‘That of God’ – new light (?)

November 11, 2010 § 17 Comments

For years, I have labored under a concern about our misuse of the phrase ‘that of God’, which most Friends know from an epistle to ministers that George Fox includes in his journal, though he used the phrase in various forms more than seven hundred times, by my count in Lewis Benson’s massive concordance of Fox’s works. One of the things I’ve been harping on is that we now mean something by the phrase that turns Fox’s meaning on its head, that we’re mostly ignorant of this 180 degree turn, and that we should not use it without being more knowledgeable and reflective about, not just its history but our own intentions. Most Friends today, I think, have a vaguely neoplatonic, neognostic meaning in mind: that we each have some little piece of God in us, that inherent in the human is some aspect of the divine—a divine spark—and that this spark is the key to the direct experience of God that is fundamental to Quaker faith and practice.

I have argued instead that Fox could never have held such an idea. That for him, a huge chasm separates humans from God, and that, while there may be a seat within the human soul waiting for Christ to come in and sup with us, as early Friends were wont to quote Revelation (3:20), that only because Christ had bridged that gulf did we partake of the divine in any way. I had argued further that the current mystical, divine-spark meaning of ‘that of God’ had entered modern Quakerism from Rufus Jones and was therefore a relatively new meaning, and that it was an innovation of his own or brought in from outside our tradition. But I had lost the record and the memory of where in his writings Jones had first introduced the idea. When I went looking for it, I discovered a rather extensive body of analysis that seemed to indicate that I might be totally wrong about all of this.

These writers claim that Fox was, in fact, some kind of gnostic (though his theology is truly unique in the long history of neoplatonic ideas). That ‘that of God’ does in fact refer to a share of the divine in the human. That many early Friends agreed with him about this. That they went quite far beyond the simple presence of a divine spark to include a view of salvation that so fused the believer with Christ that s/he was virtually—no, not ‘virtually’, but actually—fully one with him. And that William Penn, Thomas Ellwood and others deliberately removed or withheld these ideas from Fox’s published works, especially the first edition of the journal, in order to protect the Society from the charge of blasphemy.

I am eager to pursue this further with Friends who know more about Fox’s biography, writings and theology than I do. First, I want to share the bibliography that I’ve begun to read, so others can read this stuff for themselves. I am lucky to be close to Princeton Theological Seminary and their great library, but I suspect these books may be hard to get for many Friends. Still, I am hoping that we can have a lively and informed dialog about these uncovered themes in early Quaker experience and thinking. Here’s what I’ve found so far:

The Creation of Quaker Theory: Insider Perspectives; Pink Dandelion, editor. Two essays touch on these ideas: “’Go North!’ The Journey towards First-generation Friends and their Prophecy of Celestial Flesh,” by Michele Lise Tarter; “George Fox and Christian Gnosis,” by Glen D. Reynolds.

Was George Fox a Gnostic? An Examination of Foxian Theology from a Valentinian Gnostic Perspective; Glen D. Reynolds.

New Light on George Fox and Early Quakerism: The Making and Unmaking of a God; Richard Bailey.

The Light in their Consciences: Early Quakers in Britain 1646-1666; Rosemary Moore.

George Fox and the Light Within, 1650-1660; R. H. King. (I’ve not got my hands on this one yet, but it is quoted quite a lot by the others.)

I still have other concerns about the way we use the phrase ‘that of God,’ but these must wait for another post.

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§ 17 Responses to ‘That of God’ – new light (?)

  • […] meaning on… Nov 11th, 2010 by Martin Kelley. // nRelate.domain = "www.quakerranter.org"; //Steven Davison: “That of God”–New Light? /**/ Share this:EmailFacebookPosted in: misc. ← I am comfortable with the fact that I do […]

  • Interesting discussion. I admit I have much to read and learn about early Friends. Thanks for encouraging me to do more reading.

  • Rosemary says:

    I like the emphasis on “mystic” rather than “gnostic” because however you define gnosticism it does raise all kinds of troubled associations. I also like the word “poetic” to describe Fox’s language, but in the sense that the Greeks used the word. Karen Armstrong uses the term “apophatic.” All three speak to a language which attempts to go where language has never gone before: language that tears at the boundaries of language, language that describes the ineffable. I was once a literary critic and I believe that scholarly study of this type of language is extremely valuable but inevitably inferior to the thing it studies precisely because you seek to categorize and define something that broke through calcified ideas and experience.

  • Jim says:

    This is a post that directly touches on views I have been pondering recently. Personally, I’m not a non-dualist and have found myself wanting to put more distance between me and non-dual teachings.

    I suspect that Fox was not consistent. By that I mean that I suspect readers will be able to find support for both a non-dual interpretation and a more traditional dualistic point of view. What I’ve read of Fox makes me think that his approach was more spontaneous than adherence to a specific doctrinal position would allow.

    I am hesitant to use the word ‘Gnostic’ to describe any of Fox’s tendencies for several reasons. First, the Christian Gnostics were rigidly dualistic in a dogmatic way (that the earth is utterly fallen, that the god ‘Yaweh’ was the Demiurge and probably malevolent, and that the world needs to be overcome rather than transformed). Christian Gnosticism also has a strong thread of anti-Judaism, something absent from Fox’s teaching, as well as hostility towards women which simply doesn’t map onto Fox’s teaching.

    The tendency today is to equate ‘gnostic’ with ‘mystic’, but I think that is a mistake. Orthodox Christianity was strongly mystical, rooted in such early Fathers as Dionysius and his ‘Mystical Theology’.

    I would therefore prefer a vocabulary which sought to clarify in what manner Fox was a mystic, rather than asking if he was a Gnostic, which he wasn’t in any historical sense.

    Thanks,

    Jim

    • Jim, I have always had the same misgivings as you about gnosticism, except that, at least according to Elaine Pagels, women often enjoyed more equality with men among gnostics than among traditional, Pauline Christians. I also agree that people today often to use the word to label positively the mystical idea of something divine in the human, without knowing about its extreme hostility to toward the flesh, the world, the Jews, and the Jewish and Christian God.

      I haven’t read Reyonolds’s book yet, only the chapter in The Creation of Quaker Theory. There, he defines gnosis as “an individual’s discovery through revelation and baptism that they are divine, with a part of their body (soul, seed, light) being consubstantial to the redeemer figure of Christ.” I’m not sure how well this defines gnostic thinking, but I think it does fairly accurately describe Fox’s experience, as I’m coming to understand it through these new writings I’m exploring. ‘Baptism’ here must of course mean a baptism of the spirit, as Quakers have always testified. The key word, though, is ‘consubstantial.’ Reynolds and Bailey stress how unique, subtle and far-reaching Fox’s understanding of the ‘consubstantiality’ is. The claim that it lies at the heart of early Friends’ approach to perfectionism, the belief that, once one has turned toward the Light, one can live a life free of sin. It’s not just that Christ now rules your heart and your conscience, turning you away from sin; they claim that the experience so transforms the very substance of your soul that you become Christ—or maybe it would be more accurate to say that Christ becomes you; there is no distinction or separation between believer and Redeemer. Hence the trials and subsequent worries about blasphemy. (Fox was himself indicted twice and served time for the first conviction; Judge Fell deftly outmaneuvered the prosecutors on the second charge and Fox did not stand trial.

      And of course, there is Naylor, who has been characterized in our histories as someone who just got carried away with himself but was essentially just misunderstood. Reynolds and Bailey say, no, he agreed with Fox about this consubstantiality with Christ and the charge of blasphemy was essentially true, at least from the Church of England’s point of view. Naylor’s mistake was not theological but tactical.

      As to the larger question of dualism versus non-dualism, the argument has always felt to me like that over particles versus waves in the theory of light. Both paradigms answer questions that the other does not. Even taken together, they produce an incomplete understanding of human nature. The classic definition of dualism, that body and soul (or spirit) are separate, that the soul is ‘poured’ into the body as into a vessel, that it is preexistent, eternal and insubstantial, does not quite work for me. But neither does the fully materialist view that we are just a body and spiritual experience is just brain chemistry, or projections of the unconscious, or in some way an epiphenomenon of the material body’s subtle workings.

      The impression I am getting from Bailey and Reynolds is that Fox’s anthropology regarding the relationship between flesh and spirit is, as you say, more spontaneous and complex than the usual dualism, more an expression of his actual experience than of study. It was not unsophisticated, however. HIs thought here is clouded by his language, his style, but it seems subtle and deep to me, and deeply reflective. I suspect that the key to really understanding him is to have had the same profound experience of God’s overwhelming inhabitation. Many of his peers did have this experience. Few of us have.

      • Jim says:

        Good Friend Steven:

        Thank you for the thoughtful reply. I am sceptical of Pagel’s depiction of Gnosticism as being woman-friendly. The Gospel of Thomas is openly hostile to women at its conclusion, requiring that women become men in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. There are questions about whether or not Thomas was ‘Gnostic’, but Orthodox critics of Gnosticism put it there and I’m willing to trust them on that. However, I realize that there is room for debate on this issue.

        Personally, I have felt that Fox’s interpretation of ‘that of God’ and ‘inner light’ can be understood in the context of a theology of grace. The workings of grace and how it functions were a central topic of reform theology. Calvin and Luther both spend a lot of time on it, as does Arminius. The topic of grace, who receives it, how to access it, how it works, was what differentiated one reform group from another.

        What I’m getting at is that I don’t think we need to go back to Gnosticism, as I believe that the churning contemporary debates on grace are sufficient to gain a foothold on the uniqueness of the early Quakers’ insights.

        Thanks again,

        Jim

      • Steve, I agree with Rosemary and Jim that we shouldn’t be shy of the word ‘mystic’ and that it is preferable to ‘gnostic’

        Also, your reference to profound experiences of ‘God’s overwhelming inhabitation’ might be a distraction. I think a productive faith in God with us cannot possibly require an experience which few of us can have. Now that would be gnostic.

  • SJ says:

    Twice this year I have heard Friends refer to “the god in each of us,” which I imagine is some sort of variation on the “that of God in everyone” cliche so woefully misunderstood by many modern Friends (as Benson pointed out long ago). Have others encountered this phrase in their meetings? To me it shows how urgent is the task of restoring sound theology within our Society. Some of us are beginning to sound like members of Eckankar or Scientologists.

    • At least among liberal Friends, the phrase “that of God in everyone” has become extremely widespread and, in Lewis Benson’s words “the central truth of the Quaker message,” the one thing we can all agree that we believe. It has been misunderstood and misused, I believe, but it obviously speaks very powerfully and nearly universally to a wide community of Friends, whatever they mean by it. I mean to explore in some depth the phrase’s history and meanings, both ancient and modern, its implications for faith and practice, and the responsibility I feel we have for discussion and discernment about its place in our corporate religious life.

      I have just finished reading Lewis Benson’s essay for Quaker Religious Thought, “‘That of God in Every Man’ — What Did George Fox Mean by It?”, published in Spring 1970 (Volume XII, Number 2; available from Phil Smith at QRT, Box 6052, George Fox University, 414 N. Meridian St., Newberg, OR 97132, for $5). Look for a new post very soon on Benson’s very thorough treatment of this phrase.

  • Steven, your post and blog scrolled up this morning via its ‘George Fox’ tag – one of many names and subjects I try to review daily as important to me.

    If I join your discussion I hope I may provide needed balance on behalf of the thought of Rufus Jones (I have about 20 of his many titles in my personal library).

    In addition, I have the 2-vol edition of Fox’s Diary from the original MS (i.e. not edited by Penn, etc.) published by Cambridge (1911).

    This matter of the inner spark is very important to me, but I admit that it needs intelligent criticism. Like you I am not a friend by birthright. I have not attended meeting since the mid-90s. But I think George Fox has a message for the whole world.

    • Mark Wutka says:

      The Nickalls edition of Fox’s journal is also supposed to come from the original MSS. The introduction contains an overview of the various manuscripts available. Penney’s 1911 edition comes from the Spence MS, which Nickalls says he mostly follows, but he also uses some other sources.

      • Mark, it’s interesting to note here I think that my ‘Penney’ begins in 1650 just before the year in Darby jail.

        “After this I was moved to go into Derbyshire…”

        The edition which I have studied up to now begins with a chapter briefly describing his youth;

        “That all may know the dealings of the Lord with me…”

        Of course this reference to earlier times may be in the MS edition at a later place (I haven’t studied the MS in any depth).

      • Mark Wutka says:

        John,
        The Nickalls edition mainly draws on the Cambridge (or Spence) MS, but also uses Ellwood’s 1694 edition and another referred to as the “Short Journal”. In the case of the opening, Nickalls says that he used the Ellwood version for the beginning narrative through about 1650, because no other manuscript exists with this narrative. I think in this context, being more concerned with the alleged removal of material by Wm Penn, having additional material is less of a problem.

        If you don’t have the Nickalls edition, it might make a good complement to the Penney edition you have. Nickalls is good about annotating the passages that came from other sources besides the Cambridge text.

      • Thanks Mark.

        I’m fine with the Penney alone for now, but thanks for that clarification. If the discussion continues I hope you will correct me from the Nickalls if necessary.

        I have also been reading a little in GF’s sermons (on loan) and in his so-called ‘doctrinal works’ in the multi-volume edition published in the 1830s (I have access to the late 20th century reprint of the complete works at a library about 50 miles distant).

      • Mark Wutka says:

        John,
        I managed to order a set of the reprints from New Foundation Fellowship before they ran out. Google books has scanned them all, so they are available online. You can download the non-searchable, scanned PDFs from Quaker Library at quakerquaker.org. You can also access them straight from Google where you can search. You can go to my Google Bookshelf and find lots of old Quaker books. The Works of Fox are near the end.

  • forrest curo says:

    Fox was definitely a person being taught by God, as he said all of us could be.

    His readings of the Bible tended to be more guided by the spirit than the letter. So while he was much influenced by insights from others in the Puritan religious ferment, he wasn’t necessarily compelled by Puritan doctrines, even those generally accepted by most other Friends.

    The Hindu insight that “Atman is Brahma” is echoed by many hints in the Bible. Or Fox may have, as he said he’d done on another occasion, intuited it first and found it in the Christian scriptures later. (Of course in speaking of people who held Christ “in prison in them” he would not have been logically consistent about this, but many times in a preaching context, the object is not systematic theology but conveying whatever the audience is ripe to know at the time.)

  • Bill says:

    I would suggest reading about holiness theory and specifically “Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism” by Spencer. The early Quakers so completely identified the inner reality and the outward reality that from one side it does look like gnosticism and from the other side it resembles puritanism.

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