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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