Advice and Query 2: Our experience of God is not God

This is a series of short, 500-word posts looking at the underlying theology of the Advices and Queries – forty-two pithy statements that collectively capture the British Quaker faith.

Bring the whole of your life under the ordering of the spirit of Christ. Are you open to the healing power of God’s love? Cherish that of God within you, so that this love may grow in you and guide you. Let your worship and your daily life enrich each other. Treasure your experience of God, however it comes to you. Remember that Christianity is not a notion but a way.

A&Q 1 addressed the community of ‘dear Friends’. Now we move to a focus on the individual. There is much to unpack in this beautiful and seemingly simply paragraph.

First we must ask, what is this ‘spirit of Christ’. In scripture, spirit is synonymous with breath and wind. Spirit invisibly animates and enlivens. The spirit of Christ is the Life we see in Jesus of Nazareth. In John 20:22 the resurrected Jesus breathes on his disciples, saying ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’. This spirit of Christ is mysteriously available to us all, and is one of order. We are invited to allow this spirit, which is also the love of God, to bring healing and order to our broken and chaotic lives. God won’t do this without our permission. Christ stands at the door and knocks (Rev. 3.20). We have to open the door before this work can being.

What is ‘that of God within’? God can’t be broken into pieces. We don’t have a fragment of God inside us. Neither do we have one of many ‘gods’ within us. Is it a natural capacity to respond to God? I don’t think so. As we saw in A&Q 1 our capacity to hear and obey God has been impaired. ‘That of God’, in the traditional Quaker understanding, is a seed that God plants in our hearts. It lies dormant in the earth, waiting for the Light to awaken it. We must cherish it, treasure it, and care for it, allowing the seed to grow within us. The process of our healing requires work. The garden of our inner life needs careful tending.

The message is a holistic one. We are asked to bring the whole of our lives to God. We cannot have a ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ life separate to our ‘work’ or ‘love’ life. Our worship and our daily life are intimately linked. If we attempt to keep them separate then we stifle the seed of God. The God-seed needs to flourish and bloom in every aspect of our being and life. Like the mustard seed, it is an invasive weed that will grow to tremendous proportions if we allow it.

We are asked to treasure our experience of God. An important point must be made here. Our experience of God is not God. Our experiences of God will vary, but the variation is in our experience, not in God’s-self. God remains the same, ever mysterious and ‘other’, inwardly knowable (yet still paradoxically hidden) through the spirit of Christ. It is misleading to speak as if Quakerism is based on ‘pure experience’ with an accompanying rejection of ‘talk about experience’. There is no such thing as pure, unmediated experience. I repeat, our experience of God is not God. Our experience of God is vital (in all senses of the word), and so are the ways we communicate with each other about these experiences. This brings me to the continually misused word ‘notion’.

What is a notion? I have heard this word used to dismiss any idea, or even theology and language altogether. I have heard similar mistreatments of Paul’s words that ‘the letter kills’ (2 Cor. 3:6). This is not helpful. Ideas, concepts and theories are vital if we are to communicate with one another. If all ideas are notions, then so are phrases like ‘Christianity is not a notion but a way.’ Rather, a notion is an idea that is empty of divine Truth, and is treated as an end in itself. Our ideas and theories are important, indispensable tools that are useful only when we use them as such. As soon as we mistake them for what they point towards, they loose their usefulness and become notions. God is always bigger than our ideas of God.

So Christianity is not a notion but a way. Christianity (originally referred to as ‘the Way’ e.g. Acts 9:2)  is not an intellectual curiosity, but a story and vision that promises the transformation and purification of the entire cosmos in the fires of Divine Love. It is a community to be joined, not an idea to be entertained. It is not a marker of social respectability or a security blanket, but a glorious adventure bearing the marks of crucifixion. Commitment to Quakerism is not a commitment to a purely abstract theology, or a practice without a theory. It is a commitment both to an embodied theology and a storied practice. Quakerism is a lived tradition.

In many ways this A&Q is a reiteration of the themes of A&Q 1 for the individual – we are called to open ourselves to God’s guidance and healing. A simple idea that I must continually return to and relearn.

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4 thoughts on “Advice and Query 2: Our experience of God is not God

  1. Thank you Mark! This is my favourite A & Q, or perhaps I should say the one that challenges me the most, that i continually return to. I like the ‘meatiness’ of your exposition, and will take some time to try & digest it fully. You have the makings of an interesting book in this series!

    1. You’re very welcome. Thanks for reading! I’m really enjoying writing these, and seeing where the series takes me. I’m finding it to be a really helpful discipline.

  2. The early Friends undestood ‘notions’ as ideas that were ‘out of the Life’, that is, out of the Kingdom of God which was, as with Jesus, their central focus. There is a misconception by modern Friends that they discounted theology per se; this is not so because many of the Public Friends, like Fox himself, were indeed theologians. Even today one doesn’t have to have a B.Th., or a D.D. to be a theologian.

    The early Friends followed a ‘doing theology’. In ‘letting their lives speak’ their orthopraxis was the Lamb’s War for salvation, a spiritual war without ‘carnal weapons’, who intention was to bring ‘all people on the Earth’ into unity and wholeness with God (which is what salvation actually means theologically).

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