Monday, December 05, 2011

Leaping over a language barrier

All religious groups (and really all groups) suffer from unintended “language barriers.”

The problem goes beyond nuisance jargon and its resulting confusion — language “barriers” confine our thinking and our very being.

Take language barriers created by Quakers, for instance, a religious group I belong to.

Our language barriers for newcomers are considerable and even laughable. I’ll briefly share examples without trying to explain them.

What’s a “clerk”? Why is this Quaker meeting, which meets weekly, called a “monthly meeting”? Why do some Friends seem to shy away from the very word “God”? Does “Spirit” suffice? How do I learn “the manner of Friends”? What’s this business about quaking, anyway?

The list goes on and on.

More troubling are the barriers that our Quaker language creates for our own spiritual awareness and evolution.

Recently I’ve explored the problem as I’ve been preparing a presentation on the topic of “Quaker Language Barriers.” That preparation and a chance reading has led me to consider, or reconsider, a frequently cited tenet for Quakers:

“There is that of God (or the Spirit) in everyone.”

How often we Friends find ourselves turning to that core belief for clarity, understanding and grace. For me it has stood next to the testimonies (simplicity, peace, integrity, community and equality) as fundamental.

It is at the heart of “love thy enemy.” “That of God in all” is where love begins.

Sure, I’ve stumbled over the “that of” part which doesn’t translate smoothly into modern English. Does “that of” mean “a part of”? I don’t think so. I take the entire sentence to mean that “God, or the Spirit, resides in us all.” The idea is similar to the notion that we are all God’s children. We human beings are inheritors of the divine spark.

And yet, with our “language barrier” in mind, I’ve been pondering and meditating over another quite different conception of who we are in relationship to Spirit and God. Rather than “that of God” being within you and me as individuals, suppose WE reside within Spirit or God. Or to take it one more step, what if “we” are parts of everything and “we” ARE Spirit? As Willigis Jäger writes in his book “Mysticism for Modern Times,” we are “representations of the whole” and “everything that happens to an individual part has an effect on the whole.”

Jäger speaks in terms of the “old paradigm,” which sounds not unlike our Quaker belief about “that of God" within us. The old paradigm, he says, has us “experiencing God within” us.

The new paradigm is that we ARE Spirit. “We are spiritual beings who have a human experience.”

There’s clearly much, much more to say about this, but now, for me, this is enough. I am trying to inhabit this paradigm, to feel myself as pure spirit that has happened to take human form.

As might be imagined, the silence of Quaker worship, like other forms of meditation, helps with my leap over the language barrier.

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