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.

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§ 8 Responses to The Foundation of our “Testimonies”

  • Those who know Christ Jesus desire to keep his words.

  • Keith Saylor says:

    I enjoyed reading your piece. For many of us, we are anchored in and informed by our witness (direct living experience of the inshining Light) not in our testimony (words about the experience).

  • Steven, I’m almost certain that previously the question of where the phrase “that of God in every man” originated came up in your blog. Lewis Benson (who would have appreciated your distinction between philosophical platonism and prophetic Quaker faith) says Fox had the first chapter in Romans in mind when he used the phrase. I’ll quote the relevant passage from his booklet “‘That of God in Every Man’: What did George Fox mean by it?”‘

    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,” and Fox replied: “Here is 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 I [19].

    From a later piece in 1658, Fox wrote the following:

    So that which may be known of God is manifest within people, which God hath showed unto them…and to that of God in them all must they come before they do hold the truth in righteousness or retain God in their knowledge, or retain his covenant of light (5).

    So, for Fox and the first generation–as well as the apostles–there must be some transformation (“to that of God in them all must they come”) from the natural, carnal state to the spiritual, heavenly state.

  • […] The Foun­da­tion of our “Tes­ti­monies”. […]

  • Don Badgley says:

    Steven,

    Once again you have pointed us to a Truth that goes to the heart of what the RSoF was intended to be and might still be. It also goes to the heart of why, in this age, it is almost entirely not. I am grateful and will pass this on in my travels among Friends and others.

  • Thank you very much for this, Steve. I’ve long been troubled by the currently widespread notion among Friends that we Friends refrain from violence “because there’s that of God in every person.” When I hear that, I want to ask, “What, then, do you make of the teaching in the Bhagavad-Gītā (2:16-25) that a warrior may kill his enemies without guilt precisely because there is That of God (the ātmān) in each of them, and That of God can never be slain? ‘Weapons do not cleave this self, fire does not burn him; waters do not make him wet; nor does the wind make him dry’ (Bh. G. 2:23, Radhakrishnan tr.).” I don’t feel I can trust the nonviolence of a person whose nonviolence is based on a mere notion, or what Gandhi called “a policy rather than a principle.” “These have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away,” Luke 8:13. But those who have surrendered their life to the Divine (by whatever name they call Him, Her, or It) and have been disarmed by the Divine in thought, word, and deed, these are the ones whose nonviolence is firmly established. Many of these, no doubt, might still explain their nonviolence in terms of the that-of-God-in-every-person formula, but the real reason is that their heart has been disarmed. This distinction between the armed and disarmed heart might still be widely recognized among Friends today if not for the secularization of Friends’ thought over the past century or so, as the surrounding mainstream culture has become more secularized in its thinking. I think that we’ve largely lost faith in a God who can transform us.

    • treegestalt says:

      Yes, the ethic of the Gita continues to puzzle me — Particularly as Gandhi (of all people!) continued to find inspiration in that work.

      Since the characters of the background story are so definitely stereotypes exhibiting a range of vices and virtues, this crude adventure story might well be — about a battle far removed from any concrete human-on-human violence.

      Since violence against human beings with bad traits — is such a manifestly ineffective effort to eliminate such traits — I find myself almost certain that we are really intended to read it in that light.

      —–
      The main flaw in the idea that violence is harmless because ~You can’t kill God in that way:

      It assumes that you can harm an enemy without harming yourself. But you, and that enemy, are parts of one being; there is nothing actual in him that is not potential in you (and vice versa.)

      And yes, ideas have power to affect things in their realm, feelings in theirs — physical actions in theirs. But for any of these to make any real difference, a spiritual power needs to be at work in them. The idea of ‘that of God’ could inspire a great many ideas, some noble feelings, actions appropriate to ‘what people think it means’ —

      and the realization of it is something of a different order.

  • treegestalt says:

    “God is human (in the best sense of the word)” is probably a valid insight as to who/what God ‘is’. My old ‘Old Testament’ teacher in a state college considered that God, in creating humankind, had (in a sense) fragmented the divine consciousness (distributed it?); and that this was an implicit universal insight of the major religions (more tacit in some than in others.)

    And that’s the only way I can ‘understand’ matters (so far as the idea of “understanding” can apply to a condition of having one’s mind boggled by the idea…)

    “This something I have experienced seems blessedly human to me, even if it is transcendental in nature.” — Yes, that sounds like ‘God’ to me;

    and isn’t this phenomenon something that Christianity implies? I know that many ‘Christians’ would deny this — but consider them (rather than me) mistaken about it. As a Pendle Hill teacher put it, to understand Jesus properly you’d need a high Christology — or a low Christology plus a high Anthropology. (ie, ~ Christ is a human being — but being a human being implies being an embodiment of God.)

    And yes, it wasn’t really the ‘belief’ that this is so that produced the testimonies; rather these were intuited from God’s direct ‘inward’ influence.

    [The denial of ‘hat honor’? George Fox described this practice as part of his initial ‘commissioning'[?] to preach.

    ie, the idea that human beings of different ranks were all equal before God was in common circulation; and there isn’t much sign that G.F. particularly cared to emphasize it — but as he knew himself to be ‘on a mission from God’, his authority simply outranked anything some human ‘authority’ might claim…]

    ?

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