The Foundation of our “Testimonies”
April 21, 2016 § 8 Comments
You hear Friends say sometimes that our testimonies are founded on the belief that there is that of God in everyone—that, as Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice puts it, “We believe there is that of God in every person, and thus we believe in human equality before God” (p. 75). But this is untrue in several ways—historically, theologically, and psycho-spiritually.
First, anti-historically, if you will, Friends have only meant what we seem to mean by the phrase “that of God in everyone” since sometime around 1900 when Rufus Jones gave the phrase its current “neoplatonic” twist.
By “neoplatonic” I mean the idea that we each possess a divine spark, a shard of the divine, which serves as our vehicle for mystical experience of the greater Divine, an idea that had its roots in Plato’s philosophy and was subsequently developed by Plotinus (204-270 CE) and later neoplatonist philosophers. Rufus Jones found in this idea a key to religious experience in general and to Quakerism in particular, and he was, I believe, the first to apply the idea to Fox’s phrase “that of God in everyone”.
Meanwhile, this is not at all what George Fox had in mind when he used the phrase “that of God in everyone”. For him, “that of God” in a person was the work that Christ was doing in them to save, transform, and sanctify them. Fox used the phrase almost exclusively in his pastoral writings, not in his doctrinal writings, including in the passage that everyone quotes as their source for the phrase. He is saying there that if you do your own inner work then you will be able to answer the work Christ is doing in others with integrity because you’ve been there yourself.
So much for the anti-historical use of “that of God” as foundation for the testimonies. Historically speaking, our testimonies derive from two sources, an outward and an inward.
Outwardly, they derive from early Friends’ distinctive reading of scripture. Sandra Cronk’s pamphlet Peace be with You: A Study of the Spiritual Basis of the Friends Peace Testimony lays this out for the peace testimony in wonderful detail. The “testimony of equality” has its roots, I believe, in our refusal to give hat honor, which arose, I believe, from early Friends’ distinctive reading of a line from the book of Acts, chapter 10 verses 34 and 35:
Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.
This Friends understood to mean that God judges all people equally regardless of their social station. Peter is speaking to the household of Cornelius, a centurion who had sent for him because of a vision. Cornelius had prostrated himself when Peter arrived and Peter “took him up, saying, “Stand up. I myself am also a man.” Peter then went on to point out that “it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath showed me that I should not call any man common or unclean”.
But the deeper source for the testimonies is inward. For early Friends, the testimonies arose from within. Friends experienced the “testimonies”, not as outward moral principles to which we should adhere, or even as ideas they got from the Bible, but inwardly as the moral force of the Light of Christ within them, which brought them into that “Life which taketh away the occasion of all wars”, as Fox said of what we now call the peace testimony. So the first-order source of our testimonies was the Light, and the second-order source was scripture, which confirmed the divine truth that had come to Friends first as inward revelation.
And so it is with us today. Speaking “psycho-spiritually”, we do not turn away from violence and turn toward peace because we believe in that of God in others—or because we believe in any outward principle or notion at all—but because “that of God” within us—the Light—turns us away from violence and toward peace. We know the truth of the “peace testimony” or any testimony because the Light has revealed it to us inwardly, just as it did for early Friends. . . . In theory, at least.
So the belief in that of God in everyone has nothing to do with the traditional Quaker testimonies. . . . Except that now it does, by virtue of having been embedded that way in the religious worldview of an awful lot of Friends. Never mind that this is a misreading of the phrase. Never mind that this usage tends to point us outward toward a theological notion, rather than inward toward the source of Truth. Never mind that it both distorts and forgets our history. Lots of Friends now believe that there is that of God in everyone. And for that matter, lots of Friends believe that this idea is the foundation of our testimonies, even if they are wrong about that—or are they?
Maybe this idea of a neoplatonic, or neo-Gnostic “that of God” within us is new Light. Maybe this idea is a true revelation, manifesting through Friend Jones initially, and now speaking to that of God within many of us today. Maybe there is a “that of God” in each of us. The idea’s been around for a hundred years, after all; it’s stood the test of time, if not the test of rigorous philosophical/religious scholarship, careful study of our tradition, or thoughtful historical research.
The idea doesn’t work for me, I must say. I am too much of an empiricist and existentialist. I have not experienced that of God in other people in any way that would allow me to make such a sweeping and profound generalization about human/divine nature. I have experienced the Light within myself, yes, but not a “divine spark” in myself or in others.
I have experienced something truly extraordinary and transcendental both in myself and in others, however. The leap for me is calling that “something” divine, calling it that of God. This something I have experienced seems blessedly human to me, even if it is transcendental in nature. Maybe some Friends feel that anything transcendental in the human should be considered divine.
Well—let’s say for matters of discussion that there is, in fact, “that of God” in everyone, whatever that means (another concern of mine: we use the phrase all the time but have never collectively explained to ourselves in any meaningful terms what we mean by it).
Nevertheless, “that of God” in everyone is NOT the foundation of any of our testimonies. It is NOT where our testimonies come from, either historically or experientially. We could add it to our story about the testimonies with integrity only if we clarify its role: it is a theological speculation about the nature of the human and of the human’s relationship to the divine that many of us find compelling. But it remains a “notion”, a theological idea, until we ourselves have experienced it. And it has no proper place in Quaker “doctrine”—what we tell people about ourselves—until the community comes to unity collectively around the experience—the experience, not the idea—as divine truth.