‘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.

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§ 23 Responses to ‘That of God’ – what next?

  • […] want to bring readers’ attention to one post in particular: “That of God”—What Next? I am still very interested in the question, what next? So, since we’re not turning this train […]

  • […] That of God—what next? This post poses some questions that I raised in my last post about how, in the light of the testimony of integrity, we should take responsibility, not only for the way we’ve handled our past tradition, but how we should move forward. […]

  • emily says:

    The idea of that of God within is fairly universal–George Fox did write of it, as have Friends throughout history long before Rufus Jones, and it never disappeared from Quaker writings. I know nothing of neoplatonism or gnosticism, and don’t know which Friends read neoplatonists or gnostics, so I can’t speak to the similarity there.

    George Fox felt the experience of the divine within was universal: “now the Lord God hath opened to me by his invisible Power to know that Every Man was enlightened by the Divine Light of Christ, and I saw it shine through all.” This does not seem to me to indicate he felt a “vast chasm” separating man from God. I remember him describing his sympathy with a Native American on his own experience of the Divine Within, which clearly could not have come from that person’s Christian reading of the Bible, so he did indeed would have seen it as “Christ transcending.” His own personal experience of realizing the feeling of Light would have meant that he could have understood someone from another culture experiencing it. As Robert Barclay later wrote, anyone who has read the Bible knows that one does not have to read the Bible to understand the God within. Of course our ideas would differ from his because he did live several centuries ago, before the scientific revolution. But I don’t see how his ideas were so vastly different from our own.
    My reading of Lewis Benson differs fundamentally from your reading. You quote Bentsen as saying, “Fox does not use the declarative sentence, “There is that of God in every man,” and he never makes it the central theme of any of his sermons or writings. . . This phrase belongs to his pastoral vocabulary rather than to his doctrinal vocabulary.”
    However, on christianquaker.net, Bentsen writes that Fox used the phrase “‘that of God in every man,’ or variants of it, hundreds of times. This phrase does not occur in the Bible and some have been tempted, as I have been, to suggest that it may have originated with Fox.1 It is doubtful if Fox thought of himself as its originator. We know that Fox had the first chapter of Romans in mind when he used this phrase, for he refers to it in his reply to Enoch Howet. Howet, a Baptist of Lincoln, had written in 1655, “There is nothing to speak to in man, but man,”2 and Fox replied: “Here the scriptures are a correction for thee…for the apostle saith, ‘that which may be known of God is manifest in man, for God hath showed it unto them’ Romans 1.”3 It sounds to me as if this is indeed a Fox doctrine, not just pastoral speech, and it’s coming from God, not Ghrist.
    Quaker and linguistics professor Richard Bauman in Let your words be few: speaking and silence among 17th century Quakers [Cambridge, 1983]) posits that “the inward light was the source of all spiritually informed communication” for 17th century Quakers. On this he quotes not just Fox, who after all, was one among several early Quaker leaders:
    John Audland: “to the light in all your consciences you speak, which will let you see the servants you are.”
    Edward Burrough: God “had given to us, every one of us in particular, a light from himself shining in our hearts and consciences, which light Christ his son, saviour of the world, had lighted every man withal.”
    Robert Barclay saw the Light within as universal: “There is in all men, as well the Godly as the Ungodly, some sort of idea of god, as of the most perfect Being.” Barclay wrote also that since all possessed the god within, whether or not they had read the Bible, and it was through one’s actions, not beliefs, that one might be perceived to have truly embraced the God within.
    During the 19th century controversy arose around the idea of God within, with Quietists (who were anything but quiet) seeing Divine Revelation and action, not scripture reading, as key to morality. In their writings they agreed with Barclay, that any man, whether or not he read the Bible, had a God within which was the source of spiritual “revelation.” It may have not been mainstream Quaker thinking at the time, but it did not disappear; it was central to the beliefs of the Wilburites and the Hicksites in America and to the moderate Quakers in Britain; Rosemary quoted John Woolman on this. Many of the Quietists, while they respected Joseph John Gurney for his reformist ideas, were very doubtful that Gurney, the quintessential evangelical, had ever experienced the light, even though he did talk of it in his writings.
    Gurney, like all Evangelicals held that only the reading of the scripture could bring one to God (in direct opposition to Barclay, who had pointed out that those who had actually lived and written the scripture, which would have included those who foresaw the birth of Christ, could not have read the scripture, and therefore might actually be holier than those who read the Bible–so how could anyone who had read the scripture believe that reading the scripture was the sole necessary step to knowing the truth? even though he referenced it in his own writings as central to the beliefs of Friends, although he goes in circles here. In “Observations on the religious peculiarities of the Society of Friends,” Gurney writes that we are all furnished with a “spirit of truth,” a “spiritual eye,” communicating “the actual moral sense, teaching us right and wrong.” This may come from God (“Divine grace is not only light, but power. Light softens what is hard…….God is able to illuminate the souls of men with the immediate visitations of spiritual light” .); it may come from Christ (“the true light which lighteth every man who cometh into the world);” it may come from looking at all those who are just (“the path of the righteous like the Light of dawn, shining brighter and brighter”). But it is central to good action: “inward illumination…mercifully bestowed on us as a perceptible guide to righteousness….an inward Guide or Monitor who makes his voice known to us, and who if faithfully obeyed and closely followed, will infallibly conduct us into true virtue and happiness, because he leads us into a real conformity with the will of God and…invariably to the practice of Christian virtues.” But beware of trusting the inner light! “We are exceedingly liable to be led about by the dictates of our own imagination….Satan may transform himself into an ‘Angel of Light’ and conceal his operations….anything exposed by the Light becomes visible for anything that becomes visible is the Light.”
    Uh-oh!
    The delightful pamphlet “A Reasonable Faith,” written “anonymously” by William Pollard, Francis Frith, and William Turner, so controversial at its publication in 1881, but so widely accepted one decade later–indicating how strongly these beliefs were extant at the time–discusses the God within all men: “no theory of Religion can be satisfactory which is not broad enough in its range…to comprehend all the real God-seeking and truth and goodness-loving of all mankind.” The spirit of Christ “lighteth every man that cometh into the world,” but Christ here is our loving companion, not the sacrificial lamb which the evangelicals lay him out to be; the Bible is not the sole source of truth but rather a series of ongoing revelations from various perspectives, and God is a loving father, like the “wind” which touches all in the Bible.
    The Richmond Declaration of 1887, which represents the beliefs of Friends United Meeting, is the doctrinal opposite of A Reasonable Faith, stating, “we own no principle of spiritual light, life or holiness, inherent by nature in the mind or heart of man. We believe in no principle of spiritual light, life or holiness, but the influence of the Holy Spirit of God, bestowed on mankind, in various measures and degrees, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
    William Tallack, in an 1892 essay in the liberal publication of the moderates, the Friends Quarterly Examiner ( “The Inward light and Christ’s Incarnation:”), who writes of the spirit of God as a kind of spark within all men, disparages the Evangelicals in Britain and Friends United Meeting for discarding the idea of the universality of the God within, and forgetting that this is the fundamental belief of Quakers: “it used to be a belief of the Society of Friends as a body, though now perhaps by only a minority in its ranks, that there operates everywhere, in the hearts of all God’s human family, at least some spark of that which the founders of Quakerism were wont to term the ‘Universal Saving Light,’ or more simply, ‘the Inward Light.'” Tallack sees Evangelicals’ beliefs –the replacement of the idea of Christ as a spark for good with the idea that the light within represented Christ crucified– as a ”perversion,” a handicap to their vision, preventing them from recognizing those persons whom he met in India–and in whom he saw the light–as possessing only “evil idolatry.”
    George Newman, who helped found the Friends Ambulance Unit in World War I, described the principle of Light in each as the center of Quakerism.
    Inazo Nitobe, a Japanese Friend who served in the League of Nations Secretariat, spoke in Geneva in 1926 (“A Japanese View of Quakerism”) that “the central doctrine of Quakerism is the belief in this Cosmic sense which they call the Inner Light, and all the doctrines and precepts of Quakerism are only corollaries drawn from this premise….”the Inner Light…is given to all men irrespective of sex, race, or education….There are many different names for the ‘cosmic consciousness’… [which]as described by those who attain it, is very much the same everywhere–whether it be by a Buddhist priest, a Shinto votary, a Mohammedan saint, a French mathematician, an American philosopher, or a Jewish philosopher. Nothing confirms the identity of the human race better than this spiritual expansion. But I can speak only as a close observer of those who attain this high and lofty sense, and not as one who has himself attained it.” The Japanese, he writes, also invented the idea of God within each person, and it is this “high and lofty sense” which seems to bring on the desire to preach the truth, to work for active good.
    Rufus Jones, therefore, was not the first to feel or describe that of God in every man, and he never directly “divorced it” from Christ, although he would, like Barclay, not have seen it as necessary to believe this sense as coming from Christ to produce good, nor necessary to its definition. That Jones preferred to use the terms “the Divine that is Within” and the “Oversoul” rather than God, terms “coined” by Emile Boutreaux and Ralph Waldo Emerson, indicates that Jones was not setting up some kind of third God, just making the sense of god universal. Rufus Jones was also a mystic, like George Fox, and undoubtedly did experience the God within experience of the mystical, as had George Fox, the experience which seems to have inspired him, and this experience is one of feeling fully fused with the Divine. I have experienced it, very briefly, and am sure it is universal, not something one should disparage . For those who don’t, you can, like Inazo Nitobe, “do Christ not feel Christ,” as was written by another Friend whose name I forget.
    I know nothing of gnosticism or neoplatonism, but the idea of god within is so universal that one doesn’t need to read those specific philosophers to come up with those beliefs.

    The divisions among Friends today on our ideas of the divine within are reflected in the study pamphlet entitled “Being salt and light–Friends living the kingdom of God in a broken world.” for the upcoming world conference of Friends taking place in Kenya in April 2012. One Friend wrote, “we have within us the Light,” another wrote, “we need God’s light.”

    I fail to see how we have performed a 180 degree turn away from Fox? Feeling the God within can, for the brief experience it is, bring a wonderful sense of love and unity with one’s fellows, and of trying to live the truth. God here is not inside or outside or separate, but everywhere, like the wind, as described in Reasonable Faith, or as love, as described by a Christian Science friend.

  • Ben says:

    My strong sense of the phrase is a simple affirmation of belief in something outside myself. A assertion of non-solipsism. As such, again I assert this only as a personal “constitution”. I must say that I believe it is the only doctrine possibly defended for us.
    All the fairy dust aside. I insist that I believe that you exist in gods TM. eyes as much as I do. Everything else is simply cake.
    thanks,
    Ben Schultz

  • I feel grateful to be witnessing this discussion; I trust that That of God in me sent me to it so that That of God in all of you might make me wiser. I’m especially glad that Steve asked “what canst we say?” and “Is the modern liberal understanding of the phrase true or not?”

    How does God see That of God in us? What is there in us that is not That of God? Assuming that that which is not of God in us (but of the ego, the devil, maya or the fallen nature) has reality in the Divine Eye and is not just an illusion we’re trapped in, how may I keep it from offending God and injuring my neighbor? If it is an illusion, how may I find my way back to the Truth and minimize my own contribution to the general deceit? “They know not, neither will they understand; they walk on in darkness: all the foundations of the earth are out of course. I have said, Ye are gods: and all of you are children of the most High: But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the Princes.” (Ps. 82:5-7, AV)

    I realize that I have less problem with the much-misunderstood phrase “that of God in every person” than I do with the minds and mouths it comes out of. When we use it to dress up our selfish egos in the Lord’s jewels, I don’t like it. And we do that. I suggest that we do that (and the Lord correct me if I’m wrong) whenever we take pleasure in having a will that deviates from God’s. We live and breathe in a secular culture that encourages that, and we lay up treasure for ourselves where moth and rust do corrupt.

    The frequency with which we Friends from liberal meetings misquote Fox as having said “walk cheerfully over the earth, answering that of God in every person” rather than “walk cheerfully over the world” is significant. We children of consumer-capitalist society travel cheerfully over the earth, racking up frequent-flyer miles, foolishly hoping that this world of impermanence and death can give us lasting satisfaction. But Fox was calling us to “walk,” not “travel” (I think “behave ourselves” captures some of what “walk” meant to him); “over the world,” not “across terrain” (I think his “knowing one another in that which is before time was” captures some of the eternal throne-room atmosphere); and “cheerfully” meant more “without grumbling” than “skipping merrily.” I think Fox’s century was one in which you could say that Jesus went “cheerfully” to His death on the cross without getting strange looks from people. We read Fox (or avoid reading Fox) and we don’t get it.

    Without realizing it, many of us lack the earnestly God-seeking mind-set of Fox’s seventeenth-century audience. And so we walk on in darkness, and all the foundations of the earth are out of course. Created in God’s own image, we may hear God whisper to us in the Psalmist’s words, “Ye are Elohim” (which could legitimately be translated “Ye are God”) — “but ye shall die like Adam.” What a dreadful irony! Why can’t we discern what is That of God in us from what is not of God, and let the One drive out the other? Perhaps because we brought this disability on ourselves. Fortunately we have a Divine Friend who, if we ask for wisdom, “giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not.” We simply have to give the process our patience and willingness.

  • Wowsers!

    Just checked in to this thread and it is certainly intimidating. It is also interesting and some of it heartens me to read.

    I don’t know what “that of God in everyone” means, though, and, frankly, I don’t much think about it, anymore. I’m not convinced that “knowing” (believing propositionally) anything about such theological/notional and unknowable concepts has been of much value to me, personally. Some tell me that reasoning from admittedly speculative premises has improved their walk, and I am not in a place to judge that.

    I know that there is something going on–because I have experienced it–that guides me and deals with me when I don’t follow the guidance. Following the guidance does a predictable shaping of me and makes my life, and the lives of those around me, better. I catch whiffs of this in Quaker (and other spiritual) literature through the ages. Like I said, I know something is going on, here, but I am not sure about its nature, characteristics or purposes.

    So, I can’t imagine what it is.

    God?

    That of God in me?

    Dunno.

    And I don’t know what–other than creating confusion–hanging one label or another on this transformational process–has given me except confusion due the rest of the notional baggage that has come along with any label I choose.

    Two things I do know, though.

    First, what is expected of me–because listening I hear it quite clearly.

    Second, that in the past my wondering about theological/notional things I (and everyone else) can only speculate about–like God or that of God in everyone–used to lead me, and others, into a lot of disputation that complicated my life and the lives of those around me. This contention also got in the way of my following through with #1, above, often frustrating my fragile ability to do what I know I am supposed to be doing.

    So, I have laid down this rationalistic religion and leave it to those whose lives witness to its transformational value, those who can not only think and talk about God but who, through this talking and thinking, have found their moral condition–and that of their communities–to have been improved.

    Blessings.

  • SJ says:

    “Moral conscience, present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil. It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments. When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking.”

    So says the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Fox had a tendency to couch run-of-the-mill theological insights in unusual language meant to shake his audiences into a new and more vital grasp of their Christian faith. When he urges us to “speak to that of God in everyone,” it’s hard for me to think he’s saying anything other than this: address yourselves to the consciences of those around you, to the secret part of everyone that is in conversation with God. No pantheism here, I’m afraid.

    • broschultz says:

      You can have a good conscience, a defiled conscience, a pure conscience, a poor conscience. The conscience itself is not God. It’s a compass. It can be a good compass or a bad compass but that’s all it is.

  • Flo Fflach says:

    “I don’t see what believing I was quasi-divine would get me, what essential problems or questions it would answer”
    I don’t see that the god in each of us as making us quasi divine. More something along the lines that it is therefore my duty (the best word I can come up with) to attend to this, I have some duty to have a spiritual discipline. I am really unclear on matters such as the resurrection any notion of a kingdom of god elsewhere. but very clear that all I ever wanted was god – even if i discover a nothingness of god, even if there is no blinding mystical experience.

    the other BIG thing it does, is make me look at how I interact with, feel about other people, how I treat them. not only finding that of god in others but speaking to responding to them holding that fact in me as I respond to them. especially when i don’t like what they are doing!

  • Forrest, thank you for pulling forward the inside/outside conversation.
    “as one Being– entirely embodied in every place and beyond them all…”
    My experiences of this came first in Quaker Meetings as I would experience a Meeting come into gathering either through a profound deep silence, or a gifted message(s). Later I came to experience variations of this embodied communion as something I could orchestrate in my QiGong classes and that would drawn me deep into its bosom while wandering in the forest.
    With these experiences there is never the sense that there is “something special” inside of me. It more of a tuning into a spectrum of the creativity of the universe flowing my (and every person, place or thing) life into it’s potential. (God?)
    I sense that this is the activation of our consciousness to variations of its non-local communal nature, in pairs, in Meetings, in groups of all sorts, as members of the natural world.
    Consciousness studies (Institute of Noetic Sciences for example) seems more able to describe what is happening in Quaker Worship than we are.

  • broschultz says:

    Gen 2:7 And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground,and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
    I would propose for the purposes of this discussion that “that of God” in every man is man’s soul. Further I would propose that man IS a soul. When man was made in God’s image man was made as a spirit. See John 4:24 – God is a Spirit:
    That’s my scriptural basis. My experiential basis comes from my heart attack. At one point they had to zap me back to consciousness. Before they did I was fully conscious mentally and could HEAR the medical staff’s voices getting dimmer. I could FEEL myself floating upwards. I could FEEL being surrounded by warmth and my consciousness was overwhelmed with a feeling of peace that surpassed my understanding. There was no disconnect between the instant the staff realized they had to zap me back and the time I came back. I was conscious the entire time. My body did not float in the air. The medical staff did not have to hold it down. My conscious self was floating away from the staff thereby making their voices dimmer.
    So I propose based on scripture and my personal experience that man is a soul and that soul is a direct descendant from that first breath of God that brought dust to life and is “that of God in every man”.

  • John March says:

    I am not sure that a focus on “that of God in everyone” is the right question. Rather, it points to a more fundamental concern among Friends about how we individually and collectively connect to God in Silence, underneath words, so that following Eckhart “The Eye with which I see God is the same Eye with which God sees me.’

    Quakerism as mystical theology operates from the premise that Fox and the early Friends knew from experience, but didn’t have a rigorous way to teach as a set of contemplative practices. For example, Fox describing his own awakening says: “Now was I come up in spirit through the flaming sword, into the paradise of God. All things were new, and all the creation gave another smell unto me than before, beyond what words can utter. I knew nothing but pureness and innocency and righteousness, being renewed up into the image of God by Christ Jesus; so that I say that I was come up to the state of Adam which he was in before he fell….Great things did the Lord lead me into, and wonderful depths were opened unto me, beyond what can by words be declared. But as people come into subjection to the spirit of God, and grow up in the image and power of the almighty, they may receive the word of wisdom that opens all things, and come to know the hidden unity in the eternal being.” But he doesn’t say how to set up the conditions to experience God in this way except for the instruction for remain resolute in the darkness without words until the Light emerges as if by grace. As James Naylor says, “Art thou in the Darkness? Mind it not, for if thou dost, it will feed thee more, but stand still and act not, and wait in patience till Light arises out of darkness and leads thee.”

    It may not have mattered to early Friends that Quakers never developed a coherent practice of deepening levels of interior Silence. When you’re around Fox, transmission of awakened experience can happen by simple proximity like a gathered Meeting. Centuries later, the heart’s longing to arrive at a place of stillness in which the unity of the one and the many is understood experientially is what still brings many people to Quakerism. It is a lay contemplative tradition the outward expression of which is compassion, social justice. Rufis Jones puts it this way: “There is in most of us a vast acreage of our inner estate which has never been touched by the plow. It remains uncultivated. We are this, we have been this, but how much more we might be. Coming to our self, our true self, and reaching out with divine help and the gift of Grace to win the whole of oneself is to be ‘spiritual-minded.'” Jones fundamental instruction to a dear Friend, Calhoun Geiger, “rest where you are” is a lovely expression of the injunction to be still and know that I am God for it is the quelling of the desire to manipulate experience that is the entry into interior Silence.

    In the Christian tradition, the practice of interior silence is best expressed in the gnostic gospels. As a practice, it is far better expressed in the Catholic tradition and even more so in the various streams of Buddhism than in Quakerism. Quakers experience the heart longing, but often don’t know what to do in or with the Silence. Hence the turn toward other forms of practice and, ultimately, toward universalist principles. At best, these lead to a wonderful blend of Quaker and Buddhist faith and practice, viz. the writings of New Mexico Friend and Buddhist priest Richard Hayes (see http://dayamati.blogspot.com/ and http://dayamati.wordpress.com/). At its worse, it leads to a pablum in which Quakers praise other Quakers while agreeing not to disagree about anything.

    Speaking to that of God in everyone from a mystical point of view represents the interconnections of all things, what the Buddhist’s call dependent origination, within the unity of everything, which the Buddhists call emptiness of self. In Durham Friend’s Meeting this past First Day, we heard messages of the beauty of the sunbeam and the sun. of the transformation of the one into the many, the sun into the sunbeam, and deeper still of the unity of the two, forms within emptiness and emptiness within forms. Meeting was deeply gathered.

    Quakers would be well advised to rediscover not just the theology of early Quakers, but the music under the words, that is the experience of the early Friends, who it feels to me were alive and awake in ways that we in our secular story driven world can hardly imagine. We have people like this in Meetings all across the world in all the Friend’s traditions with and without turnings toward other mystical traditions. Morality is the platform on which mysticism stands; social justice as compassion is the expression of a connected heart that excludes nothing and no one. I for one am so grateful for having found a home in Friend’s Meeting and to have had this experience enriched by 40 years of Buddhist practice and silent retreats. As the Buddhist say in the triple jewel, all gratitude to the teachers, the teachings, and to the community of the faithful.

    • John, thank you for this wonderful comment. I first left the Lutheran church of my upbringing because I could find no one around me who was actually experiencing God in a profound way, except for our associate pastor, Pastor Harmony, who, true to his name, was a gifted musician; he was having out of body experiences playing Bach Preludes. Then came the war in Vietnam.

      I shut the door for good when I discovered yoga. Here was a scientific, systematic way to experience the divine with the depth of elaboration that comes from three thousand years of development. By contrast, Christian contemplative practice seemed—and still seems to me—woefully impoverished. The only Christian practice I know of that reliably alters consciousness in ways that open the heart and soul is centering prayer, which I learned of from Chris Ravndal at Pendle Hill. And I have come to believe that altering consciousness in some deep way is virtually indispensable to the practice of a practical mysticism such as Quakerism. It’s not absolutely necessary, nor is it sufficient. But it makes a huge and demonstrable difference.

      By “practical mysticism” I mean one that actually works, that delivers direct communion with God; and also one that draws you into the world, rather than out of it. This latter point is why I eventually stopped the intense practice of yoga; I like passion, sex, physical exertion, engagement of all kinds, family, community—all the karmic entanglements yoga intends to sever you from.

      Through the centuries, many many Quakers have quaked, have had their siddhis, their siddhas*, their visions, their transcendent communion with God, without formal training in meditation or any apparent technique. There is something about the practice of silence among Friends that has gone a long way toward filling the gap. Nevertheless, as Michael Sheeran points out in Beyond Majority Rule, many Quakers have never really experienced a gathered meeting, or a transformative transcendental experience of divine communion.

      I think one of the most valuable things a ministry and worship committee can do is learn and then teach a range of techniques for meditation and contemplation. There are a number of different ‘mystical temperaments’, so one technique will not work for all. I would start with Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, and then do a little research on meditation. The simplest techniques are often the best; just watching the breath—just that—is utterly safe and extremely powerful and not at all weird: it can be practiced in meeting for worship and no one looks at you funny. Like you, many Friends have found Buddhist practice a natural fit. And of course, there is centering prayer, easily learned on your own, with several great books out there.

      I have been speaking here about the form of the practice, not its content. Content matters, not so much, in my experience, in terms of the deepening, but rather in how it orients awareness in daily life in the ordinary world and how it aligns you with your community. For myself, while I have incorporated deepening techniques learned in several different, non-Christian traditions, I nevertheless feel led to stay within the faith and practice of traditional Quaker ministry when it comes to how I organize and express my practice. I worry that spiritual eclecticism is fragmenting the collective spirituality of Quaker communities.

      My meeting (Yardley, PYM) rents its space to a Buddhist meditation group and several members attend it. I suspect it deepens their spiritual lives a lot, or they wouldn’t be going. And maybe they would still go if we Quakers taught similarly effective techniques for deepening. But we don’t. For post-Christian Friends who have abandoned the Bible and its vocabulary, and Friends who have no sustainable knowledge of Quaker spiritual tradition, the only framework for ‘practical mysticism’ is the idea of “that of God” in every person. That’s not enough. So we need to promote the work of people like Thomas Kelly, Douglas Steere, and John Yungblut, as well.

      * A note on Fox as a siddha: For some reason, I had never thought of George Fox as a siddha guru, but clearly he had a charismatic power which he was able at times to transmit to his listeners, with miraculous effect. I believe this indwelling power was why he apparently demanded and received special veneration as the “son of God”, as Bailey describes in some detail in New Light on George Fox and Early Quakers. I’ve been in the presence of real siddhas; I’ve experienced shaktipat; I’ve been part of communities formed and enlivened by the direct transmission of spiritual awareness. It’s incredibly attractive, to see real miracles taking place, to share spiritual ecstasy with others, to know something wild is happening. But it is wild. Erratic. Dangerous, even. And impossible to sustain. Give me good old sustainable Quakerism. Only we need to go deeper.

      • forrest curo says:

        I have to differ (slightly) with this: “And I have come to believe that altering consciousness in some deep way is virtually indispensable to the practice of a practical mysticism such as Quakerism. It’s not absolutely necessary, nor is it sufficient.”

        Quibbles include:

        1) “Altering conscious in some deep way” probably is necessary, and sufficient, for properly human life itself. (Whether it happens to sustain something called “practical mysticism” is probably entirely secondary. The effects of non-mystical “practicality” are all around us, and cause far more suffering than any possible amount of “detached mysticism” (if such were in fact a sustainable option!))

        2) Something that appears to be “practical Quaker practice” is quite sustainable for some people; it simply fails to deliver the spiritual anointing mentioned in 1)

        3) It may not be necessary or desirable to change consciousness ala experiencing “psychedelic” or meditative “phenomena”– Stephen Gaskin spoke about learning to reach a state in which “stoned” [originally meaning, he says, something akin to “astonished”!] involved experiencing ordinary physical reality with no distortions whatsoever; the difference he described was in also receiving equally accurate information on other ‘channels’ of experience. (I got a little of that, enough to believe his account, but mostly got overwhelmed with mental static, when I tried it Back In The Day.) What I’m trying to say here: People are, in a Christian terminology, so “Fallen” as to mess up the execution or the whole purpose of anything we intend, unless we can find our way back to harmony with God’s workings… So complete change in our way of consciousness is, as I said, needed– but this doesn’t imply any particular change in the “objects” of consciousness, “style” of consciousness, etc– only the “redemption” of the consciousness we have, thereby restoring it to whatever objects or or mode are seen as appropriate in that light.

      • Forest, it “stoned” me to hear someone talk about Stephen Gaskin. I attended one Monday Night Class in San Francisco in 1969 and was deeply impressed by him. My then wife and I visited the caravan when it came to Philadelphia in 1970 and we were profoundly affected again. Then we visited the Farm in Tennessee in 1973 and, in just three days, those people taught us how to be parents—our two-year-old had become the emperor of our universe. Those were maybe the most important three days of my life.

        They conducted their gatherings after the manner of Friends and the one I attended at the Farm was perhaps the most gathered meeting I have ever experienced, though it was completely different in its dynamics than a Quaker meeting for worship: Stephen moved through the gathering (we were several hundred people, including a lot of kids, seated on a hillside in the sunshine on the grass). He would stop for a moment and make contact with someone, then move on again. Suddenly, this palpable wave of spiritual energy flooded the gathering, and people began quaking, including me. Just then, he said: “There! That’s it! That is the Holy Spirit.” I could almost hear the wind roaring, as at Pentecost. For another ten minutes or so, the communion deepened. Then he launched into one of his incredible “sermons”, a la Monday Night Class.

        This was the first time I had heard of Quakers; in his introduction to what we were going to do (there were quite a lot of visitors to the community that day), Stephen explained that the form we were going to use was Quaker in origin. I didn’t pick up on this hint, unfortunately, and many years passed before I encountered Quakers again. But all these experiences had the most profound affect on me. His book Monday Night Class remains for me one of the most powerful and relevant spiritual teachings I’ve encountered in a long and fairly broad exposure to a number of spiritual traditions. And I tried to shape my life on his teachings for more than a decade, until divorce derailed my spiritual life and deconstructed the rest of it. When I emerged again into the light, it was into Quakerism.

        That meeting was proof that you don’t need “altered consciousness” to experience God’s presence. On the other hand, everybody there had a lot of experience with altered states, and not just through psychedelics. I believe that the factor that matters most in how often and how deeply a meeting experiences a gathered meeting is how many of its members and attenders have a more or less regular spiritual or devotional practice outside of meeting for worship. How prepared is their soil/soul for the Seed? How much does their practice help them slough off the world when they enter the meeting space? Even more specifically, what have they done to prepare on first day morning? Have they meditated or prayed or studied the Bible and avoided exposure to the media, their email, the New York Times? Have they arrived a little early so they can help settle the meeting space and prepare themselves? I suspect that it does not require a lot of people with active devotional lives—who are practiced at deepening—to reach a critical mass in a meeting for worship, to open a spiritual medium for the Holy Spirit. And the deeper and more grounded in the Spirit someone is, the more they can help to invite that inrushing, the way Stephen Gaskin did that morning.

    • Markku Hirn says:

      Thank you,this is what I happend to need to day.”You are speakin to my mind”
      Markku H
      Stockholm yearly meeting

  • forrest curo says:

    The referent to “that of God”, “as a Divine Spark” is anything but new!

    It is prior to all religious traditions. It is also, as it happens, elusive to human perception– being in fact the very background and agent of perceiving anything whatsoever. (And no, it is not our “brain”– although that’s its physical embodiment in human beings.)

    It is not our “ego”; it is not our “self-concept”. Anybody interpreting this to attribute divinity to his ego or self-concept is on a treacherous stumbling-block!

    It is not “internal” in the sense of “contained in,” or “limited to” any human or all of us together. It is “external” in the sense of “being greater in power, extent and scope than we experience as the ‘isolated’ individuals we imagine ourselves (and typically experience ourselves.)” It is quite “internal” in that it’s the only actually internal self we act and experience from… but the false self usually occupies the foreground, hence the need for us to direct ourselves to “the true Teacher within.”

    The widespread failure of Friends’s worship to bring about realization of ‘that of God’ for most participants is indeed a problem! Most of our theology, after all, is based on God’s power and willingness to teach people internally whatever theology they need to know. But we seem to have been resistant, inattentive, what?!

  • Rosemary says:

    Thank you for this analysis. You’re right that there is very little theological exploration of the expression, and I’ve learned a lot from what you’ve written about its history from Fox to Rufus Jones. The influence of John Woolman, however, should be considered, even if he didn’t use the phrase. When we privilege this phrase, I believe we are moved with the kind of idea and feeling Woolman describes in this quote I got from Hay Quaker:

    “…As the mind was moved by an inward principle to love God as an invisible, incomprehensible Being, by the same principle it was moved to love him in all his manifestations in the visible world. That as by his breath the flame of life was kindled in all animal and sensible creatures, to say we love God as unseen and at the same time to exercise cruelty toward the least creature moving by his life or by life derived from him was a contradiction in itself.”
    – John Woolman (1720-1772)

    I agree with you and Martin that Friends can become complacent in using the phrase, but I believe that its meaning is not in thinking of ourselves as little gods (I don’t know anyone who thinks that way about it), but rather in encouraging reverence for all living beings, especially all human beings, because they are “life derived from him.” So that believing in “that of God in everyone,” as liberal Friends do, is closely tied to the peace testimony and all social justice and environmental witness that liberal Friends engage in.

    • rachel says:

      rosemary, i have been reading this conversation for awhile, and have struggled with how to express my thoughts and feelings about it. you have said it well. i think that this belief of “that of God” or the Divine within is really what makes Quakers different from other Christian faiths, not just our worship practice. It is central to my beliefs, and i agree, i don’t know anyone who has ever felt they are little gods because of this. Rather they use this to be able to turn the other cheek. Knowing that there is that of God in each living thing allows us to forgive and know that each person is worthy of love and compassion.
      Thanks for mentioning Woolman. i need to go read his writings.

  • TheYellowDart says:

    “That of God in everyone” speaks to me of the Imago Dei. Each human is made in the image of God. I tend to think of this as the Mind, Body, Spirit composition of a human. We are the only of all creation with this combo like God – “the Father” (Mind), “the Son(Jesus)” (Body), “the Holy Spirit” (Spirit). The rock or plant has no mind or spirit. The rat or frog has a mind but no spirit. All humans are due the respect of at least recognizing that they are like us – like God.

    But beyond that I believe that God relates to us “like-beings” directly spirit to spirit in a co-located way. God is “inside” us calling our spirit to His. Calling us to a restored relationship with Him. Some choose to answer that call and commune with His spirit. Some ignore that call and might not even recognize it as God. But nonetheless there is “that of God in everyone”. That divine spark as I see it is the ruach – “breath of God”.

  • I don’t think the idea of “that of God” is so terrible in itself. I’ve know people who reported feel free and liberated upon hearing this modern liberal Quaker turn-of-phrase. It has a great appeal, though I suspect part of the appeal is its ambiguity.

    My concern is what we typically leave out. Early Friends were really clear that we needed an outside force–Christ Jesus–to show us our flaws. Judgement was the first step and acknowledgement of our sins the second. We’ve also typically held up the dangers and subtly of temptation and the need to be willing to suffer a cross of humility in God’s work.

    None of this is necessarily incompatible with “that of God” but it isn’t common among liberal Friends. And it hurts us. I don’t think we have the framework for understanding why good people make bad decisions. We hold up signs against the baddies of PNC Bank or the Pentagon but don’t know what to say when a respected member of our meeting acts like an ass or when some beloved Quaker org goes astray. Early and even not-so-early Friends could talk about gospel order and the need for constant vigilance among even the most grounded members. Without that we become a self-congratulation society that loses its dissenters and would-be reformers.

    • I agree that one of the weaknesses of our current way of using the phrase “that of God” to define our beliefs is that we haven’t yet developed a sense of how it supports our practice. What role does/should it play in meeting for worship, meeting for business in worship and other areas of discernment, for gospel order and the culture of eldership more broadly? We haven’t explored this at all, really. By placing the locus of religious life inside each of us while providing no meaningful connection to a Source outside ourselves, I suspect that it reinforces the growing trend toward individualism and away from corporate discipline among Friends. It helps to enable the practice of Quakerism as a “do it yourself religion”. I’m not sure which came first, though, the chicken (fear of discipline, love of individual liberty within the community), or the egg (“that of God in every person”). The trend and the phrase seem to have co-evolved.

      I have occasionally heard a kind of ‘network theology’ in which all the “that of God”s in each of us commune with each other in meeting for worship. That’s an interesting path to follow—an interesting notion, if you will—but it remains just a speculative theory until we experience it and learn to articulate that experience coherently, the way Paul did with the idea of the “body of Christ,” for instance. Barclay suggests something like this, if I remember correctly . . . have to go look that up.

      • forrest curo says:

        The key to what you’re saying about “a Source outside ourselves” is that the words “inside” & “outside” are intrinsically confusing in this context.

        You seem to be reading “God in each person” as if it described God as “a little bit here, a little bit there,” rather than as one Being– entirely embodied in every place and beyond them all…

        So far as everyone in a Meeting is (sometimes) individually attuned to God, that should imply understanding each other via that common connection, having our efforts ordered and coordinated by a common Source of divine guidance. “Discipline” under that condition should not need to be external. The best example I remember was the time one member of my Meeting was requesting our participation in a good cause, and people were dithering over pro’s & con’s, until someone pointed out “This is the kind of stand we’re intended to take,” so that everybody realized that, and debate ended right there. (This sounds like “consensus”, but I think it involved something deeper. People had been stuck in their “adult ego” habits, acting the role of giving false prudence its due weight– and then were pulled into looking at the matter from a higher level, ‘the witness of God in them’ at least implicitly…)

        Our practice works so far as “that of God in us” is running the show. “Individualism” in the bad sense is something quite different, a matter of deifying the ego rather than searching under it for its divine root… Rumi said something(if I have this right) about “Putting the donkey in charge of the house while Jesus sleeps out in the stable.”

        A Source “beyond” ourselves– That’s really what you’re asking for, and we have that. “God within us” is not “God contained in us”. The implications for “practice” ought to be: ‘What practices would we follow if we considered coming to know God [and to know God better] our most important task?’

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