“Quakerism is rightly called an experiential religion: one becomes a Friend in the experience of being illuminated, convicted, and empowered by the light within.”
By developing and expressing a contemporary, tradition-rooted understanding of the inner, experiential meanings of Quaker images such as “Inner Light” and “that of God,” and by returning to understanding themselves as communities of salvation here and now, our Quaker organizations, especially local meetings, can play an important role in the process of change.
Salvation requires that we learn to discern and attend to something deeper than conscience, something that can properly orient and illumine the conscience; namely, the hidden light of love within us, which, as we have seen, Friends identified with the life and power of God. Only that can give us “a new heart” by leading us out of our self-centered schematic bias.
If deep change is to occur, somehow a powerful dissonance must be triggered; our well-established schematic network of core beliefs must be challenged by love.
In a Quaker reading of the Fall myth, Adam and Woman have fallen into the spiritual death of the “way of self-wisdom and knowledge,” attempting to usurp God’s role as the Light which shows us what is good and what is evil. Each person will now define good and evil in terms of his or her self-interest, often unaware of doing so.
“[F]or the least measure of God’s righteousness is perfect, and all are in perfection who become servants to it, and thereby become free from sin.” One might have flaws, but one’s basic orientation had changed; one’s heart had been set free from the self-centered orientation that is sin.
Life presents us at times with experiences that get through the filters and challenge the validity of our basic worldview. Such experiences create in us a dissonance, a tension between our beliefs and new information. Cognitive dissonance is particularly strong when the conflict involves our self-concept. There are two principal methods of reducing such dissonance.
To be saved is to be one whose basic bias is toward universal love, which is the opposite of “the world’s” orientation to self. To begin to turn to that new orientation is to enter the process of metanoia.
Our thesis is that, in psychological terms, the biblically-shaped experience of the first Friends implies, first, that the characteristic of commonsense, “normal” self-centeredness constitutes a pervasive schematic bias in the psyches of most human beings, and, second, that Quaker conversion/salvation is a process of detaching from that self-centered bias and adopting a new, love-centered orientation.
To frame our religious experience in psychological terms is not to deny a place to those who believe in God, but to return to the very early Quaker insight that, as contemporary thinker John D. Caputo put it, “[T]he event that stirs within the name of God can take place under other names, which complicates the distinction between theism and atheism.”
In their preaching, George Fox and other first Friends sought to direct people, not to belief in or experience of an inner metaphysical essence, but to the dynamic activity of divine revelation in their minds and hearts. Their message remains important today.