A Journey from Believing to Beloving
Trevor Dorey was ordained in the Church of England nearly thirty years ago, at the age of sixty. In this article he attempts to shed light on the way-marks of his spiritual journey which have taken him more recently towards the Religious Society of Friends, (Quakers).
The Primacy of Experience. My journey has been triggered by two profound experiential convictions. The first is that there is a Reality, beyond what we see and touch, that can break through into our consciousness with life-changing effect. We might call such events "Gifted Moments of Spiritual Insight". The second is that the Prayer of Silence is a channel of grace by which that same Reality can transform the self-centred ego into a more compassionate self. When a life has been touched by those two experiences there can be no going back. They assume an authority above all others.
Faith, for me, is not assent to doctrines or scriptures or the teachings of any institution. It is a confident trust that the Reality - the Light - that has guided my life in the past will continue to do so in matters of believing and behaving.
God - the Ultimate Reality - is beyond words; indeed, verbal images can be as dangerous as graven ones. Some working hypothesis or myth is necessary if the Spiritual Journey is to be discussed at all, but there must be two caveats; first that the hypothesis or myth will be acknowledged as such and never seen as "the truth of things", and secondly that it must be renewed as our knowledge of ourselves and the universe expands. In this context, myth might be defined as an imaginative, communally-developed narrative-conditioned by its time and culture - which seeks to give meaning to profound or inexplicable this-worldly phenomena by setting them in an overarching other-worldly framework.
My own working hypothesis sees God as the creating compassionate mind, consciousness and energy behind and within the evolving universe; as Being but not a being; as Personal but not a person. God does not intervene from a beyond (since there is no duality) but is already present throughout creation. All things are interdependent and have their being in God. It follows that all things are "particles of God" - that the hazelnut, the star, the sparrow and ourselves are siblings (as St Francis' Brother Sun and Sister Moon). It follows, too, that humankind is both human and divine. Our challenge is to wake up to that high calling, to be enlightened by grace and to live out its truth for the healing of creation. It might be called Theosis - a growing into Godness.
So, to recap, God cannot be known by thought but is rather an experience of cosmic reality. In beauty, relationships and suffering the reality of things touches the receptive heart and draws a response. Deep calls to deep, with God a verb as much as a noun. How, though, does such a hypothesis deal with the destructive elements in creation that are not of human origin - tsunamis or life forms that eat life away? Where is God in all of that? Does all creation have free will? Is there randomness in God? Such questions are still a work in progress but better to travel with questions than not to set out. We walk by faith not by sight.
Jesus. Modern biblical scholarship throws fresh light on the old dichotomy between the Historical Jesus and the Christ of Faith. The work of the Jesus Seminar, (note 1) for example, confirms what many have believed for decades; that most of the words spoken by Jesus in the gospels, especially that of John, were probably put into his mouth long after his death as the Church wove him into a new myth and a new theology retrospectively. Behind those late additions we glimpse Jesus the radical mystic; both human and divine (as we all are) but fully open to his divine calling; a teacher well versed in the perennial wisdom, learnt perhaps from the Silk Road travellers passing through his home town; a Sufi-like charismatic figure, anchored in prayer to the Reality he knew as his Father, whose nature as self-giving love he mirrored; and, crucially, utterly committed to his vision of a this-worldly Kingdom of compassion, freedom and justice, committed enough to die for it rather than compromise.
By contrast, the "Christ of Faith myth", the product of Paul, Hellenism and the early Church, portrays a wholly supernatural Jesus, entering our space/time for a brief spell to secure eternal life, in a realm beyond death, for true believers.
In light of today's knowledge, it is not too great an exaggeration to say that we have inherited two Christianities, each with its own theology; on the one hand the Christianity of the Historical Jesus with its theology of the Kingdom - this-worldly, compassionate, love-in-action focussed; on the other hand, the Christianity of the Christ of Faith with its theology of the Institutional Church - supernatural, other-worldly, belief-focussed.
Extraordinarily, whereas the Historical Jesus now appears to have been unaware of the other-worldly status later assigned to him by the Church (what would he have made of Nicea?), the Church, in its creeds, seems quite uninterested in the earthly Jesus' life and his Kingdom teaching!
Much as I acknowledge how compelling the traditional Christian "Fall and Redemption" myth - i.e. that of the Christ of Faith - has been for centuries, and much as I honour the sincerity with which it is still proclaimed, I can no longer identify with it. When a myth loses even its mythical credibility it loses its value. When it is taken literally it easily becomes an excluding impediment to truth and unity. Today's broken world needs compassion more than religious dogma, committed belovers more than fervent believers, Jesus the Kingdom visionary more than Jesus the pre-existent Logos. It needs a return to "The Way" of the early Christians. My journey therefore is unhesitatingly with the humble carpenter of Nazareth, who calls us to leave our ego-self behind and take up our cross; to follow him rather than to worship him, and to be radically transformed so that the world and its lovelessness may be transformed.
(Note 1. The Jesus Seminar (www.westarinstitute.org/the-jesus-seminar) is a major American study begun in 1985 by a panel of eminent Biblical scholars to gauge inter alia the authenticity of the saying and deeds attributed to Jesus in the gospels.)
The Bible. Treasure though it is, the Bible's standing as "God's inerrant word for us today" can no longer be sustained. It is time for more open discussion.
Beginning with eleven chapters of myth drawn from a variety of ancient sources, it contains two contrasting creation stories, divine approval for inhumane punishment and slaughter, two contrasting genealogies of Jesus, some very imaginative literary devices in Matthew, and a style in John's gospel entirely different from that in the Synoptic gospels. Much of it is clearly time or culturally conditioned. As regards accuracy, the earliest New Testament text we have, dated from the late fourth century, has many thousands of amendments written into it. In sum, the Bible is, it seems to me, a valuable library of very human books, some of them a great deal more inspired than others.
So why can it still be called a treasure?
(a) Because in the Sermon on the Mount, The Lord's Prayer and some of the parables we have an invaluable insight into Jesus' teaching.
(b) Because it tells of humankind's deep experience of the Divine Presence - of "Gifted Moments of Spiritual Insight" (see above) - from Abraham and Moses to Jesus, Paul and beyond; of how individual and communal lives were transformed by that experience; and how our forbears tried to understand its relevance for their living. We - as time and culturally conditioned as them - face the same challenge as we wrestle with God's mysterious impingement.
(c) Because of the inescapable challenge of the resurrection appearances, which, like the Virgin Birth tradition, scarcely appear in the earliest writings, of Paul and Mark, but which expand in detail as the Christ of Faith myth develops. Were they historical happenings? Were they spiritual experiences like the paranormal events noted in our own time - indications perhaps that deep bonds of love remain unbroken through the process of death? Or were they too, "Gifted Moments of Spiritual Insight"? Those moments seem to have a common purpose - to make us grasp a profound truth and then to reshape our world view. For the disciples that meant first seeing the Cross as a triumph not a disaster, and then seeing that the world's salvation lies through our living, and if need be dying, for God's earthly kingdom of love. The dramatic spiritual insight triggers the otherwise unimaginable, life-changing, summons. So, as for Moses, "no Burning Bush, no Exodus from Egypt", so, for the disciples, "no Resurrection Appearances, no Christianity". Paul's Damascus Road experience was very similar, as have been countless others since, including my own.
The Church of England. I have many reasons to be grateful to the Church of England. It nourished me as a chorister; it was the setting for my conversion; it discerned my calling to the priesthood, entrusted me with parishes and provided many true friendships. And yet... despite these causes for continued gratitude, I sense a growing number of tensions between the direction of the Church's life and my own spiritual convictions.
Ever since Constantine adopted Christianity as the state religion and as a mechanism for control and conformity, establishment has compromised the Church, tempting it into imitating the state in hierarchical pomp and power, distancing it from ordinary people, and limiting its freedom to follow "The Way" - Jesus' agenda of radical justice. That handicap remains today.
The growing imbalance between the wings of the Church has seen the return of a narrower Protestantism, a more literal approach to Scripture, and a fear or distrust of new truth whether academic or scientific. There has been neglect of key elements of the faith, such as Contemplative Prayer (silence being thought of by some as dangerous), the Way of the Mystics and the pursuit of holiness, strands stretching back to the Desert Fathers and Mothers who so early on perceived the need to hold on to the essentials. In the process the Church has also lost sight of the wisdom of Richard Hooker, that Anglicanism needs Scripture, Tradition and Reason, and that the Bible is to be re-interpreted afresh in every age.
Jesus said virtually nothing about sexuality but quite a lot about Mammon; and he reserved his sternest rebukes for religious leaders who "strained out gnats but swallowed camels." Matters like these present a most serious challenge to the credibility of a Church renowned amongst other things for its wealth and its wealthy elites.
The Church's mainstream teaching now stresses penal substitution and the next-world, with personal salvation God's reward for right belief. But surely that stress is a touch ego-centric? And is Divine love really conditional? Should not an authentic, ego-free believing be evidenced above all else by a this-worldly compassionate beloving? God's demand for compassion ahead of worship or religious correctness seems crystal clear in both the Old and New Testaments.
I see no intended lack of brotherly love in most of these divisions and tensions. They have played themselves out over many centuries as the almost inevitable result of establishment and the "two Christianities". But serious re-appraisals are vital if schism is to be avoided and if the Church is to have any relevance in a modern world crying out in its confusion for a vision of justice and sustainability.
The Quakers. Since my attendance at Newbury Friends is relatively recent, my sense of belonging and understanding is naturally not yet quite what it is at St Mary's church, Speen. Already, however, in a warmly open environment, I am finding that the tensions which I referred to in discussing the Church of England (above) are being addressed and in part resolved for me among Quakers.
From their 17th Century beginnings Quakers were in many ways non-conformist. Their profound experience that the Holy Spirit speaks directly to all and needs no intermediaries led to their rejecting the national Church and its separated priesthood. That independence left them free to pursue their testimonies of simplicity, truthfulness, equality, peacefulness and, more recently, sustainability.
Though this is not true worldwide, most European Quakers are theologically liberal. They value openness and the need to honour that of God in every person. So, there is a strong Universalist element, and orthodoxy is less stressed than orthopraxy. New truth is welcomed since all truth comes from God. Silent prayer and the mystical way continue to be elements of their spirituality.
Friends in Britain usually take a liberal line also on issues of sexuality and gender, reflecting their tendency to see the world in modern rather than Biblical terms. Their attitude to social justice places them firmly on the side of the poor, though historically and in the present too the problem of wealth and its proper use is ongoing, as it is for all of us! "Let your life speak" is a well-known Quaker quotation. It sums up the conviction of Friends that compassionate action for justice and for their other testimonies, in the here and now, is the pre-eminent mark of a living faith. Theirs comes close to being a "religion-less Christianity" in Bonhoeffer's sense, a "being for others". They bear out Etty Hillesum's insight that God becomes real primarily in our works of love. Again, God is something we do.
Conclusions. Because Kingdom theology predominates in local Quakerism and Institutional theology in local Anglicanism, my head is left with little choice. My heart, however, will find it impossible to let deep bonds of friendship at St. Mary's fade away. I am being drawn towards a lived Christianity that is as free as possible from words and doctrines, where common cause is sought with the mystical traditions of all religions, and where love is the only rule. Quaker membership seems a logical next step to be considered but I shall not relinquish my priesthood. The liturgical role has ended but the pastoral role has not. Michael Ramsey, the 100th archbishop of Canterbury, spoke of the priest as bringing men to God and God to men. I feel comfortable with that. But can I find a way of living in any full sense with Anglicanism in spite of its present theological stance; of accepting the old myths simply as poetry, as an Anglican Bishop rather wistfully suggested to me recently? Time will tell!
Could it be, looking further ahead, that my journey and others like it are tiny parts of a bigger movement? Is it possible that the selfish gene, having adapted aeons ago into a tribal gene for its survival, is beginning to adapt again, for the same reasons, into a global gene? Could the recent - in Darwinian terms - emergence of the great religions, different indeed but all embodying something of the perennial wisdom, be a sign of that adapting - to a globalisation not of economic exploitation but of equality, justice and the sustainability of the planet? And could that power of love that draws me and so many others be the compassionate catalyst at the heart of our evolutionary adapting? It is a dream worth following.
But finally, this soul-searching has brought me to a new place; to the apparent ending of one path and the beginning of another. I sense that the time for wrestling and analysing, the time for the intellect to hold sway, is over. The next phase of the journey, to be made by the self-aware self not the ego-self, is a matter of will, simplicity, intuition and love. The anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing (note 2) tells us, "by love He can be grasped and held; never by thought ", that we should therefore "beat upon that Cloud of Unknowing with a dart of longing love and never give up". The Spiritual Journey - all of life it seems - must be shaped by love alone.
(Note 2. A late 14th century spiritual guide to Christian mysticism and contemplative prayer.)
This article first appeared in the May 2018 edition of Friends Quarterly and is reproduced here with permission.
Trevor Dorey was ordained in the Anglican church at the age of sixty and served parishes in Hampshire and Cornwall. Close friendships at Newbury Quakers drew him in that direction as well as links into contemplative prayer and PCN Britain. For 25 years, he and his wife Val ran a charity journeying extensively among the poorest in North and South India. His journeying continues.