WDJS: What Did Jesus Say? Individual and Corporate Discernment

by Elizabeth Cunningham

There was a time in my life when in prayer and meditation, I would ask questions of Jesus (among other deities) and often feel that I had received answers—usually in the form of another question that made me see everything in a different light. When I learned that George W. Bush also spoke to Jesus in this direct, intimate way and based his political decisions on these conversations, I felt (and feel) uneasy. Was there any difference between me and the man who ordered the invasion of Iraq despite worldwide protest against this action, including the protest of many religious people and institutions?

In her recent article in Huffington Post “God in Wisconsin,” Diana Butler Bass notes that The Roman Catholic Church as well as most mainstream Protestant denominations have endorsed the Unions in their standoff with Governor Walker, but he remains immoveable, obedient to his personal understanding of God’s will.

Reading her article, I felt an appreciation for corporate religious practice, the checks and balances the institutional church can provide to the individual’s interpretation of divine will (which is often his or her own will dressed up as god, a particularly noxious and often dangerous form of spiritual inflation). My gratitude to mainstream institutional religion is ironic. I have always been on the side of those the church persecuted: mystics, heretics, and other nonconformists. Though I am an ordained interfaith minister, I currently have no institutional affiliation.

The daughter of an Episcopal priest, who practiced and preached the social gospel in the 1960s, I left the church to become a member of The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). I attended a silent Meeting (as distinct from a pastoral) where each person shared in the Meeting’s ministry and anyone moved by the Spirit could speak from the silence. Quakers temper the individual’s “leadings” with the corporate discernment of the whole Meeting. Their model works as well as any I have ever seen. So why didn’t I remain a Friend?

During my time as a Quaker, there was much controversy among Friends about their positions on Christ-centered as distinct to Universalist worship, abortion, homosexuality, and whether or not Friends could accept the worship of the divine as feminine. Friends often reminded each other that it took one hundred years for Quakers to come to corporate agreement on the abolition of slavery. When it came to my beliefs, I found I was not willing to submit to the discipline of corporate process. I was not, in essence, a Quaker.

For the past sixteen years, my communal (as distinct from corporate) spiritual practice has been hosting earth-centered celebrations at The Center at High Valley. Everyone is welcome, and no one has to believe anything. There is a beauty to these celebrations, which involve lots of singing, dancing, and spontaneous creativity, which many find people healing and even profound. But there is no institutional element, nothing to ensure that our heartfelt, eclectic traditions will survive in any form. Nor can we do something as fine as endorse the stand of the Unions. Our lack of institutional identity is a trade-off, a dance on the horns of a dilemma.

My personal spiritual practice is imaginative and has included re-writing The New Testament in a series of novels called The Maeve Chronicles, featuring the Celtic Mary Magdalen who is no one’s disciple and is even more hopeless at institutional affiliations than I am. In Bright Dark Madonna, Maeve struggles with people’s invocation of the resurrected Jesus’s authority. In a dream, she confronts Jesus. He explains somewhat ruefully:

“You’re going to have to get used to people having visions of me, receiving messages from me. It seems to be a side effect of the god-making death, as you call it. The druids never warned me about it… I can’t help ‘appearing unto’ people when they call on me, when they believe in me. I might even ‘speak unto’ them, but remember what Anna the prophetess used to say about prophecy, how it always loses in the translation and gains in the interpretation? It’s like that, and I’m afraid I don’t have much control over translation or interpretation.”

I would like to offer with a few checks and balances for people without institutional ties as well as those whose churches encourage direct, personal communication with the divine:

Is the divine message for you, regarding your own behavior and moral accountability?

Is the divine message directing you to reform others and possibly inflict harm on them?

If the latter, best to recall what Jesus already did say: “You hypocrite! First remove the beam from your own eye, and then you will see clearly enough to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” –Matthew 7:4

You may also like


Elizabeth Cunningham March 2, 2011 - 7:25 pm

Maeve speaking: For more (much more!) on this and related topics, do read The Maeve Chronicles!

Raima March 2, 2011 - 9:47 pm

Nice post, Elizabeth. I, too, struggle with the proper place for corporate discernment in my own life. Some of the time it's helpful to have the insights of others when I am struggling with a spiritual question, but I also have to guard against the very real possibility that people are speaking out of their own fear and confusion, which they can sometimes back up with scriptural references. This is a tough problem you've identified–thanks for addressing it!

Brooke March 2, 2011 - 11:37 pm

I vote for you to lead us, Elizabeth. Seriously. I trust your ability to walk a fine line between walking the walk, or walking away–using your wisdom and love to help mankind help himself.

Imagine if those in power walked away. Imagine how much power they would gain, in their surrender. Palpable.

I have much to learn. I hope you will bring more of the gospel of Maeve into modern day affairs. Then, perhaps, I'll have a chance of learning how to navigate the muddy waters.

What I know for sure is that none of us can bring about any change alone. xoxo

Neferhuri March 3, 2011 - 1:35 pm

Thank you for this thoughtful post, Elizabeth. I really enjoyed your sharing your spiritual history with us–when I read that you were an interfaith minister, I wasn't sure what it meant. Oh dear, will have to finish this later–I've got a squirming toddler in my lap…

Unknown March 3, 2011 - 4:23 pm

It is a dilemma for anyone who does not 'submit' to an established religion: what/who is your authority? How do you determine what is right and wrong?

If you don't have scripture or guru to tell you, you have to figure it out yourself, which is harder. Parents and life can teach you some things, and then you have to exercise judgment.

I hazard a guess that those who depend on some external authority are actually less capable of autonomous judgment.

I like your distinction between moral authority for yourself–which is up to you– and moral authority to reform others even to their detriment. I've always found the latter questionable, too. If people cite an internal voice to justify something like Walker's removal of collective bargaining, isn't just questionable: it's oppressive.

Tim March 6, 2011 - 6:56 pm

This is probably my most favorite blog you've ever written.

Do I believe that the divine speaks to us? Absolutely. But that voice can only lead us for us–not to hoist what we heard as our truth onto others as there.

Hierarchal groups give me hives. The fact that anyone has the ego or nerve to stand up in front of anyone and tell them what they need to do should offend all of us.

High Valley has been an incredible community to be a part of. Everyone has equal footing. We are vastly different, yet are able to come together and celebrate, love, sing & dance together without needing anyone to be dictorial.

Thanks for this blog Elizabeth. Love you Maeve.


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: