‘That of God’ – Lewis Benson and the ‘new interpretation’
November 15, 2010 § 21 Comments
I said in the post that opened this thread on ‘that of God in every person’ that I had discovered new light on Fox’s meaning of the phrase when looking for the source in Rufus Jones’s work for the modern mystical meaning of a divine spark, or some quality of the divine that humans share. I was then already reading but had not yet finished Lewis Benson’s wonderful essay in Quaker Religious Thought (QRT) entitled “’That of God in Every Man’ – What Did George Fox Mean By It?” (Volume XII, Number 2, Spring 1970). Benson (1906 – 1986) was a life-long student of Fox’s work, the inspiration for the New Foundation Fellowship, and a “champion of a forgotten faith”—the Quakerism of George Fox and early Friends. In addition to his own books, he created a massively thorough concordance of Fox’s works that is an indispensible tool for later students of our prophet founder. Pendle Hill’s library has a copy.
In this issue of QRT, Benson answers my quest for the source in Rufus Jones: he cites Jones’s “Introduction” to his abridged edition of Fox’s Journal, first published in 1903 (George Fox, An Autobiography, 1919 edition, pp. 28 & 29), as the earliest instance of the revived use of ‘that of God’. Jones reiterates this theme, Benson says, the next year in Social Law in the Spiritual World (p. 5). Here is Jones from this latter work, as quoted by Benson:
What was the Inner Light? The simplest answer is: The Inner Light is the doctrine that there is something Divine, ‘Something of God’ in the human soul.
Note that Jones has divorced the Inner Light from the Light of Christ and made it universal and ‘generic’, if you will, a generally mystical ‘something’ no longer associated with the particular presence of the unique Christ. Benson goes on to say:
As a consequence of statements like these, the phrase “that of God in every man” began to acquire a meaning for twentieth century Friends that it did not have for Fox. The new “interpretation” made “that of God in man” the central conception around which everything else in Quakerism revolves.
Between 1700 and 1900, Benson says, “‘that of God in every man’ [had] virtually disappeared from the Quaker vocabulary.” But after Jones and also A. Neave Brayshaw introduced this Neo-Platonist interpretation, a “torrent of promotional literature and other publications” flowed from the pens of the publicists and staff writers of the American Friends Service Committee spreading the doctrine throughout the Society of Friends. He goes on: “The elevation of “that of God in every man” to the status of root principle (emphasis his) has affected Quaker life in several areas, namely: the peace testimony, social testimonies, the meaning of membership, and missions.”
Lewis Benson was not happy about this. He writes:
We know that it is the policy of some Monthly Meetings to make belief in “that of God in every man,” which has been called “the Quaker’s creed,” a primary and essential condition of membership, whereas faith in Christ is regarded as a secondary and non-essential factor in examining prospective members. I maintain that this meaning and use of “that of God in every man” has no connection with its meaning and use in the writings of Fox. There is no such Christ-transcending principle in the thought of Fox.
Benson ends his essay thus:
There can be no full understanding of Fox and his message apart from a knowledge of what he meant by “that of God in every man.” However, when we jump to the conclusion that “that of God” is the central truth of the Quaker message, then we cut ourselves off from that which Fox made central; namely, the message about Jesus Christ and how he saves men. If we make “that of God in man” the basis of our peace testimony and other testimonies then they become an inference from a theory about the nature of man rather than a response to a divine command, and our witness loses its prophetic impact. While we are under the spell of the “that of God” theory we cannot make the witness for the distinctive interpretation of Christianity which is the special task for which we were called to be a people, and the inner life of our Society becomes confused and at war with itself. The irony of our present situation is that any plea to seek the unity that is received from Christ is bound to be regarded in some quarters as a breach of the truce between divergent opinions that we have come to regard as the highest measure of unity of which we are capable. This false peace must be broken before we can enjoy the unity in Christ which God intends for us.
Benson wrote this in 1970 (which perhaps helps us forgive his sexist language, which was nearly universal at the time). Since then the triumph of the “new interpretation” of the phrase over (liberal) Quaker life has only become more entrenched and the drift away from the Christ-centered message and mission of Friends that it enables and Benson describes has become more pronounced and less likely to be noticed, let alone questioned.
My own ministry concerning the phrase has focused on raising the questions: What do we mean when we use it? (What do you mean when you use it?) Is this meaning faithful to Friends’ traditions? If it isn’t, what then? More importantly, is it the Truth? When did we decide that it was the Truth, and how? Did we decide at all? If not, how shall we decide whether our ‘new’ meaning (it’s already a hundred years old) is the Truth, and when will we do it? Should we distill 350 years of rich tradition down to just this one phrase at all, whatever we mean by it? How shall we treat it going forward, when, for instance, we next revise our books of discipline or the text on our websites?
Some of these questions are rhetorical, of course. We never have ‘decided’ to abandon Fox’s meaning or early Friends’ mission, not in good gospel order, anyway, by which I mean with worship and prayer and spirit-led corporate discernment. We just drifted, unconscious of our path, ignorant of our past. And of course I feel that we should recover the full breadth of our tradition; we have so much more to say than that we believe that there is that of God in every person—assuming that ‘we’ do believe that.
So—what do we say? Well, more in later posts. . .