On Easter of 2006, I began making my way, chapter by chapter, through The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version, that 1994 publication of the Jesus Seminar which gathers together new translations of the canonical gospels, the reconstructed Signs Gospel and Sayings Gospel Q, the Gospel of Thomas, and fourteen others from the first three centuries of the Common Era.
It was as I began reading the second century gnostic Christian Secret Book of James, just this past week, that I reached clearness on why I have always been wary of either the “right doctrine” of religious orthodoxies or the “secret knowledge” of ancient or modern gnosticisms.
My bone-deep conviction, arising from my childhood apprehension of the witness of Jesus, is that every human being has an intimate, unmediated and salutary relationship with what many of us call God.
That relationship cannot be one which depends upon living by right doctrine or secret knowledge. It is implicitly familial, a birthright which no human agency can grant or deny. Wherever there seem to be rifts or torments in the relationship, those arise from the misperceptions of human beings, not from the reality of God’s interrelationship with us.
This conviction seems to me also to be at the very heart of Quaker faith and practice. When those seekers in seventeenth century England lay aside scripture, liturgy and sacrament to “wait upon the Lord,” it was because they had come to recognize how finite and fallible any forms of human concept and language are when it comes to representing the living Truth of that divine interrelationship.
In effect they were saying: “If God is real, then only God’s own direct mediation with us is real. Anything else is transient, mortal.”
Christ was very much engaged in teaching his disciples to see a new face of God, one they’d never dared let themselves see before, and to enter a new relationship with God, in which fear is no longer even conceivable. The face of God that Christ pointed to was characterized by the fact that this God could be addressed as “Abba,” “Dad.”
(To be fair, there was precedent for this in the ministry of the Old Testament prophet Hosea, who predicted that when the faithful were finally reconciled to God, they would cease addressing him as “Boss” and begin addressing him as “Husband.”)
This speaks to the heart of what I have learned in the thirty-some years since I “dropped out” of Lutheran seminary, the heart of what I have returned to in returning to that childhood apprehension of Jesus.
The day-to-day reality of faith and practice, what sustains me in every private grief or joy, in every public conflict or celebration, is not grounded in belief or knowledge. It is grounded in the immediate experience of relationship with the Divine Presence,
Nearer than breath,
Closer than hands or feet.
And so it is.