The Meaning of ‘the Light’—Three Stages in the History of an Essential Quaker Insight
July 20, 2011 § 8 Comments
George Amoss Jr. posted two very interesting pieces on basically the same topic as my post below at The Postmodern Quaker and on the same day. We’re on complementary paths and I hope you’ll take a look at what he has to say.
I have for many years campaigned against the claim that the phrase ‘there is that of God in everyone’ is the essential tenet of Quakerism, feeling very strongly that modern liberal Friends are
- dumbing down the content of our rich tradition to this one sound bite,
- saying something with it that George Fox never intended and would never have agreed with and which we ourselves cannot—or at least do not—clearly articulate, and
- making claims for its authority that simply are not true—that, for instance, it’s the foundation of our inward listening spirituality and of our testimonies (it’s especially common to hear it used to explain the peace testimony).
Some time ago, I was writing one of my rants against the way we use the phrase when I realized that I wasn’t completely sure about some of my claims, so I decided to do some research. I am just now finishing this research and the results have astounded me. I have not changed my mind about most of my concerns about this ubiquitous phrase and I plan to return to these concerns in subsequent posts, but about one thing I found I was completely wrong.
I had always believed that Fox would never have countenanced the vaguely neo-Gnostic meaning for ‘that of God’ that is so common among us nowadays—namely, that there is some aspect of the divine in the human, a divine spark, as the neo-Platonists put it. Now it seems that George Fox was some kind of ‘Gnostic’, after all. That he did believe—or rather, that he had experienced in his visions of 1647 (“There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition”) and 1648 (“I was brought up in the spirit through the flaming sword into the paradise of God”)—that he had experienced his own nature to be the “flesh and blood” of Christ, not separate or distinct from the substance of God, that “the light”, the “seed”, which all humans possessed, was “of God”, that is, the very substance of Christ’s heavenly body. That “the light” was not just a teacher or revealer or convincer/convictor, but that it was ‘metaphysical’ in its effect, raising up “the first body”, the paradisiacal body that was before the fall. That this was the nature of salvation in Christ: to shed the inner, ‘carnal’ body that could sin, and to be inhabited instead, body and spirit, by the immaterial, heavenly body of Christ himself, so as to partake of his power and authority and even perfection. That this indeed was the original foundation for Quaker ‘perfectionism’, the belief that one could live without sin. The authors and the works that make these assertions (Glen D. Reynolds, Richard Bailey, Rosemary Moore) are listed at the end of this post.
I could feel a little better about my ignorance of Fox’s understanding of the light because these authors and a couple of others seem to have uncovered a deliberate effort on the part of early Friends to excise this aspect of Fox’s and early Friends’ theology from public record. They name, especially, Thomas Ellwood, the first editor of Fox’s journal, and William Penn, but even including Fox himself, to some degree. Soon after the Naylor affair in 1656, but especially after the Restoration, these editors did what they could to hide, deny, recast or otherwise explain away this Gnostic bent in order to avoid charges of blasphemy and tone down Quaker rhetoric in the face of the persecutions. Fox himself never actually changed his mind about the divine character of the “soul”, nor about his own ‘divination’ through perfect union with Christ, though he voiced these claims less often and more cleverly later in life. So Ellwood and Penn did it for him posthumously.
I am swayed by these writers’ arguments. So now it seems to me that the doctrine of “the light” has gone through three phases in our history.
- First, Fox and many early Friends apparently did believe in a divine element in the human, which they often called “the seed”, and in salvation as a complete union with Christ as the light.
- Then this was replaced fairly soon (beginning in the aftermath of the Naylor affair in 1656 and gaining momentum during the persecutions after the Restoration in 1661) with a spiritualizing theology of the Inward Light, the recasting of “the seed” as a capacity for Christ’s spiritual inhabitation rather than an inherent sharing of the divine substance, and a partial restoration of the Puritan gulf between God and his creature.
- Finally, beginning with Rufus Jones and gaining momentum among liberal Friends since the 1960s, a return to a vaguely neo-Gnostic, neo-Platonic mysticism of the Light, in which “that of God” is some kind of divine spark inherent in all humans, and a new emphasis on the Inner Light as a universal divine principle in the human, replacing the Inward Light of Christ that had prevailed in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The first understanding of the light—“the light” and “the Seed”.
For Fox and Naylor and many, if not most of the early Friends (according to Moore, Bailey and Reynolds), “the light” was both the agent of unity with God and the object of that unity as it acted upon an “unchangeable life and power, and seed of God” in us. (Reynolds, page 57, quoting Fox). Fox believed that Galatians 3:16* (see below) meant that all of Adam and Eve’s offspring had within them a “seed”, which was Christ: “I speak the same seed which is Christ…Jesus Christ the way, the truth and the life, he is the door that all must pass through, and he is the porter that opens it”.
To me, these writers are quite persuasive and comprehensive when discussing the role of the light and the seed in salvation, but much less clear about the nature of the soul and its relation to this divine principle—about what we appear to refer to when we say “that of God in everyone”. This is mostly, I think, because Fox himself was not particularly concerned with the metaphysics involved in the creation of the soul and hardly even interested in the metaphysics of the soul’s salvation. He was more interested in the effects of the light than its causes, in the “raising up” of the seed than in its planting at creation.
Fox uses the phrase “that of God” or its equivalent by my count roughly 720 times in his works, but almost always in the context of discussing ministry, rather than in theologizing about the nature of the human or the metaphysics of the soul (which I say again did not seem to interest him very much). He uses this phrase to denote something within us that yearns for God. This is the case in the quote most often cited, from a pastoral epistle in the Journal (Nickals edition, page 263):
Bring all into the worship of God. Plough up the fallow ground . . . And none are ploughed up but he who comes to the principle of God in him which he hath transgressed. Then he doth service to God; then the planting and the watering and the increase from God cometh. So the ministers of the Spirit must minister to the spirit that is transgressed and in prison, which hath been in captivity in every one; whereby with the same spirit people must be led out of captivity up to God, the Father of spirits, and do service to him and have unity with him, with the Scriptures and one with another. And this is the word of the Lord God to you all, and a charge to you all in the presence of the living God, be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them. Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one; whereby in them ye may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you. Then to the Lord God you will be a sweet savour and a blessing.
The “principle of God in him which he hath transgressed”, “the spirit that is transgressed and in prison”, “that of God in every one”, and “the witness of God in them” all seem in this light to refer to some divine element in the human, which is “the same spirit [whereby] people must be led out of captivity up to God, the Father of spirits . . . and have unity with him”—that is, Christ. And the salvation of the soul—indeed, its perfection—is this unity with what Bailey calls Christ’s “celestial body”, the heavenly body of Christ.
The second understanding of the Light—the Inward Light of Christ.
The second phase in the meaning of the light comes with the retreat from the idea of salvation as divination through complete union with the light. According to Reynolds, the phrase “inner light” never occurs before 1700 and “inward light” is rare. But already with the publication of Barclay’s Apology in 1676, and then with the bowdlerized version of Fox’s journal that included Penn’s temporizing introduction in 1694, Friends began identifying the Light with the spirit of Christ, as something that came to us, rather than something already dwelling within us. The ‘seed’ became a capacity for receiving the Inward Light, rather than a sharing of the substance of the divine. Fox’s understanding of ‘ the seed’, the first body, was buried beneath a new theology that restored the Puritan gulf between God and his creature, a gulf which Christ crosses on the bridge of the Light to dwell within us spiritually. The Light became an ethical influence that could help us overcome sin as each impulse to sin arose, rather than a metaphysically transforming and substantial inhabitation of Christ’s heavenly body. Salvation and “the Light” became spiritualized.
The third understanding of the Light—the Inner Light and “that of God”.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, through his study of mysticism, Rufus Jones believed he saw a common theme that explained the universal character of mystical experience, and he applied this understanding to the Quaker insight of the Inner Light. This was the neo-Platonic idea of the divine spark: that there was within the human an element of the divine, which not only yearned for reunion with God, its source, but was also capable of experiencing the divine through mystical experience. In applying this insight to Fox’s phrase, “that of God” and the Inner Light, he redefined Quakerism as a mystical religion—not that it wasn’t ‘mystical’ all along, but that he taught us to think of ourselves this way.
It took a while, but this idea caught on and, especially since the 1960s, this neo-Gnostic idea has become the dominant tenet of modern liberal Quakerism: that “there is that of God in everyone”, meaning that every person has within them a kind of divine spark, that humans partake of the divine in some way that accounts for our religious experience. In fact, this is now virtually the only tenet of liberal Quaker theology upon which we seem to agree.
So the Inner Light has replaced the Inward Light of Christ, which was dominant in the 18th and 19th centuries, which itself had replaced the light and the seed as a sharing of divine substance inherent in the human, which had been dominant from the 1640s through the 1660s. The Inner Light has become a thing unto itself, independent of Christ, or of any specifically Christian theology, or of any theology or religious tradition at all, for that matter. Most Friends probably do not recognize the connection with neo-Platonism that inspired Rufus Jones, for instance. “That of God” is universal, not just as something universally possessed by all humans, but also as a principle to be understood independently of any specific doctrine or tradition.
Without a tradition to give it meaning or context, and given that liberal Friends are inclined to see themselves as having ‘outgrown’ the limitations of Quakerism’s specifically Christian roots and tend to be a bit allergic to theologizing in the first place, we now are free to define the Light and “that of God” however we like—if we define it at all. We used to define the phrase using God as the starting point: “that of” derived its meaning and value from a shared understanding of who and what “God” was. Now we humans are the starting point—“that of” is the starting point. Now “God” derives its value and meaning from “that of”. We have reversed the direction of the metaphysical vector implied in the phrase “that of God”. We now define God in terms of ourselves, working from a more or less shared understanding of what “that of” is: “that of” God is the divine spark. “God”, as a consequence, has become a projection of the divine principle that all humans have within them.
And “the Light” has come to stand in for God, representing this whole metaphysical ecosystem in which all humans possess a divine principle that makes each individual life sacred and accounts for individual spiritual experience, and this principle somehow connects us all in a mysterious and sacred way, and this connection somehow accounts for our collective spiritual experience.
At least that’s how it looks to me. I’m speculating when I describe the third stage in our understanding of the Light in this way because we haven’t really come up with a theology about it; the modern liberal Quaker tendency to shy away from doctrine, creeds and theology in general has kept us from articulating what we think about the Light or “that of God in everyone” in any serious way. I’m just drawing inferences from how we use these phrases and ideas today and trying to make sense of them.
So we have come full circle, but in a spiral. We’ve returned to Fox’s belief in a divine substance in the human, but we hold the idea now in a completely new context. We’ve separated it from its foundation in Christian faith and Scripture. More importantly, we’ve separated it from experience. George Fox didn’t infer his ‘theology’ of the light from Scripture; he experienced the light personally, viscerally, as utter spiritual and physical transformation, and then adapted his Christian and scriptural tradition to explain his experience. Later Friends continued to experience the Inward Light, also, and they continued to find that their Christian and biblical tradition helped them articulate that experience.
What of us? We ‘believe’ in the Inner Light, in “that of God” within us, but have we experienced it? And, without the worldview, the vocabulary, and the theological infrastructure of Christian and biblical tradition to help us articulate whatever our experience is, how do we communicate it—to ourselves, to each other, to our children, to newcomers and seekers inquiring about Quakerism? What canst we say?
* Galatians 3:16 (KJV): “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, ‘And to seeds’, as of many; but as of one, ‘And to thy seed’, which is Christ.” Paul is apparently referring to Genesis 12:3 & 7; 13:15-16; 24:7; and especially, Genesis 17:7-10. Fox seems also to have had in mind Genesis 3:15 when talking about the “seed”: (God speaking to the serpent after the Fall) “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his seed.”
Books I’ve recently read on the how George Fox and early Friends understood “the light”:
- Glen D. Reynolds, Was George Fox a Gnostic? An Examination of Foxian Theology from a Valentinian Gnostic Perspective; and “Was Seventeenth-century Quaker Christology Homogeneous?”, a chapter in The Creation of Quaker Theory: New Perspectives, Pink Dandelion, editor.
- Richard Bailey, New Light on George Fox and Early Quakerism: The Making and Unmaking of a God.
- Rosemary Moore, The Light in Their Consciences: Early Quakers in Britain 1646-1666.