The Testimonies and “that of God”
September 10, 2016 § 17 Comments
Note: Something happened recently that set me off on this topic—again. I return to it over and over again from different angles, the way we use the phrase “that of God in everyone”.
It has become increasingly common for Friends to present some of our testimonies as based on the belief in that of God in everyone, that “there is that of God in every person, and thus we believe in human equality before God”, as the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting book of discipline puts it. In doing so, we also equate “that of God” with a divine spark, some aspect of the divine that dwells inherently in the human. We do this most commonly for the testimonies of equality, peace, and nonviolence; sometimes, also, for earthcare, claiming that there is also that of God in all creation.
This practice raises for me a number of questions.
- Is the divine spark/that of God really the foundation of these testimonies? I would answer no, not historically. But then again, maybe yes, since nowadays it’s such a common practice to make this claim. Does the fact that many Friends believe that our testimonies rest on this phrase make the claim true? Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, at least, seems to have established the case, having approved the claim when it approved its Faith and Practice, presumably in a meeting for business in worship held under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Or maybe not. Apparently no one stood up for our tradition when the book was approved, or when that section was written. Or maybe they did, and it seemed too small a matter in the larger scope of the matter to fuss about overmuch. I wish I had been there to know what happened.
- Should the divine spark/that of God be presented as the foundation of our testimonies? I would answer definitely not. Doing so misrepresents our tradition and the practice has not received the level of discernment that integrity would demand of our practice, PhYM’s decision notwithstanding. As far as I can tell, this practice has crept into our tradition through a back door left open by inattention.
- What really are the foundations of our testimonies? The answer is, foremost, the leadings of the Holy Spirit, confirmed over time in the hearts of countless individual Friends and collectively over time by innumerable meetings gathered in the Spirit for discernment—in theory, at least. Secondarily, but not insignificantly, early Friends also found confirmation of the proto-testimonies they held to be true in their distinctive readings of the Bible.
- What do we mean by a divine-spark that-of-God anyway? We are professing the belief that there is something inherent in every human being (and in all creation?) that partakes in some way of divinity. A “spark” implies something struck off from God, something that shares with God some substance, or perhaps just some aspect. In Hindu theology, it is called atman, the drop of spirit in the human that comes from the ocean spirit that is brahma. In the phrase lifted from Fox, we use “that of” to stand in for this spark. But defining “that of God” as a divine spark begs the question of what, in this context, we mean by “God”. We don’t answer this question; we don’t define “that of” in terms of “God”. In fact, rather than using a shared understanding of “God” to define “that of God”, we we go the other way: we use “that of God” to redefine God: God is that of which we have a divine spark. This, I believe, is the decisive theological turn that defines liberal Quakerism—defining God in terms of ourselves.
- Is the faith-claim of a divine-spark that-of-God in everyone true? I question this. Do we each possess a piece of the divine? On what basis can we claim this to be true? To be true, the claim must, first of all, be based on our own actual religious experience. I don’t personally have such experience. Well, I have experienced that something I referred to (I call it the Light), but it has not presented itself to me as divine; I seem all too human to me. I have only once heard a Friend speak at all convincingly about their experience of the divine spark in themselves; never in someone else. And that explanation was fraught with deep epistemological questions about how we know what we know, especially in the realm of religious experience.
- My point is that we have adopted this practice mostly without grounding it in our experience in any meaningful way, in contradiction to one of our essential articles of faith, which we have encapsulated in the famous question, What canst thou say? But even if we had thousands of Friends testifying to their experience of the divine spark within themselves, how do we leap from that personal claim to the universal claim that everyone has a divine spark? How do we know that? How would we know that? This leap, it seems to me, is an exciting but rather ethereal conjecture; it is metaphysical speculation about the nature of the human. It is, in early Friends’ parlance, a “notion”, and one without substantiation, a shadow of a truth rather than its substance.
- Where did the idea of a divine-spark that-of-God come from? For this we have a clear answer: Rufus Jones. Rufus Jones was an avid student of mysticism. It was he who first cast Quakerism as a “mystical” religion. And he proposed as the common foundation of mystical experience in all traditions the divine spark that had been clarified and elaborated by Plotinus and the neo-Platonic philosophers who followed and advanced his ideas. My research here is incomplete; I have seen a reference that pointed to where in Jones’s work to look for his divine spark interpretation of that of God, but I have lost that reference. I had thought it would be in his 1909 book Studies in Mystical Religion, but I’ve just finished scanning it without luck. I hope that some of you my readers will be able to guide my search.
- Why and how has the divine spark/that of God come to supplant our historical tradition as the foundation of our testimonies? Okay, what follows is more of an exploration and speculation than a thorough historical analysis, but this is my theory. The hallmarks of liberal Quakerism opened the door to this practice. These elements were introduced into the tradition by Rufus Jones and by his dear f/Friend John Wilhelm Rountree and the cohort that championed what we now call liberal Quakerism beginning in the early twentieth century. These elements were in part reactions to the evangelicalism that had dominated Quaker culture for a century. But they were also a positive vision of a new kind of Christianity. They included
- a new emphasis on experience over doctrine, which had ossified into dogma;
- an openness to science, to healthy skepticism, and especially, to the new scientific approach to biblical criticism;
- an optimism of spirit, including a passion for “progress”, as an antidote to the negative evangelical preoccupation with sin and damnation;
- along similar lines, an embrace of the theory of evolution such as could now envision the evolution of religion, the evolution of Quakerism, a commitment to a religion that actively sought to adapt to its times in order to speak to the needs of the modern person and of a rapidly changing society;
- a new openness to other traditions, recognizing not only their worth, but also their truth, the birth of a new kind of universalism, at least as regards the universal experience of the mystic, with a corresponding relaxation of the exclusivist claims that evangelicals made for the Christian gospel as they understood it.
But the birth of liberal Quakerism around the turn of the twentieth century (beginning decisively with the Manchester Conference in 1895) only opened the door to redefining the testimonies in terms of a divine spark and that of God. Other factors gradually pushed the practice into the front parlor. Perhaps the greatest factor was the Great War. Never had human “progress” been more challenged, or more necessary, or more on display. Machine guns, tanks, chemical weapons, aeroplanes—these developments desperately called for the evolution of a new religious message that could counter the terrors of all-out industrial warfare and the grind of emerging corporate capitalism. Jones himself helped form the American Friends Service Committee, a novel response to these forces that abandoned the old structures Quakers had used for centuries to organize whatever “witness” activities they pursued. More importantly, Quakers faced persecution for their faith (as pacifists) for the first time since the late 18th century. They were forced to explain themselves. The modern “peace testimony” was born. More testimonies were to follow. Social witness emerged as a new discreet category of Quaker concern. And the old evangelical answer to all social problems—evangelization, that is, preaching and handing out Bibles—no longer served. A new rhetoric was required.
It took a while to sever all the bonds that had been loosened—to fully embrace Jones’s mystical definition of Quakerism; to look beyond the Bible for language and rationale; to turn decisively to science for a replacement rhetoric; to shift from service to advocacy, as AFSC was to do, and to become more engaged politically, and thus to absorb progressive political perspectives and the language of the polis; and, most decisively, to welcome into membership more and more Friends who had no roots in Christian faith or, in many cases, actually negative experience with the gospel of Christ.
With the explosion in the 1960s and ‘70x of options for people with a mystical temperament, even the mystical recasting of Quaker faith became more a label than a reality; we became more and more the home of spiritual activists and less and less the home of active spiritualists. Then a bullet in Memphis, and many other such disasters, deeply wounded the God whose universe bent toward justice, and whose presence and power were already in question because of the second world war and the Holocaust. No use starting with that God to explain your testimonial stand for peace and justice and equality and against violence and oppression.
Meanwhile, we were sounding the depths in gathered meetings for worship less and less often. We liked Jones’s idea of a “practical mysticism”, but we increasingly lost touch with the reality of the experience that had been so profound for Jones himself and the other early visionaries of liberal Quakerism. And Jones had given us the perfect segue into a superficially hallowed but in reality hollowed out testimonial rhetoric that seemed mystical and religious without getting too specific about it—the phrase “that of God”, understood as a divine spark. It had the benefit of exalting ourselves while groping for the hem of a now-distant divine garment; never mind who might be wearing that garment.
We re-hallowed the phrase that of God by making it the foundation of our testimonies, and indeed, of our faith as a whole; never mind that we had flipped Fox’s meaning on its head, forgotten both its original meaning and its mysterious path into our canon, and ignored virtually all the other elements of our tradition by making it the single slender pedestal upon which our movement now perched.
So if we really are going to proclaim a neo-Platonic divine spark as an essential element of our faith and call it “that of God”, then let’s do so with integrity. First of all, let’s test the truth of it. Our benchmarks for discernment are our actual experience, both our own personal experience and the experience of our meetings gathered in worship; common sense and sound reasoning; the rest of our tradition; the testimony of Scripture; and the testimony of those prophets for whom this idea is a leading and of the lives they are already living under its guidance. Let’s pursue this discernment with informed knowledge of our tradition, with creative and energetic thinking, and with care for how we write and speak about it.
And if we decide that we do hold a divine-spark that-of-God as a new light of truth, let’s add it to our tradition, rather than using it to replace our tradition, as we seem to have done