A Song of Experience



As veteran readers of this blog will know, my concerns about the contemporary liberal Quaker fascination with what is called “spiritual experience,” a fascination I shared earlier in my life, are longstanding. Recent events, particularly the emerging controversy about the proposed new Faith and Practice book for Baltimore Yearly Meeting, have made those concerns more urgent. In this post, I will discuss four of them: unreliability, exclusivity, inutility, and apostasy.

I’ll begin by considering what is meant by “experience” in this context.

“Experience” Defined

It appears that when a liberal Friend speaks of a “spiritual experience” she may be referring to a feeling, such as a sense of presence or unity; a thought, whether explicitly formed or inchoate (the latter may be called an intuition); an audition, perhaps of a voice; or even a vision of a sacred figure such as Jesus. Or she may refer to (what she believes is) an instance of “pure experience,” which, as noted in the previous post, would be meaningless without interpretation; in that case we can say that she offers an interpretation, however tentative, of an anomalous emotional state or intuition. Such experiences are often reported to be ineffable and yet self-validating; in other words, although their content may seem too unusual for adequate expression in words, it feels so manifestly true, meaningful, and even sacred that it is held to be beyond questioning.

By “spiritual experiences” we mean, then, discrete feelings, cognitions and intuitions, and paranormal experiences that are, as Ann Taves1 would say, deemed religious or spiritual and felt to be self-validating. Friends may also use the adjective “mystical,” a word that resists definition.2 By using such descriptors as “spiritual” and “mystical,” a person conveys that she interprets an experience as having to do with a god or other metaphysical “reality.” It has become common for liberal Quakers (and others) to assert that such experiences are of the essence of the spiritual life. In what follows, I will refer to that doctrine as experientialism, a term borrowed from Denys Turner.3


Friends sometimes present such experiences as evidence for the objective existence of a god or “Absolute.”4 But the experiences are by definition personal and subjective, internal to a single human being; from the scientific perspective, therefore, they are intrinsically untrustworthy. The attempt to use them as evidence or proof evokes the idea of “the God of the gaps,” of theism’s retreat from the advance of science and critical thinking into increasingly smaller, still-safe interstices. Such spaces can’t remain safe forever: the scientific method continues to shine light into the dark places. Perhaps it was in response to that relentless advance that Howard Brinton, Arthur Eddington and others attempted to present Quakerism as experimental science,5 but there is nothing scientific about basing truth claims on untestable subjective experiences. A brief reflection on the aims and methods of science — or a look at the literature on, say, appearances of the Virgin Mary6 — should quash any such notions.

Nor does an apparent similarity of experience among group members improve reliability. It is not surprising that people who share a belief system should report similar experiences, but such a group is no more trustworthy than the individual — recall, for example, “the miracle of the sun.”7 Unless we are willing to abandon critical thinking and scientific method, we cannot assert that something must be objectively real because it seems to have revealed itself in subjective experience, even when a number of people make similar reports. Some of us, however, seem willing to do just that, as if our spirituality can and should be severed from our everyday mode of being, and as if critical thought and judgment, which were crucial to the rise of the Quaker movement, must now be excluded from our spiritual life.

One result of that break is the undermining of the traditional Quaker reliance on spiritual discernment. Private revelations, including the prescriptive kind called “leadings,” are susceptible to delusion and should be subjected to group discernment, but the definition of such experiences as self-validating and therefore exempt from critical examination, a definition which the group itself accepts and promotes, effectively precludes that. Add to that the liberal concern to avoid even a hint of imposition or conflict, and it is evident why experientialist Quaker groups can be quite susceptible to failure, or indeed refusal, of judgment. Our group discernment can be as unreliable as the special experiences it was meant, in part, to test.

To the extent, then, that it insists that subjective experiences are “experimental” and can serve as evidence of objective realities, and to the extent that it abdicates its responsibility for discernment by shielding such experiences from critique, experientialist Quakerism can be said to be not only uncritical but anti-critical, not only unscientific but antiscientific. (And as a quest for certainty through unchallengeable experiences, it may also be the antithesis of faith; I’ll touch on that in another section.)


It appears to be a poor basis for community as well.

Our contemporary stress on subjective religious experiences is the bastard child of what Ann Taves calls the Reformation’s “[valorization] of experience along with scripture,”8 midwifed by William James’s inadequate definition of religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine”9 (and lately robed in a patchwork of popular ideas old and new). It ignores not only the Reformation’s beloved scripture, the matrix of Quaker spirituality, but also, as William Harmless notes of James’s definition, the gestalts of shared beliefs, mores, rituals, histories, and other essential social elements which have characterized human religious experience through history.10 (It also ignores the shaping influence of the general culture on our sense of what is right and even what is possible, an influence that Quakers originally took pains to separate themselves from; I’ll discuss that later in this post.) The experientialist perspective tends, therefore, to regard a Quaker community not so much as a body but as a group of individuals who report or at least seek similar subjective experiences. Because of that narrow perspective, such Quakerism is, despite its belief that it is all-embracing, effectively exclusive: they are fully included who accept the primacy of subjective experience, but others, while ostensibly welcomed, are in theory and practice excluded from communion.

An anecdote will illustrate that. About twenty-five years ago, an elderly Quaker stood during worship at Homewood Meeting and said, “Whatever experience it is that people here are always talking about, I’ve never had it.” He went on to defend himself as a Friend, asserting that he had benefited from his participation in worship over the years and had contributed to the meeting community and the world by living according to his Quaker faith. But it was clear that he felt excluded from the fellowship of those real Quakers who enjoyed whatever special experience they insisted was at the heart of Quakerism.

It seems to me that a similar feeling of exclusion may lead people, especially relative newcomers, to leave us — and others to avoid making contact at all. If contemporary liberal Quakerism tends to present itself as constituted of and for people who have or who seek special or mystical religious experiences, then people who do not feel capable of such experiences, are leery of subjective experiences’ claims to truth, have a less individualistic expectation of religious community, or simply understand Quakerism differently are likely to feel that they cannot be full members of the family.


That exclusivity appears all the more unfortunate in context of the inclusive way offered by the original Quaker faith, a faith that did not subsist in the seeking of special/mystical experiences. It was evident to Friends such as George Fox that such experiences lack salvific power. Fox saw that lesson repeated throughout history, from the failure of Christianity in his own time all the way back to the Bible’s first human being.

“Adam,” he wrote, “though he might talk later of his experiences in paradise, … had lost his divine image, and his power and dominion, in which God had created him.”11 Adam is the archetype of the normal human being. The name represents that “nature” into which we all are born and in which we live, if unawares, until we are “convicted” by the light and re-formed into the image of God by the power of love. Being able to say that one has had spiritual experiences is no indication that one is, as Fox would put it, “passed from death to life” in active love.12 But a Quaker is, in Fox’s terms, precisely one who is spiritually alive. For Fox, discrete spiritual experiences ultimately have little or no importance for Friends: what makes a Quaker is living faith in the light, life, and power that is called Christ.

If any should depart from the spirit of prophecy that had opened them, and from the power, they [might] speak those experiences which the power opened to them in the past. So might Adam and Eve speak of what they saw and enjoyed in paradise; so might Cain and Balaam, of what they saw; and also the Jews, Korah, and Dathan, who praised God on the banks, saw the victory over Pharaoh, ate of the manna, drank of the rock, came to mount Sinai, and saw the glory of the Lord. So might the false apostles speak of their experiences, and all those false christians who turned from the apostles and Christ. So may those do now who err from the spirit, although they came out of spiritual Egypt and Sodom and have known [inwardly] the raging of the Sodomites, as Lot did the outward, and the pursuit of the spiritual Egyptians, as the outward Jew did the outward Egyptians; yet if they do not walk in the spirit of God — in the light and the grace which keeps their hearts established, their words seasoned, and their faith in the power of God in which the kingdom stands — they may go forth like the false christians, like the Jews, like Adam and Eve, Cain, Korah, and Balaam, and be wandering stars, trees without fruit, wells without water, and clouds without rain; and so come to be unsavoury, trodden down, like Adam who lost paradise and the Jews who lost the holy land [by] not walking in the law nor keeping the command of God, and like the christians who lost the city, the hill, the salt, and the light since the apostles’ days and came to be unsavoury and trodden under foot of men.

Therefore, let every one’s faith stand in the Lord’s power, which is over all …. So all who are in Christ may be ever fresh and green, for he is the green tree that never withers; all are fresh and green who … abide in him and bring forth heavenly fresh fruits to the praise of God. Adam and Eve fell from paradise; the Jews fell from the law of God; many of the christians fell from their prophecies and erred from the faith, the spirit, and the grace; and the stars have fallen, as was spoken in the Revelation; yet the spirit, grace, faith, and power of God remains.13

Many people — even a Cain, whose desire for spiritual validation leads to fratricide — may have special spiritual experiences. But it is “the Lord’s power,” Fox tells us, that engenders the experiences, not vice versa: the experiences are secondary and ultimately impotent. What matters is whether one is living continuously in and by that power, “walk[ing] in the spirit of God,” living no longer in/as Adam but in/as Christ. That’s a matter not of having one’s normal life punctuated by special experiences but of living a qualitatively different life, of experiencing everything in a radically Christic way: not of plucking fruit from the Tree of Life but of living intentionally as a productive branch of that tree. And one enters that life not through a mystical experience or special revelation but by putting one’s faith in that power which is already, if obscurely, at work within, where it casts a critical light on the conscience, moves the heart to justice, breaks one’s unthinking thralldom to the ways of the world, and reveals the way of love from moment to moment. For the first Friends as for biblical authors, salvation is relational: to be saved is to live the life of the Just One whose nature is love. We find our justification by faith — trust in “that which can be known of God,”14 the life and power of agapē-love in the heart — and we work out our salvation by living justly in that faith.15 The seeking and cherishing of special experiences diverts us from the moment-to-moment work of faith and makes of our spiritual life, to borrow Christian Wiman’s phrase, a “discipline of memory.”16

It is not only early Friends who warn us against seeking or clinging to unusual experiences: others have said the same across the centuries. And lonely contemporary voices such as that of Maggie Ross still remind us that deep spiritual life involves giving up the desire for such experiences.17 Even Thomas Merton, whom Ross and others decry as having perverted spirituality into the service of narcissism, cautioned us about that:

Hence it becomes overwhelmingly important for us to become detached from our everyday conception of ourselves as potential subjects for special and unique experiences, or as candidates for realization, attainment and fulfillment.18

The seeking of “special experience” is a form, said Merton, of “spiritual ambition.” The realization of that ambition, the attainment of such experiences, easily seduces us into believing ourselves spiritually changed when in fact we continue to walk more in the way of Adam than of Christ. But as we’ll see in the next passage from George Fox, to see ourselves honestly is the first step into the Quaker way.


Quakerism began in a sea change in the hearts and lives of the first Friends, a change that followed Friends’ investment of faith in the Christ-seed of light, life, and power that was, they believed, within everyone. Having found the pearl of great price,19 they abandoned everything that would divert their faith from that constant power which is Christ “who changes not.”20 Through their writings, those first Friends call us to do the same, to “be still awhile from thy own thoughts, searching, seeking, desires, and imaginations, and be stayed in the principle of God in thee ….”21 As Fox put it in his Epistle X:

Friends,—Whatever you are addicted to, the tempter will come in that thing; and when he can trouble you, then he gets advantage over you, and then you are gone. Stand still in that which is pure, after you see yourselves; and then mercy comes in. After you see your thoughts, and the temptations, do not think, but submit; and then power comes. Stand still in that which shows and discovers; and there does strength immediately come. And stand still in the light, and submit to it, and the other will be hushed and gone; and then content comes. And when temptations and troubles appear, sink down in that which is pure, and all will be hushed and will fly away. Your strength is to stand still, after you see yourselves. Whatsoever you see yourselves addicted to — temptations, corruption, uncleanness, &c. — then you think you shall never overcome. And earthly reason will tell you what you shall lose; hearken not to that, but stand still in the light that shows them to you, and then strength comes from the Lord, and help comes, contrary to your expectation. Then you grow up in peace, and no trouble shall move you. David fretted himself, when he looked out; but when he was still, no trouble could move him. When your thoughts are out, abroad, then troubles move you. But come to stay your minds upon that spirit which was before the letter; here you learn to read the scriptures aright. If ye do any thing in your own wills, then you tempt God; but stand still in that power which brings peace.

One thing we are addicted to is the consumption of unusual experiences that we can deem spiritual and self-validating (in a double sense, it seems). But our tradition advises us to be still from our own thoughts, seeking, and desires, for they, including our prizing of special experiences, are secretly shaped by the Adamic wisdom of the world. Step aside from them, bracket them, stand still in the light that shows us our darkness, and our minds may be re-made in Christ’s spirit.22 In each moment when we “have the mind of Christ,”23 we have no need of “spiritual” or “pure” experiences: our way of experiencing everything is spiritual and pure. But while we remain in the Adamic mind, even our attaining Mount Sinai and seeing the glory of the Lord means nothing.

The Quakerism that was expressed in such exhortations comprised a religious rejection of the wider culture’s suppositions and conventions about the spiritual life. Having passed from death to life, the Friends were continuously nourished by the “living water” of agapē.24 Today, however, we are returning to the cultural well, imbibing there the experientialist doctrine promulgated by contemporary religionists from Roman Catholics25 to New Agers, learning to exchange faith and faithfulness for feelings. Consequently, we are not so much now “a peculiar people,”26 a people who have turned away from the world’s values into the Kingdom of God, into the counter-cultural, world-changing life and power that our ancestors knew as Christ; increasingly, we are co-opted into the consumerist society, rationalizing by spiritualizing our participation in the destructive culture of self-gratification.


From my perspective, then, experientialism is a deeply flawed and damaging ersatz of the Quaker way. Although firmly established in liberal Quakerism, it is not a solid foundation for the future: its anti-scientific, a-communal, and esoteric nature promises increasingly narrow appeal. Further, it cuts us off from the radical power of our tradition, exchanging living Quaker faith — that is, continually-renewed trust in and fidelity to the justifying Christ-power within27 — for the seeking and enjoying of private experiences. I don’t imagine that a significant number of adherents would be willing or able to give it up, but I permit myself some hope that liberal Friends might at least come to see experientialism as an optional, rather than essential, doctrine. That could allow people with other Quaker perspectives to feel that they are integral parts of the community. And it could open a space for the powerful possibilities inherent in our tradition to become more available to all of us.

NOTES for “A Song of Experience”

[The illustration is a detail from William Blake’s Song of Experience called “The Sick Rose.” Clicking on the image will take you to a reproduction of the entire illustrated poem.]

[1] Ann Taves, Religious Experience Reconsidered. See also the quotation from Robert Ellwood in note 2, below.

[2] Friend Sallie B. King, in her “Two Epistemological Models for the Interpretation of Mysticism” (Journal of the American Academy of Religion, LVI/2, p. 257), says, “But there is no generally accepted definition for [‘mysticism’]. Recent studies which display the variety of phenomena normally included in the category of the mystical make it doubtful that any single essence pervades the various phenomena and furnishes the necessary unifying element for the construction of a definition.” Robert Ellwood, in his Mysticism and Religion, finds it necessary to define mysticism in terms that remind me of Ann Taves:”Mystical experience is experience in a religious context that is immediately or subsequently interpreted by the experiencer as direct, unmediated encounter with ultimate divine reality” (emphasis original).

[3] See Denys Turner, The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism. Turner uses the term partly to refer to the distortion of classic mystical theology into a cult of “experiences of inwardness” or discrete “mystical experiences” that writers like Eckhart and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing would reject.

[4] See, for example, the exchange of June 6 & 7, 2013, between Steven Davison and me under the post “I Am the Way.”

[5] See the LA Quaker blog: “Howard Brinton: Scientist and Mystic” and “More iftars, and thoughts on Quaker worship.” Both Brinton and Eddington should have known better.

[6] See, for example, Visionaries: The Spanish Republic and the Reign of Christ, by William A. Christian Jr. (Full text is available on line.)

[7] See “The Lady of Fátima & the Miracle of the Sun.”

[8] Ann Taves, op. cit., p. 147.

[9] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 34, quoted in William Harmless, Mystics, p. 15. In liberal Quakerism, the concept expressed in James’s “whatever they consider divine” is used to assert that Quakers need share no definition of what the word “God” means, thus privileging the individual’s opinion — here the doctrine of self-validating experience is useful in protecting those opinions from critique — over the Quaker tradition’s understanding of God and effectively promoting a meaningless creed of “There is that of whatever in everyone.”

[10] Harmless, Mystics, p. 15.

[11] George Fox, Journal, p. 171 of Volume 2 of the 1831 edition of the Works. Modified for clarity.

[12] George Fox, Journal, p. 71 of Volume 1 his Works. Fox would have been referring to 1 John 3:14: “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not [his] brother abideth in death.”

[13] George Fox’s “general epistle to Friends at the Yearly Meeting in London,” modified for clarity. Works, Vol. 2, pp. 172-173.

[14] Romans 1:19, the source of the Quaker phrase “that of God in every one.”

[15] Philippians 2:12.

[16] Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, Kindle location 1109.

[17] See the blog Voice in the Wilderness.

[18] Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, pp. 76, 77.

[19] Matt. 13:45-46.

[20] See George Fox, Journal, p. 146 of Volume 2 of his Works: “Thus they that come to be renewed up again into the divine heavenly image in which man was at first made will know the same God that was the first teacher of Adam and Eve in paradise to speak to them now by his Son, who changes not….” Fox was probably referring to Hebrews 13:8: “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.”

[21] George Fox, “letter to Lady Claypool (so called)”: for the text of the letter, see the post “Questioning Quakerism as Mysticism.”

[22] On the light as “discovering” our darkness to us, see, for example, Isaac Penington’s “To All Such as Complain That They Want Power.” On our minds being remade in Christ, see, for example, Rom. 12:1-2 and 2 Cor. 3:18.

[23] 1 Cor. 2:16. See also Philippians 2.

[24] See John 4, the story of Jesus and the woman at the well.

[25] Paul V. Mankowski, S.J.: “… what Vincentian Fr. Patrick Collins has called (approvingly) the change from ‘the experience of religious authority to the authority of religious experience.'”

[26] 1 Peter 2-9. See also “A Peculiar Priesthood.”

[27] By “justifying” I mean “making just” — the properly Quaker reading of Paul’s teaching in such passages as Romans 4:5, in which he speaks of God “who justifies/rectifies the ungodly.” (That translation is by A. Harriet Grieb in her “The Righteousness of God in Romans,” in Jerry L. Sumney, ed., Reading Paul’s Letter to the Romans, p. 67.)

62 thoughts on “A Song of Experience

  1. Can you give an example of people who represent this “experientialist” point of view? I don’t know a lot of Quakers, so I’m sure there are many viewpoints I haven’t seen. But of those I have known, this is not one of their failings.

    • Rather than point to any individuals, I’ll just note that the doctrine has come up often in my interactions with other liberal Quakers. Perhaps some Friends who hold that view of Quakerism will comment here.

      In the post’s much too brief tracing of experientialism’s development, I didn’t mention Thomas Kelly, but his writings were a factor in its rise among Friends. You might want to look at his A Testament of Devotion.

  2. Hegel’s ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ is highly relevant to this topic with its fundamental doctrine of “the ‘I’ that is a ‘We’ and the ‘We’ that is an ‘I’ “.

    Then there is his other basic doctrine:
    “The living ethical world is Spirit in its truth.” G.W.F. Hegel
    Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) para. 442

    That is to say that Spirit is the ever changing flux of the zeitgeist in every aspect not some metaphysical entity to be discovered and defined.

    This extract seems as relevant today as it should have been when he wrote it:

    8. ……. Formerly they had a heaven adorned with a vast wealth of thoughts and imagery. The meaning of all that is, hung on the thread of light by which it was linked to that heaven. Instead of dwelling in this world’s presence, men looked beyond it, following this thread to an other-worldly presence, so to speak. The eye of the Spirit had to be forcibly turned and held fast to the things of this world; and it has taken a long time before the lucidity which only heavenly things used to have could penetrate the dullness and confusion in which the sense of worldly things was enveloped, and so make attention to the here and now as such, attention to what has been called ‘experience’, an interesting and valid enterprise. Now we seem to need just the opposite: sense is so fast rooted in earthly things that it requires just as much force to raise it. The Spirit shows itself as so impoverished that, like a wanderer in the desert craving for a mere mouthful of water, it seems to crave for its refreshment only the bare feeling of the divine in general. By the little which now satisfies Spirit, we can measure the extent of its loss.
    From the Preface to The Phenomenology of Spirit by G W F Hegel, 1807.
    (Trans. A V Miller, OUP, Oxford, 1977.)

    I also notice the word ‘sunyata’ in your tags … it seems to me that the Buddhist doctrine of ‘anatta’ is highly relevant to this topic too … can I recommend this YouTube video if you want to know more about it? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Anf1yhX9VQo

  3. I also wanted to say that I have been to a Quaker meeting only once in my life and that was in the Central Manchester (UK) Friends Meeting House about 25 years ago. during the meeting only one person spoke and I do not recall what he said. What I do remember is the obvious poverty, or perhaps it was asceticism, of the handful of people who were there and that I felt quite uncomfortable sitting in silence. On the other hand people were very friendly towards me having tea and biscuits afterwards.

    Weeks later I was listening to a radio programme about religion and a woman said that anyone who turns up on their own at for example a Quaker Meeting House must be in a state of desperation/depression/despair! The general perception is that smaller Christian denominations are filled with well-intentioned but deluded fools.

    I did not go there because I was lonely but because I thought Quakers might be the most enlightened and active Christian denomination. I have never attended a Meeting House long enough to see if any hierarchy has arisen there but I would be surprised if one hadn’t. Yet here in the UK the anti-clericalism of the Quakers is just as potent a criticism of our established church as it was in the 17th century, there are many also who could be compared to the Ranters.

    Where is the modern day Gerrard Winstanley? That’s what I want to know now. Is it Micah Bales whose blog is called ‘The Lamb’s War’ and is involved with Occupy DC/the Church?

    The Methodist Church that I attended when I was a child is fast approaching its death as its congregation ages and dies. Yet it seems that something like churches could be invaluable in retaining a semblance of community … but:

    “how hard it is to break through the wall of the signifier. Many people have tried since Christ, beginning with Christ. But Christ himself botched the crossing, the jump, he bounced off the wall.” Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi, Athlone Press, London, 1988. p.187

    I think Bonhoeffer had the answer:

    “The Church is the Church only when it exists for others. To make a start, it should give away all its property to those in need. The clergy must live solely on the free-will offerings of their congregations, or possibly engage in some secular calling. The Church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others ……. It must not underestimate the importance of human example (which has its origin in the humanity of Jesus and is so important in Paul’s teaching); It is not abstract argument, but example that gives its word emphasis and power.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers From Prison, Eng. trans., SCM Press, London, 1963.

  4. Friend George;

    Thank you for the interesting post. I don’t think I fully understand the all the points you are making, but as one of those Friends who first came to Quakerism as a result of one of those “mystical” experiences, I was drawn by the title of your post. I fully agree that what appears to be a subjective experience of “An Other” can not, should not, be the basis for an active and sustaining faith. And I really hope they do not lead to a perception of exclusivity. Of course they do not happen often or to everyone and I truly hope no one ever feels they are “missing out” because their faith does not include such experiences. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:39) seems to me to say that Jesus thought that was the better way.

    But some of us came here from a place too cynical and hostile to have found our way without a kick in the pants. Perhaps sometimes God has to do something to some of the thicker ones of us. When my own experience happened a quarter century ago I walked into Friends Meeting because I wanted some way of understanding what the experience was about. Many times I’ve forgotten about that and I can’t say I’ve actively sought to have another or similar experience, but it was, I believe, a first stirring which, if I hadn’t had, I would not be among Friends today.

    If that seems to some like “clinging to an unusual experience”, so be it. But to argue that it is “unreliable” (and therefore unreal?) simply because it appears to be “subjective and personal,” is irrelevant to the person with the experience, as is any argument that it can’t be “scientifically verifiable.” I could not care less if it could or could not be “proved” to have happened. It was far more real to me at the time (and in my memory) than much of the world I’ve lived through since then, yet I do not question those experiences.

    But I agree that if too much attention is focused on those flash-in-the-pan moments, wonderful as we think they are, it would make a silly poor faith. Paul seemed to understand that his Damascus experience, though very real to him, was a beginning, not the middle, not the end, both of which were far more important. And I completely agree that these “private openings” should not be sought after (maybe the reason I’m not a Pentecostal 🙂 ) – because that would miss the point – and they are by no means an “essential” doctrine for our faith.

    • Thanks for your comment, Randy. We seem to be substantially in agreement. I do want to clarify that I don’t necessarily equate “unreliable” with “unreal.” It’s important to me to acknowledge both the importance and the limitations of personal experiences. I’m quite sceptical about my own spiritual experiences as evidence for anything metaphysical, yet I’m also quite open to their human import. Not putting my faith in them, nor relying upon them for validation, I know — experientially! — that a Quaker’s spiritual life need not begin with such experiences nor depend on them for its vitality. In a sense, then, the stress on them is a red herring, a distractor, drawing our attention away from the always-present life and power in our hearts, making that tiny, despised seed (as Isaac Penington would say) even harder to see and hear. I hope that the post, which I found very difficult to write and which I wish I could have managed to write more clearly, is able to bring that out, at least for some readers.

  5. Interesting post.

    Within Baltimore Yearly Meeting, however, the post doesn’t reflect my understanding (or perhaps it simply distorts my understanding) of the word “experience” as used among liberal Friends. It is the experience of God’s love among us and of all humankind; not of mystical experiences – that has always come through with word “experience”. Mystical experiences are a sideshow of little value when compared to the active power of God’s love once experienced. This power manifests itself through our actions towards others.

    This understanding, which is highlighted throughout the new Faith and Practice, is the same message preached by the early followers of Jesus; as the love of Christ or the love of God.

    I think you have grossly overstated the importance of mystical experiences to liberal Quakers. I would say it actually carries no special weight among us and are not as common as you indicate.

    • It seems, Howard, that our, well, experience differs.

      Please note, however, that the definition section of the post considers “spiritual experience” and “mystical experience” somewhat separately: the post is not all about mystical experience, whatever that might be, but about the insistence that special experiences — not necessarily understood as mystical — are essential. As I mentioned to a previous writer, I have on numerous occasions encountered among BYM (Baltimore Yearly Meeting) Friends the view that “spiritual experiences” — even if understood as non-mystical experiences of God’s love — are essential to Quakerism. (And a good number of Friends have argued explicitly for mysticism, as well.) One thing that I am trying to counter is the idea, sometimes expressed in the very definition of Quakerism as being “an experiential religion,” that one must wait for some such discrete experience before one can begin living “in the power” — a view that makes special experiences essential (and reverses Fox’s teaching). I want to stress the tradition’s teaching that the “divine” power to live justly is available to everyone here and now, which is perhaps why Paul wrote in Romans that those who do not look to “that which can be known of God … manifest in them” are “without excuse.”

      That perspective of the already- and always-available spiritual power is what I would hope to find as the primary thrust of a Quaker Faith and Practice book, but I don’t find it to be such in BYM’s proposed book. It could be that I and others are just missing it, but a number of us have read the draft carefully and aren’t getting that sense. Maybe we’ll reach a different understanding when the draft is threshed later this month.

  6. Great conversation. At the same time, to say that such experiences, whether they are “special” or “mystical” or we simply call them “spiritual” are a sideshow of little value appears to negate the very real power they have to bring people to the Light. It is clear that there is a strong Biblical witness – as well as a clear Christian historical witness – to how these experiences have changed people and led them to Christ. So – like everything – they can have great value, but they are a means to an end, not “The Thing Itself”. I’m actually far more interested in how efficacious prepositional spirituality is. IMO, THAT is putting the cart before the horse and I for one could never be a Quaker or a Christian if that meant I had to understand or accept or “believe” in all sorts of theological statements or assent to notions of literal scriptural interpretation, etc. In other words, in my experience (if you will), experiential faith is a great place to start, even if it is not necessarily the best place to stay put.

    • It seems that different people are led to to turn to the life and power we call Christ by different catalysts. Perhaps we can say that, however we get there (scripture, a spiritual experience, the example of a hero, the preaching of a George Fox, etc.), we can’t remain where we started: having turned, or been turned, we are, as Paul would say, new creation. As the Zen tradition reminds us, we don’t need the raft after we’ve reached the shore.

      • Howard, it occurs to me that this observation may be helpful in understanding some of my concerns about the BYM draft Faith and Practice book: that awareness of having reached the other shore (mentioned in a previous comment), that recognition that we have already within us the life and power of Christ — rather than feeling that we must be about seeking it through special experiences or by other means — seems to be not only absent from but actively denied by the draft F&P, which (emphatically but somewhat inconsistently: the draft bears the marks of having been written by committee) defines Friends as perpetual “Seekers” and explicitly denies that Friends walk “a common path” or are committed to “a particular Truth.” (That’s all on page 20 of the 2012 draft). That’s not the Quakerism that some of us BYM members practice.

  7. Yes. I agree, Randy, with your response. You have explained what I meant to say when I said “sideshow”. Thanks!

  8. Dare I suggest that the moment of conversion is when we recognise the centrality of mutual repentance and mutual forgiveness, our recognition and acceptance of flawed human existence? It is so hard to keep it at the front of your mind though.

  9. I would agree George that the phrase “a particular Truth” is misstated, since truth is truth – “particular” or otherwise. A better phraseology might be that “we are not committed to a particular doctrine”. Recognizing that continuing revelation is at work, requires us to always seek truth, and I do have an issue with making ultimate “truth” sound as though it is a relative thing. On the other hand, doctrines are rules or laws regarding belief, and “the law killeth the Spirit”. So, liberal Friends do tend to reject the codification of belief into doctrines; although if we are honest, doctrines (by any other name) are not completely avoidable.

    I have no issue with us being described as “perpetual seekers”. Seeking is an active state of wanting to discern truth, or seeking to experience God in our lives, or seeking the right way to proceed. I view “seeking” as an admirable state to be in. At any rate, it has served me well in my live. And perpetual seeking doesn’t deny that “that of God” is already present within us. It just recognizes God’s power in guiding us – if we actively seek his will.

    • Howard, I think that liberal Quakers are committed to particular doctrines: you mentioned “continuing revelation,” for example. That one, it seems to me, can be useful in a certain context, but outside of that context it’s dangerous — I had it in mind when I wrote the section on discernment in the post. Traditionally, for Friends there was one “Truth,” Christ “the way, the truth, and the life,” a living and dynamic truth to be submitted to and lived in. We might say that “immediate revelation,” as Fox called it, was about the inward revealing of truths by the one Truth — that which we know through the Spirit of Christ.

      I can agree with your reading of “perpetual seekers,” but the phrase can be read in a number of ways (which perhaps is one reason it might appeal to a writer of a liberal Quaker F&P), and I don’t think that all of those are salutary. The original Quaker experience began with the finding of Truth, and a distinction was made between so-called Seekers (oddly, the draft F&P capitalizes it, too), who were waiting for the new definitive revelation, and Quakers, who had received it and were living it. I think that such distinctions are very important for our corporate self-understanding — for us and for Friends of the future.

      This sort of disagreement is what we have found in a number of meetings, with some folks supporting (their understanding of) “perpetual seekers” and others rejecting the phrase as misleading or even as untrue to their own practice. As things stand now, it seems evident that BYM Friends are not in unity on the draft.

  10. Thanks, George, for your very special insight. I’ve always dreamed of having some grand mystical experience, something like you’d read in Evelyn Underhill’s books but my spiritual life is quite boring. I envy those who seem to “walk with Jesus” all day long and have wide grins on their faces. Are they really feeling something that I’m not able to experience? I am grateful for Oswald Chambers who says, “There are unemployables in the spiritual domain, spiritually decrepit people, who refuse to do anything unless they are supernaturally inspired. The proof that we are rightly related to God is that we do our best whether we feel inspired or not.”

    • You’re welcome, Richard, and thanks for your words. They remind me, by the way, of something that happened a few years ago. I was scheduled to be interviewed at Homewood Friends Meeting by a woman who was traveling around and interviewing folks for a book on people’s spiritual lives. But when she described to me what she meant by “spiritual life,” I had to tell her that she might not want to interview me. “I’m just a simple Quaker,” I told her; “I have no spiritual life to speak of.” The interview was cancelled.

      I’ve missed seeing you at Little Falls (although I’m there only about once a month myself). This past weekend, the meeting celebrated its 275th anniversary. There were some interesting exhibits — and of course we had many more people than usual for worship. I hope the meeting survives past the 300th.

      • Your article put a fire under me and I rushed to my library and pulled out a great little book (to which you contributed), Universalism and Spirituality, Quaker Universalist Reader #3. I re-read Ralph Hetherington’s article, Mystical Experience and Prophetic Insight. I had highlighted the following passage, “For Quakers, guidance from God, in the form of prophetic insight, has to be direct and unmediated by any prophet or guru. Quakers know it as ‘The Inward Light.’ This type of spiritual experience contrasts sharply, in a number of important respects, with peak experience. Whereas the latter is a ‘taste and see’ experience in which the experiencer is passive, the former is a ‘get up and go’ experience in which the experiencer is highly active. Instead of being an ineffable experience, the Inward Light is clear and unambiguous, leaving us no doubt about its meaning and import. It is highly specific and directive in nature.” I’ve been wanting to return to Little Falls for a long time. My wife and I have been members of a small local Episcopal Church which is suffocating and mired in churchiness and squabbling. The Bishop removed our Priest in Charge (a person we respected) and I’m not sure I can stand it anymore. Best wishes to you.

  11. Your post is very thoughtful, and reflects wide acquaintance with recent social scientific work on religious experience.

    On the other hand, it looks to me as if you may be guilty of scientism; assigning to the scientific mode of knowing a privileged status over all other modes of knowing, and rejecting any data that do not meet its criteria for validity. This would be like trying to use a map of New Jersey to find your way on a trip across the country. New Jersey maps are not designed for that purpose, and a scientific cognitive map is not up to the job of evaluating all of human experience. Were science able to do that, we could close down all other scholarly disciplines and lines of inquiry; what would we need them for?

    Turning to the issue of the role of “religious experience” in the Society of Friends, discarding everything that relates to religious experience would IMHO eviscerate the Quaker faith and the Quaker tradition. The Bible is loaded with “religious experiences” (burning bush, Mount Sinai, coals touching prophets’ lips, visions, Christ’s temptations, road to Damascus, Rhoda’s encounter with Peter at the door, the Book of Revelation, etc.) We would need to discard all of these data as invalid because they do not meet scientific criteria for validity. We would have to lay aside the voice George Fox heard, advising him to turn to Christ directly for answers to his questions about Truth. The ministers’ journals would need to go; they focus on personal encounters with God. What would be the point of holding meetings for worship, with all of their subjectivity? What we would have left is a Quaker version of the Ethical Culture Society.

    The implications for other Christian traditions are also staggering. What would we do with John Wesley; “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street,… I felt my heart strangely warmed”? What about the millions of Pentecostals whose lives have been transformed by charismatic encounters?

    • Thanks for commenting, Bill, but I see some misunderstandings at work. The issues you raise seem much more general than what I have tried to address here.

      First, the section on science deals primarily with claims that subjective religious experiences can be used as proofs of the objective existence of metaphysical entities (or ‘realities,” for those who prefer more vagueness). The attempt to use science is not mine: the post critiques that attempt on the part of some Friends, the point being precisely that religious experience cannot be used in that way. While I do believe that critical thinking should be applied to religious experiences as to other phenomena (and that we have an obligation to apply it in our discernment process), I don’t intend to argue for or against what you call “scientism.”

      Second, this is not a to call to “[discard] everything that relates to religious experience.” The post critiques the apparent requirement that liberal Quakers have, seek, and/or exalt special religious experiences — and the doctrine that such is of the essence of Quakerism. Many of us have spiritual/religious/mystical experiences, but, as Fox teaches eloquently in the first passage quoted, they are not of the essence and are not, in themselves, reliable. Our foundation is in faith/faithfulness.

      I hope that clarifies my intent.

  12. George: Thanks for your response! It’s late enough that my “information processor” (what passes in my case for a brain!) isn’t working very well. I need to think about what you have written.

  13. George, maybe I’m thick headed, but I have to ask you who is presenting an “apparent requirement that liberal Quakers have, seek, and/or exalt special religious experiences — and the doctrine that such is of the essence of Quakerism.” In my 30 years as a liberal Quaker familiar with many meetings, I have never heard such. I am speaking as one who has been a very active Quaker. Nearly every liberal Quaker I have met does not claim to have had such “special religious experiences”, although a few have – but have never claimed it is a general “requirement”. And I would say those few number no more than other branches of Quakerism (maybe less) where Friends may have had “special religious experiences”, and certainly number no more than other Christian denominations. As has been stated by others, Christian literature is ripe with examples of believers having “special religious experiences”. So, the precedent for these to occur has already been established.

    If there are a few Friends suggesting this is a “requirement”, they are certainly not representative of the whole body of liberal Friends. Or, I would have become aware.

    I ask you this question because this assertion entirely blows me away, and makes me think either I have missed something over the years, or you are entirely mistaken, or some passages in the new BYM Faith and Practice are just poorly written.

    • Howard, as I noted earlier, it seems that our experiences differ — which I expect has nothing to do with the thickness of our heads. As I’ve said, I have encountered the experientialist viewpoint numerous times. And as the (true) anecdote about the elderly Friend demonstrates, I’m not alone and this is not a new thing. I don’t insist that all or even most liberal Friends feel that way, however: I don’t know or even know of most of them. If the shoe doesn’t fit you, I don’t think that’s a problem. Liberal Friends are famous for our diversity, and even fellow members of a yearly meeting may move in different Quaker circles.

      It was not my intention to insist that the draft F&P is an experientialist manifesto of some sort. The draft was mentioned briefly as one reason for my concerns’ being exacerbated — mentioned because I see some effects of experientialist doctrine in it, just as I perceive (sometimes subtle) influence of that doctrine in other aspects of liberal Quaker thought and practice. But the post is not directed to the book, a critique of which would look very different.

      Nor is the post intended as a complaint against liberal Quakerism in general; I may have written a few of those (all of which are intra-family criticism, given that I am a nontheist liberal Quaker), but this isn’t one. This is a complaint about experientialist Quakerism, which I have assumed — based on what I know of Evangelical and Conservative Friends, but perhaps wrongly — is more likely to be a liberal phenomenon. (And I know firsthand only a liberal form of it.)

      And, to repeat what I’ve written above, I have no quarrel with the existence of religious experience among Friends or elsewhere: I do, however, want its value and place to be assessed in light of the unique vocation our tradition offers.

      It makes sense to me that the post has little or nothing to say to you if you have no experience of the thing that troubled me into writing it; it wouldn’t make sense to me to argue about the existence of a phenomenon that one of us hasn’t seen. (I also don’t think I should go into more detail about the draft F&P at least until after the forthcoming discussions; maybe I’ll feel able to produce a post about it then.) I do hope we’ve improved our mutual understanding.

  14. Thanks George for taking the time to provide further clarification. I am sorry if I misunderstood anything along the way.

  15. And yet, the quotes from Fox are all products of his own spiritual experience, which would never have survived a group discernment process in his original religious community. To say nothing of Paul! Delusion and unreliability are universal aspects of the human experience, affecting groups as well as individuals, indirect as well as direct experiences of the Spirit, and interpretation of scripture as well as revelation. Unless we reject faith, entirely, we must embrace some degree of unreliability, or else delude ourselves regarding our very vulnerability to delusion.

  16. George, I found this a thoughtful and insightful post. I do have a few hesitations regarding the analysis. It seems to me to go too far, or to overgeneralize. Let me explain: There are other areas of life where one’s subjective experience has similar significance. I am thinking in particular of esthetic responses. For example, if I think the music of composer X is sublime, and you do not, how is that to be resolved? I don’t think it is accessible to objective analysis. As a trained musician I suppose I could get a score and show you how well done certain passages are; but I doubt that would change your mind. All I can really do is ask you to listen to a composition I find particularly moving and hope for the best. I realize this does not map onto the points you have made exactly. Nevertheless I think it is a relevant analogy to the kind of inward and mystical experience that someone might be speaking about. Note that I said ‘might be’; there are some instances, perhaps many, where I think that your analysis is on target. But I suspect that there are other instances where the analysis might falter; as in the perception of beauty.

    As an aside, inner experience can be systematically treated. In traditional Buddhism there is an analysis of meditative states that I have found helpful in comprehending what people describe as their interior experience. It is a system of meditative absorptions (Sanskrit: Dhyana, Pali: Jhana) which maps various types of inner experiences in accordance with specific features. I have found this system helpful in understanding what people are speaking about.

    Thanks for the excellent post,


    • Thanks for your comments, Jim. I think that the analogy of spiritual experience and aesthetic experience is a good one; some may even say that it’s more than an analogy, that the two are very closely related. (I’m reminded of F.S.C. Northrop’s wonderful phrase “the undifferentiated aesthetic continuum,” which I believe he used in reference to the content of what he thought of as the Buddhist/Hindu experience of self-and-world.) Given that your first paragraph doesn’t quite map to the post, it might be helpful if you would explain which parts of my analysis give you pause. Perhaps I can clarify something, and perhaps I can learn where I’ve overgeneralized (which is something I’m aware of having a tendency toward) or not been sufficiently careful in writing.

  17. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that in the absence of powerful and binding experience, people are unable to find motivation for any long-lasting common religious or ethical projects; if I remember correctly, the reason for the tremendous growth of interest in Eastern religions, and specifically in forms of meditation, in the decades since the 1960’s was significantly the result of a deep dissatisfaction with the dearth of spiritual experience to be found in most Christian practice at the time, with the lack of specifically spiritual disciplines that focused on interiority and personal experience. I’m not sure that apart from sourcing itself in some such set of experiences any spiritual community can hang together for very long.

  18. Robert, I know many people who have been, throughout their lives, quite dedicated to the religion they were raised in or chose because of compatibility with their beliefs and values. They didn’t enter because of a peak experience and they don’t need one to remain committed.

    This past weekend, I attended the 275th anniversary of the founding of a Quaker meeting by my ancestor, William Amos. I think it’s a safe assumption that many or most of the folks I saw in old pictures there had been lifelong Quakers because that’s how they were raised.

    Currently, I live in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. My neighbors tend to practice their religion with great fidelity, but not because a mystical experience set them on that path.

    As William Harmless points out (see post for reference), religion is very much a social phenomenon. Religions meet deep needs for meaning, purpose, values, structure, connection, community, security, all of which have strong social bases. I think it’s likely that most people who adopt or remain in a religion do so for some or all of that.

    My perception is that the counterculture’s religious trends, in which I was an enthusiastic participant, were motivated in large part by the desire for peak experiences; after all, we loved — and lived for — our peak experiences. But I know of no evidence that other factors — such as the increasing influence of scientific thought, making gods and virgin births incredible, and the wider social reaction against the kind of domination and psychological (and physical, as we’ve learned) abuse that had characterized much Christianity — were not significant in the shift. They certainly were in my case. At any rate, I wouldn’t want to use the sixties as a solid base for projection of trends into the future.

    By the way, as a former Catholic (and seminarian), I can tell you that there was/is no lack of interiority and spiritual exercises in the Christian tradition: consider the mystical traditions, the contemplative traditions, the traditions of meditation (Carmelites, for example, have spent hours each day in silent prayer for centuries), the Ignatian exercises, Merton’s writings, etc. But Buddhism and Hinduism were exotic and cool (Ginsberg! Kerouac! Watts!) as well as, at the time, esoteric — and you didn’t have to believe in a talking snake or a wrathful god who killed his own son to appease himself. You could even fancy yourself a philosopher.

    I think you might find that many people — including non-experientialist religionists, humanists, artists, etc. — would disagree with the implication of (the first part of) your first sentence. As for me, I find that relational life itself is the powerful experience that motivates and binds me to ethical religion. I’m no stranger to special spiritual experiences, but it has turned out that they were distractors. What matters is before my eyes and in my heart at every moment.

  19. Well, the examples you give in the first part of your comments all involve religions that are deeply sourced in foundational experiences that were peak experiences; while it may be true that few members of any religion have the same kinds of peak experiences that the founders of their various faiths did, the communities that they gave rise to participate in those founding experiences by way narrations that draw them into practices and beliefs and lifestyles that are intended to be loyal to and reflect those experiences. The extraordinary power of the originating experiences may be such that even those without direct contact with those experiences are nevertheless able to find spiritual sourcing in remembering and rehearsing them. Human beings are extremely social beings, so of course the matrix of human social relations will both shape and be shaped by the foundational experiences of any religion.

    My comment did not exclude the existence of other significant factors behind the spiritual trends that developed in the sixties; I only wanted to make the point that the search for spiritual experience was significant.

    I don’t suggest that there aren’t great spiritual riches in Western religious practices, but the resources you mention were not widely available to people in the West until after the explosion of interest in Eastern religious practices served as a catalyst to uncover and disseminate teachings that were quite frequently mostly the province of cloistered monks and nuns, religious specialists, in a sense, which your examples from Catholicism show. What has happened since the sixties is that the esoteric, whether Eastern or Western, has become exoteric; what was once the province of spiritual specialists and their disciples has been spread as so many goods and commodities before countless customers voracious for spiritual experience. Starting in the sixties, this explosion of spiritual consumption has grown exponentially over the last decades, and I don’t think it will slow down anytime soon. I think that’s a safe projection to make.

    • We agree, then, that the search for experiences was significant, although you appear to be more sanguine about the future of experientalism.

      I don’t know, however, about the major religions having their origins in peak experiences. It’s not what we find in some analyses: see, for example, the work of Norenzayam and Gervais. The case is still under investigation (and probably always will be), and there are various hypotheses. You might want to see Ann Taves’s book (see references) also. Then, too, we aren’t sure that founding figures such as Abraham and Moses even existed — or, if they did, that we have any reliable information about them. If Moses is said to have seen the glory of the Lord (see the quotation from Fox in the post: by mentioning figures like Korah, he shows that such an experience doesn’t necessarily lead to anything productive), that doesn’t mean that it happened, or that, if it did, it was the origin of his faith. That’s possible, but it’s not established and maybe not capable of being established.

      [UPDATE, 6/29/2013: I recently read an interesting article by Matt J. Rossano which hypothesizes that the most primitive origin of religion was in pre-Upper Paleolithic “ecstatic rituals used to facilitate social bonding” — see The Religious Mind and the Evolution of Religion.]

      I agree, too, that information on Christian interior life was not as widely available say 40 years ago as it is now, but it certainly was available. I and others I knew had collections of it, bought in local bookstores or borrowed from the public library here: the best-selling Merton, Brother Lawrence, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Bede Griffiths (then a more conventional monk at Prinknash Abbey), etc. Asian religions, however, found effective popularizers such as Watts, Huxley, Isherwood, the Beats, various swamis and yogis, even the Theosophical Society…. Alternative bookstores and yoga and TM® centers appeared. Krishna devotees danced in ecstasy in the streets — and, no small draw — held free vegetarian feasts. Those of us who were hungry for religious meaning but (felt that we) were done with Christianity ate the stuff up, from the doctrines to the chapatis. And we tended to transfer our hero-worship from priests to gurus and masters.

      But I see that house beginning to crumble even now. Zen master after Zen master, for example, has been revealed as a rabid supporter of war, a sexual abuser, a drunk, etc. True, a fair number of people continue to follow a Chogyam Trungpa, who abused not only substances but people. (However, when I spoke recently with a Shambhala member, she was surprised to learn of his history.) But I know a number of young people, some of them raised in a faith, who have looked into the matter and decided that religion is bullshit. For a good payoff, one might be willing to override reason’s objections and accept that a god exists and cares, or that we really don’t exist, or that there’s really only “the One,” but when it becomes obvious that even masters of the spiritual life are egotistical creeps after a lifetime of practice, the credibility of both teaching and practice are eroded. I think we see increasing numbers of people now reporting no religious affiliation. (Just checking out a Barnes and Noble store can be informative in that regard, too: a few years ago, the Buddhist books filled many shelves, but now a number of those shelves are given to something else. The popular Christian stuff seems to be selling well, though — different demographic, I suppose.) But of course we really can’t know how this will play out.

      And finally, I agree with your choice of words: “customers” and “consumption” seem very accurate. And that’s a big part of the reason for my critique here: Quakerism has the history of and continuing potential for taking a critical distance from the consumer mindset, especially in regard to the spiritual life, and I’m concerned to keep that alive.

        • Duncan, I value your contributions here, but after struggling with this post for weeks, finally publishing it more because I was exhausted by it than that it was completely ready, and then trying to think about and respond to the many and various comments offered and (sub)topics raised in response — and knowing that at least one more substantive comment is likely to appear — I need to take a break. I did a quick Internet search on “Catholic interior life” and saw that a wealth of information appears to be available. I’m also thinking that you must have some definition in mind in order to be able to say how F. N. might have regarded “it,” but I’m not able to go into that, or Nietzsche, at this point. But I’m happy to read any further thoughts you want to offer on the subject.

  20. “For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens.” The Cloud of Unknowing and other works. Penguin Classics. 2001. ISBN 978-0-14-044762-0. Translated by A. C. Spearing

  21. I’m really not that sanguine about experientalism, which is why I used words like “customers” and “consumers” in my comments, which for me carry negative connotations; but this is our historical reality, and I think the trends continue in that direction. Throughout most of the world, religions that stress the importance of personal experience are spreading like wildfire, and I guess I’m thinking primarily of the tremendous growth of pentecostal Christianity in the Two Thirds World. In the US/Europe and their sometimes distant cultural satellites (Australia, for example), there certainly is a marked increase of so-called “nones,” but I think there is huge mistake in assuming that disaffection from institutional religion includes for the majority of these “nones” a lack of interest in the metaphysical or supernatural or exceptional; rather, the trend among “nones” is toward cafeteria style spirituality, or supermarket style, privatized spirituality, wherein one strolls the aisles of the religious supermarket and selects a religious identity congenial to one’s own preferences and desires, and these predominately express increased interest in exceptional religious experience (in the foregoing comment, the marked increase of “nones” in China is not included, since that nation has been under the control of virulently anti-religious governments for so long; who knows how trustworthy any data actually is regarding religion there?). In poll after poll, most people in Europe and the US continue to give answers indicating belief in God, reincarnation, etc., even as they become increasingly disaffiliated from institutional religion (although, this seems to have leveled off in recent polls taken in Great Britain, with a slight increase in religious affiliation).

    I think you make some good points about the possibility that some religions are not sourced in exceptional experiences; but the mythological matrix in all traditional religions is full of figures and narratives that take for granted exceptional religious experiences, and whether they are historically true or not is somewhat moot, because the memory of peak experiences, whether false or true, is embedded in the religious language of institutions and in the narratives about their founding, and serve as sources for the life of the institutions as long as they seem plausible enough to most of the institutions members. This would include Quakerism.

  22. Pingback: Day 248: “The Consumption of Unusual Experiences” | Finding God in 365 Days

  23. I love this blog post and the questions it raises. A few years ago I was searching for the earliest human writings of the concept of God, such as a archeologists would do in attempting to unravel layers of history and debris while seeking to discover its first recorded usage and meaning amoung men. I ran across the names of Champollian-Figeac, de Rouge, Pierret and Brusasch. and many more, who sifted the sands of the ancient pre-biblical levant and inteperpeted the writings on the ancient monuments and words from the oldest of papyrus. From ‘Religion and Mythologie”, published by Brusasch, came a glimpse of the oldest concepts extracted from the old stones and monuments, which I suppose, informed and molded the minds of the prophets themselves. Here is a compilation of phrase use and descriptions which encompass many time periods and numerous pre-biblical sources:

    God in One and only, and none other existseth with Him. God is the One, the One who hath made all things. God is the Spirit, the hidden spirit, the spirit of spirits, the great spirit, the devine spirit. God is from the beginning, and He hath been from the beginning. He hath existed from of old and was when nothing else had being. He existed when nothing else existed and what existed after He created after He had come into being. He is the Father of beginnings- God is the eternal One. He is eternal and finite end endureth for ever and aye. God is hidden and no man knoweth his form. No man hath been able to seek out His likeness. He is hidden to gods and men, and He is a mystery unto His creatures. No man knoweth how to know Him – His name remain hidden, His name is a msytery unto his children. His names are innumerable; they are manifold and none knoweth their number. God is Truth, He liveth by Truth, He feedeth thereon. He is the King of Truth, and he hath established the earth thereupon- God is life and and through Him only man liveth.
    He giveth life to man, He breatheth the breath of life into his nostrils; God is father and mother, the father of fathers and the mother of mothers. He begetteth, but was never begotten, He produceth but was never produced. He begat Himself and produced Himself and He createth but was never created. He is the maker of His own form and fashioner of His own body- God Himself is His existence, He endureth without increase of dimunion, He multiply Himself millions of times. He is manifold in forms and in members. God hath made the universe and He hath created all that therein is. He is the creator of what is in this world and of what was and of what is and of what shall be. He is the creator of the heavens and the earth and of the deep and of the water and of the mountains. God hath stretched out the heavens and founded the earth. What His heart conceived straightwawy came to pass. When He hath spoken it cometh to pass and endurath forever- God is the father of the Gods. He fashioned men and and formeth the gods- God is merciful unto those who reverance Him and He heareth them who call upon Him. God knoweth him that acknoweledge Him, and He protecteth him that follow Him.

    Being of the Liberal Quaker pursuassion and beleiveing that there exist in all men, that of which is God, I see in the above a long human history of beholding a marvelous mystery of being. God is the mystery we revere, and perhaps will never fully realize all that is “Him”.

  24. I will grant you that people come to faith by different means, and so it is dangerous to suggest a particular way – such as unusual experience, study, observation, etc. – is THE way. I will also grant you that there is a thread in liberal Quakerism which says that everyone’s experience is equally valid (which is in some senses accurate, but not in the sense of revealing religious truth).

    But I think, in regard to Quakerism, we must accept that it started with an experience. Fox found all the other means he had used to come to the Truth to be ineffective. I think the main qualifications for an experience to be valid for faith purposes were that it come from Christ (for which there is no objective test) and that it transform one’s life. Perhaps a third important one might be that it is consistent with scripture. In practice, this test is somewhat subjective as interpretations of scripture can vary enormously and the test may amount to finding some way to pull out a piece of scripture and interpret it in the light of your experience (which I do think early Quakers did). You may be referring to seeing people validate experience which meets none of these tests.

    As Quakerism moved into being a movement after the years of Fox’s itinerant preaching without being part of a coherent community, the test of community discernment was added. And after Quakerism had been around awhile, there was often added the test of consistency with the historical testimony of Friends.

    There really is no way to prove spiritual truth in the sense of spiritual truth. Our experiences don’t prove it, and neither do the avenues suggested by other parts of the Christian tradition.

    I understand and appreciate your critique of the use of experience in the liberal Quaker community, but at the same time caution against going overboard in minimizing the value of spiritual experiences. You suggest that relationship is key, which is true. Experience, including what you call unusual experience, is often an important part of relationship. I have found that to be true.

    • Hello, Bill. It’s good to “hear” from you.

      I can agree that faith may have various catalysts. As you know, Paul says in Romans that “faith comes through hearing, and hearing through the declaration of God,” but even that can be interpreted variously, at least in a Quaker context — although Paul does go on to speak, apparently, of the proclamation of the gospel by human beings. I disagree, though, that Quakerism began with what I’ve called here “special experience”: I don’t read the history in that way.

      Fox’s faith came alive, it seems evident to me, through hearing; that is, through scripture. What he searched for, the power of righteousness that would assure him of overcoming temptation and being right with God, he searched for because he had learned to value being right with God through scripture (directly and as mediated through the culture). He couldn’t get that power from human beings because, as Paul makes clear, they don’t have it: Fox had been looking in the wrong place — apparently, he had not read scripture with full understanding.

      But he found the answer to his search, I think, in scripture as well. Romans, for example, speaks directly to it, directing us to “that [divine power and nature] which can be known of God … within”; viz., the gospel, “the power of God unto salvation.” In other words, his faith came through hearing words, which he believed were from God, which directed him to the Word, the living Christ-power within him. Having learned of that power and found it in himself, he could put his faith in it — again, as scripture bid him do. But the bare experience of finding Christ in himself would not have been helpful: it was the putting of faith in that life and power that was his salvation. (As Penington tells us, we perceive the inner Seed, but we perceive it as something unwanted and even despicable.) Justification, Fox insisted — echoing Paul, of course — is through faith, and justification is what Fox had sought and found.

      And that, I think, is what we have in narrative form in that one special experience that has been lifted from a list of “openings” in Fox’s journal and presented by some as the founding experience of Quakerism. Whether he physically heard that voice or not, he heard it: something — I think scripture, despite any disavowals (I don’t think he could practically memorize the Bible, meditate for years on it, draw myriad connections among its parts, and then temporarily forget all of that) — directed him to the power that was manifest in him (as in all). We can argue that he then had an experience of that power, but that’s not so much mystical or even necessarily special, in Taves’s sense: that divine power is in everyone and can be partaken of by anyone who acknowledges its existence in them and entrusts themselves to it. And, as noted above, a special experience itself is not salvific: as the first long Fox passage quoted in the post makes plain, even direct seeing of the glory of God on Sinai won’t save a heart that won’t open in faith.

      I do agree with your caution. But everything is experience, and there are many kinds: the post deals only with a certain kind. It does not intend to urge going overboard; it’s about regarding special experiences from a detached perspective, recognizing that they are not salvific, putting them in their place as neither necessities nor proofs.

  25. George, are you saying that scripture mediated George Fox’s foundational salvific experience? What an interesting idea. But George would never agree with you. If I understand him correctly, he believed that he had directly experienced Christ—DIRECTLY experienced Christ. In fact, it looks like he believed he had virtually become one with Christ.

    Maybe it’s just a subtle difference between mediation and catalysis. But anyway, it looks like the old Orthodox-Hicksite split to me. Scritpure as Authority versus the inner light of Christ, with a psycho-textual twist that I first encountered in the teachings of Bubba Free John: that the teacher and the teaching are one—experience one and you experience the other. With which I think I agree, up to a point. But the problem with Scripture as Authority, as you mention, is interpretation—a guagmire deep and stretching into the distant mists at the horizon—wonderful, treacherous, exciting, and totally unreliable territory.

    Well anyway, here’s what I had intended to post:

    George, thank you for this post. It certainly is thought-provoking. As I read and reread your post, I had the feeling that I agreed with your basic point, but I found myself arguing with the specifics. I started off, then, responding in detail to all these specifics. But as I read the other comments and your responses, stronger grew the feeling that I was fussing with inessentials. So I’m going to try to respond to what I think is your basic argument, and try to ask good questions.

    First, do I understand you correctly, that the religious life you consider legitimate, the proper alternative to the liberal Quaker “experientialist’s” seeking of private, subjective experience, is the “living Quaker faith — that is, continually-renewed trust in and fidelity to the justifying* Christ-power within”?

    That, I think, would leave the individual in a bipolar religious world: either one has “experienced” the Christ-power within, or one hasn’t. For those bereft, the only legitimate “seeking” then would be the seeking after an awakening to this Christ-power. All other experience besides this awakening would be useless, unreliable, divisive, and even apostate experience. And then, once found, the only legitimate “seeking” would be for the renewal of trust and fidelity that you speak of.

    So it all comes down to what you mean by “Christ-power within”. Do you somewhere else in your writings say what you mean by the “Christ-power within”? I think I have an idea what you mean, but I have consistently been mistaken when jumping to conclusions about what you mean.

    Awakening to that power would itself be a personal, subjective experience that would feel self-validating initially (as all experience feels self-validating, I think). Such an experience would be truly validated perhaps when it began to bear fruit, when one could know one’s self transformed, “made just” in its power. But even then, living in continually renewed trust in and fidelity to this power would remain a personal, an individual spirituality.

    Could you please talk about the role of religion (Quakerism, in this case), that is, of the shared spiritual practice and experience of the Quaker community, in relation to this personal spirituality of life in the Christ-power?

    It seems to me that the liberal Quaker “experientialism” you describe undermines collective religious experience, which I’ve been exploring in the form of the gathered meeting in my own blog. When many of the worshippers are seeking experiences that they have defined in purely personal terms, aiming as it were toward a lot of different centers, I suspect that it’s hard for the corporate body to find the one center that is the experience of the gathered meeting. I’ll bet you agree with me about this.

    But I suspect that you might eschew the “experience” of the gathered meeting, as well, as perhaps just another “peak experience” to be sought by the experientialist. I think the gathered meeting is validated, however, (like an awakening to the Christ-power), when it bears fruit—when it strengthens one’s trust in and fidelity to the Christ-power, and, especially, when it transforms the community itself, as it does when the meeting for business in worship is gathered.

    So what for you corresponds to the personal “Christ-power within” when experienced collectively in the gathered meeting? In what “power” is the meeting gathered? What makes Quakerism a religion and not just a spirituality? Does the meeting also need scripture to mediate its experience of Pentecost? Do we need a near-credal agreement about the scriptural link(s) to the collective Christ-power?

    * While I like your definition of justification better—“making just”, as you say—I don’t think that’s what Paul means. As a legal, or covenantal, term in Torah, to be justified was to receive a positive outcome in court, to either be “acquitted” of a criminal charge or to win a civil case—to be “justified” in one’s case/cause. In Paul’s case, I believe he meant escaping God’s judgment for our sins through Christ’s atonement. Speaking in technical covenantal/legal terms, God has withdrawn his (sic) case against the believer because his justice has been satisfied by his Son.

    • Steven, I’ll try to offer brief responses to most of your main points. If they are not sufficient to clarify my meaning, I’m open to further exploration. Some things, however, such as the topic of the gathered meeting, which I would first need to untangle from the experientialist framework in which, it seems to me, it remains embedded for you, would need more development than I want to attempt in this comment space.

      1. On Fox:

      a. All believers are one with Christ. And that’s the point: not having experiences that we think of as being of Christ, but simply living in Christ – Christ not so much as object to experience and enjoy but as spirit in which to live and act. You can probably find that, in various forms, in many places in the blog here.

      b. I wrote of scripture as source of Quaker faith; source is not quite the same as authority. And yes, interpretation is an issue: different types of Christianity, such as Quakerism (and Quakerisms), have had different interpretations. If the question is whether Fox’s faith should be traced to a discrete mystical-type experience or to the scriptural matrix that formed him, I find that the evidence indicates the latter. Quakerism was born in a particular understanding of scripture. (For detailed analysis, see my George Fox Series here: it needs deepening, but it probably gets the basic points across.)

      2. On the post:

      While we are thinking in the experientialist framework, special experiences seem fundamental. If, however, we step out of that framework, then we see that we need not read faith as experience (at least, not in that sense). When I write of living Quaker faith in the Christ-power within, I am writing simply of faith. As I noted in response to Bill Samuel, according to classic Quaker doctrine the Christ-power is already within everyone but is normally denied, ignored, or despised. No special experience, then, is required. Everyone who has some love within her already knows Christ in measure: “that which can be known of God is manifest in them … therefore they are without excuse.” No awakening is needed; only stop denying, stop seeking something more acceptable than, what’s in our hearts.

      3. On justification:

      The forensic interpretation that you offer is one possible reading of Paul. There are readings that are different or more inclusive. My interest is in the interpretation of Friends such as George Fox. Scholars will continue to argue about how Paul should be read, but the Quaker reading is relatively easy to determine by consulting the founding Friends’ writings.

      God effects what he declares, and God does not lie: if God declares you just, then you have been made just (at the least, you have been given the power of righteousness). The reason, as Paul tells us, is that through faith you have come to live in Christ instead of in Adam, and Christ is righteousness itself. He put it in this way in 2 Cor. 5:21: “For he hath made him to be sin for us, [Christ] who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” Fox liked to remind people that, as John wrote, “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.” Christ is, of course, the divine light that enlightens and dwells in everyone. All believers – those who put their faith in that of God in them – are in him, and therefore there is no darkness in them. They are the righteousness of God in this world. (That, by the way, is the foundation of the Quaker doctrine of perfection.)

      • What is faith? You are positing things as alternatives to a narrow way in which you are using “experience” (which I don’t think I or some others have fully grasped) but the thrust of the comments is an unclarity about the nature of what you are positing as the alternative. The frustration of the dialogue is that all your words don’t seem to be effectively conveying to some of us what you are really positing. It seems to me that there is something deeper than the words you are trying to convey, but I have been unable to get a real sense of what it is.

        I do think experience is key, but in saying that I realize I am using experience in a broader way than you are using in the thrust of your argument. However, I am not clear where you are at about experience and faith with a much broader definition of experience.

        • Bill, I am using “faith” in what I understand to be the Pauline sense. Simplifying, perhaps, I see three relevant aspects: belief, trust, and fidelity. (I think — because I’ve learned from scholars, not because I am qualified to judge on my own — that they are all harbored in pistis.) Belief, in this context, may be understood as acceptance of the teaching that the power-and-nature of God dwells in us and gives us righteousness/justice when we submit to it. Believing that, we put our trust in that power-and-nature, entrust ourselves and our lives to it, and so pass from death to life — to loving, as John says — in Christ. Through fidelity to that power acting in us, we mature “unto a perfect man,” into the fullness of Christ . (Paul is speaking there of both the individual saints and the gathered community: that verse might be a good start for discussion of the gathered meeting, a topic Steven Davison has raised.)

          That is, of course, experience of a kind — as, again, is everything — but it is not what I would call special, anomalous, mystical, etc. in the sense of discrete “spiritual experiences.” And it’s for everyone, not just mystical types. Experiencing the presence of, or even oneness with, God may be a good thing or it may not: it depends, as Fox taught, on who you are. If you are Adam, then it’s wasted or delusional; if you are Christ, then God is your nature (see 2 Peter 1:4) and you don’t need any special experiences, so, while it may be strengthening and refreshing (as Fox might say), in this sense it’s nothing special.

          The crux seems to be this: do we focus on seeking discrete/unusual spiritual experiences, or do we give our belief, trust, and fidelity to the divine power and nature already dwelling in us? My argument is that the first Friends opened for us precisely the latter possibility, and that the former is a distraction that can also lead to an elitism that keeps the Quaker message from others.

  26. I still think you are speaking to a very small population of Friends who may think the whole goal of Quakerism is to seek mystical experiences. However, I personally see no reference to your concern in either dialogue, writings, or Faith and Practice manuals that are out there. So, having not personally seen or heard or read of Friends making mystical experiences an “idol”, I’ve concluded you are speaking to a fringe element. And your post may have value in bringing them back from that fringe.

    The crux of the matter for most of us is that we apparently are not among that fringe. Therefore, we can not relate to the concern in the post. That doesn’t mean your words are not of value to someone out there. And I’m sure God intends your post to resonate with those who might benefit from considering it.

    • Howard, I fear that this is becoming repetitive, so I plan to conclude it with this response.

      I enjoy the irony of your denying, under a post contra experientialism, the generalizability or even validity of my experience. But I don’t see the issue as something that can be resolved here.

      Although some Friends have seconded my experience, some others have said that theirs differs. (I’m speaking not only of this one forum, by the way.) As I said earlier, if the shoe doesn’t fit you, it’s not for you: as you say, the post may resonate with others. (This post has had about 500 views so far; perhaps it resonated with some of the many who have not commented.) But you seem quite determined to deny or minimize the existence of those others, even to the point of reviewing formal statements and presenting yourself as spokesperson for some majority. It’s not clear why that’s so important to you. But that’s not a question for me to answer.

      I suggest that there are a number of possibilities as to why our experience differs. It could simply be that, as I said earlier, we move in different circles. It could be that I’ve imagined the whole business — but in that case others have imagined it, too. It could be that you’re in denial or unable to recognize an existing phenomenon for some reason. I favor the first, but I could be wrong — and it could be something completely different from those. But, again, I see no way of figuring that out here and will not attempt to do so.

      So I leave you, once again, with this: if the shoe doesn’t fit, then maybe it’s not for you. And maybe you could think of the post as we think of vocal ministry: it’s for those who have ears to hear, those to whose condition it speaks. As the nuns would say, when I was in grade school, of anonymous miscreants, “They know who they are.” Or not. But arguing numbers is pointless: there’s no hard data.

      Thanks for participating.

  27. “Belief, in this context, may be understood as acceptance of the teaching that the power-and-nature of God dwells in us and gives us righteousness/justice when we submit to it.”

    What you’re proposing in this statement, George, is what Friends call “man’s faith”; man as agent of his faith, intellectually accepting teaching of others or Scriptures or the conceivings and imaginings of his own mind. The faith that Friends contrasted to “man’s faith” was faith that was given “from above.” Man’s faith was the prevailing problem that they encountered in their society, and so they spent much time crying out against it and asserting that faith was a gift from God, and not a function of man’s having chosen (Jn. 15:16). Here’s one example of Penington contrasting the two [bracketed comments are mine]:

    That by this faith alone, which is the gift which is from above…is Christ received. For Christ can be received by the faith alone that comes from him; and that faith which comes from him cannot but receive him. Man’s faith refuseth him; it receiveth a literal knowledge of him from what it heareth from men, or from what it readeth related in the Scripture concerning him; but refuseth the nature of the thing. And it cannot be otherwise; for man’s faith, not being of the nature of it, cannot but refuse it. But this faith, which is given of God, which is from above, being of the same life and nature with Christ, cannot refuse the spring of its own life; but receiveth him immediately. There is no distance of time; but so soon as faith is received, Christ is received, and the soul united to him in the faith. …so faith lets him in immediately, and centres the soul in him: and the immortal soul feels the immortal virtue [Note that the “soul feels the immortal virtue”; this feeling is a spiritual experience!] and rejoices in the proper spring of its own immortal nature. [Likewise, the rejoicing is experienced.] But the faith of man never reaches this, never receives Christ, but only a relation of things concerning him; and with that faith which stands in the letter, opposes that faith which stands in the life. And here is the spirit of antichrist; here is the mystery of iniquity, working out of one form into another; for antichrist does not directly deny Christ, or deny the letter; but cries up Christ, cries up the letter, cries up ordinances; but so as they may feed the faith of his own nature, and maintain a hope there (I. 243-4).

    Let us hear no charges of elitism. All are instructed to enter in at the narrow gate. If, in fact, “few there be that find it,” is it not because many refuse the initial baptism of repentence for the remission of sin. Again Penington explains in a passage titled “The first way of meeting with the Spirit of God, is as a convincer of sin.”

    So that the great work for man while he lies in the darkness…is to distinguish the movings and stirrings of the Spirit of God. And this is the best way for man in this state to know them by: that which discovers that which is evil, THAT is good. That which discovers that which is spiritually evil, THAT must needs be spiritually good; for evil is darkness, and cannot make itself manifest. That which discovers that which is undoubtedly pure, and inclines to it, THAT must needs be of God. Now to know this, and be joined unto it, is a joining of the creature unto God, by somewhat of him that comes from his Spirit, and so is a true beginning of life eternal.

    • Patricia, please note the “in this context” in my statement, which broke out three aspects of pistis, differentiating belief, trust, and fidelity.

      As Paul says, we are justified by the faith of Christ. And Penington’s is, of course, solid classic Quaker doctrine. As you and I have found previously, however, we may read such texts differently — and your comment reminds me of that previous discussion, which, as I recall, included this same issue of initiative. In my reading, Penington’s “faith of man” is that which, as he says, stops with belief in propositions and never reaches to the life, never becomes trust and fidelity in the already-present life and power within: it is not full pistis. It is a “faith” that “cries up the letter” but — like the special experiences Fox described — leaves our nature in Adam. But when, moved by the power of the spirit in us, we discern and submit to that power — and generally we discern it through, as Friends said, looking to that in us which reveals our darkness — then we are joined to it in faith. As noted in our previous discussion, preaching turns out to be necessary in many cases: Penington did plenty of it himself. Some need to have their attention directed to the moving of the spirit in them.

      Theologians have been arguing about initiative seemingly forever: I leave them to it. I’m not concerned to address it here; it’s a theological issue that I don’t find very relevant to practice. Faith is a gift of God? OK. Can we reject it? Quakers have thought so, and Penington says as much. If we can’t, then Calvin had it right: we have no choice; the potter makes some vessels for honor and some for dishonor. But if we can, then we should learn how to avoid that, how to discern and submit to the light of Christ working in us. And the spirit has been poured out upon all flesh; the light enlightens everyone who comes into the world. As the first Friends knew, at least some people can respond to the movement of faith in them; that’s partly why we take the risk of answering that of God in them. But it’s all metaphor to me, so I have no concern either to protect or to undermine God’s initiative unless I see practical value in it: I might be willing to speak about it if that would help someone heed the invitation to respond, but otherwise it’s a minefield I don’t want to walk in.

  28. I read the above post and subsequent contributions with some interest as I have always regarded the experiential as essential to my religious life, but I have also valued the idea of the gathered meeting as a verification of that experiential aspect.

    In addition I have always regarded Quaker practice as an interaction between personal experience verified in this way and the social witness that validates it in the public sphere,the testaments that express outwardly the inner convictions leading from experience.

    We might also refer to ‘tradition’ as has been done above, but this has to develop. There was no tradition for the early Quakers and for us it has to be an ongoing process rather than something set in stone. Otherwise we are back to something like a reliance on scripture as an infallible source .

    • Greg, I understand that you may always have thought of or regarded things in a certain way, but of course that doesn’t mean that others should embrace those opinions or that your reasons for holding them would be compelling for a given other. For example, I think you’d find some disagreement about your statement that “there was no tradition for the early Quakers”; for one thing, they thought of themselves as reviving the pure Christian tradition, and it seems evident that their experience was shaped, as they wished it to be, by that tradition. You may also find some disagreement about claims of experiential verification and validation — as indeed you already have if you’ve read the post carefully.

      As the tagline states, this is “an experiment in blogging”; my approach may not be what you are accustomed to. Unlike those of some other blogs, the comment area here is reserved primarily for dialogue between readers and me. Normally, I don’t publish comments that merely state opinions without support because I don’t find such comments conducive to that dialogue. (Please note the comment policy on the blog’s front page.) If you offer more objective reasons for your views, however, I may be able to engage with you.

      • Thanks for your reply George. I’m not sure why you think the fact that I regard things in a certain way as meaning that I consider that a reason for others should embrace them. What I described was what I understood to be the traditions that have grown up within Quakerism with regard to it being an experiental religion with implications for social witness. Tradition, in that sense, is something that develops continuously over time, which is why I doubt that re-interpreting something that had long been discontinuous can be seen as a tradition for the early Quakers. Were they not re-reviving something that had been lost?

        In terms of what you call my opinion, of course my personal experience cannot constitute any sort of argument, but nor is it an ‘opinion’. It is in the interpretation of its significance that it could be said to be an opinion. If I say that i believe it to be an experience of God, others may of course doubt this but the only argument that could arise is regarding the nature of God, i.e. of what I experience rather rather than of the experience itself. I realise that this could inhibit debate about experiental religion if this only implies an individual’s subjective experience. But I wouldn’t exclude the sense of God being present in a shared community of worship. It doesn’t have to be individual mysticism. And certainly does not have to be what you have called above ‘unusual’. Far from it. But without some sense of the inspiration of the presence of God in the lives of worshippers, that seems only to leave doctrine as a source of faith. Or, what I would suggest is a far more pervasive trend, a predominantly secular construction of what it means to live the good life.

        • George Fox often spoke of the experience of God’s presence in the gathered meeting, although he tended to speak of that presence as inspiring fear and trembling (quaking) as well as joy and peace. Many of us continue to have experiences, individually and corporately, of what feels to us to be the presence of God. (Interestingly, however, I see little contemporary mention of fear and trembling — perhaps because the zeitgeist doesn’t favor that kind of thing?) But the issue addressed in the post is not whether Friends and others have special experiences, but how the import of such experiences is conceived and presented.

          To recap, there are four areas of concern addressed here: (1) the futility of efforts to use special experiences, whether “had” by individual or group, as evidence, particularly of the existence of God; (2) the unnecessarily exclusive effects of insisting that such experiences are sine qua non for Friends; (3) the lack of necessary utility of such experiences for a spiritual life understood as life in divine righteousness (which is a life of faith/trust and faithfulness); and (4) the betrayal, by a spirituality centered on the seeking and enjoyment of special experiences, of the possibility for that radically counter-cultural life in righteousness. The post’s objective is not, then, to deny or denounce the occurrence of experiences deemed spiritual (whether by individuals or groups), but to help return the emphasis to faith (trust) and faithfulness as the necessary ground of our spiritual lives.

          Rather than attempt to discuss the broader issue of such experience in brief exchanges such as these, I recommend Ann Taves’s Religious Experience Reconsidered for a thoughtful and thorough contemporary analysis, perhaps along with Denys Turner’s The Darkness of God. Examining the first Quakers’ relation to the scriptural tradition is beyond my scope in this post: one could read something like George Fox’s doctrinal works, which are available on line at Google Books, but a good knowledge of scripture is required in order to see the myriad allusions. It seems to me, though, that Fox’s dependence on the Christian scriptural tradition is amply in evidence in his journal.

  29. Experience in and of itself, and the word of Scripture, in and of itself, are not especially valued among the Friends I know. They are means to an end, and that end can be described in traditional Christian language, as you have done here, or in non-Christian language. That description is itself not the end either, but the state itself. To me, the distinction between experience and its opposite is that Quakers require an actual change of heart and of soul and relationship to what is greater than humanity, as opposed to knowing the right words and actions. The proof, in other words, is in lived life—in experience. This different from seeking for some sort of altered-state experience in meeting or otherwise. To me the distinction in your essay is between fleeting change—the “peak experience”—and the ongoing experience of a truly altered state of experience.

    The biggest difficulty I see with this sort of experientially-grounded religion is what you call “exclusivity.” Words serve to join us, especially when we are isolated in our own unreproducible experience. On the other hand, the experience of being joined together in a covered meeting is itself not necessarily verbal. But in liberal meetings, where individual experience may not often be joined by a common language to describe that experience, what joins us us more an intellectual explanation of what strangers across the room are experiencing, than a visceral explanation of something shared. To me this is a challenge, rather than a warning to abandon ship. I suggest that one of our problems is a desire to simultaneously be open to newcomers and strangers, and to share the intimate experience of worship. Especially in a large meeting, it becomes ever harder, when trying to do both of these things, to reach any sort of satisfying result. But the answer may or may not be simply to seek a common language. I suggest that a closer attention to size and its effect on spiritual life, and to what it means to worship with newcomers and how we can encourage an intimate connection among committed Friends is in order. While we may have largely abandoned the “enforcer” aspects of eldering, I want to suggest that the aspect of elders as a grounding to the meeting, and a focus of group-accepted behavior and direction, may offer a way forward.

  30. Thank you, George, good disciplined thinking which is so refreshing. I find myself moving in a circle here: My practice of the Experiment with Light process (which is closely modelled on Fox’s epistle X) has been for me a route to seeing the reality of myself, and in doing so finding, as Fox says ‘then power comes’ – a power of unconditional love for myself in all my flaws and with complete inevitability therefore the same love for others (a work still in progress, I hasten to add). However, this has been for me what I would call a religious experience, in that the insights that emerge are pervasive; they seem completely self-validating (as Penington says: “But how may men know that these are true commands of the Lord, and not imaginations or opinions of their own? When the principle of life is known and that which God hath begotten is felt in the heart, the distinction between what God opens and requires there and what springs up in man’s wisdom, reason and imagination, is very manifest.” — “Some Questions and Answers shewing Mankind his Duty”).

    The search for ‘experience’ for its own sake is clearly vanity and self-regard. You may know of the ways in which the author of the ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ describes the straining and fretting of those who think they should force spiritual experiences, and the unfortunate side effects, looking as if they are ‘stunned sheep’, or have a worm in their ears! He writes of this misconception of the ‘inward life’, focused on the demand for experience (1), and advises instead the attention to the stirring of love – the goal of which is unknowable. In this quest, the ‘sweetness and comforts’ as he describes ecstatic experience are irrelevant ‘accidents’. (2)

    (1) “They read and hear well said that they should leave outward working with their wits, and work inwards: and because that they know not which is inward working, therefore they work wrong. For they turn their bodily wits inwards to their body against the course of nature; and strain them, as they would see inwards with their bodily eyes and hear inwards with their ears, and so forth of all their wits, smelling, tasting, and feeling inwards. And thus they reverse them against the course of nature, and with this curiosity they travail their imagination so indiscreetly, that at the last they turn their brain in their heads, and then as fast the devil hath power for to feign some false light or sounds, sweet smells in their noses, wonderful tastes in their mouths; and many quaint heats and burnings in their bodily breasts or in their bowels, in their backs and in their reins and in their members” Chapter 53

    (2) “and therefore I pray thee, lean listily to this meek stirring of love in thine heart, and follow thereafter: for it will be thy guide in this life and bring thee to bliss in the other. It is the substance of all good living, and without it no good work may be begun nor ended. It is nought else but a good and an according will unto God, and a manner of well‑pleasedness and a gladness that thou feelest in thy will of all that He doth.

    Such a good will is the substance of all perfection. All sweetness and comforts, bodily or ghostly, be to this but as it were accidents, be they never so holy; and they do but hang on this good will. Accidents I call them, for they may be had and lacked without breaking asunder of it. I mean in this life, but it is not so in the bliss of heaven; for there shall they be oned with the substance without departing, as shall the body in the which they work with the soul. So that the substance of them here is but a good ghostly will. And surely I trow that he that feeleth the perfection of this will, as it may be had here, there may no sweetness nor no comfort fall to any man in this life, that he is not as fain and as glad to lack it at God’s will, as to feel it and have it.” Chapter 49


    • If the power that comes is power for loving action in service of the other’s basic needs — in practical service of justice — then our Experiment with Light experience has been similar. One of the post’s major points is, of course, that what matters is not so much having a discrete experience of love’s power as submitting to that power and living by and in it. As the excerpts from Fox affirm, a discrete experience itself may or may not bear fruit, depending on our fidelity and discernment.

      If we unpack Penington’s statement, it is seen to express the typical Quaker stance that confidence in what we might call “leadings” rightly comes from a mental comparison: if the motion originates in love for the other — which must already be recognized and felt in the heart; that’s sine qua non for Penington — and if, therefore, it contradicts our “Adamic” will and wisdom, then we may trust that it is from God. (A leading, then, would be, in biblical terms, a call to carry the cross in self-sacrificial love.) In that sense, I don’t view a leading as self-validating, but, to the contrary, as calling for that discerning mental act of comparison (and, in some cases, discernment by others as well), an act that is necessary even though the difference may be “very manifest.” I suppose that it is possible to perform that discrimination pretty much automatically, but I think that it is safer for my ilk that we make it a conscious, intentional, and careful act, approaching leadings with caution and even suspicion. In any case, a comparison — even if perhaps a relatively automatic one for Penington’s ilk — is required, and that removes authentication from the feeling or insight itself and places it in the act of discernment.

  31. Thanks very much for this. For an article specifically dealing with experience see Maggie Ross ‘Behold Not the Cloud of Experience’ in ‘The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England VIII’, ed. E.A. Jones, Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2013. PDF available on request at the blog ‘Voice in the Wilderness’: the URL is ravenwilderness.blogspot.com. At the top of your request please put DO NOT PUBLISH and include your email address.

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