“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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