December 19, 2013 § 7 Comments
The gift of prayer.
In my last post about family devotional life, I mentioned prayer, but deferred discussion because it is too big a subject to add to an already long post. And it’s bigger than “family” as a category. As I said then, I believe that a good discussion of prayer will take us to the heart of our religious life.
In his introduction to George Fox’s Journal, William Penn wrote that, as many and as great were Fox’s gifts,
“above all he excelled in prayer. The inwardness and weight of his spirit, the reverence and solemnity of his address and behavior, and the fewness and fullness of his words, have often struck even strangers with admiration, as they used to reach others with consolation. The most awful, living, reverent frame I ever felt, or beheld, I must say, was his in prayer.”
Today, the gift of prayer—the ability to sweep others in the meeting up into the Presence with the intensity and integrity of our prayer—is almost totally lost among us. At least that’s true of the liberal meetings with which I am acquainted. And I wonder about our programmed meetings. You at least do pray vocally in meeting. But do you program your prayer the way you program everything else? Can programmed prayer dissolve the invisible sheath that holds us away from the presence of G*d? Are those who do feel the spontaneous, spirit-led call to prayer free in that moment to sink to their knees and take the meeting with them?
To whom do we pray?
Prayer as it is traditionally practiced assumes a Being that is listening, that cares, that answers. That was the assumption behind the practice of prayer in my church and in my family when I was a kid.
However, I suspect that many Friends in the liberal tradition, anyway, just couldn’t with integrity teach their children to pray to a traditionally defined supreme being kind of god. Many of us just do not believe in such a god or have any experience of him (sic). So to whom would we pray?
And if you’re not praying to some entity that could hear your prayer and maybe answer it (or cherish it, if the prayer is not supplicatory), what do you do? I think a lot of us have just stopped praying in the face of this dilemma.
Instead, we “hold in the Light”. That’s better than nothing, I suppose, but it seems a bit weak. It feels weak to me because it has nothing to do with relationship—it is very abstract. On the other hand, simply addressing a divine being in the traditional way also seems a bit weak. Both do something to align the soul inwardly toward something we’re saying is divine. But both are too often just a vague exercise of the imagination—a form without power.
In my experience, prayer is effective in direct proportion to how focused it is, both in the mind and in the heart. The 19th century Indian master Ramakrishna used to hold his disciples underwater in the Ganges until they were about to drown. Then he would haul them up and say, “As badly as you wanted air just then, that’s how badly you need to want God.”
Well, that’s a bit extreme. But you get the idea.
This gets to the heart of the issue for Liberal Friends: just who—or what—is God for us? What is worship if there is no supreme being, or at least, no distinct identifiable spiritual entity capable of relationship with us? What is prayer without some one to address, rather than some thing—or nothing at all?
My own prayer journey.
My own journey in this area is quite heterodox; but maybe not so uncommon, in its broad strokes.
As I said in my last post, my mother prayed with my brother and me at bedtime when we were little. I wish I remember when she stopped doing that. I do remember that she would ask us to remember to pray during what I guess was a kind of transition stage when we got a little older and she wasn’t doing it with us. The prayer was a stock family favorite that actually made me somewhat nervous: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray my Lord my soul to keep. And if I die before I wake, I pray my Lord my soul to take.” You can guess the part that caused some anxiety. Also, of course, our family prayed together before every meal, also a stock family favorite: “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, and these gifts to us be blessed. Amen.”
My parents took for granted a traditional theistic God to whom you could pray quite naturally and they believed that he (sic) was paying attention, not just to our prayers, but to everything we did. However, when I went to college during the height of the ‘60s, a bunch of factors combined to undo this simple faith for me. I replaced prayer with meditation, for which I learned several methods, and with other practices that worked better for me than conventional prayer. I still practice them.
And then I reconnected with theism in a new way in a mystical experience in the mid-1980s and I recovered prayer as direct address to an identifiable Spirit (just not the traditional Christian God; I choose to call this being an angel, but that just begs the question of what I mean by “angel”, and that’s a discussion for another time). More recently I find myself praying sometimes to Christ, to what I think of as the Christ-spirit (but that, of course, begs the question of what do I mean by “Christ-spirit”).
The real breakthrough came only last year, in a meeting for worship with attention to the life of New York Yearly Meeting during its Summer Sessions. I finally found the address—the “to whom” that I might pray:
Our Father who art in Heaven,
our Mother who art in Earth,
our Holy Spirit who art in all things living
and in each one of us,
we thank you for your transcendental revelations, and
for your abundant beauty and providence, and
for your abiding presence and
the truth that you have awakened within us.
We ask that you guide our steps and
illuminate our minds,
that you sustain and heal our bodies, and
that you bring our hearts into lasting loving kindness.
We pray this in the spirit of honest yearning,
in the confidence of your revealing, and
with the humble commitment to be faithful to your call.
So my own prayer life keeps evolving.
Recovering the gift of prayer.
From this sometimes intense and unexpected path, I have learned the following: Prayer life evolves. All you have to do is start where you are and practice. And there are ways to focus one’s spiritual attention that are deeply satisfying other than the traditional simple address to a spiritual being. On the other hand (in my experience), “spiritual beings” do exist, Christ included, and spiritual life conducted in the context of relationship with such a being is even more satisfying.
I was going to say here that you can’t just make it up, but upon reflection, I’m not sure that’s true. What I mean is that I believe it can be enough to just start with whatever you can do, practice it, and see where it goes. The sustained inward alignment works like meditation works. At a certain point, a standing wave gets established in your consciousness and you move to a new level; something deeper starts happening. Eventually, you can feel called into prayer, maybe even into relationship.
A multitude of forms await those who seek a vital prayer life, and the key is just to start, however lame it feels, and see what happens.
Finally, as I’ve said in other contexts, I think consciousness is the key. Whatever you do, doing it from a centered consciousness makes it better. It’s not necessary, of course not. But it is better—deeper, more consistent, more rewarding, more fulfilling. So learning a deepening technique and combining it with prayer really helps.
We don’t know whether George Fox used some “technique” or whether Jesus did, to find their center, to find the Presence that dwells there. We like to romanticize such prophetic figures and think of them as utterly self-taught, but that is rarely true. Jesus had John the Baptist; was there some schooling in the spirit done? (Of course, traditional theology holds that Jesus was himself already God, so he was always in the Presence; he was in fact the Presence itself. Yet he still prayed to his Father. A topic for another post.)
However, both men possessed a charism of great depth. Clearly they both lived in the Life in some powerful, natural way. I’m not in their league. I use deepening techniques because they work for me.
July 20, 2011 § 8 Comments
George Amoss Jr. posted two very interesting pieces on basically the same topic as my post below at The Postmodern Quaker and on the same day. We’re on complementary paths and I hope you’ll take a look at what he has to say.
I have for many years campaigned against the claim that the phrase ‘there is that of God in everyone’ is the essential tenet of Quakerism, feeling very strongly that modern liberal Friends are
- dumbing down the content of our rich tradition to this one sound bite,
- saying something with it that George Fox never intended and would never have agreed with and which we ourselves cannot—or at least do not—clearly articulate, and
- making claims for its authority that simply are not true—that, for instance, it’s the foundation of our inward listening spirituality and of our testimonies (it’s especially common to hear it used to explain the peace testimony).
Some time ago, I was writing one of my rants against the way we use the phrase when I realized that I wasn’t completely sure about some of my claims, so I decided to do some research. I am just now finishing this research and the results have astounded me. I have not changed my mind about most of my concerns about this ubiquitous phrase and I plan to return to these concerns in subsequent posts, but about one thing I found I was completely wrong.
I had always believed that Fox would never have countenanced the vaguely neo-Gnostic meaning for ‘that of God’ that is so common among us nowadays—namely, that there is some aspect of the divine in the human, a divine spark, as the neo-Platonists put it. Now it seems that George Fox was some kind of ‘Gnostic’, after all. That he did believe—or rather, that he had experienced in his visions of 1647 (“There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition”) and 1648 (“I was brought up in the spirit through the flaming sword into the paradise of God”)—that he had experienced his own nature to be the “flesh and blood” of Christ, not separate or distinct from the substance of God, that “the light”, the “seed”, which all humans possessed, was “of God”, that is, the very substance of Christ’s heavenly body. That “the light” was not just a teacher or revealer or convincer/convictor, but that it was ‘metaphysical’ in its effect, raising up “the first body”, the paradisiacal body that was before the fall. That this was the nature of salvation in Christ: to shed the inner, ‘carnal’ body that could sin, and to be inhabited instead, body and spirit, by the immaterial, heavenly body of Christ himself, so as to partake of his power and authority and even perfection. That this indeed was the original foundation for Quaker ‘perfectionism’, the belief that one could live without sin. The authors and the works that make these assertions (Glen D. Reynolds, Richard Bailey, Rosemary Moore) are listed at the end of this post.
I could feel a little better about my ignorance of Fox’s understanding of the light because these authors and a couple of others seem to have uncovered a deliberate effort on the part of early Friends to excise this aspect of Fox’s and early Friends’ theology from public record. They name, especially, Thomas Ellwood, the first editor of Fox’s journal, and William Penn, but even including Fox himself, to some degree. Soon after the Naylor affair in 1656, but especially after the Restoration, these editors did what they could to hide, deny, recast or otherwise explain away this Gnostic bent in order to avoid charges of blasphemy and tone down Quaker rhetoric in the face of the persecutions. Fox himself never actually changed his mind about the divine character of the “soul”, nor about his own ‘divination’ through perfect union with Christ, though he voiced these claims less often and more cleverly later in life. So Ellwood and Penn did it for him posthumously.
I am swayed by these writers’ arguments. So now it seems to me that the doctrine of “the light” has gone through three phases in our history.
- First, Fox and many early Friends apparently did believe in a divine element in the human, which they often called “the seed”, and in salvation as a complete union with Christ as the light.
- Then this was replaced fairly soon (beginning in the aftermath of the Naylor affair in 1656 and gaining momentum during the persecutions after the Restoration in 1661) with a spiritualizing theology of the Inward Light, the recasting of “the seed” as a capacity for Christ’s spiritual inhabitation rather than an inherent sharing of the divine substance, and a partial restoration of the Puritan gulf between God and his creature.
- Finally, beginning with Rufus Jones and gaining momentum among liberal Friends since the 1960s, a return to a vaguely neo-Gnostic, neo-Platonic mysticism of the Light, in which “that of God” is some kind of divine spark inherent in all humans, and a new emphasis on the Inner Light as a universal divine principle in the human, replacing the Inward Light of Christ that had prevailed in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The first understanding of the light—“the light” and “the Seed”.
For Fox and Naylor and many, if not most of the early Friends (according to Moore, Bailey and Reynolds), “the light” was both the agent of unity with God and the object of that unity as it acted upon an “unchangeable life and power, and seed of God” in us. (Reynolds, page 57, quoting Fox). Fox believed that Galatians 3:16* (see below) meant that all of Adam and Eve’s offspring had within them a “seed”, which was Christ: “I speak the same seed which is Christ…Jesus Christ the way, the truth and the life, he is the door that all must pass through, and he is the porter that opens it”.
To me, these writers are quite persuasive and comprehensive when discussing the role of the light and the seed in salvation, but much less clear about the nature of the soul and its relation to this divine principle—about what we appear to refer to when we say “that of God in everyone”. This is mostly, I think, because Fox himself was not particularly concerned with the metaphysics involved in the creation of the soul and hardly even interested in the metaphysics of the soul’s salvation. He was more interested in the effects of the light than its causes, in the “raising up” of the seed than in its planting at creation.
Fox uses the phrase “that of God” or its equivalent by my count roughly 720 times in his works, but almost always in the context of discussing ministry, rather than in theologizing about the nature of the human or the metaphysics of the soul (which I say again did not seem to interest him very much). He uses this phrase to denote something within us that yearns for God. This is the case in the quote most often cited, from a pastoral epistle in the Journal (Nickals edition, page 263):
Bring all into the worship of God. Plough up the fallow ground . . . And none are ploughed up but he who comes to the principle of God in him which he hath transgressed. Then he doth service to God; then the planting and the watering and the increase from God cometh. So the ministers of the Spirit must minister to the spirit that is transgressed and in prison, which hath been in captivity in every one; whereby with the same spirit people must be led out of captivity up to God, the Father of spirits, and do service to him and have unity with him, with the Scriptures and one with another. And this is the word of the Lord God to you all, and a charge to you all in the presence of the living God, be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them. Then you 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. Then to the Lord God you will be a sweet savour and a blessing.
The “principle of God in him which he hath transgressed”, “the spirit that is transgressed and in prison”, “that of God in every one”, and “the witness of God in them” all seem in this light to refer to some divine element in the human, which is “the same spirit [whereby] people must be led out of captivity up to God, the Father of spirits . . . and have unity with him”—that is, Christ. And the salvation of the soul—indeed, its perfection—is this unity with what Bailey calls Christ’s “celestial body”, the heavenly body of Christ.
The second understanding of the Light—the Inward Light of Christ.
The second phase in the meaning of the light comes with the retreat from the idea of salvation as divination through complete union with the light. According to Reynolds, the phrase “inner light” never occurs before 1700 and “inward light” is rare. But already with the publication of Barclay’s Apology in 1676, and then with the bowdlerized version of Fox’s journal that included Penn’s temporizing introduction in 1694, Friends began identifying the Light with the spirit of Christ, as something that came to us, rather than something already dwelling within us. The ‘seed’ became a capacity for receiving the Inward Light, rather than a sharing of the substance of the divine. Fox’s understanding of ‘ the seed’, the first body, was buried beneath a new theology that restored the Puritan gulf between God and his creature, a gulf which Christ crosses on the bridge of the Light to dwell within us spiritually. The Light became an ethical influence that could help us overcome sin as each impulse to sin arose, rather than a metaphysically transforming and substantial inhabitation of Christ’s heavenly body. Salvation and “the Light” became spiritualized.
The third understanding of the Light—the Inner Light and “that of God”.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, through his study of mysticism, Rufus Jones believed he saw a common theme that explained the universal character of mystical experience, and he applied this understanding to the Quaker insight of the Inner Light. This was the neo-Platonic idea of the divine spark: that there was within the human an element of the divine, which not only yearned for reunion with God, its source, but was also capable of experiencing the divine through mystical experience. In applying this insight to Fox’s phrase, “that of God” and the Inner Light, he redefined Quakerism as a mystical religion—not that it wasn’t ‘mystical’ all along, but that he taught us to think of ourselves this way.
It took a while, but this idea caught on and, especially since the 1960s, this neo-Gnostic idea has become the dominant tenet of modern liberal Quakerism: that “there is that of God in everyone”, meaning that every person has within them a kind of divine spark, that humans partake of the divine in some way that accounts for our religious experience. In fact, this is now virtually the only tenet of liberal Quaker theology upon which we seem to agree.
So the Inner Light has replaced the Inward Light of Christ, which was dominant in the 18th and 19th centuries, which itself had replaced the light and the seed as a sharing of divine substance inherent in the human, which had been dominant from the 1640s through the 1660s. The Inner Light has become a thing unto itself, independent of Christ, or of any specifically Christian theology, or of any theology or religious tradition at all, for that matter. Most Friends probably do not recognize the connection with neo-Platonism that inspired Rufus Jones, for instance. “That of God” is universal, not just as something universally possessed by all humans, but also as a principle to be understood independently of any specific doctrine or tradition.
Without a tradition to give it meaning or context, and given that liberal Friends are inclined to see themselves as having ‘outgrown’ the limitations of Quakerism’s specifically Christian roots and tend to be a bit allergic to theologizing in the first place, we now are free to define the Light and “that of God” however we like—if we define it at all. We used to define the phrase using God as the starting point: “that of” derived its meaning and value from a shared understanding of who and what “God” was. Now we humans are the starting point—“that of” is the starting point. Now “God” derives its value and meaning from “that of”. We have reversed the direction of the metaphysical vector implied in the phrase “that of God”. We now define God in terms of ourselves, working from a more or less shared understanding of what “that of” is: “that of” God is the divine spark. “God”, as a consequence, has become a projection of the divine principle that all humans have within them.
And “the Light” has come to stand in for God, representing this whole metaphysical ecosystem in which all humans possess a divine principle that makes each individual life sacred and accounts for individual spiritual experience, and this principle somehow connects us all in a mysterious and sacred way, and this connection somehow accounts for our collective spiritual experience.
At least that’s how it looks to me. I’m speculating when I describe the third stage in our understanding of the Light in this way because we haven’t really come up with a theology about it; the modern liberal Quaker tendency to shy away from doctrine, creeds and theology in general has kept us from articulating what we think about the Light or “that of God in everyone” in any serious way. I’m just drawing inferences from how we use these phrases and ideas today and trying to make sense of them.
So we have come full circle, but in a spiral. We’ve returned to Fox’s belief in a divine substance in the human, but we hold the idea now in a completely new context. We’ve separated it from its foundation in Christian faith and Scripture. More importantly, we’ve separated it from experience. George Fox didn’t infer his ‘theology’ of the light from Scripture; he experienced the light personally, viscerally, as utter spiritual and physical transformation, and then adapted his Christian and scriptural tradition to explain his experience. Later Friends continued to experience the Inward Light, also, and they continued to find that their Christian and biblical tradition helped them articulate that experience.
What of us? We ‘believe’ in the Inner Light, in “that of God” within us, but have we experienced it? And, without the worldview, the vocabulary, and the theological infrastructure of Christian and biblical tradition to help us articulate whatever our experience is, how do we communicate it—to ourselves, to each other, to our children, to newcomers and seekers inquiring about Quakerism? What canst we say?
* Galatians 3:16 (KJV): “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, ‘And to seeds’, as of many; but as of one, ‘And to thy seed’, which is Christ.” Paul is apparently referring to Genesis 12:3 & 7; 13:15-16; 24:7; and especially, Genesis 17:7-10. Fox seems also to have had in mind Genesis 3:15 when talking about the “seed”: (God speaking to the serpent after the Fall) “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his seed.”
Books I’ve recently read on the how George Fox and early Friends understood “the light”:
- Glen D. Reynolds, Was George Fox a Gnostic? An Examination of Foxian Theology from a Valentinian Gnostic Perspective; and “Was Seventeenth-century Quaker Christology Homogeneous?”, a chapter in The Creation of Quaker Theory: New Perspectives, Pink Dandelion, editor.
- Richard Bailey, New Light on George Fox and Early Quakerism: The Making and Unmaking of a God.
- Rosemary Moore, The Light in Their Consciences: Early Quakers in Britain 1646-1666.
November 18, 2010 § 4 Comments
Quite a few Friends have participated in the discussion of Lewis Benson’s Quaker Religious Thought essay on “That of God in Every Man,” so I thought I would try to summarize more of it. I started out with his critique of its evolution in the modern period, from its reintroduction by Rufus Jones at the turn of the twentieth century to its very widespread use today (well, 1970, actually, when he wrote this piece; but the trends he decries have only gained momentum since then). In this post, I want to focus on his discussion of its original meaning in the works of George Fox.
As Patricia Dallmann pointed out in her comment to the earlier post, Fox was working from Paul’s letter to the Romans when he used the phrase:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. (Romans 1:18-19; King James Version)
Benson goes on to say this about Fox’s use of the phrase:
Fox does not use the declarative sentence, “There is that of God in every man,” and he never makes it the central theme of any of his sermons or writings. . . This phrase belongs to his pastoral vocabulary rather than to his doctrinal vocabulary.
Two salient facts point to an understanding of what Fox meant 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. . . What was this special kind of response? (pp. 2-3)
Benson answers this question later:
The verbs that Fox usually link 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. (p. 9)
Answering that of God in man involves the judgment of God and a call to repentance. . . . Fox maintains that there is something of God in man that shows him what is evil. (p. 12) [though it is not the conscience:]
That of God in the conscience is not conscience itself, but the word by which all things, including conscience, were created. (p. 13)
Here, of course, Benson is referring to the Word of John 1. Here are more definitions and clarifications. (Benson uses italics for emphasis in many of these quotes, but I haven’t yet revised WordPress’s CSS code to keep the template from applying italics to all of the blockquotes; hopefully by next posting, I will have done.)
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 a hunger and thirst that God has put in man. . . [It is ] a voice that is personal and transcendent. It calls us to repentance. It judges and condemns the transgressor, and blesses the obedient. (pp. 5-6)
He believes that it is something more dynamic than a mere capacity to hear God’s wisdom, but an active impulse, a hunger, a “witness” eager to testify:
“There is something in man,” he [Fox] says, “that answers the power which is the gospel.” . . . Fox taught that it is the wisdom of the Creator that answers the witness of God in all men. . . That which answers that of God in man is the truth. (pp.10-11)
Benson clearly rejects any ‘gnostic’ character of “that of God.”
In creating man, God did not create another god. Man was not endowed at creation with the wisdom of God, but is a creature to whom God imparts his wisdom. (p. 10)
Confirming the essentially pastoral thrust of Fox’s use of the phrase:
The help of God’s spirit is needed in a ministry that answers that of God in man. Fox says, “the Spirit . . . giveth an understanding . . . how to wait, speak, and answer the Spirit of God in his people. . . . The Holy Spirit teacheth the holy, gentle, meek, and quiet lowly mind to answer . . . the light, grace, and Spirit and the gospel in every creature.” (p. 12)
And this is how that of God is answered:
- Preaching by word of mouth.
- Preaching with our lives.
- The love of the brethren for one another.
- Unity of the brethren.
- Direct encounter with that which is contrary to truth—“confounding deceit”.
Thus, according to Lewis Benson, Fox uses “that of God” in ways very different from, if not diametrically opposed to, the uses prevalent in liberal Quaker circles today. It is one key to his approach to gospel ministry, rather than a key to what he “believes”. It hasn’t any substance, in the sense of being essential to human nature or as a share of God’s nature or substance: it was put there by God to hear God’s voice. Its role is to serve God’s judgment and our salvation by revealing sin and answering to the truth.
Bailey, King, Reynolds and the other writers who argue for a more ‘gnostic,’ more ‘substantial’ meaning, who speak of ‘celestial flesh’ and of salvation as a complete transformation of the soul by Christ’s presence within us, are reading a different Fox.
November 15, 2010 § 21 Comments
I said in the post that opened this thread on ‘that of God in every person’ that I had discovered new light on Fox’s meaning of the phrase when looking for the source in Rufus Jones’s work for the modern mystical meaning of a divine spark, or some quality of the divine that humans share. I was then already reading but had not yet finished Lewis Benson’s wonderful essay in Quaker Religious Thought (QRT) entitled “’That of God in Every Man’ – What Did George Fox Mean By It?” (Volume XII, Number 2, Spring 1970). Benson (1906 – 1986) was a life-long student of Fox’s work, the inspiration for the New Foundation Fellowship, and a “champion of a forgotten faith”—the Quakerism of George Fox and early Friends. In addition to his own books, he created a massively thorough concordance of Fox’s works that is an indispensible tool for later students of our prophet founder. Pendle Hill’s library has a copy.
In this issue of QRT, Benson answers my quest for the source in Rufus Jones: he cites Jones’s “Introduction” to his abridged edition of Fox’s Journal, first published in 1903 (George Fox, An Autobiography, 1919 edition, pp. 28 & 29), as the earliest instance of the revived use of ‘that of God’. Jones reiterates this theme, Benson says, the next year in Social Law in the Spiritual World (p. 5). Here is Jones from this latter work, as quoted by Benson:
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.
Note that Jones has divorced the Inner Light from the Light of Christ and made it universal and ‘generic’, if you will, a generally mystical ‘something’ no longer associated with the particular presence of the unique Christ. Benson goes on to say:
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.
Between 1700 and 1900, Benson says, “‘that of God in every man’ [had] virtually disappeared from the Quaker vocabulary.” But after Jones and also A. Neave Brayshaw introduced this Neo-Platonist interpretation, a “torrent of promotional literature and other publications” flowed from the pens of the publicists and staff writers of the American Friends Service Committee spreading the doctrine throughout the Society of Friends. He goes on: “The elevation of “that of God in every man” to the status of root principle (emphasis his) has affected Quaker life in several areas, namely: the peace testimony, social testimonies, the meaning of membership, and missions.”
Lewis Benson was not happy about this. He writes:
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 Quaker’s 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 that this meaning and use of “that of God in every man” has no connection with its meaning and use in the writings of Fox. There is no such Christ-transcending principle in the thought of Fox.
Benson ends his essay thus:
There can be no full understanding of Fox and his message apart from a knowledge of what he meant by “that of God in every man.” However, 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. If we make “that of God in man” the basis of our peace testimony and other testimonies then they become an inference from a theory about the nature of man rather than a response to a divine command, and our witness loses its prophetic impact. While we are under the spell of the “that of God” theory we cannot make the witness for the distinctive interpretation of Christianity which is the special task for which we were called to be a people, and the inner life of our Society becomes confused and at war with itself. The irony of our present situation is that any plea to seek the unity that is received from Christ is bound to be regarded in some quarters as a breach of the truce between divergent opinions that we have come to regard as the highest measure of unity of which we are capable. This false peace must be broken before we can enjoy the unity in Christ which God intends for us.
Benson wrote this in 1970 (which perhaps helps us forgive his sexist language, which was nearly universal at the time). Since then the triumph of the “new interpretation” of the phrase over (liberal) Quaker life has only become more entrenched and the drift away from the Christ-centered message and mission of Friends that it enables and Benson describes has become more pronounced and less likely to be noticed, let alone questioned.
My own ministry concerning the phrase has focused on raising the questions: What do we mean when we use it? (What do you mean when you use it?) Is this meaning faithful to Friends’ traditions? If it isn’t, what then? More importantly, is it the Truth? When did we decide that it was the Truth, and how? Did we decide at all? If not, how shall we decide whether our ‘new’ meaning (it’s already a hundred years old) is the Truth, and when will we do it? Should we distill 350 years of rich tradition down to just this one phrase at all, whatever we mean by it? How shall we treat it going forward, when, for instance, we next revise our books of discipline or the text on our websites?
Some of these questions are rhetorical, of course. We never have ‘decided’ to abandon Fox’s meaning or early Friends’ mission, not in good gospel order, anyway, by which I mean with worship and prayer and spirit-led corporate discernment. We just drifted, unconscious of our path, ignorant of our past. And of course I feel that we should recover the full breadth of our tradition; we have so much more to say than that we believe that there is that of God in every person—assuming that ‘we’ do believe that.
So—what do we say? Well, more in later posts. . .
November 11, 2010 § 17 Comments
For years, I have labored under a concern about our misuse of the phrase ‘that of God’, which most Friends know from an epistle to ministers that George Fox includes in his journal, though he used the phrase in various forms more than seven hundred times, by my count in Lewis Benson’s massive concordance of Fox’s works. One of the things I’ve been harping on is that we now mean something by the phrase that turns Fox’s meaning on its head, that we’re mostly ignorant of this 180 degree turn, and that we should not use it without being more knowledgeable and reflective about, not just its history but our own intentions. Most Friends today, I think, have a vaguely neoplatonic, neognostic meaning in mind: that we each have some little piece of God in us, that inherent in the human is some aspect of the divine—a divine spark—and that this spark is the key to the direct experience of God that is fundamental to Quaker faith and practice.
I have argued instead that Fox could never have held such an idea. That for him, a huge chasm separates humans from God, and that, while there may be a seat within the human soul waiting for Christ to come in and sup with us, as early Friends were wont to quote Revelation (3:20), that only because Christ had bridged that gulf did we partake of the divine in any way. I had argued further that the current mystical, divine-spark meaning of ‘that of God’ had entered modern Quakerism from Rufus Jones and was therefore a relatively new meaning, and that it was an innovation of his own or brought in from outside our tradition. But I had lost the record and the memory of where in his writings Jones had first introduced the idea. When I went looking for it, I discovered a rather extensive body of analysis that seemed to indicate that I might be totally wrong about all of this.
These writers claim that Fox was, in fact, some kind of gnostic (though his theology is truly unique in the long history of neoplatonic ideas). That ‘that of God’ does in fact refer to a share of the divine in the human. That many early Friends agreed with him about this. That they went quite far beyond the simple presence of a divine spark to include a view of salvation that so fused the believer with Christ that s/he was virtually—no, not ‘virtually’, but actually—fully one with him. And that William Penn, Thomas Ellwood and others deliberately removed or withheld these ideas from Fox’s published works, especially the first edition of the journal, in order to protect the Society from the charge of blasphemy.
I am eager to pursue this further with Friends who know more about Fox’s biography, writings and theology than I do. First, I want to share the bibliography that I’ve begun to read, so others can read this stuff for themselves. I am lucky to be close to Princeton Theological Seminary and their great library, but I suspect these books may be hard to get for many Friends. Still, I am hoping that we can have a lively and informed dialog about these uncovered themes in early Quaker experience and thinking. Here’s what I’ve found so far:
The Creation of Quaker Theory: Insider Perspectives; Pink Dandelion, editor. Two essays touch on these ideas: “’Go North!’ The Journey towards First-generation Friends and their Prophecy of Celestial Flesh,” by Michele Lise Tarter; “George Fox and Christian Gnosis,” by Glen D. Reynolds.
Was George Fox a Gnostic? An Examination of Foxian Theology from a Valentinian Gnostic Perspective; Glen D. Reynolds.
New Light on George Fox and Early Quakerism: The Making and Unmaking of a God; Richard Bailey.
The Light in their Consciences: Early Quakers in Britain 1646-1666; Rosemary Moore.
George Fox and the Light Within, 1650-1660; R. H. King. (I’ve not got my hands on this one yet, but it is quoted quite a lot by the others.)
I still have other concerns about the way we use the phrase ‘that of God,’ but these must wait for another post.