The Light—A Short History
May 29, 2016 § 13 Comments
I feel called to a vocal ministry of teaching, which means that sometimes I feel led to share some aspect of Quaker tradition in meeting for worship. This morning, the doctrine of the Light pushed against my Spirit-prompt for a good while, but it never felt right to deliver it. As often is the case, I just kept thinking about it and now here it is.
One of the most distinctive features, and one of the most important features, of the Quaker way is the doctrine of the Light. The Light is that mystery within the human that makes it possible to commune directly with the Divine.
Some Quaker writer—I can’t remember who—describes three phases in the history of the Light among Friends, the Light, the Inward Light, and the Inner Light. I would characterize them this way:
- the Light—the light AS Christ,
- the Inward Light—the light OF Christ, and
- the Inner Light—the light BEYOND Christ.
The Light—AS Christ
For George Fox, James Naylor, and many other early Friends, the Light was Christ—not just the light of Christ, but Christ himself. As Jesus says in John 8, “I am the light, and whosoever follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall walk in the light of life.”
For Fox the experience of the Light was a kind of mystical union with Christ, a putting on of the spirit of Christ, the “celestial body” of Christ, as one writer put it, so that one became Christ-like. As Fox put it, “I was in that state which Adam was in before the fall, a state in Christ Jesus that could not fall.”
This was close to blasphemy, and indeed, Naylor was famously tried, convicted, and punished for blasphemy, and Fox was accused three times, tried twice, and convicted once himself. The only reason Fox got off the second time was that Judge Fell, his close associate and then-husband of Fox’s future wife Margaret Fell, was the chief magistrate in the case. Fox and Fell put their heads together and found a loophole in the blasphemy law that got Fox off on a technicality. Fell was such a senior magistrate that his ruling was a more or less binding precedent, and the third time Fox was accused, the prosecutor didn’t even bring the case to trial, knowing he would lose. Nobody tried to accuse Fox again, legally, though his critics continued to accuse him of blasphemy in other public venues.
The Light—OF Christ
A lot of Friends were even nervous about this doctrine. After Fox and Naylor died, Friends put this interpretation aside. As the movement withdrew from the world into the quietist sectarianism of the early 18th century, the understanding of the Light underwent a doctrinal transformation. The Light became the Inward Light, the light OF Christ.
Now, Christ was understood to be outside the human, just as he was for other Christians, but his light shown into the human heart. Its function was to drive away the darkness, to reveal to us our sins, to warn us of sins we were about the commit through the light in the conscience, and to give us strength to overcome the temptation to sin. The Inward Light was a kind of wifi connection to the spirit of Christ, a conduit through which flowed the truth, life, and power of Christ into the human.
The Light—BEYOND Cbrist
This is how we understood the light for the next two hundred years, until Rufus Jones redefined Quakerism around the turn of the 20th century as a mystical religion and reinterpreted Fox’s phrase “that of God in everyone” to be a kind of divine spark on the model of neoplatonic philosophy and gnosticism. The Inward Light now became the Inner Light. The Inner Light was an aspect of the divine that dwelt inherently in the human, a kind of receptor that allowed the greater divine spirit to merge with the lesser spirit of the individual human in mystical experience.
In a sense, we had come full circle to Fox’s understanding of a radical indwelling of the divine in the human, but for Fox that indwelling was Christ and he was too practically-minded, rather than metaphysically minded, to fuss much about how that worked, or what might pre-exist in the human to make it possible. Jones was much clearer about that.
However, the universal, pre-existent, inherent divine spark that Jones gave us was now virtually independent of Christ. It existed before Jesus was born, it was inherent in all humans, and it was behind all mystical experience, regardless of the tradition of the mystic. So as the 20th century progressed, the Inner Light became increasingly detached from Christ in (liberal) Quaker understanding, and it also became less and less about sin, about revealing sin and strengthening us against it. Instead, more and more we understood the Inner Light as a vehicle for mystical experience, spiritual guidance, and continuing revelation without any explicit connection to Christ.
And that’s where we are today.