The Light—A Short History

May 29, 2016 § 13 Comments

I feel called to a vocal ministry of teaching, which means that sometimes I feel led to share some aspect of Quaker tradition in meeting for worship. This morning, the doctrine of the Light pushed against my Spirit-prompt for a good while, but it never felt right to deliver it. As often is the case, I just kept thinking about it and now here it is.

One of the most distinctive features, and one of the most important features, of the Quaker way is the doctrine of the Light. The Light is that mystery within the human that makes it possible to commune directly with the Divine.

Some Quaker writer—I can’t remember who—describes three phases in the history of the Light among Friends, the Light, the Inward Light, and the Inner Light. I would characterize them this way:

  • the Light—the light AS Christ,
  • the Inward Light—the light OF Christ, and
  • the Inner Light—the light BEYOND Christ.

The Light—AS Christ

For George Fox, James Naylor, and many other early Friends, the Light was Christ—not just the light of Christ, but Christ himself. As Jesus says in John 8, “I am the light, and whosoever follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall walk in the light of life.”

For Fox the experience of the Light was a kind of mystical union with Christ, a putting on of the spirit of Christ, the “celestial body” of Christ, as one writer put it, so that one became Christ-like. As Fox put it, “I was in that state which Adam was in before the fall, a state in Christ Jesus that could not fall.”

This was close to blasphemy, and indeed, Naylor was famously tried, convicted, and punished for blasphemy, and Fox was accused three times, tried twice, and convicted once himself. The only reason Fox got off the second time was that Judge Fell, his close associate and then-husband of Fox’s future wife Margaret Fell, was the chief magistrate in the case. Fox and Fell put their heads together and found a loophole in the blasphemy law that got Fox off on a technicality. Fell was such a senior magistrate that his ruling was a more or less binding precedent, and the third time Fox was accused, the prosecutor didn’t even bring the case to trial, knowing he would lose. Nobody tried to accuse Fox again, legally, though his critics continued to accuse him of blasphemy in other public venues.

The Light—OF Christ

A lot of Friends were even nervous about this doctrine. After Fox and Naylor died, Friends put this interpretation aside. As the movement withdrew from the world into the quietist sectarianism of the early 18th century, the understanding of the Light underwent a doctrinal transformation. The Light became the Inward Light, the light OF Christ.

Now, Christ was understood to be outside the human, just as he was for other Christians, but his light shown into the human heart. Its function was to drive away the darkness, to reveal to us our sins, to warn us of sins we were about the commit through the light in the conscience, and to give us strength to overcome the temptation to sin. The Inward Light was a kind of wifi connection to the spirit of Christ, a conduit through which flowed the truth, life, and power of Christ into the human.

The Light—BEYOND Cbrist

This is how we understood the light for the next two hundred years, until Rufus Jones redefined Quakerism around the turn of the 20th century as a mystical religion and reinterpreted Fox’s phrase “that of God in everyone” to be a kind of divine spark on the model of neoplatonic philosophy and gnosticism. The Inward Light now became the Inner Light. The Inner Light was an aspect of the divine that dwelt inherently in the human, a kind of receptor that allowed the greater divine spirit to merge with the lesser spirit of the individual human in mystical experience.

In a sense, we had come full circle to Fox’s understanding of a radical indwelling of the divine in the human, but for Fox that indwelling was Christ and he was too practically-minded, rather than metaphysically minded, to fuss much about how that worked, or what might pre-exist in the human to make it possible. Jones was much clearer about that.

However, the universal, pre-existent, inherent divine spark that Jones gave us was now virtually independent of Christ. It existed before Jesus was born, it was inherent in all humans, and it was behind all mystical experience, regardless of the tradition of the mystic. So as the 20th century progressed, the Inner Light became increasingly detached from Christ in (liberal) Quaker understanding, and it also became less and less about sin, about revealing sin and strengthening us against it. Instead, more and more we understood the Inner Light as a vehicle for mystical experience, spiritual guidance, and continuing revelation without any explicit connection to Christ.

And that’s where we are today.

Quaker-pocalypse—Advancement: What Can We Say?

July 17, 2015 § 1 Comment

What can we say?

. . . when seekers ask what Quakers believe? Here is one version of the answers I’ve been working on.

An “elevator speech”:

We believe that there is in everyone a Light

  • a light in the conscience that can guide and strengthen us to do the right, that can awaken us to the wrong we have done and are about to do;
  • a light that can heal us, that can strengthen us to live better lives, that can release us from our demons, make us more whole, relieve us of suffering, and lead us to redemption;
  • a light that can inspire us to acts of kindness and to creativity;
  • a light that can lead us to the deepest fulfillment and the “peace that passes all understanding” and into acts of kindness, service, and witness;
  • a light that can help transform us into the people we were meant to be;
  • a light that can open to us direct communion with God (however you experience God), both as individuals and as a community.

We Quakers have experienced this light as the Light of Christ, as Jesus Christ himself, as the Spirit of Love and Truth, as a Presence in our midst, as that which has gathered us as a people of God and continues to guide our meetings and the Quaker movement into the future.

In this Light, through this Light, God is always trying to reveal to us the way of love and peace and truth. In this Christ-spirit we are sometimes gathered in our worship into a joy-filled ttanscendental communion with God and with each other.

That’s my “elevator speech,” a quick answer to a deep question. But of course, we can say a lot more than this. So here is a more fully developed presentation of Quaker “beliefs”.

Six Quaker essentials

The Light. We believe that there is a principle in every person (often called the Light, the Seed, “that of God”) that can know God directly and that yearns for this intimate communion.

  •     Because we experience the Light inwardly, we do not practice many of the outward forms that other religious communities practice; we do not rely on outward sacraments for God’s grace.
  •     Because the Light is universal, we believe that all people are equal in God’s sight and this informs how we treat them.
  •     Because we all have access to the Light, we have no professional clergy that are thought of as intermediaries between God and the individual worshiper. But we have not laid down the clergy itself; rather, we have no laypeople, for all of us are potential ministers. We believe that God can and does call each one of us into service or ministry directly and in various ways, most commonly, to speak from the Spirit in our meetings for worship. And for this, we need no special education or ceremonial ordination, but only attention to the promptings of the Spirit and a willingness to be faithful to the call.
  •     This, in fact, is the essence of Quaker spirituality: to be open always to God’s guidance and to listen always for God’s call into service, and to answer the call faithfully when it comes.

The gathered meeting. Ever since the 1650s when Quakers were first gathered as a dedicated people of God, we have felt that the same Light and Spirit that dwells within each individual also loves and guides us as a community.

  •     Just as we believe that each individual can enjoy a direct relationship with God, so also we believe that the same Holy Spirit leads the worshipping community.
  •     Thus many of our meetings hold our worship in waiting, expectant silence, turning our full attention toward God and leaving off any outward liturgical forms like the Bible readings, collective prayer, hymn singing, and prepared sermons that are featured in most religious services. We worship in utter simplicity in order not to crowd out God’s direct voice or drown out the still, small voice within each of us.
  •     However, many Quaker meetings hold “programmed” worship that is more like other protestant churches, with hymn singing, Bible readings, prepared collective prayer,s and sermons. These meetings feel that these outward forms help the meeting commune with God.
  •     We also conduct the business of the meeting in meetings for worship under the direct leadership of the Holly Spirit, having no professional human leadership or hierarchies. We have a number of distinctive community tools to discern God’s wish for us.

Continuing revelation. We believe that direct communion with God means that God is still teaching God’s people.

  •     God’s revelation did not end with the Bible; rather God is always trying to reveal to us the way of love and peace and truth.
  •     Thus, in answer to God’s continuing revelation over the centuries, we have laid down the outward practice of the sacraments, we have always recognized God’s prophetic inspiration of women ministers, we have struggled against slavery, and, in some yearly meetings, we fully welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people into our fellowship, even though the Bible seems to some on the surface to condemn homosexuality, condone slavery, deny women’s role in ministry, and require outward sacramental practice.
  •     And we remain open to new light, expecting that God will intend further changes for us in the future.

“Let your lives speak.” We believe that God calls us to live our inner faith in outward practice, to live our lives as testimony to the Truth that has been awakened within us, leading us to alleviate suffering, injustice, and oppression, and to amend their causes. As a movement, we have come to unity on a number of stands of conscience, which we call our “testimonies,” and we seek to be open to new truth as to how we should live, as individuals, as a faith community, and as a society.

Love. We believe that “love is the first motion,” as we say, the commandment by which we should live our lives—that we should love God, love our fellow human beings, and love the creation we share with all other living things.

Direct experience. While “What do you believe?” is an important question, one that deserves a clear and straightforward answer, Friends often focus on a rather different question, one posed by George Fox in the 1600s and from which I derive the title for this little series on Quaker beliefs:

  • “You will say, ‘Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;’ but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?”
  •     In other words, even though we do have a distinctive set of beliefs, Friends try to focus more on experience than on doctrine. For us, the essential question is: what is your experience of God? And we seek to ground our religious lives on what we have ourselves experienced, rather than on the inherited experience of others, however valuable that tradition might be.

 

Each of these core beliefs can be unpacked further to get into all of the other beliefs and practices that distinguish Friends, which I have only just touched upon here. That’s for a subsequent post.

The Meaning of ‘the Light’—Three Stages in the History of an Essential Quaker Insight

July 20, 2011 § 8 Comments

A Note:

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.

Some background

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.

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