The Shrinking Story: The Changing Meaning of ‘That of God in everyone’

The ‘That of God’ Problem

[If] you know not a principle within, which is of God, to guide you to wait upon God, ye are still in your own knowledge…. But waiting all upon God in that which is of God, you are kept open to receive the teachings of God.  (George Fox).

The phrase ‘that of God in everyone’ is now so beloved among Liberal Quakers that it has become something of a shibboleth. In its orbit are cozy intuitions of human dignity, equality, and inherent worth. But what does such a statement mean? Who or what is the God in the phrase, and how is deity manifest ‘in everyone’? According to Lewis Benson, in order to answer these questions, we have to place the phrase in the context of George Fox’s understanding of the following text from Romans: ‘Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them (Romans 1:19 KJB). What did Fox think Paul was getting at? As Benson puts it, for Fox “That of God in everyone” is not a statement of values, much less an exploration of human faculties (‘some human means of knowing like reason…. or moral law within’) but something which God uses in the conscience, to draw creatures back into communication with Deity. To posit that God is ‘manifest’ in people is fundamentally about the way God is made known to human beings. It is not an anthropological statement about human dignity or equality per se. As Benson elaborates ‘that of God’ refers to ‘seekinging counsel of the Creator. The Creator imparts his wisdom to man. This is not human wisdom, but the voice and wisdom of the Creator. ‘(“That of God in Every Man” — What Did George Fox Mean by It?). But as Benson would doubtless remind us, when early Friends spoke of ‘God’ and ‘wisdom’ they were speaking in a definite Christ-shaped tone. The God that reached out within the human self, was not any old transcendental presence, but a God with a given character and story.  This is the unknown God Paul proclaims in Athens:

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands… we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.  In the past, God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.  For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead”’ (Acts 17:24-31).

Image result for quaker worshipSuch a Spirit is the God of the whole world but was made manifest in the first-century Jew, Jesus of Nazareth. And what about wisdom? As a diligent reader of Scripture, Fox understood the language of wisdom in two interlocking senses. The first is the ‘holy wisdom’ of God which had ordered the world in the beginning (Proverbs 8:22), the second was the foolish ‘wisdom of God’ revealed in the crucified Christ (1 Corinthians 1:25). Fox understood both forms of wisdom to be the work and expression of a single reality: God’s son who sustains ‘all things by his powerful word’ (Hebrews 1:3). So to speak to ‘that of God in everyone’ meant to draw people into the Life and Power of that creative yet crucified wisdom.In the first instance, people are drawn into such a Life through an awareness of their own failings and inadequacies. People are invited into the crucified wisdom by allowing all that is blocking the Spirit to be crucified within them. Thus, when Fox spoke of the Light of Christ, he meant something akin to a searchlight which would pick up the contours of our injured selves and bring them to account. As George Fox put it in The Journal:

But oh, then did I see my troubles, trials, and temptations more than ever I had done! As the light appeared, all appeared that is out of the light, darkness, death, temptations, the unrighteous, the ungodly; all was manifest and seen in the light….And then the spiritual discerning came into me, by which I did discern my own thoughts, groans, and sighs, and what it was that did veil me, and what it was that did open me.
What Paul had described as ‘the wrath of God…revealed from heaven against all ungodliness’ (Romans 1:18-19) was felt in Fox’s own life. But instead of breaking him, such an interior realization freed him from both shame and inadequacy.Once he had owned what he had done and what he had looked like before God, he was able to begin a new chapter in his life. God had been his judge, his comforter, then finally his healer. But today for many Liberal British Quakers to declare that kind of ‘God in everyone’ is dangerously specific, if not horrifyingly evangelical. Steven Davison in his Flaming Sword blog argues persuasively that while early Friends used ‘that of God’ in the context of a bigger account of ‘sin’, ‘eternity’ and ‘salvation’ Liberal Quaker theology uses the phrase as a shorthand for transcendence and a replacement for a traditional soul-language now viewed as problematic by many Liberal Friends. Instead of worrying about the Pauline language of repentance, Liberal Friends are more concerned with inward mystical experience and contact with the ineffable. ‘That of God’ becomes a way of expressing the capacity of such contact. Steven charts this process of replacement in the work of Rufus Jones. He writes:

Both a mystic and a scholar, he sought to understand the mystical experience, so he studied it. And in that study, especially his study of Neoplatonism, he found the notion of the divine spark. He also wanted to place his own mystical experience in both the mystical traditions of the world (or at least, of the West) and in his own tradition of Quakerism. He accomplished this by defining “that of God” as a divine spark after the Neoplatonists, even though George Fox never had any such idea in mind when he used the phrase. Thus, was liberal Quaker “theology” born.

 The Implications of Liberal Quaker Theology

Image result for quaker worshipWhat did this shift mean for the subsequent development of Liberal Quaker reflection? The first thing to be said is that Jones’ equation of ‘that of God’ with the Neo-Platonic divine spark, subtly shifted the Quaker message away from Fox’s claim that ‘there is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition ‘, to ‘there is an indefinite Deity who lives in you already’.  One thinks of the roundly impersonal God of Stoicism or the shadowy Atman of the Upanishads. What is lacking in such an approach is religious specificity. Such a God demands nothing specific, loves nothing concrete, calls us to nothing, other than the ‘experience’ of that which cannot be named.  It is nearly impossible to imagine such a divine spirit declaring as Yahweh does in the Hebrew Scriptures: “For the sake of Jacob My servant, And Israel My chosen one, I have also called you by your name; I have given you a title of honor Though you have not known Me’ (Isaiah 45:4). Impossible because the Platonic God of Jones is not tied to history, beyond the personal histories of those who look within. The domain of the divine spark is not nations and communities, but hearts and individuals. Here the God with a story is jettisoned in favour of a universal mystical Power which is inherent in all people (making everyone a little bit divine). After Jones, it was possible to say (along with some reconstructed Sufis and Theosophists) that Quakerism was just part of a generic perennial wisdom which was the property of all wise and good spiritual seekers. In this way, all people, were understood as Quaker already.

Image result for quaker worshipFor many Liberal Friends, this vision of radical inclusion is a badge of their innermost identity. The language of ‘mysticism’ in this context is deeply attractive because it does not bind people to any particular community, set of images or sacred stories. Such universalism helps many Quakers (some of whom have been wounded by the exclusivities of other Churches) to constitute themselves as a loving and supportive community. Yet such inclusion is not without its costs for the coherence of the Quaker Way. By refusing to affirm the centrality of a formative story (including a God who demands, loves, and forgives) Quaker worship loses much of its radical power. Without a God with a story, our gatherings can become whatever we want them to be (a time for personal prayer, an escape from the week, a form of meditation or reflection). While some may regard such liberality as freeing, without the God with a story at the core of why we wait, there is a danger that our Worship disintegrates into a personal rather than shared enterprise. We start investing the silence with a kind of protective solipsism, the sense that this is ‘our time’ rather than the gift of a definitive gift-giver.  We keep on using old Quaker words (words which suggest a substantial story) but we have forgotten where the words come from and/or how to fit them together. In such an amorphous state, it is easy to throw away hard readings of what we do in Worship. We might relegate the old Quaker language about the Light convicting us of sin (or revealing our darkness) for something more affirming, less difficult, and more malleable. Reflecting on the coziness of present ‘that of God’ language Steven suggests:

[The] advantage of…that-of-God is that it’s not scary. The idea of a soul with an afterlife is scary; scary as hell. Who wouldn’t trade divine judgment for a nice little divine spark? This fear helps to explain why, after decades of relying more and more on this little phrase, we have yet to elaborate on what “that of God in everyone” actually means. The vaguer it is, the nicer it is.

If this description is right, it seems clear that Liberal Quakerism is increasingly good at supporting and affirming individuals, but less good at binding us together as Friends.

Recovering Heavenly Worship

So this leads us to a tough question. Is Worship about being inclusive and nice or is it about something else? Certainly, our Worship together should be guided by love, but does such affection mean that being Quaker must be infinitely elastic?  In protective vagueness, we may end up losing the sense of what we sit in silence for. Without facing things that are thorny, difficult, or even a bit scary it’s easy to float along, feeling that we are not accountable to anything except our own sense of inward wellbeing.  Yet in stressing affirmation over more troubling languages of healing, change, and transformation, we may render our Quaker Way shrunken and directionless. Mystical experiences are nothing but pleasant spiritual highs unless they are tied to some goal or discipline which structures them. We do this through our pattern of Worship, but also through the words we use to express our Quaker Way (Testimony, Light, Spirit Peace). Each piece of shared Quaker-speak is a reminder that Worship is not a private possession, but part of a coherent narrative, with a shared spiritual reality at its core.  Do we dare to be part of this? Or are we content with rather prosaic and half-formed notions of ‘personal spiritual journeys’? When early Quakers sat in worship together, they saw themselves as doing more than a therapeutic exercise or a kind of extended prayer-practice. They believed that in the silence they would encounter the cosmic Christ who calls out to them to join the heavenly wedding feast: ‘Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me’ (Revelation 3:20). When Meeting began, they understood themselves as sat in that Eternal God-space beyond the reach of the everyday world. As the prolific Quaker polemicist Francis Howgill attempted to express this new reality:

O beloved Ones, who are the Children of my eternal Father, who have eaten at his Table, and drunken of the new Wine in the Kingdom of God, who are nourished and dandled upon the Lap of everlasting Love, who suck at the Breasts of everlasting Consolation; you Beauty is comely, I am ravished, I am filled, I am filled with Love to you all, I am sick of Love, your Beauty hath ravished my Heart:… and in him I meet you, and leave you in his Arms; I lye down with you in the bosom of eternal Love, Life, Peace, Joy and Rest forever, where none can make us afraid. [ix] (Howgill 1655)

Image result for Lamb book of revelationTo worship God in this ecstatic sense is to be taken to the heavenly court where the saints and angels praise the Lamb.  What does such imagery tell us? We do not worship just for ourselves, but for the whole community of worshippers throughout all time. We worship with and for a creation which is infused with God’s promise of healing. In this shape, Quaker silence is not merely a spiritual retreat, it is our Eucharist when we celebrate the love of a God who feeds and guides us. The royal road to such spiritual food is in confronting our wounds and wrongs (the things which need care and mending). By allowing ourselves to be embraced by the Spirit, God’s  Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life. Here vague mysticism gives way to a meaning and direction not our own. Grace is all about being carried along by that. What a scary and awesome thought!  Of course, not every individual Meeting for Worship will be equally earth-shattering, but the point is that our Worship is made for radical transformation, embedded within the story of a God who wishes to turn the world upside down.  The invitation is always there if we wish to take it up. We do our individual spiritual journeys a deep disservice when we replace this cosmic vision of ‘that of God’ with an insular model of personal religion which excludes the possibility of a spiritual path with shared words, images, and focus. But perhaps the scariest aspect of recovering this approach to our Quakerism is that it places on us the responsibility to articulate and share the feast we are part of.  If weary Friends detect a whiff of evangelicalism in these remakes, they are right to do so. Calling back the God with a story to the very heart of our Worship means retrieving the Good News the phrase ‘that of God in everyone’ is intended to express.  This doesn’t mean we all must believe, or indeed say the same thing, but it does mean we need more trust in our Quaker-speak, including our language around the moral life and God. It isn’t about policing or conformity, but about blending our story with the story of the Quaker Way, allowing our hearts to open to all that has been revealed. Such trust will, with a bit of luck, help us to get back to specifics and shake off the story-less deity of Jones.

Once we have climbed out of personal cocoons new possibilities for being Quaker emerge. When we keep everything vague we have no reason to tell our Quaker story well (we only need to be convinced of our own stories). But when we discover a shared way of seeing through a narrative-filled Presence, we can do more than simply speak for ourselves (a common tendency at Quaker Quest evenings) but sustain and pass on shared treasures. This isn’t about megaphones, posters, or even individual moral perfection, it is about allowing ourselves to place weight behind the shared story we use. As 1 Peter defines the task: ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3:15).  This posture comes with risks of course. If not everyone is a Quaker already, then we come to the world with a distinctive story to tell, a story not everyone will find easy or palatable. But then, declaring hope is never easy midst cultures of quick fixes and cynicism. But before we go out into the world and start passing on our deep hope, Friends need to become accustomed to this practice of communal hope-telling.  Only then will we discover the full import of these famous words belonging to George Fox:

In the power of life and wisdom, and dread of the Lord God of life, and heaven, and earth, dwell; that in the wisdom of God over all ye may be preserved, and be a terror to all the adversaries of God, and a dread, answering that of God in them all, spreading the Truth abroad, awakening the witness, confounding deceit, gathering up out of transgression into the life, the covenant of light and peace with 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 everyone (Quaker Faith and Practice, 19:30).

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17 thoughts on “The Shrinking Story: The Changing Meaning of ‘That of God in everyone’

  1. This is because there are rather mixed sources on the English radical fringe in the 17th century. You have people like Brierley (see https://certainmeasureofperfection.wordpress.com/grindleton-brierley-the-grindletonians/ ) who are essentially coming from a Christian position. But then you also have the likes of Neo-Stoic Familism / Niclaesianism feeding into English thinking as well.

    You might find this interesting: https://certainmeasureofperfection.files.wordpress.com/2016/03/doe_final1.pdf

    1. Have you looked up the meaning of the Greek word rendered “forgive” in English translations of the Bible? That Greek word, #863 in the dictionary at the end of Strong’s Concordance, means to send forth, to forsake, forgive, to lay aside, leave, let alone. let be, let go, omit, put or send away, yield up, and more. In my blog post, “Who is Jesus Christ? and How does he save people? (https://thiswasthetruelight.wordpress.com/2017/03/18/who-is-jesus-christ-and-how-does-he-save-people/) I have made a beginning to explore those implications. Grace (also from the dictionary in Strong’s) is defined as Divine influence upon the heart that is reflected in the life of the recipient. The process of forgiveness involved in what Paul expresses in Colossians 1: 3-14 and in Titus 2:11-12 passage that speaks of the “grace of God that has appeared bringing salvation to all men; teaching us…” is a process that is beyond the abilities of self-help.

      1. Thank you very much, Ellis. I will certainly give thought to your suggestions. My book, “What Love Can Do” (gerardguiton[dot]com), may be of interest to you re: forgiveness. Many good wishes, Gerard.

  2. Thankyou Ben for a truly stunning exposition. But it is all meaningless to the autonomous individual who makes rational choices in their own interests. We need to be born again – ‘out of our personal cocoons’ as you so wonderfully put it. For instance, we cannot ‘forgive ourselves’ for ‘forgiveness’ is relational – it is about the resolution of a failed encounter with the other. I say ‘sorry’ and you say ‘accepted’, and so the ‘I-Thou’ is restored. That ‘other’ which we ultimately generalise to the universal ‘other’ – God, who, by grace, we know has forgiven us as ourselves. Paul captures the problem of individualistic rational westerners beautifully in 1 Corinthians 22-23: “the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto … the Greeks foolishness”.

  3. All night long I have had a phrase running through my sleep, “It is not with the intent to offend that we preach the gospel.” There are many who run without being sent and many “gospels” that have nothing in them of the Good News of the Kingdom of God. I am not talking about them.
    But I want to direct attention to George Fox’s statement on pages 90-91 in Vol. I of the Works of Fox where he states: “Some time after, the Lord commanded me to go abroad into the world which was like a briery, thorny wilderness. When I came, in the Lord’s mighty power, with the word of life into the world, the world swelled and made a noise like the great raging waves of the sea. Priests and professors, magistrates and people, were all like a sea, when I came to proclaim the day of the Lord amongst them, and to preach repentance to them.
    I was sent to turn people from darkness to the light, that they might receive Christ Jesus; for to as many as should receive him in his light, I saw he would give power to become the sons of God ; which I had obtained by receiving Christ. I was to direct people to the spirit, that gave forth the scriptures, by which they might be led into all truth, and so up to Christ and God, as those had been who gave them forth. I was to turn them to the grace of God, and to the truth in the heart, which came by Jesus; that by this grace they might be taught, which would bring them salvation, that their hearts might be established by it, their words might be seasoned, and all might come to know their salvation nigh. For I saw that Christ had died for all men, was a propitiation for all, and had enlightened all men and women with his divine and saving light; and that none could be true believers, but those that believed in it. I saw that the grace of God, which brings salvation, had appeared to all men, and that the manifestation of the spirit of God was given to every man, to profit withal. These things I did not see by the help of man, nor by the letter, though they are written in the letter; but I saw them in the light of the Lord Jesus Christ, and by his immediate spirit and power, as did the holy men of God by whom the holy scriptures were written. Yet I had no slight esteem of the holy scriptures, they were very precious to me ; for I was in that spirit by which they were given forth; and what the Lord opened in me, I afterwards found was agreeable to them. I could speak much of these things, and many volumes might be written ; but all would prove too short to set forth the infinite love, wisdom, and power of God, in preparing, fitting, and furnishing me for the service he had appointed me to; letting me see the depths of satan, on the one hand, and opening to me, on the other hand, the divine mysteries of his own everlasting kingdom.
    When the Lord God and his son Jesus Christ sent me forth into the world to preach his everlasting gospel and kingdom, I was glad that I was commanded to turn people to that inward light, spirit, and grace, by which all might know their salvation and their way to God ; even that divine spirit which would lead them into all truth, and which I infallibly knew would never deceive any.”
    Fox’s statement can be understood in connection with the phrase of “…answering that of God in them all, spreading the Truth abroad, awakening the witness, confounding deceit, gathering up out of transgression into the life, the covenant of light and peace with God…” But it cannot also be understood to be all inclusive. If there is that of God in man, then there must be that of not God in man. Spreading the Truth implies confounding deceit, gathering up into the life means gathering out of the transgression, bringing people to the covenant of light and peace with God means we must bring them out of the covenant of darkness and death, if there is an inward light, spirit, and grace…that would lead us to salvation, there must be inward darkness and influences of darkness that would lead us away from salvation, and so on.
    The intent of preaching the gospel, the power of God, (Fox’s oft used phrase) is to bring people into the life Jesus speaks about in John 6, the apostles testified of, and the early Quakers called people to experience.

  4. Stories are stories . . . in the end; that point to a destination that some ‘other’ wants us to arrive at.

    In contrast I have always sensed in the silence and vocal ministry of liberal Quaker worship a draw to the eternal ‘that of God’. The mystical “God is love. Christ is the Light” binds us each to each other as we join together in this reality whenever we may touch that love and light within ourselves or another. How beautifully simple.

    Liberal Quaker theology is simple and universal and it DOES indeed bind us together in the divine love that Jesus experienced and offered to all. If that simple reality is not enough, there are plenty of churches on every corner with a “story” to push.

  5. 1. The mere fact that something is cosy does mean it is false.

    2. If the liberal Quakers and sound people in general need to leave the Bible stories behind as unreliable sources of historical account how can one be sure of sin, judgement and afterlife? What seems to count most in liberal Quakerism is religious or mystical experience. I imagine it might be a bit difficult to reconstruct Christian eschatology on the basis of experience and even more difficult using this as a foundation for binding the Quakers together in one group. How the author of the essay can know that “healing, change and transformation” should be the right mode of Quaker activity or, if it is indeed the right mode, how can you be sure that liberal Quakers in their present “personal spiritual journeys” do not experience that process all long? Did people confess to the author all the sins and failings they noticed in their lives thanks to sitting together in the Quaker worship?

    3. Things change, Christian denominations change, the doctrine of the most conservative churches changes, why Quakers should stick to all details of early Quakers? Can you show me a church that is really following Jesus’ message with all its strange radicality?

    4. It would be nice to get rid of vagueness in the spiritual life. But how can we do that? I suspect that the only way is by accepting a doubtful source of revelation that is contained in the Bible. The author of this essay clearly points in that direction. I wondering whether instead of talking about vague “stories” he could be clearer saying he means just “the Bible stories”.

    5. I like the expression the silence is our Eucharist.

    1. I do not presume to be able to speak to all the points you raise. But as one who often quotes the early Friends, I can say something in regard to the importance of what they were about. The thumbnail view of what George Fox and the other early Friends proclaimed is “Christ is come to teach his people himself.” This is how Fox summarized some of his three-hour sermons. This is a message that is not replicated in any other Christian group I am aware of except the Christians of the apostolic period. This message is as relevant today as it was in the first century A.D. or the 17th century. Yes, times and circumstances change, but the basic nature of humans remains constant. We cannot provide life for ourselves, we cannot remake ourselves into the image of God, we cannot provide ourselves the knowledge of the will of God nor the power to accomplish that. All these things and more are provided by Christ as we come under his teaching and follow his voice. So this is a short answer that only briefly touches on a subject that deserves a lot more attention than can be provided in response to a comment.

  6. No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the prophets, AND THEY SHALL BE ALL TAUGHT OF GOD. Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me (Jn. 6:44-5).

    Just as Jesus places himself out of reach of those to whom the Father has not revealed Himself, so the meaning of the story of salvation is largely out of reach to those who have not known the Spirit of Christ, in which that story and its words were written. Those who have heard that Spirit come to believe in Christ and understand the stories/words that were written in his Spirit.

    Nevertheless, it’s more than useful—bordering on necessary—that a people learn the stories and the words, even before they can understand their import. It’s akin to learning the alphabet or math facts as a child. Having learned the basics, later, when one becomes ready for meat not milk, the potential for understanding and communicating is exponentially increased, enabling one to become like the scribe who’s instructed in the kingdom of heaven, bringing forth out of his treasure things new and old (Mt. 13:52).

    Life comes from God, but by receiving that Life, the story does become our own, and we enter into unity with “a great cloud of witnesses [and can say with them] let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1).

  7. What a great post. I really like the “story” thread especially. I have long been concerned about the steady move in liberal Quakerism away from what I’ve been calling “content”, but I like “story” better. It says more. Instead of story or content, we have increasingly defined ourselves in terms of values and process. But, as your quote of 1 Peter so beautifully puts it, that leaves us without anything to say—to seekers, to our children, to each other. When asked what do Quakers believe, we fidget, then start with the disclaimers about not being able to speak for all Friends or even any other Friends, but only for ourselves; and then, if we finally get to an answer, it’s usually, “Well, we believe there is that of God in everyone”, and then maybe we add the testimonies, too often codified, God forbid, as SPICES.

    I must confess, however, that much of the story that you quote and support just doesn’t work for me. In your marvelous, lengthy quote from Fox, I either have no experience of or actually disagree with one thing after another. I don’t think forgiveness from sin is the essential goal of true religion. I don’t think such forgiveness would come from Christ’s “propitiation” on the cross, even if it were the goal of religion. I don’t believe in a God that would require such a propitiation. I don’t accept that Jesus’s “messiah-ship” is properly defined that way. I don’t accept that all of scripture is divinely inspired; There are things in the Deuteronomic history, especially in the book of Judges, that are as horrific as any horror film out of Hollywood. I don’t accept that the “new testament” superceeds the old testament, that the deep and ancient Jewish people have somehow failed to recognize Jesus as their messiah; what an arrogant and dangerous idea, as history has shown. To summarize: the traditional Christian salvation story just isn’t my story, and I know that many liberal Friends feel the same way.

    On the other hand, I do have some direct experience of what I have chosen to call the Christ—as a matter of faith, since he hasn’t come to me with a name tag visible on his chest, the way he has to many others. I make this choice because I want to connect with the larger Quaker story, because my experience matches up in some ways that are important to me with my understanding of who and what the Christ is, both from scripture (a varied and unreliable source, no matter what traditionalists might say, especially given the huge differences between the gospel of Jesus and the gospel of Paul) and from the stories my Christian Friends tell, and from aspects of the writings of early friends.

    I believe that the Christ is a real spiritual entity and presence in the spiritual world, not just an inspired human prophet who’s no longer around, as many liberal Friends now believe. I am fascinated by the metaphysical issues this raises, but I try to hew close to my experience while I venture into that speculation. I believe that the spirit of Christ likely bound the Quakers into a peculiar people of God in the first place, as early Friends testify—I refuse to disrespect their testimony with claims of delusion. I believe that [he] has continued to guide and animate the movement since. But these are choices of faith for me.

    In my experience, the Christ is not bound by the traditions that have tried throughout history to cram him into their own little boxes, including the various Quaker traditions. A Christ who does not continually reveal [him]self anew to meet our evolving needs would be no Christ worth believing in, and would perforce be impossible to actually experience anyway, by definition. We could only experience the Christ today because [he] revealed [him]self to us today.

    Which leaves me in a weird position. I think of myself as a guest in the house that Christ built. I know [him] in ways that have steadily become more precious to me. But those ways don’t match the template we have received as a legacy from early Friends. And they don’t match with the usual post-Christian understanding of either the Christ or our movement, either, in which he basically doesn’t figure, except as a figure in history.

    This has been an extremely inspiring and though-provoking post for me, and I can see that I’m not done thinking about it, that I will have to take some of these themes up in my own blog. Thanks!

  8. Thanks Steven for these brilliant reflections. I’m going to spend a bit of time dwelling on them. Your way of describing Jesus reminds me very much of the post-dogmatic Christianity of the Indian activist Pandita Ramabai (1858–1922). She identified strongly with the person and story of Jesus, but could not accept the various boxes that Western missionaries placed him in. Ramabai needed to understand and experience Jesus in her own context, with her own questions. She once noted: “I believe in Christ … But at the same time I shall not bind myself to believe in and accept everything that is taught by the church; before I accept it I must be convinced that it is according to Christ’s teaching.”

  9. Thank you, Ben, for your very thoughtful piece. I was particularly reminded in your paragraph alongside the Quaker Synod cartoon of the process of Experiment with Light [experiment-with-light.org.uk], which does encourage us to face our darkness and get beyond it to forgiveness and acceptance, by focusing on the Light. Interesting also that Rufus Jones (et al.) turned the more meaningful “Light within” (or, less frequently, “inward Light”) of early Friends to “Inner Light”; thus Jones (et al.) began the trend of foregrounding the individual, rather than the Divine.

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