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A Quaker Understanding of Jesus Christ
Part 3 of 4
by Arthur O. Roberts
Originally published December 1, 1999 at Suite101.com
[EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is taken, by permission, from an article, "A Quaker Understanding of Jesus Christ", by Arthur O. Roberts in Quaker Religious Thought, Vol. 29, No. 3, July 1999. Due to the length of that article, it is published here in four parts. The article was adapted from a paper read at the Quaker Theological Discussion Group, Orlando, Florida, November 21, 1998, and responses to it. Arthur Roberts is a former Editor of Quaker Religious Thought. He is the author of many journal articles, poems, devotional pieces, books, and other writings. He has served in the past as Professor of Religion and Philosophy and as Dean of Faculty at George Fox University, as well as a pastor in Friends' (Quaker) churches. Quaker Religious Thought is published two times a year, and subscription information can be obtained from Phil Smith, Religion Department, George Fox University, Newberg, OR 97132.]
C. Current cultural barriers to accepting early Quaker beliefs about Christ
1. Scientific method questions the credibility of revealed truth. This is particularly so in respect to empirically unverifiable claims, such as miracles, the resurrection of Jesus, the mystical presence of Christ within believers and in the church, and the afterlife. A scientific rejection of the supernatural erodes the Christological assumptions which formed the basis for the Quaker awakening. These assumptions affirmed a revelatory unity between God acting in creation and in redemption.
2. A predilection for psychological explanations makes theological ones seem archaic. According to this world view, inner feelings and subjective states can be empirically explained without reference to salvation language- to "God talk" and altered without the need of divine agency. Television confessionals and talk shows reveal the pervasiveness of psychological explanations in our culture. This stance weakens the force of the 17th century movement by implying that theological language, e.g. "there is one Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition," is a pre-scientific way of describing events that are now more credibly understood, and dealt with, in psychological terms.
3. A mind set that the self is sovereign. This mind-set blunts the early Quaker experience of the Light coming as terror and judgment before bringing assurance and peace. This enthronement of self-esteem makes penitence, discernment, submission to authority, covenant commitments, and acceptance of external discipline difficult. Furthermore it facilitates self-justified conduct. This mind set is considerably at variance with the normative Quaker emphasis upon self-denial.
4. An assumption that cultural pluralism entails religious and ethical relativism. This produces a penchant for diversity that prizes inclusiveness as the highest form of tolerance, that delights aesthetically in discovering peripheral religious views. This position attracts religious seekers unhappy with dogma or organizational structure, but it weakens central Christian doctrines of creation, incarnation and atonement, and it diminishes awe before the Lord God almighty. When truth is considered disparate rather than coherent, unified actions become difficult to achieve, resulting in an inordinate preoccupation with process, including modes of worship, moral discipline, and decision-making. As settled convictions become fewer, ethical options multiply and Biblical/covenantal authority weakens. For Quakers this means that in meetings "gathered for business" consensus becomes rather than reflects the "the mind of Christ."
5. A rejection of any foundational universe of discourse. All systems of thought accordingly are viewed as provisional products of human thought. In rejecting foundational concepts of any sort (Platonic, Biblical, or enlightenment, or blends thereof) post-modernist epistemology challenges Quaker assumptions about the nature of truth. From a reductionist perspective such an epistemology reduces Quakerism to instructive sociological phenomena - a museum exhibit of human religious behavior. From a pluralistic perspective such an epistemology releases Quaker, or other religious truth claims, from a burden of empirical proof. Neither a disparagement of religious claims nor their exclusion from canons of rationality accords well with the passionately unified spiritual, rational and moral convictions of the first "Publishers of Truth."
6. A flirtation with neo-animism. To replace abandoned mystery ("Christ in you the hope of glory"), or from a sense of unfulfilled spirituality, some Quakers have turned to neo-animistic paganism, in forms such as goddess or new age religions. These approaches substitute myth making for theological reflection and naturalistic ethics for Biblical morality. Fox's vision on that ancient haunt of demons, Pendle Hill, ("a people in white raiment to be gathered to the Lord") may be better understood by Friends (Latino, African, Inuit) more recently freed from animistic fears and priest-burdened religion than by modern neo-animists who bask in the socio-cultural benefits of a culture leavened by reason while rejecting its theological foundation.
7. The substitution of 'notional' theology for spiritual experience. Although normatively anathema, 'notional' religion assails Friends along the whole theological spectrum, from fundamentalist to humanistic theologies. The word "credo" simply means "I believe." The negative connotation of "creedalism," refers to the substitution of propositional for experiential truth, of head knowledge for heart knowledge. The current cultural animus against religious dogma is more severe now than in the seventeenth century, and may be numb to the forces of secular dogma. Nevertheless, William Penn's warning against "superfining" (prooftexting) Scripture texts, is still relevant, although more diversely applicable. Penn wrote:
Men are too apt to let their heads outrun their hearts, and their notion exceed their obedience, and their passion support their conceits; instead of a daily cross, a constant watch, and an holy practice. The despised Quakers desire this may be their care, and the text their creed in this, as in all other points; preferring self-denial to opinion, and charity to knowledge, according to that great Christian doctrine, 1 Cor. Xiii. (The Key, Section V).
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