That of God, Spirit, and Light — Lite

Almost a month ago, I quoted F. S. C. Northrop in a post on modern liberal Quakerism.” (I use “modern” to refer to the Enlightenment-influenced worldview that was undermined by the events of the twentieth century.) Northrop wrote that “the truly important thing” for the modern person is either material “substances” or

the blank, purely spiritual, intrinsically unemotional, introspectively given mental substance with which … he communes on the Sabbath. … Thus the Quaker, sitting in silence without a professional preacher in his unadorned meetinghouse, most directly, completely, and perfectly exemplifies the religion of [the] modern Cartesian and Lockean man.(1)

I went on to point out that the subjectivism (“truth = what’s true for me”) of contemporary liberal Quakerism remains tethered to the modernist paradigm. But I didn’t explain why I thought so. I want to write a little about that now.

We liberal Quakers talk about “that of God,” Spirit, and Light as if we agree on the meanings of those terms. If asked to define them, however, those of us who can answer at all tend to take refuge in fuzzy God- (or non-God-) talk: “the divine,” “the Spirit of God,” “a spark of the divine in each of us.” If asked to define our defining terms (i.e., “God,” “the divine”), we get even fuzzier, and our subjectivism becomes apparent: a typical response begins with, “For me, ….” We began speaking about something we hold in common — belief in Spirit, the Light, that of God — but within seconds we’re talking about individual notions, because what we hold in common has very little content.

What has happened to us?

We’ve forgotten narrative. We’ve forgotten that a society, especially a religious society, is a community of a narrative. And we’ve forgotten that, as Jacques Derrida said, there “there is nothing outside context.”(2)

In their proper context, Spirit, Light, and that of God are characters in a narrative. Within the narrative they have well-defined characteristics and roles. They have life. And they have evocative power. Ripped from that narrative, they become vague metaphysical notions that stir no one: Northrop’s “blank, purely spiritual, intrinsically unemotional, introspectively given mental substance.” On that blank canvas, each of us paints a more or less impressionistic picture of what they mean for me — a process that may take care of “me” but does not “answer that of God” in the other to whom we speak.

But that modern, individualistic avoidance of “indebtedness to the other”(3) seems to be what many of us want, although we may resemble a certain egghead.

Alice: I don’t know what you mean by ‘that of God in every one.’
Quaker: Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant ‘people are basically good.’
Alice: But ‘that of God in every one’ doesn’t mean ‘people are basically good.’
Quaker: When I use a phrase, it means just what I choose it to mean — for me. You may choose to use it in some other way.

Characters in a narrative, indeed.

(1) F. S. C. Northrop, The Meeting of East and West. New York, Macmillan, 1964. Page 92.
(2) Quoted in James K. A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2006. Page 52.
(3) From Frans van Peperstraten, “Displacement or composition? Lyotard and Nancy on the trait d’union between Judaism and Christianity.” Int J Philos Relig (2009) 65:29–46. Available here under Open Access. Describing Lyotard’s views, van Peperstraten says, “Modernity, … according to Lyotard, no longer requires any dispossession [of self]. Christianity means that man becomes ‘taken into possession by’ … an alterity, whereas modernity holds that one can be freed from all indebtedness to the other ….”

[For related posts, see the “Liberal Quakerism” category.]

11 thoughts on “That of God, Spirit, and Light — Lite

  1. Dear George:

    I think there can be other reasons for vagueness than absence of a specific narrative. For example, when attempting to explain why I like some music to someone else, it is usually vague, though the feeling is specific. Why I love someone and not someone else often results in stumbling explanations. I think there are many examples like this and I suspect that “that of God in everyone” falls into this kind of configuration. In other words, not all human experience is, I think, narrative embedded.

    There is an advantage in not specifying the meaning of the experience of the “inner light” or “that of God in everyone”; it allows for multivalent extrapolation of the experience into different traditions so that the experience forms a bridge to communities that would not understand each other in terms of narrative structure. This is part of what I meant when I said that Liberal Quakerism has developed tools that speak well to the situation that many people find themselves in today; a world in which competing views are all on stage. Traditional Quaker writing does not, at least to the same degree, address this kind of situation because it is strongly committed to a particular narrative.

    Best wishes,


  2. Jim,

    I think I see some category confusion in your comment. Explaining why one has a preference is different from defining the terms used in such an explanation. When we explain why we experience a certain feeling toward something, we make communication possible by using terms that have shared, agreed-upon meanings: words such as “I,” “love,” “music,” “her,” “preference,” “feeling.” Both parties have a working understanding of what the other’s words mean. Likewise, if I am to be able to understand you when you say that you have experienced the inner light, I need to know what you mean by “experience” and “inner light.” And if we are both members of one religious community that holds the belief that we should be guided by the inner light, then surely we need to agree on what those specialized terms mean.

    If we were talking about a common experience like listening to music or falling asleep, we could probably get away with not specifying a meaning — because the other party would already know what it is. But linguistic constructs like “inner light” and “that of God” are, when separated from their narrative contexts, more like Rorschach blots: I don’t know what you have in mind unless you tell me, and if you don’t tell me I’ll project from my own subliminal metanarrative. (And often I’ll project even if you do tell me.) It is language that forms bridges between communities: communication. And communication requires that we agree, within reasonable limits, on what words mean.

    I don’t think my post explicitly said that all experience is “narrative embedded” (I probably agree that it is, but that’s a different topic), but that the phrases I mentioned are characters from a specific narrative, a specific way of interpreting the world. Using their names for characters in different stories sets up mistaken identities, and thinking that we use their names outside of any story ignores the interpretive effects of our own worldview/story — precisely the kind of ignorance that both Quakerism and Buddhism, in their different ways and for their different reasons, would dispel.

    Religious communities are communities of story: “tradition” equates to “story.” So yes, some traditional Quaker writing (i.e., some writing that “hands on” the Quaker interpretation of life) needs translation into a contemporary idiom, but it must be translation that preserves the story; otherwise, it’s not handing on the Quaker tradition.

    I have attempted such a translation in The Psychology of Salvation; reading that may give you a better understanding of what I’m arguing for here.

    As always, thanks for your thought-provoking comments.


    • Dear George:

      I think I have misunderstood some basic aspects of your approach, but it is becoming clearer. Here’s a question for you:

      When Zen meditation is removed from its historical context, when the narrative of the transmission is no longer a part of the context in which it is practiced, how would you interpret this? The story, or narrative, is no longer sustained, but the specific practice is still done. Is it still Zen outside of this story?



      • Jim,

        That’s a complicated question, and much depends on the meanings assigned to the terms. The word “Zen,” as you no doubt know, means meditation (dhyana–>chan–>zen), but it also refers to a religious tradition/metanarrative. So what you mean when you say “Zen” — dhyana alone; or the integrated worldview, Zen Buddhism, that we see expressed in scripture, philosophy, art, oral exchanges, monastic discipline, ritual, meditation techniques, master-disciple relationship model, etc. — is one of the crucial elements. When I speak of Zen and the Zen tradition or (meta-)narrative, I’m referring to the latter.

        To begin, I’ll assume that you mean the meditation of the Zen Buddhist tradition (e.g., zazen), not simply an (as it were) “generic” dhyana, and I’ll refer you to a passage from the Platform Sutra of Hui-neng (known as the Sixth Patriarch), available at Wikipedia. Hui-neng defines Zen meditation — meditation “in our School,” he calls it — within that very specific context I referred to above: the Mahayana/Zen flavor of the Buddhist metanarrative (although of course some elements may also be shared with other traditions). Meditation in that context retains its integral relationship with the Zen metanarrative (“our essence of Mind is intrinsically pure”) and therefore is properly called Zen meditation. Meditation within the context of a different metanarrative (worldview) — even when using similar techniques of posture, attention, breathing, etc. — is some other kind of meditation (although of course modern folks will call things what they will call things…).

        Essentially, then, my reply is that, while techniques used in Zen’s meditation can be used in other contexts, Zen meditation itself, properly speaking, exists only in the Zen context.

        I hope that helps clarify my approach.


      • Dear George:

        Thank you for responding to my question (your response doesn’t seem to have a “reply” function, so I’m replying to you via my own post). If one applies the logic of your answer, and I’m sympathetic to this interpretation, would it follow that people engaged in Quaker practice outside of the explicitly Christian context from which it arose are not actually engaged in Quaker practice? That would seem to be the conclusion.

        Yet, I am not convinced that this is so. In some ways I am suggesting that narrative is not pivotal in determining a tradition. My sense is that practice precedes explanation/narrative. I’ve suggested before that this is easier to understand with ordinary activities such as gardening; different gardeners may have radically different views, or narratives, regarding gardening. But a gardener is a gardener because of the doing of gardening, not because of the view of its meaning.

        Similarly, I think it is possible to view the Quaker tradition as a set of practices and one is a Quaker who is committed to those practices; the reasons and narratives for engaging in those practices follow the commitment to those practices.

        I look forward to your response.

        Best wishes,


  3. Dear George,
    I am reading your blog with interest. My concern is great regarding the shallow level of collective understanding of the terms we use not because I stand opposed to our pluralism (in fact, I delight in it) but because we do little to explore it and the multiple meanings that grow out of it. Many of the bruised feelings I note between Friends often result from using the same term but out of radically different contexts. I also think there is a need to examine our inheritance of the Enlightenment era values and metaphors embedded in early Friends’ writing in “light of” contemporary challenges from post-Cartesian, post-Freudian, and post-patriarchal worldviews.

    • It does often seem that context is everything!

      Have you discussed the (proto-)Enlightenment values and metaphors that you see in early Friends’ writings on your site? If so, can you direct me to that; if not, would you be willing to talk about it, here or there? I think that the early Friends tried to go back to a very much “pre-modern” understanding (“primitive Christianity revived”), and I’d be interested in seeing where they failed to do that — which I’m sure they must have done, just as postmodern thinkers, despite their specifically looking for that sort of thing, may nonetheless retain modern elements in their thinking.


      • I’m afraid I’m not there yet in my process. Of course the entire focus on “Light” is problematic for me in the context of feminist theory and its challenges to assumptions of a dichotomous understanding of male/female, light/dark, life/death throughout Western history but particularly during and after the Enlightenment. But there, I’ve said “of course” it is problematic and it isn’t “of course” at all, is it? It is all very complicated. My tendency would be (and has been) to focus much of my attention on women’s writing and I suspect that their gender may tweak their perspective just a little bit.

        Yours is a very good voice to read. It adds wrinkles to straight lines and that is very good. I very much distrust straight lines!

  4. Jim — I don’t know what has happened to the “Reply” function.

    What you describe is, I think, what I have been talking about: Quakerism today “ain’t what it used to be.” As you and Pink Dandelion describe (see my post “Alien in a Liberal-Liberal Land?”), the practice, lifted from its original context, now is primary — which has led to the growth of a new, inchoate and often incoherent context. That development has been happening for a long time now, but mostly we seem unaware of it, believing that the outward form somehow connects us to the essence of the original worldview. But clearly it doesn’t.

    So the character of what is now called Quaker worship is quite different from what was earlier called that: what we do now is shaped by that new worldview that continues to develop in liberal-Liberal Quakerism. There’s [liberal-Liberal] Quaker worship, and then there’s Quaker worship. Quaker worship is almost a lost art, but some Friends, such as those practicing Experiment with Light, are attempting to recover its spirit.

    Again, I see a significant difference between religious disciplines and activities such as gardening. The former are expressions of a religious worldview; the latter are not. (Compare dining on bread and wine with the eucharist, for example.) If there were such a thing as Quaker gardening, then we might have a parallel. Actually, there is something like Zen gardening, and I’ll point to that as a further illustration of what I mean. We can apply the principles of Zen gardening to our own garden, and we can call that “Zen gardening,” but the whole point of doing so is that the “style” expresses the religious and aesthetic principles of Zen Buddhism. Unless we are applying those principles, we can only copy the style, the outward form; the inner spirit is inaccessible to us.

    Quakerism traditionally was all about living in the inner spirit and not being satisfied with the outward form. That’s what I often find absent from our worship: the traditional Quaker spirit and experience of which our form of worship originally was the vehicle and expression — just as zazen is the vehicle and expression of the Buddha-mind.


  5. Dear George:

    I want to ask you a question, but I’ve learned that on the web some questions can be taken the wrong way; so I’m prefacing the question by saying it is asked with a genuine spirit of inquiry. My question is, how do you know that the inner spirit is absent from Quaker worship today? I’m not convinced that is the case. I recently attended the Pacific Yearly Meeting and it seemed to me the inner spirit was palpably manifest, even when (especially when?) there was serious disagreement over certain issues. Of course I couldn’t prove this, but that was my sense.

    Best wishes,


    • Jim, I’m not saying that the spirit is absent, but “often” absent: I want to be clear about that. I have been to many meetings for worship in which the spirit was in evidence. But I have also been to many in which there was no sense of spiritual unity, of deep probing, of sensitivity to spirit and to the needs of the others in the room. Last Sunday, three of the ten people in meeting gave “vocal ministry”: it was a discussion of health care reform. Some probably thought that we had a “gathered meeting,” because all speakers addressed and developed the same topic. Meanwhile, any who were struggling with the kind of thing that made the first Quakers quake were abandoned. The meeting community lacks the resources to address that sort of thing, or even to see it as as something that should be addressed, because its grounding is in the individualistic philosophy that tends to characterize our branch of Quakerism.

      If I thought that it were hopeless, that spirit were totally absent from Quaker faith and practice today, I’d probably give up and go back to solitary zazen. But there’s still power in the old engine, so I’m not planning to trade it in. I guess I’m working on a rebuild.


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