Thursday, 2 August 2018

Ego, Inner Light, and the Individual Journey

An outline profoile of a human head, with overlapping coloured circles and swirls inside and slightly spilling over that outline.
One of the allegations made about theologically pluralistic liberal Quakerism is that it feeds ego; that if we all have our own path that may look dramatically different from another Friends, we may become dominated, each individually and the Meeting and wider community of Friends collectively, by the worst sort of individualism. If we are all following our individual leadings, at least in terms of our spiritual development, it is all too easy to be led astray by our subconscious (or conscious) desires. Where a regimented, hierarchical faith community with a central authority can be a check on individual development through doctrine and review by the clerical hierarchy, a levelled faith community such as that of Friends can only apply any such check through a sort of collective supervision.
This is, frankly, obviously true in a logical sense. What is less obvious is how much of a problem it is in reality, and – related to that – what level of supervision, or even collective control, is appropriate.
We are a faith that believes in continuing revelation – whichever Quaker tradition you follow, that is consistent. The nature of it, and its relationship to scripture, may vary, but the fact of it does not. Of course, those who do not believe in a God who is revealing these things might choose a different term than “revelation”, but the effect is the same; guidance, for both practical and spiritual matters, is readily available if we but open ourselves to it. Indeed, as my regular readers will be aware, I do not believe in a theistic God that would be the source of revelation, and my own conception of the Divine does not endow it with volition to reveal anything, so the concept of revelation as traditionally conceived doesn't really fit my own conception – but like “worship” I know of no better alternative, so I just run with it.
But more than just continuing revelation, we might argue that our tradition teaches continuous revelation. We seek to bring our whole lives under the ordering of the Spirit. We know that, if we maintain open hearts, that Spirit can guide us at any moment. We know that we can receive leadings, impulses to action. We know that we can receive spiritual insights – the very basis of our silent Meetings for Worship. We put a lot of emphasis on the individuality of these leadings, though which of them can be individual depends somewhat on your particular tradition and outlook.
In the liberal tradition, we mostly only apply any oversight when it is something that will affect the Meeting, or wider community, or when the Friend is asking for support in a concern. We would usually consider it inappropriate to apply such Friendly checks on the matter of individual ethics, unless the Friend is acting truly beyond the pale, and certainly wouldn't consider it appropriate in terms of the specifics of people's beliefs.
Are we right, to leave it so up to the individual?
Consider how easy it is to be tricked by your own mind. How easy it is to be overconfident, or underconfident. How easy it is to see evidence that confirms what you already believed, and hard to see evidence that contradicts it – in the natural world, in science, in interpersonal relationships. Cognitive biases, perception biases, outright wishful thinking. It is far from inconceivable that a person inclined to homophobia will feel “led” to the conclusion that God supports them, those who are committed vegetarians will feel that the Spirit supports them, or even supports universal vegetarianism.
We are incredibly bad, us humans, at forming conclusions and interpreting evidence, even the evidence of our senses. While the Spirit can speak loudly in our hearts, it is not always clear. We should have no more confidence in our ability to discern its voice than anything else that is prone to our subjective interpretation.
Each of us has the Inner Light to guide us, and it may guide us along different paths, but we must always be vigilant for the action of our ego, and avoid mistaking one for the other.
We have methods to test leadings, when we are unsure of them or when we are asking for our Meeting's support. We can use clearness meetings, we test concerns in Meeting for Worship for Business. We do more individual reflection and search within. Some even look for signs in the world around them. Should we not apply similar methods to other personal revelation?
I don't mean policing doctrine. We can still accept that the Spirit is leading some of us one way, and some of us another. But surely we can develop processes and practices that will enable us to challenge one another, always in a spirit of love and with none held above one another, to test and probe and make sure, as sure as we can, that these truly are leadings of the Divine. To do so would not only give everyone assurance that they have read the Spirit's guidance aright, but would also mean we all learn to talk about these things, and that we do actually talk about them.
To be sure, there is a peril here. We cannot set a small group, such as elders, above everyone else to examine them and pronounce the validity of their spiritual experience. Any such practice would have to be equal, between all Friends, and co-produced by those “examining” and those being “examined”. It will take a lot of thought and judgement to work out how to do this, but one thing I know about Quakers is that there are plenty of us who are good at thinking and applying judgement to such matters. I know it presents risks, but they can all be mitigated – and if we are never to do anything that is risky in the pursuit of our faith, what are we all here for?
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