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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
August 26, 2012 § 8 Comments
At its Summer Sessions this year, New York Yearly Meeting (NYYM) approved a minute calling on the Senate to make the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples the law of the land and repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery (as in Christopher Columbus), a principle that has been used as the religious, moral, and legal foundation for the colonization of indigenous peoples and their lands up until the present day. It was used in a US Supreme Court decision as recently as 2005. Here’s the text of NYYM’s minute:
We seek to live in a just peace with our fellow human beings, both as individuals, and as peoples.
The United States has formally declared its support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of 2007. We now call on the United States Senate to enact the legislation that will make this the law of the land in the United States of America.
We repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, which originated in the 15th century from Papal Bulls and European royal charters issued at that time. The Doctrine of Discovery mandated the seizure of lands belonging to any non-Christian peoples and encouraged the enslavement, exploitation, or eradication of those peoples. We cannot accept that the Doctrine of Discovery was ever a true authority for the forced takings of lands and the enslavement or extermination of peoples. It is reprehensible for the United States to use the Doctrine of Discovery as a legal doctrine to compel a jurisdiction over Indigenous Peoples or their lands.
We honor the inalienable rights of Indigenous Peoples to their homelands, water, spiritual practices, languages, cultural practices, and to self-government, all of which sustain life and the life of a People, and the autonomy of Indigenous Peoples. An Indigenous People has the right to make decisions and establish constructive arrangements with other nations, governments and peoples on their own behalf.
This is a wonderful act of faithfulness to our testimony of equality. It generated quite a bit of spirit-led vocal ministry on the floor, too, much of it very supportive. However, two themes of disquiet in that discussion stood out for me. One was that we Quakers were complicit in the oppression of North American First Nations, and that therefore the minute should include a confession of sorts and an expression of our remorse and repentance.
We Quakers have a relatively good record of treatment of the First Nations. Some moments in our early history have become important parts of our story. I am thinking of the time George Fox, in one of his famous disputations (this one in North Carolina, I think) in which he was claiming that all humans had within them a light of conscience, asked a Native who was there whether there was something in him that told him when he was doing something wrong, and the man said yes. This episode has long been used to demonstrate early Quaker Christian universalism.
Then there is Woolman’s famous line that “love was the first motion,” referring to why he felt led to travel among the Indians. And of course there’s William Penn’s treaty with the Indians, famously immortalized by Edward Hicks in his several paintings, which was apparently a model of fair negotiation. Finally, we could add that Quakers settled in Richmond, Indiana, because that town was as far west as you could go—that is, as far away from slavery in North Carolina as you could get—within the territory ceded by a treaty that both the First Nations and the settlers felt was fair, and still have a river suitable for a mill. That river is the White River in Richmond. I’ve forgotten the name of the treaty. I keep thinking it’s the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, but I can’t confirm it.
But there is a dark side to Quaker relations with the First Nations, even to Penn’s treaty. Penn’s intentions were irreproachable, I believe. But his sons subsequently expanded Pennsylvania through fraud in what is called the Walking Purchase, in which the new territory was to be defined by the area stretching east to the coast from the point to which a man could walk in a day and a half from the confluence of the Delaware and Lehigh rivers. Trained runners were used working in relays on prepared trails and they ended up demarking a territory that was much larger than the Lenni Lenape had originally envisioned—1,200,000 acres. The Lenape appealed to the Iroquois, who had indigenous authority over the Delaware valley, but the Iroquois had been bought off. They also appealed to the British crown, also to no avail. Arguably, the British monarchy propped up its unwillingness to intercede with the Doctrine of Discovery.
Less contemptible but still momentous was the Quaker mission to the Seneca in the 1790s. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting sent three missionaries to Chief Cornplanter’s people at his request (he educated his sons in Quaker schools in Philadelphia) to teach “agriculture and the American arts.” They were not to proselytize. The problem was that in traditional Iroquois culture, women gardened and men hunted, but the plows introduced by the Americans required animal handling and they took more strength to operate than most women had. American agricultural practice ended up completely deconstructing traditional Seneca society. This and other upheavals led to a revolution among the Seneca and helped give birth to a new religious movement among the Iroquois that still has some adherents today, led by a prophet named Handsome Lake, Cornplanter’s half-brother. This story is vividly told in The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca by Anthony F. Wallace. My Mohawk and Seneca friends told me that the book has some inaccuracies, but I don’t remember the details.
The other theme that came up during deliberations at New York Yearly Meeting is the one that prompts me to write this entry. That is that the minute is totally bereft of religious language. Nor is this an isolated case, in my experience. All too often, our minutes of testimony and our other witness writings and ministry rely exclusively on secular language to make our arguments. One could read these minutes and never know that they were written by a religious community, let alone by Quakers. When speaking out on social issues, we tend to rely on the social sciences. When speaking out on environmental issues, we tend to use the earth sciences. When explaining our witness on economic issues, we tend to use economic arguments. When speaking on social justice issues, we tend to use the language of legal and human rights. The American Friends Service Committee has led the way in this trend, increasingly resembling over the decades a secular advocacy organization.
In our witness, we often do not use a moral argument to explain why something is wrong or why the course we recommend is right. Even more seldom do we use spiritual language to explain our motives. We may refer to our testimonies, but not to the promptings of the Holy Spirit that are the foundation of our testimonies and of the testimonial life. We almost never quote Scripture, even though the Bible is the foundation for virtually every one of our testimonies. We do not stand on the language of Fox or Fell or Woolman or Barclay to present a theological argument, relying instead on one idea that is not actually quite true: that we believe in peace, equality, or whatever—because we believe that there is that of God in everyone.
Maybe we do believe that there is that of God in everyone, whatever that means, but it is not why we believe in our testimonies, at least not originally. The testimonies all come originally, in the outward sense, from original readings of Scripture by early Friends. In the inward sense, they come from the promptings of the Holy Spirit. To make “that of God” the foundation for our testimonies and the heart of our arguments in our witness life in this way misrepresents our history and tradition and it misses an opportunity to speak our truth in language that has real power and meaning and resonance with the wider Christian culture.
I know that, unfortunately, my words here have the effect of condemning or belittling the work of NYYM’s Indian Affairs committee, which prepared this minute, and of the Yearly Meeting itself for approving it this way. For that I am sorry. I served on that committee myself for six years and I know how dedicated New York Friends are to Indian concerns. (Indian Affairs committee was originally formed in the 1790s and is the oldest standing witness committee in the Yearly Meeting.) The stand the minute takes is an important one and it has already evoked heartfelt thanks from some in the Native American community. I am very grateful that we’ve taken it, and I hope that other yearly meetings around the country do the same.
The committee and the Yearly Meeting apparently labored over the minute for something like two years and the issues I am raising either didn’t come up or never found traction. But it’s not really the Indian Affairs committee’s fault, as far as fault goes, or the Yearly Meeting’s.
Because this is where we are today in liberal Quakerism. You can see “that of God” used as the foundation for our testimonies in many of our books of Faith and Practice. And, as I’ve said, our witness testimony routinely omits explicitly religious language. We are, I think, often embarrassed to be explicitly religious in our witness life, let alone explicitly biblical or Christian.
I suspect this is partly because if you put such language in your minute when you present it to the body for approval, someone is likely to object and you stand a good chance of having a potentially long and divisive discussion on the floor about it. The objectors sometimes hold the meeting hostage and then the meeting often capitulates in a spirit of peace-making, or out of sheer exhaustion, and takes the language out, seeking a consensus as a lowest common denominator, rather than seeking a sense of a meeting gathered in the Spirit. Doing that would require a body willing to be patient and faithful.
Moreover, although it hurts me to say this, I suspect that very often, we just aren’t ‘spiritual’ in our motives in the first place: our minds, our worldviews, have been so suborned by the secular worldview and we have become so attuned to secular struggles for peace, justice, and care for the earth, that we do not experience the promptings of our consciences as religious a lot of the time, anymore, let alone as from God.
What to do? New York Yearly Meeting did not have the patience to develop this minute further, not after two years had already passed. And I’ve seen this kind of wrangling strangle a minute that you would have thought would be a no-brainer for Friends to support—Friends getting really fussy over the details of an obviously valuable piece of witness. We were able to give the minute some religious context in the letter/press release with which we distributed it. So things went pretty well in this particular case.
As for the long-term problem, beyond complaining about it in my blog, so far I have only general ideas about what to do. The Religious Society of Friends has for a long time been evolving into the Society of f(F)riends. The problem calls for religious education, for sure, so that at least we know our tradition and represent our history and tradition faithfully to the world, to our children, and to ourselves. And it calls for ministry: for Friends who feel so called to work among us to revitalize a culture of eldership that can help our members recognize their spiritual gifts and the promptings of the Holy Spirit for what they are; and for Friends who feel called to recover and further develop the traditions, faith, and practice of Quaker ministry. I am happy to say that this process is well under way now in New York Yearly Meeting.
The goal would be a corporate witness life that instinctively presents our testimony as religiously motivated in language that carries power. That Power liberated the Israelites from Egypt, it delivered the poor, the sick, and the oppressed through Jesus’ prophetic ministry, and it gathered a peculiar people in the 1600s who had rediscovered some essential Truths. It sent ambulance crews to Europe in wartime, it sends peacemakers into prisons in our own time, it provides water filters for families in Kenya. That Power is alive and well. We believe that we can open a direct channel to that Power, both as individuals and as communities. So the project is to not just believe that, but to actually experience it.
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.
May 23, 2011 § 13 Comments
I’ve been reading Towards Tragedy/Reclaiming Hope: Literature, Theology and Sociology in Conversation, by Pink Dandelion, Douglas Gwyn, Rachel Muers, Brian Phillips, and Richard E. Sturm (Ashgate Publishing Limited, Hampshire, England and Burlington, Vermont; 2004). It’s a sometimes fascinating book that uses tragedy as a lens through which to view history—British history, especially, and Quaker history, in particular—and as a touchstone for evaluating contemporary (Quaker) culture and its trajectory into the future. It follows a more or less chronological scheme, with chapters on The Ancient Origin and Sense of Tragedy (Sturm), The Early Quaker Lamb’s War: Secularization and the Death of Tragedy (Gwyn), Apocalypse Without Tears: Hubris and Folly Among Late Victorian and Edwardian British Friends (Phillips), The Loss of Hope: England and its Establishment in the Twentieth Century (Dandelion), The Loss of Providence (Dandelion), New Voices, New Hopes? (Muers), and several Postscripts.
The book’s literary and somewhat abstract premise keeps it from appealing to many Quaker readers, I suspect, and every once in a while, I was glad that I had studied and read Greek tragedy somewhat. (If you haven’t, don’t let that stop you from reading Towards Tragedy, though—it won’t keep you from getting a lot out it.) The authors also make broad generalizations about the meaning and the ‘spirit’ of the periods they examine, without much rigorous historical detail or argument. I think and write this way myself—I have filled my own history of Quakers and Capitalism with similar schematic characterizations—so I didn’t mind. But we all have to watch the tendency to draw conclusions rather glibly, only to discover that we had not accounted for historical forces we didn’t know about or understood only superficially.
That said, in these authors’ hands, I found that new light did pass through this lens of tragedy, that it revealed much that is, if not unique in Quaker studies, at least fresh with valuable insight into who we are and how we got here. (“We” is mostly British Quakerism, but many of these insights apply just as well to liberal Quakerism in America.) I want to raise a couple of passages up for broader discussion among Friends. The first comes from Doug Gwyn’s Postscript (page 127-128):
[However,] given that Quaker spirituality took shape within the context of a deep reflection and personal immersion in the drama of the gospels, there is a Christoform quality to the deeper structures of Quaker faith and practice that has been too long ignored and outright denied. Liberal Quakerism has drifted over the twentieth century into a belief that it can take some of the central metaphors of Quaker language – key terms such as ‘light’, ‘seed’, ‘that of God in everyone’ – and strip them of their framing in the gospel and overall biblical framework of salvation history without losing any of their earlier potency. What has emerged from this process is a Quaker faith and practice that maintains a ‘profession’ in words of a reality no longer in ‘possession’ – the very hypocrisy that early Friends denounced so strongly in the Puritan culture of their day. It is only by continuing to use the sham of right-wing, fundamentalist Christianity as their rhetorical foil that Liberal Friends manage to maintain their own parody of Quaker faith and practice. By chronically trading in caricatures of ‘Christianity’, Liberal Quakerism has become a caricature of itself. This cannot last. And when it collapses, it will be no tragedy.
The tragedy is the present condition, when one confronts it and enters into its painful reality in the light of Christ. By ‘in the light of Christ’ I mean both the inward, revealing presence of Christ within and the ‘in light of’ the gospel narrative of Jesus’ own life, suffering, death and resurrection. There is no authentic Quaker epistemology of ‘the light within’ without its attendant hermeneutic of Scripture. Without the latter’s framing, the former knows anything, everything, nothing. Without the gospel, the reflexive self of postmodernity shrinks from suffering as a lethal blow to self-esteem and human dignity. And without the larger biblical saga of God’s providential designs in history, there is very little that Friends will corporately discern as their calling to do together in a world of suffering, violence and injustice. (emphases are Gwyn’s)
[epistemology: the study of the nature and grounds of knowledge—what we can know and how we know it—especially as regards the limits and validity of our knowledge;
hermeneutic: a way of interpreting texts, especially the Bible]
I think what Doug is saying is that, by abandoning the original Christian and biblical framework for our tradition while continuing to use the vocabulary, we end up talking jive. And we violate the testimony of integrity: our outward expression has no meaningful connection to an inward truth. I would say that the distortion and hypocrisy go down to the core of Quaker spirituality, passing through three layers of self-deception (by the way, I consider myself a post-Christian, liberal Quaker, so I’m talking about myself here, not just about some ‘other’ Friends):
- First, we use words to say things that they weren’t meant to say, disconnecting them from their original meaning and context. The modern use of the phrase ‘that of God in everyone’ is the quintessential example.
- More deeply, we still think we know what we’re saying and we blithely assume in our ignorance that we are right. We often (usually?) don’t know what Fox meant by ‘that of God’, for example; we don’t know that the modern ‘divine spark’ meaning comes from Rufus Jones barely a hundred years ago, and we assume that our meaning (whatever that is) is, in fact, Quaker tradition going way back, and furthermore, that it’s the foundation for the peace testimony and just about everything else, to boot; which it isn’t.
- Finally, at the very heart of this empty and misrepresented shell, we do not know the truth of what we say experimentally. We have not experienced the light, at least not ‘the light’ that Fox and Fell and Howgill and Woolman experienced. We have no knowledge of the ‘seed’. We have no direct experience of ‘that of God’ in others, or ourselves, for that matter. We have the profession without the possession. (In fact, we’ve made a fetish out of not knowing, of perpetually seeking as the only authentic spiritual path, teaching ourselves to actually suspect and fear those who profess to know—Doug’s fundamentalist foil at work.)
I’m not so sure about this last point. I bet a lot of my readers will protest that they have experienced ‘the light’, even if it did not have Christ’s nametag on its chest, even if it did not illuminate their sins, ‘convincing’ (convicting) them into repentance and new Life in Christ. Who are you to say I have not experienced ‘that of God’ in everyone, you might be saying?
What remains, however, is that no one has come forward with a new ‘profession’ of what these words—the content of our tradition—mean now in this post-Christian, post-biblical age. If we have the ‘possession’—if we possess a new truth—then where is the new explanation of the old words? More to the point, if we possess a new truth—one without Jesus and the gospel at its roots—then why use the old words at all? Where are the new ones?
Vocal ministry offers a good case study. We actually do have a ‘new’ language for vocal ministry: ‘speaking in meeting’. We no longer think of ‘speaking in meeting’ as speaking on God’s behalf, at the prompting of Christ within us. If fact, we’d get pretty nervous if someone claimed to be speaking God’s will. So where does a ‘message’ come from? What authority does it have? How does the meeting provide for the eldership of ‘speaking in meeting’ and of the speakers, themselves, if we do not know where their calling comes from or what authority their ‘messages’ should have? Is there anymore even such a thing as a calling to vocal ministry?
What is the new framework, the new epistemology and hermeneutic—the new way to explain what we know and how we know it and where our knowledge comes from?
The silence is deafening. We do not know.
November 20, 2010 § 23 Comments
This certainly has been a lively discussion and I really appreciate all the comments that Friends have contributed. After looking back a little at Fox, Benson and the history of the phrase ‘that of God’ in Quaker tradition, I want to look forward now and ask what our commitment to Truth requires of us in the light of this history?
We seem to be in general agreement that many (most?) liberal Friends and meetings do not know the history of the phrase’s evolution, do not understand what Fox meant by it, mean something by it themselves that is far removed from its original meaning and use it in ways that Fox did not, and that this modern usage has become pervasive, if not nearly universal. I would add that it has supplanted much of the rest of our tradition, so that now virtually the only thing many Friends are able to say about Quakers is that they believe that there is that of God in every person. This is especially true when explaining the origins of our testimonies. Many Friends have also expressed some frustration with this state of affairs.
I have felt called to a ministry regarding our use of the phrase for years, a concern that moving this phrase into the very center of our witness life and corporate identity, combined with our general ignorance of—and distortion of—its meaning and history, violates the testimony of integrity.
I want to be clear, though, that I am not saying that the now-dominant understanding of “that of God” as some kind of divine spark or share in God’s (what? – nature? substance? mind? love?) is wrong or untrue. I have no experience of such a divine spark myself and, though I once rather enthusiastically embraced this kind of metaphysical ideology in the form of Vedanta, which I learned as a yoga student, I don’t embrace it any more. Furthermore, it now looks like Fox may have held such an idea himself, albeit in a very mutant form—that Lewis Benson is right as far as he goes, but either didn’t know the excised sources that point toward a mutant form of Neo-Platonism, or he read them differently. I am eagerly pursuing research on this. My point is not that the liberal use of the phrase is necessarily wrong, but that we have not paid attention to what we’re doing as a community, and that we should. So I’m asking questions.
The first question, it seems to me, is: Is the modern liberal understanding of “that of God” as a kind of quasi-gnostic or Neo-Platonic “divine spark” true or not? Never mind what George Fox said: what canst we say? Just because Fox wouldn’t agree with us doesn’t mean it’s wrong or untrue. But he could explain himself. He did so very forcefully all the time, and twice in court against charges of blasphemy. So let us also testify to the truth of this new light we claim to have.
We should start with experience. What in our experience leads us to believe in a divine spark, a share of God’s substance, or whatever we call it? (And what do we call it?) Also: where else can we point besides our own experience to support and clarify our stand, the way that Fox could point to Romans and other passages in Scripture to support his?
In my experience, liberal Friends who hold to this new light never quote Scripture, except for some reference to being made in the image of God, from Genesis 1. Some have quoted the Gospel of Thomas. And, of course, people quote Fox, almost always the pastoral letter he included in his Journal (Nickalls, p. 263). So liberal Friends have some work to do, I think, in the light of the testimony of integrity, in terms of both reflecting on our experience and connecting it to the rest of our tradition. I see three tasks ahead of us:
First, we have to own our ignorance and mishandling of the phrase, and correct it. We have to teach ourselves what we’ve forgotten and adjust how we talk.
Then, we have some discernment to do: Is this new light on “that of God” really what we believe? Is this a true example of continuing revelation? More on this later. If we decide it is, then we have to decide how we want to treat our more ancient traditions, which we seem willing to abandon, or at least forget. I myself feel responsible for our tradition, in terms of knowing what it is and being able to pass it on; but I don’t feel particularly responsible to our tradition, meaning that I am willing to lay it down, as early Friends did theirs, when it is clear that God is leading us in a new direction.
Finally, again assuming that we decide we do believe in a divine spark in everyone, we have some theology to do—God forbid. And more importantly, some reflection upon our own experience. How do we experience the divine spark as individuals? What does that experience mean to us? How do we experience “that of God” as a community, corporately, in worship? How does that corporate experience shape our witness, our outreach, our self-understanding, our traditions, our discernment, our worship, our spiritual nurture of each other?
If we are going to redefine our tradition, resting the whole thing on this one slim pillar, as we are doing more and more, then we need to start fleshing the new tradition out, the way Fox and other early Friends elaborated their ideas and experience when they broke so radically with their traditions.
I am not being sarcastic. I am not posing rhetorical questions. I am calling upon us to own our experience and belief in continuing, direct revelation from God and test this new leading the way our forebears did theirs.
I can’t contribute much to this project myself beyond asking questions. I have no direct experience of “that of God” as a divine spark. Humans seem all too human to me. Moreover, just striving to be fully human seems like an honorable, laudable goal to me. I don’t see what believing I was quasi-divine would get me, what essential problems or questions it would answer. But lots of Friends seem to feel otherwise. They should get to work.
Meanwhile, until we honestly engage in the discernment that would establish this ‘new’ (it’s a hundred years old already) meaning as a central tenet of Quaker faith and practice, our tradition is that we continue to believe and practice what we’ve always believed and practiced. We can’t ignore the tremendous momentum this trend in our usage already has. But we can’t just take it for granted, either. It’s not right to back into it blindly, as we have done, and then call it a fait accompli.
In other words, we need to expand the sort of dialog we’ve been having here to include our publishing organs, our conference center programs, our religious education programs at all levels of meeting life, and eventually, our meetings for business discernment, and finally, to revisions of our books of discipline.
In the meantime, also, those of us who are annoyed by this trend in liberal Quakerism should watch our attitude. In this thread, we’ve seen some preaching up of sin and some preaching down of Friends who they feel don’t get it. I’ve been there and done that myself. This shift in Quaker thought does some harm to our traditions, I would agree, but I don’t think it harms real people. On the contrary, it seems very appealing to a lot of people. We could end up hurting people in the process of defending a tradition, the way that some opponents of gay marriage are doing. We can trust our processes of discernment, can’t we, if we just use them? Of course, we would have to use them correctly—but that’s another thread.
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.