The Soul

May 18, 2019 § 12 Comments

I saw David Brooks speak the other day. David Brooks is a conservative columnist in The New York Times and on PBS and NPR. I have not always agreed with his views, but I have always appreciated his moral sense and reasonableness. He was terrific—very funny, very insightful, with a deeply encouraging spiritual message: that we’ve been snookered into investing value and identity in outward things, but what really matters is relationships.

In his talk, he raised up a definition of soul that expresses something I’ve been reaching for in my Quaker writing for a long time, a way to talk about Spirit that is not theistic but still deeper and truer than the pure humanism that often characterizes Quaker nontheism. A way to anchor a theology—a way to talk about and share—liberal Quakerism that takes us forward, that honors the impulse against simplistic theism that animates our nontheists, an impulse that I share, without jettisoning our tradition completely.

Let me quote from the book he was promoting with the lecture (The Two Mountains):

I do not ask you to believe in God or not believe in God. I’m a writer not a missionary. That is not my department. But I do ask you to believe that you have a soul. There is some piece of your consciousness that has no shape, size, weight, or color. This is the piece of you that is of infinite value and dignity. . . .

The soul is the piece of your consciousness that has moral worth and bears moral responsibility. A river is not morally responsible for how it flows, and a tiger is not morally responsible for what it eats. But because you have a soul, you are morally responsible for what you do or don’t do. . . . Because you have this moral piece in you, you are judged for being the kind of person you are, for the thoughts you think and the actions you take.

Because each person has a soul, each person is owed a degree of respect and goodwill from others. [sound familiar?] Because each person has a soul, we are rightly indignant when that dignity is insulted, ignored, or obliterated. . . .

The soul is the seedbed of your moral consciousness and your ethical sense. . . .

Mostly, what the soul does is yearn. If the heart yearns for fusion with another person or a cause, the soul yearns for righteousness, for fusion with the good.

This last sentence is exactly how George Fox defined “that of God” within us, not as a piece of God within us, but as something in the conscience (which in 17th century English had a meaning closer to what we mean by consciousness) that yearned for God. It was this yearning that we could “answer” with our ministry, as he expresses it in the famous epistle that liberal Friends like to quote so often.

Of course, Fox was a theist and he believed it was God for whom we yearned, not just “fusion with the good”. But this distinction is one of faith, not really of practice, of doctrine rather than of living and acting. For Fox, the soul was more explicitly your identity before this God, something eternal. At the same time, however, Fox and early Friends did not fuss much about the afterlife or some deferred judgment; this life was what mattered and judgment was here and now. The soul might be immortal but what mattered was what it was doing in one’s lived life. In practice, Fox’s treatment of the soul was very similar to what David Brooks is proposing. And in practice, I see very little distinction between what Brooks means by the soul and what liberal Friends mean by “that of God in everyone”.

I will say, however, that both liberal Quakers and David Brooks focus on the wrong end of the ethical dynamic regarding the soul/that of God: Yes, murder or rape are abominations against another person’s soul, and against one’s own soul, as he says in his book. But the ethical impulse that turns us away from such abomination comes, not from regard for another person’s soul, but from the guidance of our own soul. Our testimonies are not grounded in the belief in that of God in everyone, but in the experience of that of God within ourselves, which seeks to guide us through this yearning for fusion with the good.

With this understanding of the human soul, we are talking about consciousness in an explicitly spiritual and moral sense without having to invoke the sin-judgment-salvation framework that we’ve inherited from our Christian roots, but also without abandoning its essential import for human action, personal transformation, and community life. We can speculate about where the soul comes from and where it goes when we die, but that’s just speculation. Real life happens right here and right now, and now, and now, until who knows what. This reality of the soul we know and can affirm experientially.

Next, I want to explore what I will call the collective soul, that piece of the consciousness of a community that years for fusion with the good. This collective soul is the medium of the gathered meeting. And I think it could bring us even closer to a new understanding of “God” or Spirit that is practicable, reasonable, experiential, and transcendental, mystical—deeper than a purely humanistic understanding of Quaker community and worship. And for me at least, it pushes right up against the membrane that separates us from simplistic theism. I call it para-theism.

For (in my opinion) nontheism leaves important aspects of our individual spiritual experience and our collective worship experience unexplained, unarticulated, incapable of being shared with others in a meaningful way. But simplistic theism fails to answer essential questions and assaults the intelligence of the inquiring seeker. I am reaching for something that satisfactorily explains what we experience in worship when our worship is gathered, a way to answer the question, what is Quaker worship?

Advertisements

“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.

 

“That of God” — A reprise of past posts

March 15, 2017 § 1 Comment

In 2015, I published a few posts on the phrase that of God in every person, and I took a look at those posts, now that I find myself returning to the subject.

Here’s a link to an aggregation of all the posts with the category “that of God”, for readers who are interested in what I wrote back then. The posts appear in reverse chronological order, so scroll to the bottom to read them in the order I wrote them. Several reiterate (or more accurately, “pro”-iterate, since they came first) the points I covered in my post quoting Lewis Benson. These posts also have a very lively conversation in the comments.

I want to bring readers’ attention to one post in particular: “That of God”—What Next? I am still very interested in the question, what next? So, since we’re not turning this train around; since liberal Friends DO believe in that of God in everyone, never mind the historical amnesia involved, the sloppy theology, and the distortion of our tradition, how do we justify and explain this belief? Where’s the evidence for this continuing revelation? The link directly above explores these questions in a little depth.

Lewis Benson on “that of God”

March 15, 2017 § 3 Comments

Lewis Benson on “That of God”

My post about “that of God” and the soul prompted a fair amount of comment and some interest in Lewis Benson’s essay on the phrase, so I thought I would digest its key points here.

In 1970, Lewis Benson published an essay in Quaker Religious Thought (Vol. XII, No. 2) titled “That of God in Every Man” — What Did George Fox Mean by It?” He hoped, I think, that this essay would reverse the trend among liberal Friends toward using the phrase as the foundation for their Quakerism, since he felt that “when we jump to the conclusion that “that of God” is the central truth of the Quaker message, then we cut ourselves off from that which Fox made central; namely, the message about Jesus Christ and how he saves men.” (Benson consistently uses “men” to stand in for all people in this essay; I do not change his usage in my quotes below.)

It didn’t work. His opening sentences are at least as true today as they were in 1970: “The phrase “that of God in every man” has been widely used in the twentieth century as an expression which signifies the central truth of the Quaker message. Many present-day Quakers, when asked what the Quakers believe, are likely to reply: ‘They believe that there is that of God in every man’.”

Probably no one knew the work and thought of George Fox better than Lewis Benson. He prepared a massive concordance of Fox’s works and if you look “that of God” up, as I have done, you find more than 700 entries, counting all its cognates, and there are many of those; Benson lists a few in his essay. I am persuaded by Benson’s historical analysis and his critique, and by aspects of his discussion of its implications, and I have taken up his crusade, though for different reasons and with different goals. I feel that his essay is essential reading for any Friend in the liberal tradition. (You can download a pdf file at http://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/qrt/topdownloads.html.)

So here are what I think are Benson’s salient points.

How Fox used the phrase “that of God”

Benson: “This phrase belongs to his [Fox’s] pastoral vocabulary rather than to his doctrinal vocabulary.

Two salient facts point to an understanding of what Fox means by “that of God in every man”: first, it is not used by Fox to designate the central truth that he is proclaiming; and, second, it is used most frequently to refer to the response that Friends were trying to evoke by word and deed.”

Where Fox got the phrase and the concept

Benson and others agree that Fox got the idea from Romans 1:19: “[Because] that which may be known of God is manifest in them [shown to them]; for God hath showed it unto them.” The context of this declaration in Benson’s essay suggests that this latter clause echoes John 1:9, which was a key passage for Friends: “That was the true Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.”

Romans 1:9 does not use the phrase “that of God”, but Benson quotes Fox showing how Fox connected the idea with the phrase: “That Fox saw ‘that of God in every man’ in the context of Romans 1 is evident from the following passage written in 1658: ‘So that which may be known of God is manifest within people, wjhich 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 . . . ”

What did Fox mean by “that of God”

The phrase “that of God” is not an idea about human nature “but points to the work of God in Christ,” as Francis Hall puts it in his comment after Benson’s essay.

Benson elaborates: “The Creator imparts his wisdom to man. This is not human wisdom, but the voice and wisdom of the Creator.  We cannot produce the equivalent of this voice and this wisdom from our human resources. It must be heard and received. There is a hunger in every man for this voice and this wisdom—a need to be taught what is right by the Creator. In every man there is a witness for God that summons him to remember the Creator. This is ‘that of God in every man.’ It is not an organ, or faculty, or gland. It is a hunger and thirst that God has put in man.” (emphasis mine)

That of God is not a divine spark inherent in the human, some aspect of the divine in which the human partakes, as we modern liberal Friends tend to believe. Rather, that of God is a yearning for God and for God’s teaching and guidance that was put there as a kind of receptor for the gospel, for God’s wisdom, put there by God.

Answering” that of God

Benson: “The verbs that Fox usually links with ‘that of God’ are ‘answer’ and ‘reach.’ The goal of Quaker preaching, either by word or deed, is to reach or answer something in all men. Fox says, “it is the light that makes manifest to a man when he is convinced: it answers to something, and reaches to something in their particulars.’ “Answering that of God” is not recognizing the divine spark in others, but rather offering ministry that satisfies the yearning in us for God’s truth.

In the famous pastoral epistle that we quote all the time as our source for the phrase, we “will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one; whereby in them ye may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you.” “Cheerfully” here does not mean in a lighthearted mood, but rather so as to cheer in a sense mostly lost to us since the 17th century, that is to spiritually uplift—to be a blessing. It’s also notable that Fox uses “world”, not “earth”, as many liberal Friends today often misquote him. “The world” comes from John’s gospel and stands for the world as it rejected Christ: “That was the true Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.” (John 1:9–10)

That which does the answering

Fox: “There is something in man . . . that answers the power which is the gospel.” Benson: “That of God in the conscience is not conscience itself, but the word by which all things, including conscience, were created.” This “word”, of course, is Christ the Word, John 1:3: “All things were made by him; and without hem was not any thing made that was made”.

The twentieth century usage

Benson: “Between 1700 and 1900 “that of God in every man” virtually disappeared from the Quaker vocabulary . . . How did this long-forgotten phrase get into the spotlight and stay in the spotlight?” What happened that modern liberal Friends have turned this phrase on its head and then made it the one slender pillar upon which all Quaker tradition was to balance?

Benson’s answer: “The earliest instance of the revived use of “that of God” that I have been able to discover is found in Rufus Jones’ “Introduction” to his abridged edition of Fox’s Journal, first published in 1903, in which he expresses his opinion that the “larger truth” implicit in Fox’s early experiences is the discovery that there is a ‘universal principle, that the Spirit of God reaches in every man.’ He then adds: ‘To all sorts and conditions of men, Fox continually makes appeal to ‘that of God’ in them or to ‘the principle of God within man’ . . . In every instance he means that the Divine Being operates directly on the human life.’ In the following year he [Jones] wrote: ‘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.’ As a consequence of statements like these, the phrase ‘that of God in every man’ began to acquire a meaning for twentieth century Friends that it did not have for Fox. The new ‘interpretation’ made ‘that of God in man’ the central conception around which everything else in Quakerism revolves.”

Benson notes that in the last few weeks of his life, Jones began to have doubts about what he had done. It was only at this late time in his career that Jones actually began to systematically study what Fox meant by the phrase.  Meanwhile, Jones had been propagating his misinterpretation for 45 years.

In his failure to actually study the material he was interpreting, Jones prefigured our own practice. Most Friends use the phrase glibly, having read very little Fox, if any, who are ignorant of Benson’s essay, and haven’t thought through what either Fox or they themselves mean by the phrase beyond the divine spark idea.

The idea spreads

Benson believes that the AFSC is responsible for bringing this understanding of the phrase into common usage. “A major contributing factor in the dissemination of this idea has been the torrent of promotional literature and other publications that flows from the pens of the publicists and staff writers of the American Friends Service committee. . . . by frequently reminding us that its central motivating principle is ‘that of God in every man,’ [the Service Committee] has exerted a much greater influence on Quaker faith and thought than anything emanating from the Society itself.” This jives with my sense that you are most likely to see the phrase invoked as the foundation for the peace testimony and our other social testimonies, a topic which Benson takes up at length.

“That of God” and membership

But the phrase has come to dominate our thinking about more than our social witness. Benson: “Among Quakers today there is a widespread belief that the central truth of Quakerism is a principle that is not solely derived from the Christian revelation. . . . for a considerable number of Friends ‘that of God in every man’ is the symbol of a principle that transcends and comprehends Christianity. We know that it is the policy of some Monthly Meetings to make belief in ‘that of God in every man,’ which has been called ‘the Quakers’ creed,’ a primary and essential condition of membership, whereas faith in Christ is regarded as a secondary and non-essential factor in examining prospective members. I maintain . . . there is no such Christ-transcending principle in the thought of Fox.”

My own meeting (Central Philadelphia) does not use the phrase in this way as a credal test in its membership process, but its membership documents are, in fact, full of the claim that our faith rests on the belief in that of God in everyone.

Comments by T. Canby Jones and Francis B. Hall

The Quaker Religious Thought issue with Benson’s essay also includes two comments by these two Quaker thinkers. Jones points out that it’s really hard to distinguish in Fox’s thinking between the Light and “that of God in everyone”.  They have the same source, they work in the same ways. Fox was famously unsystematic in his thinking, and Jones confesses to still being “all hung up” on this distinction, even though he dwelt on the question for pages in his doctoral dissertation. “I can hear Fox laughing,” he says.

I agree with Jones about this. I find it quite hard to follow Fox’s thinking a lot of the time.  But I also agree with Benson about almost all of his points. We misuse the phrase “that of God” these days in ways that do violence to our tradition and to the testimony of integrity.  We have narrowed our belief system down to this one principle and ravaged an ancient and rich tradition in the process. We have forgotten where our “modern” interpretation came from, and when, and we have falsely retrojected it onto our prophetic founder, who, it seems, never meant by it anything like what we mean by it.

But, as my Friend Don Badgley often points out, it’s not what we believe that matters so much as what we have experienced. “Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light?” Whatever “that of God” within us is, a divine spark or an inward yearning for Truth, is it connecting? Are we answering the knock on our heart’s door? Are we rising to face and follow the light, in spirit and in truth?

But while direct experience of the Christ (and I will leave open for now the question of what and/or who the Christ is) may be the main question, the way that we present our beliefs still matters. The way we answer questions about our faith from the public, from newcomers, and from our children. What we say matters. As Fox put it, “What thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?”

More on “that of God”

September 15, 2016 § 1 Comment

My post on the way we use the phrase “that of God” to explain our testimonies has generated such a lively discussion that I thought I would dig up some earlier posts on related topics. Lo and behold, I actually found the reference I thought I had lost to the place(s) in the writings of Rufus Jones in which he reinterprets the phrase to refer to a “divine spark”: Jones’s “Introduction” to his abridged edition of Fox’s Journal, first published in 1903 (George Fox, An Autobiography, 1919 edition, pp. 28 & 29), and reiterated specifically in Social Law in the Spiritual World (p. 5; 1904), thus:

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.

But I discovered more while mining my own posts. And since there seems to be so much interest in the subject, I thought I would offer links to the three previous posts that I think Friends might find most valuable. These are all from 2010.  (I can’t believe I’ve been blogging for six years!) To see all my posts on the topic, you can click on the category “that of God” in the sidebar to the right.

  • Lewis Benson on the phrase, part one. Lewis Benson wrote a piece for Quaker Religious Thought (QRT) entitled “’That of God in Every Man’ – What Did George Fox Mean By It?” (Volume XII, Number 2, Spring 1970). In this post, I review some of Benson’s discussion in that article, mostly about his analysis and critique of how the phrase has come to take over liberal Quaker culture.
  • Lewis Benson, part two. This post quotes Benson more extensively on what Fox actually meant by the phrase.
  • That of God—what next? This post poses some questions that I raised in my last post about how, in the light of the testimony of integrity, we should take responsibility, not only for the way we’ve handled our past tradition, but how we should move forward.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6.     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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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

“That of God” and our testimonies

August 13, 2013 § 21 Comments

Two minutes of conscience came before New York Yearly Meeting Summer Sessions this year, one on gun violence and another on drone warfare (see below). The assembled body was unable to come to unity on either of them for various reasons and they were, I believe, returned to our Witness Coordinating Committee, the committee that oversees the witness life of the Yearly Meeting, including its witness committees. For my own reasons, I agreed that the minutes needed more seasoning and that we did not have the time to fix them from the floor. In fact, I think fixing such minutes from the floor is almost always a bad idea.

One of the main reasons I could not approve these minutes, even though I agree with the general impulse behind them both, was the religious rationale they gave for our stand in conscience. Specifically, they both cited the belief that there is that of God in everyone and, as the drone warfare minute expressed it, “therefore every life is sacred.”

Over the past several decades, Friends have increasingly based our peace testimony, and indeed, all our testimonies, on the belief that there is that of God in everyone. This idea has even worked its way into our books of discipline. This is bad history, bad theology, and a cross to our testimony of integrity.

History

It just is not true that our peace testimony is founded on the belief in that of God in everyone. It is founded on passages in Christian scripture. I recommend Sandra Cronk’s excellent pamphlet Peace Be With You: A Study of the Spiritual Basis of the Friends Peace Testimony for a detailed treatment of the passages early Friends turned to for their rejection of violence.

We have only used the phrase “that of God in everyone” in the sense implied in these minutes since the turn of the 20th century when Rufus Jones popularized the “mystical” reading of the phrase. I’m not quite sure, but I think we have only been using it to explain our stand on nonviolence since about the 1960s.

Friends have largely forgotten that Rufus Jones gave us this new, “mystical” redefinition and assume that George Fox himself believed in some kind of divine spark in humans. This gets into a rather complex new reading of Fox that I discuss in earlier posts, but here I would say that he did believe that Christ does in some way inhabit the human at some deep level, but this is not the same thing as believing in “that of God” as some kind of generalized “divine spark” in us that has no connection to Jesus Christ. So, with the use of this phrase, Friends also have unconsciously reinvented Fox.

Bad history.

Theology

Both minutes imply that we do not harm others because we believe that this “that of God” in people somehow makes their lives sacred. But what do we really mean by that? What do we mean by “that of”? What do we mean by “God”? And what do we mean by “that of God”? Nobody ever unpacks this sloppy talk. We just seem to assume that everybody knows what we’re talking about. Well, maybe we do. I’ve gone on at length about this elsewhere, and I plan to return to it again, because I think this phrase deserves better from us, that our tradition deserves better from us, and that the people we are talking to with such minutes deserve better from us.

But I think George Fox would say that we have the dynamics of our relationship with “that of God” backwards. We do not reject violence because we recognize that of God in others; we reject violence because that of God within ourselves turns us away from evil and toward peace, love, and the good. It is “that of God” in us that moves with the Holy Spirit and gives rise to our testimonial life.

We do not reject violence because we believe in that of God in everyone. We reject violence because we experience the transforming power of the Light within us. Fox and Quakers for hundreds of years after Fox would have said that it was the light of Christ within us that turns us away from evil of all kinds, not some belief.

Belief is malleable and to a large extent socially defined and, in the case of “that of God”, inherited as an idea from our Quaker forebears, starting with Rufus Jones. Belief is held in the outward mind. Even a sincere belief in that of God is secondary; such a belief properly derives from our inward experience, also, that is, from that of God within ourselves, rather than from some legacy we have inherited. Once we have experienced the first motion of love, then we have grounded our belief experimentally.

Our use of “that of God” to explain our peace testimony is just bad theology. Or, if you don’t like the word “theology”, let’s call it irresponsible talk.

Integrity

All of this means that our unreflective, casual, indiscriminate, anti-historical, sloppy, and vague use of “that of God” to explain our testimonies . . . crucifies the truth. It crucifies the truth on the cross of ignorance, laziness, and convenience.

Well maybe that’s a little harsh. Because we’ve drifted blindly and dumbly into a new testimony, haven’t we, by virtue of the fact that we have been doing it for so long now. We have bedecked the foyers of our meetinghouses with our claim that there is that of God in everyone, never mind that we can’t really explain what that means. We have written it into the Faith and Practices of our yearly meetings. Everybody believes it now. It’s practically the only thing we do believe.

So maybe it is the truth now. Maybe this phrase is the new foundation for our testimonies. Maybe we don’t need breadth and depth and clarity in our testimonies any more. Just an easy answer and a little confidence. A sound bite to stick into our minutes that at least gives us something quasi-spiritual to say, so that our minutes of conscience are not totally secular humanist (which they often are). Maybe we do need just a simple phrase that won’t burden the minute with lots of “theology” or—God forbid—the taint of biblical language.

Gun violence minute

From the very beginning, Friends have opposed all outward forms of violence. We affirm the fundamental Quaker belief that there is that of God in everyone, including each person whose life is taken by a gun, and in each who takes the life of another. We support social and political initiatives, including legislation, to

  1. Eliminate the availability of military-style assault weapons,
  2. more firmy regulate gun purchases and require background checks for all purchasers,
  3. regulate the manufacture of firearms, and
  4. provide better mental health services.

We commit ourselves to be more active in working to reduce the death toll from guns, and more broadly we renew our traditional commitment to seeking nonviolent alternatives in our violence-prone society.

Drone warfare minute

The following minute against drone warfare originated at Orange Grove Meeting of California, and has recently been approved by 15th Street Monthly Meeting of New York City and also by New York Quarterly Meeting. These meetings encourage other meetings to adopt this coast-to-coast effort.

As Friends (Quakers) who believe there is “that of God” in everyone and therefore every life is sacred, we are deeply concerned about the proliferation of lethal unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones. The United States is leading the way in this new form of warfare where pilots in US bases kill people, by remote control, thousands of miles away. Drones have become the preferred weapons to conduct war due to the lack of direct risk to the lives of U.S. soldiers, but these drone strikes have led to the death of hundreds of innocent civilians (including American citizens) in countries where we are not at war, including Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

We urge our government to put an end to this secretive, remote-controlled killing and instead promote foreign policies that are consistent with the values of a democratic and humane society. We call on the United Nations to regulate the international use of lethal drones in a fashion that promotes a just and peaceful world community, based on the rule of law, with full dignity and freedom for every human being.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the ‘that of God’ category at Through the Flaming Sword.