August 30, 2019 § 12 Comments


I have come across a phrase that I think aptly describes what modern liberal Friends are doing when they interpret the phrase “that of God in everyone” to refer to a divine spark in everyone. The phrase is ego-theism. The phrase was coined by William Henry Channing in the 1820s to denote the blurring of “the distinction between the self as a partaker of divinity and divinity itself” and the understanding of God as “the human spirit writ large”. The quote is by Gary Dorrien, author of The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805–1900 (page 48), which I’m reading right now.

This idea was the germ of American transcendentalism as espoused by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who prefigures liberal Quaker thinking by three quarters of a century. I would love to know whether Rufus Jones, who gave us the divine-spark understanding of Fox’s “that of God”, was a fan of Emerson. I have always thought he got this idea from the neo-Platonists, but maybe Emerson and Jones drank from the same well.

Darrien quotes Emerson, and might be quoting Jones: “God in us worships God,” and “God must be sought within, not without,” and “Make your own Bible”. Emerson “[identified] God with consciousness or the world spirit” (Darrien). “[T]he simplest person, who in his integrity worships God, becomes God,” wrote Emerson. (Darrien, p 62) “[Christianity] is a rule of life, not a rule of faith.” And most tellingly: “The highest revelation is that God is in every man.”

Channing was an early eighteenth-century Lewis Benson, a sharp critic of this emerging Transcendentalist idea who strongly believed in God as a supreme and transcendent being who had nevertheless created humans in his image. It was this image, the attributes of divinity we have been given, that makes it possible for humans to understand God. It allows us to project onto infinite divinity qualities we had been given in finite measure.

This is close, I think, to Rufus Jones’s own theology. He believed in God as a supreme being, also, if I’m not mistaken. But a divine spark is a big leap from qualities given us by virtue of having been created in God’s. Liberal Quakers have taken that leap and then left that gulf between the human and God behind. We have walked on into a new neo-Platonist spiritual landscape and no longer see the divine-human gap, but only the enticing and self-satisfying idea of our own micro-divinity. Hence, ego-theism.

As I’ve said many times in this blog, I’m not saying this interpretation is not true. I’m saying that we can’t know whether it’s true or not. It’s pure speculation; it’s just theology. Unless one can express with integrity one’s direct experience of the divine spark in every human, one can pose the idea as attractive, maybe even as reasonable, especially as it mostly does away with the very difficult proposition of a supreme being. But it remains what Fox called a “notion”, an idea. We cannot establish it—with integrity—as the foundation of our faith.

Did Emerson directly experience his neo-Platonist divine spark? Or was he, too, speculating, having found the idea of a supreme being hard to justify but still keen to understand religious experience somehow?

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?

“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” as a replacement for the soul

March 6, 2017 § 24 Comments

Traditional Christianity believes that humans have an immortal soul that is our identity before God, that God judges us (our soul) on the scales of our sinfulness and our faith, and that the soul suffers an ultimate and eternal fate based on that judgment. In this tradition, the soul is a spirit-reality that is separate from the body, which has somehow been “poured” into the body as a vessel. In life, the soul is capable of learning and of making moral choices, and it continues to exist after death, retaining consciousness, memory, and identity. In the afterlife, it is still capable of joy and of suffering.

Liberal Quakerism has pretty much rejected this paradigm with its obsession with sin and a judging God and we have jettisoned the soul along with it.

But it seems the liberal Quaker impulse still wants to retain some kind of transcendentalism that would elevate the human above the mere material. Without belief in a soul and a deity—or something equivalent—we would be a secular humanist society rather than a religion. A lot of us are actually quite uncomfortable with Quakerism as a “religion” and do think of us as a humanist society. But enough of us have enough of a “mystical” temperament to want some transcendentalism in our faith. And some of us have had actual mystical experiences that demand something more from Quakerism than soul-less humans and a secular humanist society.

I think that this is where Rufus Jones was coming from. Both a mystic and a scholar, he sought to understand the mystical experience, so he studied it. And in that study, especially his study of neoplatonism, he found the notion of the divine spark. He also wanted to place his own mystical experience in both the mystical traditions of the world (or at least, of the West) and in his own tradition of Quakerism. He accomplished this by defining “that of God” as a divine spark after the neoplatonists, even though George Fox never had any such idea in mind when he used the phrase. Thus was liberal Quaker “theology” born.

To satisfy this impulse to the transcendental that some of us feel, we liberal Friends have run with this idea. I think we have seized upon “that of God in everyone” partly as a replacement for the metaphysics of the soul and the sin-salvation paradigm it undergirds. We understand this “that of God” implicitly as a kind of divine spark, or at least as some aspect of the human that is capable of apprehending a spiritual reality, which was previously the function and demesne of the soul.  We have replaced belief in a soul with belief in “that of God in everyone”.

We also have replaced the theology of sin, judgment, and salvation through Christ’s atonement for our sins on the cross with an extremely simple theology that posits “that of God in everyone” as the source of our “mystical” experience, our testimonies, and just about everything else.

Both the soul and “that of God” are metaphysical speculations about the nature of the human. So far, liberal Friends have done little to elaborate on this speculation. Lots of questions remain unanswered. Where does the soul/that of God come from? The syntax of the phrase “that of God” suggests it comes from God, but we have done almost nothing to define the God that “that of God” is “that” of. We just glibly avoid the traditional theistic, supreme being definition.

And what about the afterlife? The primary and ultimate purpose of the soul, after all, is to give us a vehicle for life after death. Liberal Friends don’t talk much about the afterlife. I suspect that we don’t even think about it much. I think about death a lot, but not too much about life after death.

This is a natural consequence, I think, of our focus on direct, immediate experience of the Spirit. When what really matters is happening right here, in this life, in this body and mind, in this meeting for worship, in this moment, why fuss too much about the life after this body and life pass away?

“That of God” connects us to both the communion of the present and to a “Presence” that deserves a capital “P” but not much more detail than that. This connection partakes of the transcendental, if not of the eternal, much as the soul does. Did. It doesn’t get us to heaven, but it gets us somewhere in that direction. And it doesn’t get us to hell.

For another advantage of the soul cum that-of-God is that it’s not scary. The idea of a soul with an afterlife is scary; scary as hell. Who wouldn’t trade divine judgment for a nice little divine spark?

This fear helps to explain why, after decades of relying more and more on this little phrase, we have yet to elaborate on what “that of God in everyone” actually means. The vaguer it is, the nicer it is. Venture into the swamps of metaphysical speculation and you might just end up in hell. It’s going to be wet and nasty, for sure.

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