“That of God” as divine spark—the source

December 21, 2017 § 8 Comments

After years—decades even—of searching for the passage in the writings of Rufus Jones in which he first reinterprets Fox’s phrase “that of God” as a divine spark, which now distorts and dominates Quaker “theology” (such as it is) in the liberal tradition, I think I have finally found it. It begins on page 167 in Social Law in the Spiritual World: Studies in Human and Divine Inter-relationship, published in 1904, in a chapter titled The Inner Light:

We shall now pass from accounts of personal experience to statements of theory, or the doctrine of the Inner Light. One might say that every early Quaker writing is like a palimpsest. Beneath every word which was written this idea of the Inner Light also lies written. It is the key to every peculiarity in Quakerism. What was the Inner Light? * The simplest answer is: The Inner Light is the doctrine that there is something Divine, “something of God,” in the human soul.

Five words are used indiscriminately to name this Divine something: “The Light,” “The Seed,” “Christ within,” The Spirit,” “That of God in you.” This Divine Seed is in every person good or bad. Here is Barclay’s way of saying it: “As the capacity of a man or woman is not only in this child, but even in the very embryo, even so Jesus Christ himself, Christ within, is in every man’s and woman’s heart, as a little incorruptible seed.” (Apology, 1831, p. 177)

Again: “We understand this seed to be a real spiritual substance.” [emphasis is Jones’] It is “a holy substantial seed which many times lies in man’s heart as a naked grain in the stony ground.” (Apology, 1831, 139)

Barclay is very particular to have it understood  that this “seed” is not something which man has as man, but that it is a gratuitous importation from God—it is a gift of free Grace to every man. The child, however, does bring this with him, and so does actually “trail clouds of glory;” he does bring with him from God a Divine soul-centre. But this “seed” may lie hidden and unregarded, like a jewel in the dust.

It follows secondly as a corollary of this principle that direct communications are possible from God to man. In other words, the Inner Light is a principle of revelation—it becomes possible for man to have “openings of truth.” . . .

Quaker ministry is supposed to be the utterance of communications that are given by the Spirit. This Light within is also held to be an illumination which makes the path of duty plain through the conscience.

There is still a third aspect to the doctrine of the Inner Light. It is used, perhaps most frequently, to indicate the truth that whatever is spiritual must be within the realm of personal experience, that is to say, the ground of religion is in the individual’s own heart and not somewhere outside him.

* It should be said that the early Friends did not minimize the importance of the Scriptures, or of the historical Christ and His work for human redemption. The Christ who enlightened their souls was, they believed, the risen and ever-living Christ—the same Person who healed the sick in Galilee and preached the gospel to the poor under the Syrian sky, and who died for our sakes outside the gate of Jerusalem. One of the great fruits of the Incarnation and Passion, according to their view, was the permanent presence of Christ among men in an inward and spiritual manner, brining to effect within what His outward life had made possible.

The phrase “Inner Light” is itself part of the paradigm shift that is taking place here. If I understand correctly, for two hundred years before Rufus Jones and the liberal Quaker innovations that began around 1900, the Light was an inward Light—it beamed into the human heart, as it were, from Christ, across the gulf between the human and the Divine. I think Jones is working at a corrective here, reestablishing the Light as indwelling.

That being said, even the Inner Light is not quite, for Jones, inherent in the human species, in human nature as such. Per Barclay, he seems to think of it as somehow embedded in each individual human child. This seems like a very subtle differentiation between the human as an animal descended from animal predecessors through evolution—an idea that was in his time still relatively new and provocative, as he discusses in the introduction to this book—that is, a distinction between the human animal and the human as a spiritual being with a soul.

The Inner Light is a gift conferred on humans by God, but it is still permanent and indwelling. Most importantly, it brings with it the very substance of the Spirit. The Inner Light, that of God within us, is a divine spark, however it gets there. And it is this substantial correspondence between the Inner Light and the Light who was Christ that makes communication with the Divine possible—like speaks to like.

Social Law in the Spiritual World was Jones’s third book. His goal with the book was to do for the new science of psychology what previous authors had done for biology, especially the theory of evolution—to build a bridge between science and religion, to show that the scientific discoveries that were transforming the modern worldview could deepen the religious experience rather than threaten it.

Five years later, in 1909, he would publish Studies in Mystical Religion. I think he was already deep into the scholarship for this later book when he wrote Social Law. I have recently finished reading Studies in Mystical Religion and you can see him realizing that very many of these mystical movements in the history of Christianity had in common the belief in some version of the divine spark. I think he came to feel that the neoplatonic idea of a universal divine spark explained these commonalities, explained how mystical experience worked, and therefore explained the mystical experiences of Fox and other early Friends. And he found enough evidence in their writings to feel that Quakers stood in this long tradition of mystical religion grounded in the resonance between the divine spark in the individual and the Divine Spirit from which that spark had been struck.



§ 8 Responses to “That of God” as divine spark—the source

  • I suspect Jones, like a lot of Friends of his time and since, conflated the Divine Spark (of the sort found in Eckhart) and the ‘Inner’ Light to the exclusion of what the Inward Light meant to the early Quakers, that is to say, the Christ in Jesus or Kingdom of God (same thing) which they gleaned from their extremely thorough and extensive reading of the Gospels. See my “The Early Quakers and the ‘Kingdom of God'”.

  • I’m very grateful to you for locating this, Steve. Other readers may be happy to know that Rufus M. Jones’s _Social Law in the Spiritual World: Studies in Human and Divine Inter-Relationship_ (Philadelphia: John C. Winston Co., 1904) is available to everyone in Earlham School of Religion’s Digital Quaker Collection (esr.earlham.edu/dqc). I’ve found this chapter, “The Inner Light,” and the following one, “The Test of Spiritual Guidance,” well worth the reading, as will everyone, I think, who wants to understand why Jones was so opposed to Barclay’s idea of the Light, or the Seed, being essentially distinct from the human worshiper who received its influence or minister who conveyed its teaching.

    • I’d amend my last sentence to read, “…everyone… who wants to understand why Jones *claimed to be* so opposed to Barclay’s idea,” etc. — because I don’t pretend to know what was really driving Jones.
      I’m deeply grateful to Patricia Dallmann for naming the evident result of the rise of liberal Quakerism: “a faith that no longer requires one to be born of the incorruptible… a popular and comfortable doctrine, but a false and enfeebling one.”

  • Greg Robie says:

    First, congratulation!

    But I’d bet Samuel Bownas would not concur with this extrapolation concerning how this Divine presence becomes embodied in a human. As Rufus busied himself in his efforts to re-spark the RSOF at the outset of the twentieth century, our current iteration of the functional cancer of CapitalismFail was rising into social dominance. As my great-grandfather, the son of a Maine governor, a mason, and a banker, understood, such was the forfeiting of our national sovereignty (the right to be responsible) that came with an institutionalization of what was named in the ’80s, GREED-as-go[]d. What became the unconstitutional Federal Reserve Act of 1913 sparked the start of our too big to fail financial institutions built on debt-slavery [as a more efficient subjugation mechanism of a precept that #NoLivesMatter].

    Rufus’ redefining Quakerism as mystical, and innately so – if not intrinsically – redressed the ‘life’ deadening discipline-centric approach to Quakerism that was perceived as causal concerning the decline of the RSOF in his time. But what other causes were in play that relate less to how liberal Quakers perceive themselves today, and what they pursue, and more with how the various divisions within Quakerism perceived themselves back then? Didn’t this indwelling light construct provide theological cover for the GREED-as-go[]d that was busy usurping the agency for sovereignty? Didn’t it affirm the functional oxymoron of the separation of religion from politics that was unfolding and followed?

    Rufus’ role in the founding of the AFSC is an intriguing counterpoint to the emphasis he championed concerning Quakerism as a mystical religion. That it also mirrored the social activism of the RSOF in Philadelphia prior to the creation of this nation is, for me, an interesting comparison to contemplate. Have liberal Quakers become apostate to an earlier sensibility concerning what is the appropriate role of government regarding charity/social services?

    Regardless, and adding to the science that can inform religious sensibilities, the capacity of ‘tending and befriending’ behavior to invoke oxytocin within the human body is inversely proportional to blood testosterone levels. The less the testosterone in an individual, the more likely it is that that individual can perceive and come to trust that the seed of The Seed is internal not external. To the degree that condition is a shared social experience, such becomes a social construct that motivated reasoning can function within and delude a privileged folk into our Orwellian hell … and isn’t it born of a denied/unconscious but functional hope in limited liability law enabled CapitalismFail with its Anthropocene and its abrupt climate change (i.e., Chuck Fager’s observation about the role dead Quaker money plays within a privileged RSOF)?


    sNAILmALEnotHAIL …but pace’n myself


    life is for learning so all my failures must mean that I’m wicked smart



  • Steven, you quote Jones:

    Here is Barclay’s way of saying it: “As the capacity of a man or woman is not only in this child, but even in the very embryo, even so Jesus Christ himself, Christ within, is in every man’s and woman’s heart, as a little incorruptible seed.” (Apology, 1831, p. 177)

    Jones takes this statement from the Proposition titled “Concerning Universal and Saving Light” (QHP ediiton, p. 152). If you read the preceding two pages, you’ll see the context for this statement. Barclay emphasizes that the birth from the Seed is the salvific event; it is not simply the the presence of the Seed, which even “was in the very Pharisees…who did oppose and resist him [Christ].” Here are a few significant lines from these pages:

    And the apostle Peter also ascribeth this birth to the Seed and Word of God which we have so much declared of, saying (1 Pet. 1:23), “Being born again, not of corruptible seed but of incorruptible, by the Word of God which liveth and abideth forever.” Though then this Seed be small in its appearance, so that Christ compares it to a “grain of mustard-seed, which is the least of all seeds” (Matt. 13:31-32), and that it be hid in the earthly part of man’s heart; yet therein is life and salvation towards the sons of men wrapped up, which comes to be revealed as they give way to it. And in this Seed in the hearts of all men is the Kingdom of God, as in capacity to be produced, or rather exhibited, according as it receives depth, is nourished, and not choked: hence Christ saith that the Kingdom of God was in the very Pharisees (Luke 17:20-21) who did oppose and resist him and were justly accounted as serpents and a generation of vipers (151).

    What Jones seems to have done is take the doctrine of the “incorruptible seed,” placed in everyone’s heart so that new, spiritual birth might occur (after “travail” [Jn. 16:21]), and instead re-configured it to mean not the potential for but the actuality of divine life, making divinity a natural (first-birth) attribute. This re-configuration of Quaker faith by Jones is become a faith that no longer requires one to be born of the incorruptible, “by the Word of God which liveth and abideth forever.” Instead Jones–and now Liberal Quakers–portend no need to die to the self that new life might be born (Jn. 12:24). HIs is a popular and comfortable doctrine, but a false and enfeebling one.

    • Thanks, Patricia. I was planning to try to track down this Barclay quote, but I only have the Freiday edition, so the pagination isn’t the same. Now I am keen to read the context for the quote that Jones uses.

  • Don Badgley says:

    This Friend writes with gratitude for this latest blog post. The opening statement which points to the modern liberal Quaker theology of “that of god in everyone”, as a distortion of Fox’s intent and ministry, cannot be repeated too often. It was not his ministry because it was not his Experience. It also diminishes the Divine Experience with a simplistic shorthand for a spiritual and mystical reality that is ultimately beyond mere words.

    When I read Jones (or for that matter Davison) I am blessed to be exposed to erudition, intellect and scholarship that my minimal education did not afford me. In fact, when I read Barclay or Fox (no small feat), I do not approach it with too much trust in my rational mind. Ironically, I seek within the words, “that of God”, that of the Divine. I strive to perceive the Source beneath the words. I seek what the words point toward, ever careful not to mistake the pointing finger for the moon. “Why do you call me good? Only my Father in Heaven is Good.”

    Our very humanity has been raised up by our ability to communicate with words, both spoken and written. This ability expands our awareness of the Divine Source and has expanded our evolution as spiritual beings. And, in the end, as we return to silence and then to stillness we may rediscover the Source and for a moment all else falls away and we become One with The One.

    Our task as ministers is to ever point toward that Truth. You are doing that Steven Davison and for that I am grateful to the Source that leads you.


  • Jnana Hodson says:

    Part of the problem is that for the first two centuries, Quakers spoke only of Inward Light, not Inner Light. This Light was Christ and, as James Nayler wrote, a person could turn his back to it — reject it — rather than welcome it and thus be transformed by its searching of his conscience. I’m so glad to see someone else pursuing this much different understanding of Light in Quaker thought. Now, to reclaim the Seed as an expression of that experience within us — in our souls.

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