One of the greatest strengths of the Quaker tradition is that each of us is encouraged to discover the risen presence of Jesus for ourselves. It is not enough to read about Christ in the Bible, or to recite theological statements. Our faith is not based in our ideas about God, but in our lived relationship withGod. This kind of faith is an encounter that comes through the daily practice of dwelling in God. We learn to say together with the apostle, “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”
Through this lived experience of Christ’s indwelling love – and through the practical application of his love in community – we come to know who God really is. Through this process of growing and maturing in faith, we come to believe and share the core teachings of the New Testament. As we grow in love, we are drawn together in the reading of Scripture, the retelling of the gospel story, and the application of biblical principles to our lives.
But the experience of the risen Jesus, and the power of his love in our lives, must come first. We love because he first loved us, and we trust his words in Scripture because he first spoke his word into our hearts. When we claim to believe certain ideas about God, this is not simply because we have been told these things or read about them in the Bible. Instead, our starting place is this living experience of God. Our intellectual beliefs are simply an outgrowth of a life lived in relationship to God and the community of those who are seeking to follow Jesus and love one another.
Our beliefs are testimony to those things that we have experienced first-hand – that which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and touched with our hands. The words that we speak and the beliefs we hold are meant as a reminder of and invitation to the full-bodied experience of God’s Spirit. Such beliefs are the fruit of a life lived in God’s love. How could we not want to share that kind of beauty, grace and power?
Are there weaknesses to this approach? Absolutely. Individuals and even whole communities often deceive themselves. We easily become too subjective, allowing our personal feelings, assumptions and interpretations to dominate when we should be listening to the reasoned witness of others. This is why it is so important for each of us to live in relationship with a rooted community, and for each community to be in humble conversation with the wider body of Christ.
Despite the dangers of subjectivity, Friends believe that the lived experience of Christ’s power must be the foundation of our faith. Without his presence and love, all our religious rituals, all our beautiful words, charitable actions and correct beliefs are nothing but empty forms. We trust that, as we dwell in the love of Jesus, the Holy Spirit will move within us and among us, gathering us together into lives of faithfulness that fulfill the New Testament witness – not according to the legalism of words, but by the grace of the Spirit.