“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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