‘That of God’ – what next?
November 20, 2010 § 23 Comments
This certainly has been a lively discussion and I really appreciate all the comments that Friends have contributed. After looking back a little at Fox, Benson and the history of the phrase ‘that of God’ in Quaker tradition, I want to look forward now and ask what our commitment to Truth requires of us in the light of this history?
We seem to be in general agreement that many (most?) liberal Friends and meetings do not know the history of the phrase’s evolution, do not understand what Fox meant by it, mean something by it themselves that is far removed from its original meaning and use it in ways that Fox did not, and that this modern usage has become pervasive, if not nearly universal. I would add that it has supplanted much of the rest of our tradition, so that now virtually the only thing many Friends are able to say about Quakers is that they believe that there is that of God in every person. This is especially true when explaining the origins of our testimonies. Many Friends have also expressed some frustration with this state of affairs.
I have felt called to a ministry regarding our use of the phrase for years, a concern that moving this phrase into the very center of our witness life and corporate identity, combined with our general ignorance of—and distortion of—its meaning and history, violates the testimony of integrity.
I want to be clear, though, that I am not saying that the now-dominant understanding of “that of God” as some kind of divine spark or share in God’s (what? – nature? substance? mind? love?) is wrong or untrue. I have no experience of such a divine spark myself and, though I once rather enthusiastically embraced this kind of metaphysical ideology in the form of Vedanta, which I learned as a yoga student, I don’t embrace it any more. Furthermore, it now looks like Fox may have held such an idea himself, albeit in a very mutant form—that Lewis Benson is right as far as he goes, but either didn’t know the excised sources that point toward a mutant form of Neo-Platonism, or he read them differently. I am eagerly pursuing research on this. My point is not that the liberal use of the phrase is necessarily wrong, but that we have not paid attention to what we’re doing as a community, and that we should. So I’m asking questions.
The first question, it seems to me, is: Is the modern liberal understanding of “that of God” as a kind of quasi-gnostic or Neo-Platonic “divine spark” true or not? Never mind what George Fox said: what canst we say? Just because Fox wouldn’t agree with us doesn’t mean it’s wrong or untrue. But he could explain himself. He did so very forcefully all the time, and twice in court against charges of blasphemy. So let us also testify to the truth of this new light we claim to have.
We should start with experience. What in our experience leads us to believe in a divine spark, a share of God’s substance, or whatever we call it? (And what do we call it?) Also: where else can we point besides our own experience to support and clarify our stand, the way that Fox could point to Romans and other passages in Scripture to support his?
In my experience, liberal Friends who hold to this new light never quote Scripture, except for some reference to being made in the image of God, from Genesis 1. Some have quoted the Gospel of Thomas. And, of course, people quote Fox, almost always the pastoral letter he included in his Journal (Nickalls, p. 263). So liberal Friends have some work to do, I think, in the light of the testimony of integrity, in terms of both reflecting on our experience and connecting it to the rest of our tradition. I see three tasks ahead of us:
First, we have to own our ignorance and mishandling of the phrase, and correct it. We have to teach ourselves what we’ve forgotten and adjust how we talk.
Then, we have some discernment to do: Is this new light on “that of God” really what we believe? Is this a true example of continuing revelation? More on this later. If we decide it is, then we have to decide how we want to treat our more ancient traditions, which we seem willing to abandon, or at least forget. I myself feel responsible for our tradition, in terms of knowing what it is and being able to pass it on; but I don’t feel particularly responsible to our tradition, meaning that I am willing to lay it down, as early Friends did theirs, when it is clear that God is leading us in a new direction.
Finally, again assuming that we decide we do believe in a divine spark in everyone, we have some theology to do—God forbid. And more importantly, some reflection upon our own experience. How do we experience the divine spark as individuals? What does that experience mean to us? How do we experience “that of God” as a community, corporately, in worship? How does that corporate experience shape our witness, our outreach, our self-understanding, our traditions, our discernment, our worship, our spiritual nurture of each other?
If we are going to redefine our tradition, resting the whole thing on this one slim pillar, as we are doing more and more, then we need to start fleshing the new tradition out, the way Fox and other early Friends elaborated their ideas and experience when they broke so radically with their traditions.
I am not being sarcastic. I am not posing rhetorical questions. I am calling upon us to own our experience and belief in continuing, direct revelation from God and test this new leading the way our forebears did theirs.
I can’t contribute much to this project myself beyond asking questions. I have no direct experience of “that of God” as a divine spark. Humans seem all too human to me. Moreover, just striving to be fully human seems like an honorable, laudable goal to me. I don’t see what believing I was quasi-divine would get me, what essential problems or questions it would answer. But lots of Friends seem to feel otherwise. They should get to work.
Meanwhile, until we honestly engage in the discernment that would establish this ‘new’ (it’s a hundred years old already) meaning as a central tenet of Quaker faith and practice, our tradition is that we continue to believe and practice what we’ve always believed and practiced. We can’t ignore the tremendous momentum this trend in our usage already has. But we can’t just take it for granted, either. It’s not right to back into it blindly, as we have done, and then call it a fait accompli.
In other words, we need to expand the sort of dialog we’ve been having here to include our publishing organs, our conference center programs, our religious education programs at all levels of meeting life, and eventually, our meetings for business discernment, and finally, to revisions of our books of discipline.
In the meantime, also, those of us who are annoyed by this trend in liberal Quakerism should watch our attitude. In this thread, we’ve seen some preaching up of sin and some preaching down of Friends who they feel don’t get it. I’ve been there and done that myself. This shift in Quaker thought does some harm to our traditions, I would agree, but I don’t think it harms real people. On the contrary, it seems very appealing to a lot of people. We could end up hurting people in the process of defending a tradition, the way that some opponents of gay marriage are doing. We can trust our processes of discernment, can’t we, if we just use them? Of course, we would have to use them correctly—but that’s another thread.