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.
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.]
 Ann Taves, Religious Experience Reconsidered. See also the quotation from Robert Ellwood in note 2, below.
 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).
 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.
 See, for example, Visionaries: The Spanish Republic and the Reign of Christ, by William A. Christian Jr. (Full text is available on line.)
 Ann Taves, op. cit., p. 147.
 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.”
 Harmless, Mystics, p. 15.
 George Fox, Journal, p. 171 of Volume 2 of the 1831 edition of the Works. Modified for clarity.
 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.”
 George Fox’s “general epistle to Friends at the Yearly Meeting in London,” modified for clarity. Works, Vol. 2, pp. 172-173.
 Romans 1:19, the source of the Quaker phrase “that of God in every one.”
 Philippians 2:12.
 Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, Kindle location 1109.
 Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, pp. 76, 77.
 Matt. 13:45-46.
 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.”
 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.
 1 Cor. 2:16. See also Philippians 2.
 See John 4, the story of Jesus and the woman at the well.
 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.)