Monday, March 11, 2013

God Is More Than A Feeling

Quakers sometimes have a tough time knowing what to do with emotions. For most of our history, we have been highly suspicious of anything resembling emotionalism. Still today, when we make decisions together, the presence of strong emotions is sometimes taken as a signal that we are not yet fully submitted to Christ's will.

Our ingrained reticence towards emotion may seem surprising, since Quakerism is among the more experientially-oriented expressions of the Christian tradition. At the core of the Quaker movement is a conviction that the only solid basis of mature Christian faith is a lived relationship with the Holy Spirit. It is through a direct encounter with the risen presence of Jesus that we come to understand the meaning of the Scriptures and tradition that have been handed down to us from previous generations of disciples. For Friends, to be a Christian is to literally become a follower of Jesus - experiencing him as Teacher in our daily lives.

But what does experience mean? It is easy to imagine that Friends' emphasis on experiential faith would lead to emotionalism. When we talk about having an experience of Jesus, we might mean having an emotional response to a sermon, a Scripture reading, or another - perhaps more mundane - event in our lives. Experience might just a code word for the human emotional response.

But in reality, emotionalism is generally frowned upon in Quaker circles - especially in our decision-making process. When we gather in meetings for worship and business, our goal is to set aside all personal opinions, emotions and desires, and to allow the Holy Spirit to move and guide us.

So how do we experience this presence of the Holy Spirit without emotionalism? Certainly, we can experience God through emotional responses. We can also have an encounter with the Spirit through an intellectual eureka moment. And there are times when we experience the presence of Christ in our very bodies - in a sensation of physical oneness with him that transcends emotions or conscious thought. All of these are ways to encounter the present guidance and love of Jesus.

But to locate God in any of these - thoughts, emotions or sensory experience - would be a mistake. Though we experience God through our emotions, God is not a feeling. We encounter Jesus in our minds, but he is not an intellectual idea. The Holy Spirit is not material, but when we dwell together in love and truth, she finds concrete expression in our bodies.

For centuries, Quakers have been on a trajectory of stripping away everything that is not God, and at this point we tend to be cautious about all outward expressions. We have surrendered emotions, intellect and the sensory experience of the body, all in the pursuit of the essential, spiritual encounter with Jesus - beyond words, beyond feelings, beyond flesh and blood. For 350 years, Friends have pursued the via negativa, saying "not this" countless times.

It may be that we have gone too far. We have discovered that God is not in the wind, not in the earthquake, nor in the fire - but are we alert to the ways in which God speaks to us through body, mind, soul and spirit? Are we receptive to how Christ wants to be enfleshed, re-minded and emotionally felt in our lives? Having walked the path of negation for so long, are we able to embrace the continuing incarnation of Jesus through his Holy Spirit? Are we ready to be his body, with all faculties intact - brain, heart, hands and feet?


Robin M. said...

OK, I'm old, but I can't read this without the Boston song in my head.

Bill Samuel said...

Robin, what is the "Boston song"?

In response to Micah's reflection, we are made by God, in God's image, with our emotions, our physical bodies, our intellects, the whole package. To try to strip away any of that seems to me in some way a rejection of God's image. Friends need to learn the difference between stripping away and using our God-given attributes in right order.

Secondly, our relationship with God is a love relationship. How could you have a love relationship without emotion? Can one imagine a marriage where neither partner expressed emotion to the other? I think we would generally describe that as a dead marriage. So why would we reject emotion in the most important love relationship?

For myself, when I feel closest to God, tears often flow. Why would there be something wrong with that? I am simply overwhelmed with the awesomeness of God's love, and the tears are a natural response.

I have long had a sense that Quakers lack a full understanding of the Incarnation, and that is at the root of some of the problems in Friends, and the tendency to be arrogant towards other Christians in direct contradiction to Christ's prayer for unity. God, in the form of Jesus, came to humanity and expressed God's self in the ways natural to humans. But Friends, in their rejection of the artificiality of the established church, sometimes seem to have thrown out the baby with the bath water.

Jade said...

*The baby Jesus, that is. :)

Thanks for the insightful post, Micah and comment, Bill. You speak my mind (and heart!).

Chris M. said...

I appreciated Bill's comment, too.

("More Than a Feeling" was a hit song by the rock band Boston, released in 1976.)

It's interesting: My experience of unprogrammed Friends on the West Coast was that many Friends experienced the presence of strong emotions as often (though not always) being a sign of the Holy Spirit's closer presence, or a person's closer awareness of same.

A more ordinary posture in my experience was of rationalism, expressing more head knowledge than heart knowledge. When heard expressed as vocal ministry in meeting for worship, it is often known as "NPR ministry" or "NY Times ministry." And it infrequently led to spiritual depth, again in my experience.

I'll never forget an intense session in Pacific Yearly Meeting annual sessions, when a Friend gave sustained vocal ministry from a deep place of passion and anguish about the state of the world ecosystem, only to be followed up by someone who gave "compact-fluourescent-light bulb" ministry. It was utterly tone-deaf and banal in context.

It does take all of us. We're called to love God with heart, mind, body, and soul, not any one over the other. And each of us has different measures of strength in all of those areas.