not yet perfected, which deals adequately with the spirit in man.”1 Having freed Quakerism from different metaphysical understandings, Jones hoped he could unify the Quaker divisions in one mystical experience.
Second, Jones distinguished two types of mystical experience: negative mysticism, which draws the individual away from the world into monasticism, and affirmative mysticism, which draws the individual into the world and to a more vital life experience. Negative mysticism is based on the understanding that God is not this and God is not that. God is not this or that because God is unknowable and unreachable.
But affirmative mysticism represents a “mutual and reciprocal correspondence” with God and is a most recent innovation of mystical experience. Jones believes Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) is a unique transmitter of vital mysticism and a significant influence on George Fox, the founder of Quakerism. He says vital mysticism gave Fox:
the thrilling experience of the breaking in of the Life of God which enabled him to “walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every person,” even when his way led to prisons and dungeons. “Be staid,” he wrote to one of his Friends, “in that principle of God in thee, that it may raise thy mind up to God”— “Thou wilt find Him a God at hand.”2
This vital mysticism of Boehm and Fox was carried on by Romantic poets such as Blake and Emerson and philosophers such as William James. Jones concludes:
It may be ... that “the truth at the heart of things is too terribly simple and naked for the sons of flesh”—too simple and naked for the mind to “think out” and “explain.” Mysticism [can be] defined as “contact with Reality—without the help of discursive reason.” But when the inner self is fused and heightened it may come into mutual and reciprocal correspondence with God. It may find itself in parallelism with the currents of the Spirit.
Jesus said that unless we become as children, we will not inherit the kingdom of God. Rufus Jones has said that truth at the heart of things is too simple and naked for the mind to think out. Robert Fulghum wrote a few years ago that We Learned It All in Kindergarten. I, too, have found that true metaphysical understanding — and true religious unity and harmony as well — come only after authentic mystical experience.
Sunday, September 11, 2022
- The Radiant Life, Macmillian Company, p. 96
- Radiant Life, p.105-8.