As I sat in meeting this morning, I found myself reflecting on unity, and what it does and does not mean to be in unity. Where Friends once spoke about finding unity during business meeting as meaning that all had the same sense of where the Spirit was leading them, it seems like many Friends use the term "consensus" and refer to it as finding something that everyone can agree on. I do not think consensus and unity are the same, because to me unity allows for the possibility that while I do not agree with something, I may have a sense that the Spirit is indeed leading us in that direction, and that my disagreement might come from my personal feelings interfering with my discernment.
I was thinking on unity on a larger level, however, not just in terms of the business meeting. There is often a homogeneity among Friends that springs from a desire to be with like-minded people. It is certainly easy to see why someone who disagrees with the norms of American culture might seek some shelter from it by huddling together with like-minded folks. I believe that we send subtle, and often not-so-subtle, signals to those that are not like-minded that they do not belong, whether it be through "Republicans for Voldemort" bumper stickers, or various odd-looks at large SUVs or particular forms of dress, or folks making disparaging comments about various other groups during meeting. This like-mindedness takes on the appearance of being "what is it to be Quaker".
When early Christians and early Friends spoke of "unity of the Spirit", I believe it was someone quite different from like-mindedness. Instead, it was a shared experience of God, of a love and power so strong and so bright that worldly concerns became pale before it. It is an experience in which like-mindedness does not matter, because the experience of love is so strong that it is impossible to hate the person you disagree with. It occurs not because of
like-mindedness, but in spite of
This evening, as I was reading through some selections from Isaac Penington, I came across this discussion of spiritual unity, which spoke to the things that have been on my mind:
Some Questions and Answers Concerning Spiritual UnityQ
. 1. What is spiritual unity ?A
. The meeting of the same spiritual nature in divers [i.e. one another], in one and the same spiritual centre or streams of life. When the spirits or souls of creatures are begotten by one power into one life, and meet in heart there; so far as they thus meet, there is true unity among them.Q
. 2. Wherein doth this unity consist ?A
. In the life, in the nature, in the Spirit wherein they are all begotten, and of which they are formed, and where their meeting is. It consists not in any outward or inward thing of an inferior nature; but only keeps within the limits and bounds of the same nature. The doing the same thing, the thinking the same thing, the speaking the same thing, this doth not unite here in this state, in this nature; but only the doing, or thinking, or speaking of it in the same life. Yea, though the doings, or thoughts, or words be divers; yet if they proceed from the same principle and nature, there is a true unity felt therein, where the life alone is judge.Q
. 3. How is the unity preserved?A
. Only by abiding in the life; only by keeping to the power, and in the principle, from whence the unity sprang, and in which it stands. Here is a knitting of natures, and a fellowship in the same spiritual centre. Here the divers and different motions of several members in the body (thus coming from the life and spirit of the body) are known to and owned by the same life, where it is fresh and sensible. It is not keeping up an outward knowledge or belief concerning things, that unites, nor keeping up an outward conformity in actions, etc. for these may be held and done by another part in man, and in another nature; but it is by keeping and acting in that which did at first unite. In this there is neither matter nor room for division; and he that is within these limits, cannot but be found in the oneness.Q
. 4. How is the unity interrupted?A
. By the interposition of any thing of a different nature or spirit from the life. When any thing of the earthly or sensual part comes between the soul and the life, this interrupts the soul's unity with the life itself; and it also interrupts its unity with the life in others, and the unity of the life in others with it. Any thing of the man's spirit, of the man's wisdom, of the man's will, not bowed down and brought into subjection, and so not coming forth in and under the authority and guidance of life, in this is somewhat of the nature of division: yea, the very knowledge of truth, and holding of it forth by the man's wisdom, and in his will, out of the movings and power of the life, brings a damp upon the life, and interrupts the unity; for the life in others cannot unite with this in spirit, though it may own the words to be true.Q
. 5. How may unity be recovered, if at any time decaying?A
. In the Lord alone is the recovery of Israel, from any degree of loss in any kind, at any time; who alone can teach to retire into, and to be found in that, wherein the unity is and stands, and into which division cannot enter. This is the way of restoring unity to Israel, upon the sense of any want thereof; even every one, through the Lord's help, retiring in his own particular, and furthering the retirings of others to the principle of life, that every one there may feel the washing from what hath in any measure corrupted, and the new-begetting into the power of life. From this, the true and lasting unity will spring amain, to the gladding of all hearts that know the sweetness of it, and who cannot but naturally and most earnestly desire it. Oh! mark therefore, the way is not by striving to beget into one and the same apprehension concerning things, nor by endeavouring to bring into one and the same practices; but by alluring and drawing into that wherein the unity consists, and which brings it forth in the vessels, which are seasoned therewith and ordered thereby. And from this, let all wait for the daily new and living knowledge, and for the ordering of their conversations and practices in that light, and drawings thereof, and in that simplicity and integrity of heart, which the Spirit of life at present holdeth forth and worketh in them; and the life will be felt, and the name of the Lord praised in all the tents of Jacob, and through all the inhabitants of his Israel; and there will be but one heart, and one soul, and one spirit, and one mind, and one way and power of life
; and what is already wrought in every heart, the Lord will be acknowledged in, and his name praised ; and the Lord's season contentedly waited, for his filling up of what is wanting any where. So, the living God, the God of Israel, the God of everlasting tender bowels and compassions to Israel, fill the vessels of his heritage with his life, and cause the peace and love of his holy nature and Spirit to descend upon their dwellings, and to spring up powerfully in them towards his living truth, and towards one another
And let all strive to excel in tenderness, and in long-suffering, and to be kept out of hard and evil thoughts one of another, and from harsh interpretations concerning any thing relating to one another. Oh! this is unworthy to be found in an Israelite towards an Egyptian; but exceeding shameful and inexcusable to be found in one brother towards another. How many weaknesses doth the Lord pass by in us? How ready is he to interpret every thing well concerning his disciples, that may bear a good interpretation! "The spirit," saith he, "is willing; but the flesh is weak." When they had been all scattered from him upon his death, he did not afterwards upbraid them; but sweetly gathered them again. O dear friends! have we received the same life of sweetness? Let us bring forth the same sweet fruits, being ready to excuse, and to receive what may tend towards the excuse of another in any doubtful case; and where there is any evil manifest, wait, oh! wait, to overcome it with good. Oh! let us not spend the strength of our spirits in crying out of one another because of evil; but watch and wait, where the mercy and the healing virtue will please to arise. O Lord, my God, when thou hast shown the wants of Israel in any kind sufficiently (whether in the particular, or in the general) bring forth the supply thereof from thy fulness, so ordering it in thine eternal wisdom, that all may be ashamed and abased before thee, and thy name praised in and over all!
, vol. ii. p. 457.