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.
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 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 intellectualeureka 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?