Confessing Together that Christ Is Come

Is the confession that “Christ is come in the flesh” at the point of convergence for theistic and nontheistic Friends? As Bierce might ask, “Can such things be?”

The phrase “Christ is come in the flesh” is from 1 John 4:1-4.

Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world. Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.

A “professor” named William Jeffries attempted to use that passage against the primitive Quakers, writing, “The spirit of antichrist denies Christ come in the flesh, and says the light within is Christ, when at the best it is but the light of nature.” As do his responses to other such charges, George Fox’s response to Jeffries implies a sharp distinction between the belief that Christ came to earth (lived, died, and was raised) 2,000 years ago, which is apostate Christianity’s basis of faith, and the Quakers’ experience that Christ is come here and now in his saints, in the reality of the inner Light, by which his flesh is known in our own.

Before looking at Fox’s response to Jeffries, which will tell us more about what the phrase “Christ is come in the flesh” means in primitive Quaker exegesis and theology, a few words of caution and preparation are in order.

It’s all too easy for us to read Fox under the influence of 2,000 years of the apostate (i.e., defective!) Christian worldview. It is helpful to remember that truth is not a cognitive datum for primitive Quakerism, but is the living Christ himself (who, it bears repeating, is not a cognitive datum). Because, as Fox often said, Christ is the power of God (e.g., The Great Mystery, hereinafter GM, p. 464; see also 1 Cor. 1:24), we can say that “truth is power.” We know Christ by being empowered in his divine life of love here and now. In that intimate union, his flesh and ours is one: we are “flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone” (see Gen. 2:23 and Eph. 5:30).

The church — we saints — is, then, the very body of Christ. Another traditional image of the church, that of the bride of Christ, also tells us that we are formed, as was Eve of Adam’s, of Christ’s own flesh. Fox puts the two together and tells us how to become thus incorporated into Christ: we are, in the mythic and paradoxical language of scripture, to spiritually eat the flesh of Christ. “[T]he saints are ‘flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone,’ and the church which he is head of, is his body. And every one that eats his flesh, knows his body given for the life of the world …” (GM, p. 51). To “eat” Christ’s spiritual flesh (cf. Gen. 9:4 and John 6:53) in holy communion means to be “partakers of the divine nature” through “his divine power” (2 Peter 1: 3-4) — to become, through living in the light and power of love, the living flesh and blood and bone of Christ here and now. This is not what the world knows as Christianity.

Here now is the heart of Fox’s response to Jeffries:

[No one can] know him in the flesh, confess him ‘come in the flesh,’ or know his flesh, or the flesh of the son of man, but who are in the light that comes from him that ‘doth enlighten every man,’ &c…. And walking in the light, it leads into the day, where there is no night, which light is Christ the covenant of God; and such come to know the darkness past. Now I say [none who have their] eyes closed to that of God in them … can ‘confess Christ come in the flesh,’ but only from the letter; for these know not his flesh. […] The apostates must come all to that which they have ravened from inwardly, before they come to know Christ’s flesh, and are of his flesh, and eat his flesh, and ‘confess that Christ is come in the flesh,’ who is the offering, and the sacrifice of the whole world that makes the peace between God and man, and ‘perfects for ever them that are sanctified.’ — GM, pp. 246-247, emphasis added.

“Christ the covenant of God” refers, of course, to the New Covenant (or Testament) of which the Hebrew scriptures speak:

And he shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the LORD of hosts hath spoken it. For all people will walk every one in the name of his god, and we will walk in the name of the LORD our God for ever and ever. (Micah 4:3-5)


[T]his shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:33-34)

This is the new covenant/testament of peace and toleration which Paul said is “not of words [gramma: the letter; the written word; the scripture], for words kill, but of spirit, for spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). “The new covenant is Christ” (GM, p. 507), who is himself the way, the truth, the life, the gospel, the power of God (again, see GM p. 464).

In the theopoetic imagery of 1 John, it is the spirits in us that make confession, and anyone in whom the spirit is confessing that “Christ is come in the flesh” is of the spirit of God. How does the spirit make that confession in us? Again, it is not in words; as Fox points out repeatedly, the devil, the antichrist, the apostates believe and say those words. As we have seen, truth is power. Christ is come in power (GM, p. 449). To confess that “Christ is come in the flesh,” then, has nothing to do with words or beliefs: it is nothing other than to live in the power of the God who is love, to be the living presence of Christ here and now.

As Quakerism has always recognized, one need not know the words “God” and “Christ,” or the story of Jesus, in order to do that, whereas “many have the words, and [yet] deny the word itself [e.g., the divine Logos, the creating, illuminating, enlivening power of God]” — and “the word is Christ and God” (GM, pp.364 and 463, respectively). To actually “confess that Christ is come in the flesh” is to surrender to the searching and empowering work of the light of love in the heart. Then one’s life is the divine spirit’s confession, a confession not in words but in the Word, which is “the true light that enlightens every one,” the creative power of love “made flesh” in us.*

Principle. He [i.e., Samuel Eaton, ‘who calls himself a teacher of the church of Christ’] saith he doth ‘not believe that there is any substantial, essential, or personal union betwixt the eternal spirit and believers.’

Answer. [But] the scripture saith, the spirit dwells in the saints, 1 Cor. 6, and, ‘He that is joined to the Lord is one spirit.’ 1 John 1. As though the saints had not union with God, which the scripture saith they have. — GM, p. 34.

“Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits….” The spirit of the God of love is Christ, the head of the body of saints, we saints who, abiding in love, are “flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone.” Christ is come in our flesh. In light of the reality expressed in those theopoetic images, we see that words and beliefs are mere pointers, pointers that lead to delusion and death when spirits are poorly discerned. The world believes that it knows Christ, that it confesses Christ come in the flesh, but that confession, in words of belief, leaves evil rampant: the bloody “man of sin,” the spirit of self, still dominates the world. It is only in our effective life-confession, our living in the power of love, that evil is overcome. “Greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.”

Here, again, in our living in the unity of the holy spirit of perfect and perfecting love, not in the words “Christ is come in the flesh” but in their actualization, is the point of convergence for Friends. We do well to keep that before us, to live and celebrate our unity in the “universal love” that many of us name “God,” “till we all come, in the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).

* From “Several scriptures corrupted by the translators” in Fox, The Great Mystery, p. 582 (punctuation and emphasis edited): “John i. 14: ‘The word became flesh, and dwelt amongst us’; in the Greek it is in us …. By true interpretation it is, ‘the word became flesh, and pitched his tent in us.'”

41 thoughts on “Confessing Together that Christ Is Come

  1. Dear George:

    This was a dense post; I had to read it several times, but it was worth it. It occurs to me that there is an approach to the reality of Jesus which I find helpful, and others might also, in reconciling the historical with the trans-historical, “light within”, views. Briefly it is that there are three perspectives one can take on Jesus.

    1. The Historical Jesus. This is the individual who lived 2,000 years ago, preached, performed miracles, gathered disciples, was crucified, and rose from the dead.

    2. The Archetypal Jesus. This is the trans-historical Jesus who functions as a model and teacher today. This is the Jesus of “what would Jesus do?” and the inspiration for our interaction in the world at any time; hence trans-historical yet continuing to manifest in our personal history.

    3. The Transcendental Jesus. This is the Jesus who says “I and the Father are one”. This is the Jesus who is the gate to eternal life and the presence of eternity itself/himself. This is the realm of the formless, the mysterious, and the unnameable, a luminous darkness.

    I find this model a useful tool for understanding the New Testament; sometimes Jesus is speaking from one of these perspectives, sometimes from another. There is no fixed border between these categories, and ultimately they are fused in the seamless presence of Jesus. Nevertheless, such a scheme helps me to comprehend how the historical and the limited can function to open the way to the transcendent and eternal.

    Best wishes,


    • Thanks, Jim, for hanging in there and for the helpful comments. I’ve made a few revisions; I hope they will improve readability.

      Do you think we might need additional categories, such as the Christ who is the saints, and the Christ who is the hungry, the stranger, the sick, the imprisoned? “Transcendental” doesn’t seem to capture the immediacy and individual reality of those.

  2. Dear George:

    The way I use this scheme aspects of Christ such as the Saints, the hungry, the sick and imprisoned would be Archetypal. The Transcendental is beyond name and form. It is the darkness of the mystical ascent of Dionysius in his “Mystical Theology” and the unknowing of the “Cloud”. It is the prayer found in the Quaker classic “A Guide to True Peace”. It is beyond any affirmation or negation. It is the source of the light, that of God in all people, but is not that light itself.

    This is just a scheme; other schemes are possible. In a previous post you stated that you considered such terms as “eternity” to be self-contradictory, so I suspect that you would have difficulties with the “Transcendental” aspect. I view this aspect as the final purpose and meaning of Quaker practice. In this sense I am primarily a mystic.

    Hope this is helpful.

    Best wishes,


    • “Archetypal” as the category for those aspects seems right to me, too, Jim, now that you’ve pointed it out.

      In that previous discussion, I wrote that I find phrases like “the infinite,” which pairs a word meaning “unlimited” with a limiting article, and “transcendental object,” which appears to refer to an object that transcends categories such as “object,” to be contradictory. Your category of “transcendental,” however, makes sense to me — unless by “the formless” we mean some sort of object, which would then be something of a conceptual equivalent of an Escher drawing.

      — George

  3. George,

    I’m curious about how seeing words as mere pointers leads you to affirm “Christ” as a pointer but to disavow “theism” as one. If one can say “I am not ‘that’ kind of Christian, then why not, “I am not ‘that’ kind of a theist?”

    In Friendship,


  4. Friend George,

    I relish both the precision with which you have defined what I believe to be the core Quaker insight and the synchronicity which brings your post forward just as I am trying to shape kindred thoughts into a post of my own.

    Thank you.

    Nothing else is more important to the heart of Quaker faith and practice than this understanding: that Christ is already come again.

    Apostate Christianity preaches all sorts of “pre-millenarian” versions of a “Christ” yet to return.

    It then invents rules for who is or will be among the elect who join Christ (witness the heresy of so-called “rapture” theology–now transformed into a multi-million dollar entertainment franchise, of all things), and it invents hierarchies of gatekeepers, who can even imagine themselves authorized to torture and kill those deemed not to be among the elect.

    Far more awesome (in the divine sense of awesomeness) is the core challenge of Quaker faith and practice: let the light convict you privately, in your own heart, and then let it reveal to you that the Christ is already there, ready to teach you.

    Thanks again, Friend, and

    Blessed Be,

  5. Michael,

    I look forward to reading your post.

    Here’s a little more from Fox’s reply to Wm. Jeffries — here he expresses apocalyptic anger about the horrors of what the world calls Christianity. (Typically, he puts his finger on the money motive, too.) The failure of his prophecy, though understandable, is still terribly sad.

    The inward raveners, who, since the days of the apostles, the world hath [followed], have gotten the scriptures; and being out of the truth with the devil, are the deceivers of the nations. And there are (out of the truth) the beast, false prophet, antichrist, mother of harlots, deceivers, man of sin, devil’s messengers and ministers, and the damnable heresies; their tongues are waters, their peoples are waters, their nations waters, and multitudes waters: all on heaps about scriptures, destroying one another about the prophets’, apostles’, and Christ’s words, and ministers’ maintenance. Now the devil, the beast, false prophets, and antichrist, are taken, and the mother of harlots, and cast in the lake of fire, and Babylon is confounded, and the everlasting gospel shall be preached to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people.

    • Yep, I can feel that apocalyptic anger.

      Especially when I watch present-day ideological “christianists” confounding every effort of our nation to fulfill its deep, humanitarian longing to provide for the well-being of all its children…all the children of the world.

      Sometimes I regret that I don’t believe in “hellfire and damnation.” Can’t a make an exception for these enemies of the people?

      I guess not.

      They, too, are lost sheep.


  6. Hi George,

    I confess that I take a different view of where liberal/progressive Quakerism needs to go in the future. I am not as enamored of the experience of Early Friends as you seem to be. As a universalist, I think that what Early Friends experienced was one variation – heavily inflected by the Christian milieu – of a universal potential for transformative experience.

    There have been various proposals for understanding the progression of a person towards transformation, but one of the most accessible is that of James Fowler’s “Stages of Faith.” He proposes that throughout the lifespan a person matures in their faith or spiritual orientation from mythic to conventional to reflective to conjunctive to universal. Most Christians are at the level of mythic or conventional, with some few acheiving a reflective stage. Quakers seem to have crossed the threshold from reflective to conjunctive and universal, within the confines of a Christian perspective.

    I submit that this transformation is also taught by Buddhism, in it own culturally narrow way, as well as Hinduism, and even mystical Islam. However, it is not confined to any one of these.

    I love Quakerism and have found my lifelong community of belonging, but I want to see us enlarge our embrace of multiple and diverse perspectives. Only with such a universalist, post-Christian, vision can we address a world that is destroying itself with religious warfare and industrial ecocide.

    Peace! Charley

    • I agree with what you say Charley, except to call it “post-Christian.”
      That seems like “throwing the baby out with the bath water” to me.

  7. Charley — I’ll need to think about Fowler’s ideas, because at this point I don’t see that most people progress in that way, but otherwise I don’t disagree at all. In fact, in a response to James R., under a previous post, I defined Quaker universalism in pretty much the same way that you have. I’m interested in what gave you the impression that I would disagree: if I’m expressing something misleadingly, I’d be helped by knowing that.

    If, though, the disagreement seems to be about whether Quakerism should cut itself off from its roots, I wonder if we would argue that, say, Buddhism should do the same. Why not be true to our “charism,” and understand our Quaker-Christian metanarrative as unique theopoetry of deep power — and unparalleled moral challenge — that should be preserved and translated into contemporary thought? It seems to me that either we do that or we invent “Quakerism” from a few vague, ungrounded notions, in the process continuing to fragment our religious society, to alienate our erstwhile coreligionists, and to abandon the prophetic and revolutionary call of our tradition. After all, even under the umbrella “religious,” there are many kinds of transformation: what specifically do we Quakers mean by the word? It is our tradition that defines it. Without that, we would have no criterion by which to discern the nature of the transformations harbored in other traditions.

    Recovering and reclaiming our heritage also has the added benefit of redeeming for us the Christian narrative, and thereby helping us to be more understanding, tolerant, and insightful about what Friends called “apostate Christianity” — helping us even to find, as I am attempting to do in this blog, points of contact and communication, even rapprochement, with people who believe Christian doctrine, apostate or not.

    So I see many benefits to this project, not least of which is the opportunity for the opening of minds and hearts on the far ends of the spectrum — those who find Christian language indispensable and those who find it poisonous. But essentially I see that the primitive Friends had a unique message of great transformative power, power that manifestly gets lost when the integrity of the message is not respected, and, given that at least some of us still consider ourselves their spiritual heirs, that’s what I hope to address.

    Given that James raised a similar question in one of his comments on that other post, I think I’ll post something on the topic in the future: that might gave us an opportunity for a full discussion with other interested Friends.

    • George, I have tried unsuccessfully to write a direct and clarifying response. Perhaps I am simply over-tired, which was true when I wrote the comment last night. Tiredness likely made the comment more argumentative than necessary. I beg your indulgence as I give my mind a rest before I take this up later.

      Peace! Charley

      • Charley,

        I am working in over-tired mode myself (and have been for a while), so I hope I didn’t seem overly argumentative. I didn’t feel that you were. I think we’re in substantial agreement about the need for a post-Christian religious approach to life. I may want to call it a “post-Christian Christian” approach, though, because I treasure the tradition’s unique prophetic call to justice and active mercy, and I don’t want to risk losing the heart of it. Strangely enough, perhaps, I think that primitive Quakerism, in its time, was just such a vision, and that it can still speak very powerfully to us — even if we need some translation, particularly in the form of context. I want to grow forward, as it were, while remaining attached to our roots, retaining our identity as post-Christian Christians while living and thinking as postmodern people as well. I suspect that my little project is unusual and unexpected enough to appear often to be other than what it is, and I struggle to explain it well enough to help people get past that. So I sometimes allow a comment, as I did with yours, to be a catalyst for a flow of thought.

        As I have for years, I continue to value your insights and the personal character expressed in your writing, and I’m grateful for your presence here. I look forward to our further discussions.

  8. George, I really liked this question: “Why not be true to our ‘charism,’ and understand our Quaker-Christian metanarrative as unique theopoetry of deep power — and unparalleled moral challenge — that should be preserved and translated into contemporary thought?”

    To me, that’s a key question — if not the key question — for this inter-/intrafaith dialogue. Of course, I say that because I do think Friends should understand and preserve that charism. That’s part of why I choose to identify as a Christian, even though I’m surely not orthodox in my beliefs.

    In his “Short Introduction to Quakers,” Pink Dandelion has some helpful descriptions of theological variety and worldviews among Friends that shed some light on this question. Perhaps I will write my own blog post about that.

  9. Friend Charley writes: “As a universalist, I think that what Early Friends experienced was one variation – heavily inflected by the Christian milieu – of a universal potential for transformative experience.”

    My sense is that there was something much deeper and more universal than specifically Christian mysticism going on in the inward awareness of Fox and the most attuned of his fellows.

    In 17th century England, everyone spoke “Christian,” regardless of their private, inward experience of the numenous. That was the “only” religious language available.

    When early Quakers tried to verbalized their inward experience, they stumbled about with the metaphors of “Christian.” That worked while they were communicating just with those who shared waiting worship with them, because they all knew “what they really meant” (that is, they knew the real experience which was impossible to put into words).

    However, as they started to be persecuted, they tended to go on the defensive in their public statements and writings, trying to show how the Truth they knew could be expressed in “orthodox Christian.” That may be where the outward experiment of sharing inward Truth fell down.

    My effort in contemplating the words of the first Quakers is analogous, I think, to learning Pali in order to understand the first written records of Buddhist experience.

    In other words, I’m seeking a clumsy yet effective enough translator.

    Blessed Be,

    • Michael, my view may be something of the opposite: I think it’s likely that the text came first, shaping the experience. I don’t see writers like Fox, Nayler, and Penington having any trouble articulating their experience in Christian terms, except for the occasional difficulty of rationalizing inconsistencies in the scriptural texts. Based on what they wrote, I think that their experience was beyond words not in the sense of being indescribable, but in the sense of being experience that words cannot contain but only describe or point to. That is, we can talk about love all day, but to actually find that we are thinking (not thinking about), feeling, and doing love all day because love has changed our fundamental way of perceiving everything: that is very a different matter. And that, according to the sources, was the experience of primitive Quakerism. The very first Friends report that they were made perfect in the power of God. They couldn’t even have conceived such a thing without the prior influence of the texts.

      In other words, it seems evident to me that the scripture-based Quaker religious metanarrative determined the experience — which is only a specific experience in the sense that it is a specific new way of experiencing everything. In my multi-post analysis here of Fox’s Journal, we see that what Fox often described as inner revelation was actually his coming to a new understanding of what scripture passages meant and how they could be applied to events in his life. I haven’t yet written an analysis of his actual conversion experience, which he describes in the section of the Journal that follows the “There is one, even Christ Jesus” narrative (!), but I think we’ll find that it is quite determined by Fox’s reading of the scriptures according to his “new” hermeneutic, one principle of which he states there as “These things [i.e., the outward signs, such as ‘mountains burning up,’ described in scripture] are to be found in man’s heart” (Journal, 1831 ed., p. 77). To be a Friend was to live the scriptures inwardly — which would have predictable effects on outward behavior.

      That’s why I argue for the importance of preserving the original Quaker metanarrative: it shaped the powerful, life- and world-changing experiences of the very first Friends, which in turn influenced the metanarrative as it continued to develop. It’s also why I argue that Quakerism as an “experiential religion” was and should be a religion of a very specific kind of experience, the experience of having one’s whole way of experiencing changed from self- to love-centered. (“God-centered” is historically correct, of course, but it is easily misinterpreted as a focus on a reified God rather than a life lived, as it were, from the God-center out.)

      So I don’t think that the first Friends were trying to force a kind of generic spiritual or numinous experience into Christian language; on the contrary, I am convinced by the source texts that the Friends’ spiritual experience was shaped by that language, by the Christian story re-interpreted in response to the scandalous failure of traditional (“apostate”) Christianity. Having become reasonably well-acquainted with their work, I am quite convinced that those Friends were Christians through and through — although of course not Christians as the world knows Christians. It seems clear to me that they took the scriptures more, not less, seriously than did the “normal” Christians of their day (or than do those, particularly the self-identified “Bible-believers,” of our day), and that’s why they were able to understand the scriptures as pointers to a specific lived reality. But that specific reality is scripture-defined; their experience was textually determined. I think that by recognizing that we preserve our connection with them, with their experience, and with the heritage they have given us.

      • Dear George:

        I’m wondering if post-modernism overemphasizes and overinterprets the centrality of textual experience? (This is a general criticism of postmodern theory I’ve had for a long time.) It seems to me that Michael’s point is well taken; that in England at the time the Quakers emerged the only language and textual tradition that existed for expressing the insights that the Quakers experienced was Christian. I’ve mentioned this before, but I think it is important; there was no counter-narrative in England at that time. No Jewish community, no enclave of Islam, no Pagan presence, no organized secular or scientific presentation, and certainly no Hindu, Buddhist or Taoist narrative. So how could the Quakers not present their insights except in Christian terms? I would say that they literally had no choice.

        I can think of a parallel historical example; the culture of Tibet. After Tibet converted to Buddhism it reached a point where Buddhism and its views permeated every aspect of the culture, completely saturating it. The result is that every religious Sage would present their views in specifically Buddhist terms, no matter how radical or divergent their understanding. Completely different takes on religion will, nevertheless, be presented using this common heritage because there simply did not exist any counter-narrative within the culture. (The indigenous Bon tradition is not an exception, having completely absorbed Buddhist concepts and modes of teaching.)

        I see the situation of Quakers as similar; that is to say they were constrained by their cultural setting and limited by the historical circumstances. For this reason I’m not convinced that the text comes first and then the experience. I tend to see it reverse; the experience precedes the explanation and th explanation is, to a degree, culturally and historically shaped.

        Best wishes,


        • Jim, I find this topic to be fascinating but difficult, so, if you’re willing, I’d like to proceed one step at a time. At this point, I don’t understand how the Quakers’ “insights” or the Tibetans’ “views” could originally have been interpretation-free. I think it would help me grasp your meaning if you would explain more fully your understanding of the nature of such experience. Also, I think we might get closer to the heart of the matter if you could elaborate on what you mean by “textual experience.” Could we start with those?

          • Dear George:

            It is a difficult topic. So I will attempt to proceed cautiously.

            It depends on how one construes experiences and the communication of an experience to others (and to oneself). It might help to start with a simple experience instead of getting tangled in the complex arena of religion. If I taste an orange, and I am particularly taken by that experience, I may want to communicate to others the marvel of that experience. How do I do it? There are various possibilities: comparing it to some other, closely related, experience is an option (e.g. “it’s like an apple, but sweeter and juicier”). One might use botanical classification. Some might tell a fable to illustrate the feeling of eating an orange.

            Suppose, though, that in our culture certain explanatory devices are not available (they may be illegal, or considered to be immoral, or simply not a part of the cultural tradition). This would narrow the manner in which I could communicate the experience and, possibly, reduce it to a single option.

            But the taste of the orange precedes the explanation, or what I regard as the “text” of the experience. Dionysius the Areopagite, in his “Mystical Theology” makes the same point in Chapter 5 of that work when he says, “We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it . . .” (Paulist Press translation).

            The complexifying factor in this is that there is also an experience of text that is like the experience of eating an orange; that is to saying reading is also an experience. I believe this is the foundation of Lectio Divina. But in this approach to reading it is the reading experience itself which is the focus which acts as a gate to the divine; so this is still consistent with Dionysius’ understanding.

            I hope this is of some assistance.

            Best wishes,


            • I think I need to back up a bit, Jim. You seem to identify two events: the (religious) experience and its subsequent communication. You mention “the communication of an experience … to oneself” only parenthetically, seeming not to distinguish it from communication to others. I think we need to distinguish them: even if no communication to others is intended or actually takes place, one has one’s internal understanding of one’s experience. Presumably, it is that understanding which most of us attempt to communicate to others, although surely there are many exceptions. It would help me if we could focus our discussion on that inner interpretation, at least briefly.

              So (prescinding from examination of the relationship between experience and interpretation) what would you say about the subject’s own inner interpretation of the experience? In your view, when and how is that formed, how is it related to the subject’s cultural-religious paradigm, and how “seriously” does the subject take it? And is it likely to be what is communicated to others in the case of religious experience?

      • George, my brain is not operating at all rationally just now but intuitively. Enslaved nineteenth-century African Americans who constructed an underground language of liberation theology did not so much interpret scripture as participate in it. In this sense, hearing the words of a spiritual, one is swept up in the confluence of Exodus and the American experience of slavery in a way that feels both surprising and sensible. If the rules were all followed, the spiritual does not make as much sense but when I relax my brain, as one does one’s eyes when one looks at those magic pictures, I see the sense of it and am frequently moved to tears as the experience of Exodus, of freedom-seekers and of my own life become, in a moment, a common song of hope, sorrow, longing, and comfort.

        In early Friends relationship with Scripture are we seeing something that is radical because it not only takes leave of orthodoxy but represents a wholly different methodological approach? When we dislodge church history and hierarchy from their positions of authority, we create a new immediacy of scriptural interpretation/interaction in which an assumption must first be made that the words of the bible have meaning not merely because they were inspired “back then” and therefore have authority today (much as a nobleman has authority because his great-grandfather did) but because the same Inspiration (Christ)is ever-present and constantly recreating the same (although always contextualized and ever-changing)revelation of embodied love? Or am I way off?

        • Hystery, we seem to be very much in agreement. As I read your comment, it’s expressing something similar to what I was attempting to get at when I wrote, above, that “To be a Friend was to live the scriptures inwardly — which would have predictable effects on outward behavior.” Like you, I see a wholly different approach there. But you said it very personally and beautifully. I thank you.

      • George,

        As you have raised the topic of reifying God, I assume you are opening the floor to comments on that question. If I’m wrong about that, feel free not to post this.

        “Reify,” according to an online dictionary means “to convert into or regard as a concrete thing: to reify a concept.” Early Friends such as William Penn had no problem with this, as they pointed out, “God is [a] spirit.” John 4:24 (some translations leave out the word “a.”) The “primitive theists” of the Old Testament came up with an unprounounceable series of four letters, which Jews today will still not utter, referring instead to “the name.” Thus I think it is fair to read scripture as proclaiming a non-reified theism. God is ineffable; and this is eminently explainable to anyone with sufficient intelligence to understand what “reify” means. I believe we’ll get farther by proclaiming this truth than we will by dismissing theism. Moreover, this has the advantage of faithfulness to the full tradition.

        With Love and Respect,

        Dave Carl

        • I did mention reification of God, Dave, but of course that’s quite different from nontheism, in which the question is meaningless and about which I am not prepared to host discussion at this time.

          It seems to me that attempted apologetic use of the Bible against reification, or better, (in Berdyaev’s [translated] term) “objectivization,” of God would be difficult and at best a two-edged sword. The God of the Christian scriptures is first and foremost “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not of the philosophers and the scholars…God of Jesus Christ…[j]ust Father…” (Pascal, quoting Matt. 22:32). God is imagined as a personal being, a being with specific qualities, with whom all humans, even Jesus, are in specific forms of relationship. It’s tempting to read alien philosophical ideas into the biblical picture, but the primitive Quakers demanded that we avoid that. Indeed, even the word “trinity” was unacceptable to them: not because they wanted a rarified god, but because such concepts, contravening Rev. 22:18, add philosophical speculation to the biblical testimony. And Friends saw the scriptures as a whole: for them, the Johannine sections do not contradict other sections.

          Those are simply historical points; it’s not my intention to argue for a rarified conception of God as more useful or correct than a more concrete one. And I’m using “rarified” to indicate that, in my view, when speaking of God there can be no unreifed concepts: any concept is already a reification, an objectification, an appeal to a cognitive object. Primitive (pre-Barclay and pre-Penn, by the way) Quakerism avoided such reification in practice by defining knowledge of God as participation in the divine life, participation so complete that one’s mind and body are transformed. The scriptural objectification/personification of God is retained but transcended: such object-knowledge does not necessarily lead to life (and usually leads to death, which is why “the letter kills”), but it can be a springboard for diving into the life. For them, the importance of John 4:24 is that God is known and worshiped only in spirit, which, again, means being unified in the one divine spirit such that “as he is, so are we in this present world” (George Fox, James Nayler, quoting 1 John 4:17).

          Biblical Greek, by the way, has no indefinite articles; that would be why some translations omit the “a” before “spirit.” But even if we omit the article in English, what does “spirit” mean? As soon as we say “it is ineffable,” we have reified it. I think that the primitive Quakers’ sole requirement, knowledge by participation in the nature of God-who-is-love, remains Friends’ best hope of transcending such confusion.

  10. George,

    Thank you. Your comment snapped some things back into place for me. I agree with your observations:

    “I am quite convinced that those Friends were Christians through and through — although of course not Christians as the world knows Christians. It seems clear to me that they took the scriptures more, not less, seriously than did the ‘normal’ Christians of their day…and that’s why they were able to understand the scriptures as pointers to a specific lived reality.”

    Also, your “post-Christian Christian” notion resonates positively with me, as does your “little project.”

    Thanks again,

  11. The Christian scriptures being allegorical, or reflective of the personal spiritual journeys of their authors, is the core tenet of G/gnosticism, both the religious variety and the individual gnostic path.

    Truly, it was when I began to view Christian (and other religious) scriptures as allegorical, that the fear I had encountered in reading them previously, dropped away, and I was able to gain both personal and spiritual insight, through the stories that were told therein.

    Of course, the Christians burned the gnostics at the stake, for taking an allegorical approach to the religion. A similar phenomenon that appears to be metaphorically occurring today, between the fundamentalist Christians, and those who adhere to a more “cosmic” christology.

    Through all of this, I’m still not a Christian, and wonder again where it is I actually do belong. Then I remember that it is not about belonging at all, but rather about knowing myself (gnosis) which will allow me to better know and interact with others.

    “When they ask you, ‘What is the evidence of your Father [the Unknown, the Pleroma, the Ineffable Aeon] in you’, say to them, ‘It is motion and rest.'”

    I feel the push-pull of the Christianity of the RSoF and my own non-theism and non-Christianity (the two are not, nor should they be considered to be, necessarily linked) quite keenly of late. But, then, one gnostic text instructs that we are to be disturbed, before we are enlightened.

    I often wonder where this path will lead me. Until such point as my praxis leads me away from attending (I hope it will not), I will continue on. In spite of being a double-whammy, non-theist and non-Christian, which makes some uncomfortable. Maybe it is necessary for both sides of the divide to be “disturbed” in the gnostic sense, and that is how we will grow forward and together?

    I apologize for any disjointedness in the above. It is a weighty topic that I have been contemplating quite heavily, of late.

    “Seek and do not stop seeking until you find. When you find, you will be troubled. When you are troubled, you will marvel and rule over all.” Logion 2, Gospel of Thomas

    • “Jesus said, ‘Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find. When they find, they will be disturbed. When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will reign over all. [And after they have reigned they will rest.]'”

      I love that saying for its multivalent richness. And what can be more disturbing than to study the self, dark as godhead, empty as void, the I of a whirlwind, existing forever and never — can we say “Amen”?

      Dogen: “To study Buddhism is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things. To be enlightened by all things is to be free from attachment to the body and mind of one’s self and of others. It means wiping out even attachment to enlightenment. Wiping out attachment to enlightenment, we must enter actual society. ”

      Out we go.

      • “And what can be more disturbing than to study the self, dark as godhead, empty as void, the I of a whirlwind, existing forever and never — can we say “Amen”?”


        I can definitely say “Amen” (Amun) to that. 🙂

  12. Dear George:

    This is in response to your post of 9/5, your last response to my post (the reply button didn’t work, so I’m posting here).

    First, I take it as axiomatic that there are non-conceptual experiences and that these experiences are the basis of religious understanding. For this reason I regard all doctrinal statements as provisional and as approximations.

    This non-conceptual realm is pointed to in Christianity primarily through the apophatic theology the root text of which is “Mystical Theology” of Dionysius. I believe there is a connection between the apophatic tradition and Quaker spirituality.

    However, the communication of non-conceptual experience through conceptual means is not unique to religious dimensions. As in the previously mentioned example, even ordinary experiences, such as the taste of an orange, require a shift from the non-conceptual to the conceptual; this becomes clear when one tries to communicate an ordinary experience to someone who has never encountered what one is trying to illuminate. So there is nothing special about that kind of maneuver; human beings are in a position where they have to do it all the time.

    What is different about the religious dimension is the nature of what is being communicated and how that nature creates a special tension between the conceptual and the non-conceptual religious dimension. This can be shown through a series of contrasts. Concepts are contingent, but God is not contingent. Concepts are caused, but God is not caused. Concepts are dependent, God is not dependent. Concepts are impermanent, God is constant. Concepts are limited, God is unlimited.

    This does not mean that narratives, theologies, etc., are useless. As Dionysius says, they are “next to it”, then he adds “but never of it”. Next to it isn’t bad, as long as one realizes that and doesn’t mistake next to for the ultimate reality.

    Although I realize that the above does not necessarily directly answer all of your questions, I hope it is of some assistance.

    Best wishes,


  13. Jim, I certainly agree that there are nonconceptual experiences; for example, the activation of the stress response, or the impinging of an orange on various receptors. But that’s not to say that such experience is interpretation-free. There are levels, orders, of interpretation, perhaps best imagined as a continuum. For example, I know from meditation practice, confirmed by clinical experience, that interpretations are already formed before they become explicit thoughts: I have watched the interpretation-to-thought process happen in myself, and I have worked with it in therapy with clients. Those pre-verbal interpretations are colored by one’s implicit “metanarrative,” or schematic mental/brain structure, and are all the more difficult to see and critique because of that near-invisibility and spontaneity. (That subliminal schematic system, by the way, can be described as “text”: it’s our internalization of an interpretation of life, written, covenant-like, in the heart.)

    Earlier, you used the example of tasting an orange, presumably as analogous to tasting the Lord. If we talk about mystical experience, then, what would be the analogues of the physical object (the orange), the various physical receptors (for taste, touch, smell, etc.), and the subliminal interpretation (processing)? And is there really a “break” between your tasting the orange and knowing that you are tasting an orange? Do you need to stop and think about it? I know that I don’t. Can you help me with the analogy? (But can there even be an analogy at all, given that an orange is an object and God is not?)

    In the same passage you quoted, psuedo-Dionysius says of “it” (presumably the godhead — an interesting term) that, “It cannot be spoken of and it cannot be grasped by understanding.” In fact, the conclusion of the sentence you quoted is “for it is both beyond every assertion … and … beyond every limitation; it is also beyond every denial.” That would seem to rule out any communication at all, even to oneself. (It would also seem to make the word “it” absurd in that context.)

    Quakerism has never been satisfied to be “next to it,” but has insisted that only to be “of it” is true religion. Fox would quote Romans 1:19-20 to show that the Godhead is known — seen and understood — through “that of God” in us; namely, Christ the power of God, into which we are incorporated through submission to the working of the Light within. To be “of God” is not a particular experience, but a transformed nature of all experience, the result of an ongoing attitude of faith — “faith working through love.” And that is communicable; the issue is in speaking clearly and in a language one’s hearers understand.

    Perhaps there you and I have some agreement. But the original question was, as I understand it, whether the primitive Quakers had some generic religious experience which they recognized as generic but were forced by circumstances to find a way to communicate in Christian terms. To argue that they did is, I submit, to say that we understand their experience better than they did, that the hypothesis of generic, non-conceptual religious experience is strong enough to allow one to overrule the self-reports of religious persons of all traditions and, I think, to ignore the significance of the evolution and cross-fertilization of traditions. At this point, I can’t follow you there.

    But I remain open to further discussion. I would suggest, however, that it would be helpful if you could read or review Isaac Penington’s self-reports, which are relatively accessible. The Pendle Hill pamphlet, The Inward Journey of Isaac Penington, is available for free download at In the introduction, Howard Brinton writes, “Penington’s life and writings reveal the purest, finest, and most genuine mysticism which has appeared in the Society of Friends.” And yet I think you will find that what most people call “mystical experience” is absent from Penington’s reports, and that what he does report is so thoroughly Quaker-Christian that it is very difficult — impossible, I think — to overlay the generic-experience hypothesis on his self-reports. That’s my experience with such texts; I think it would be helpful to me to learn about yours.

    • Dear George:

      I’m not claiming that moderns, or postmoderns, have a better understanding of religious experience than the early Quakers did. I’m not correcting their presentation. I think it is apropos to note that Dionysius also wrote “Celestial Hierarchy” and “Ecclesiastical Hierarchy”, both traditional dogmatic works. I don’t see any difficulty with adhering to a tradition and the idea of a transcendent non-conceptual origin for those explanation traditions.

      I am saying that my situation differs from that of the early Quakers. My background is not Christian. My culture has a plurality of spiritual narratives, rather than a single one. There are many such differences and the significantly impinge on how I approach, and how I explain, the religious dimension. For example, I cannot start from the assumption that the person I am speaking to today about Quakerism will have accepted the Christian, or a Christian, view of the world. That by itself places me in a meaningfully different context than that of the early Quakers.

      In other words, I’m wrestling with how I can comprehend and use what the early Quakers have to offer when I come from such a thoroughly different background. I do not know if the early Quakers thought of their religious experience as something that was accessible to non-Christians; though there are hints of a positive response to this issue in Barclay’s “Apology”. There is also, I believe, an opening to this in some of their interpretations of what “Jesus” means; that even those who never have encountered scripture or church can, nevertheless, be saved by contact with the inner light; I would say here that such a view is rooted in what I call a “Transcendental Jesus”. So I think it is at least possible for the answer to be yes. But, again, I don’t know and I can see reasonable arguments for both sides to this question.

      It doesn’t really concern me. What concerns me is how I, as a self-identified, non-exclusive, Christian, can find nourishment in these teachings and this way of life.

      Finally, I think we have different takes on the realm of the non-conceptual. My view is that the non-conceptual is vaster than the conceptual and prior to any formulation. I don’t identify the non-conceptual with the nascent emergence of thought-forms that might occur in therapy or some forms of analytical meditation. It is beyond name and form (nascent or explicit), it neither increases nor decreases (in Buddhist terms it lies beyond Abhidhamma), and for that reason is not a function of thought or feeling.

      Best wishes,


  14. Jim,

    Although I do want to point out that my meditation is not analytical, but is simple Zen sitting, I think we are in agreement on a number of things here. I can even use F .S. C. Northrop’s term, the “undifferentiated aesthetic continuum,” to understand what I assume you have in mind by “the non-conceptual.” (I see more than one way of using that term.) One important difference, however, is that I don’t identify the heart of the Quaker experience with experience of such a thing — or, more correctly, such a no-thing. But I think we differ fundamentally at the very beginning: what you take as axiomatic, that non-conceptual experiences “are the basis of religious understanding,” I take as an unsupportable assumption.

    My interest is in Quakerism as a way of being in the world, experiencing and living one’s life in a particular spirit: a particular way of understanding the world. And a way of understanding the world, whether articulated or not, whether written or not, whether embodied in a religious tradition or not, is a text. Indeed, the “text” of Quakerism directs us to the New Covenant “text,” or “law,” written “in spirit” in the heart: a way of understanding life based on love rather than self. That “law” is a metanarrative, a fundamental, pre-reflective meta-understanding that shapes how we understand everything. Having been born into the metanarrative of self, we need to be pointed to the possibility of a specific, radically different way of understanding and being, and it is the job of the Quaker tradition to do that.

    If a universal experience of what I must call “the single religious non-conceptual” (which is not to say that I believe such a thing exists) were the basis of Quakerism, then we would expect to see signs of Quakerism in, say, Zen Buddhism, which sometimes claims (obviously quite contrary to fact) to be wholly based on such experience. But nothing that is definitive of Quakerism (before very recent years, in any case; certainly nothing of primitive Quakerism) is in evidence in Zen. While they sometimes may have some coincidence, both being religious systems (i.e., religious metanarratives), Zen and Quakerism are very different ways of understanding, experiencing, and living life. We can only make them seem similar by doing violence to one or both.

    Yes, our situation does differ very much from that of the primitive Quakers, and that is why we need to make the effort to become aware of and set aside our metanarrative, multi-cultural though it may be (although how actually multi-cultural we can be is disputed), and to learn to understand their language, in order to allow them to speak to us (just as I, for example, needed to learn Buddhist philosophy so that Buddhism could speak to me). Reading our own ideas into Quakerism, we make it just one more tool for reinforcing who we already are, and we miss the possibility of radical change that Quakerism, taken on its own terms, offers. My concern is to help preserve that possibility.

    • Jim, something further occurs to me. I want to mention a scholar who takes a view of writers like the pseudo-D that you might find very different from yours but intriguing, perhaps especially because he also considers the implications of apophatic theology with regard to the nature of the self — a fruitful place for Buddhist-Christian dialogue. The following is from The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism by Denys Turner. In a statement that captures my understanding of the term “apophatic,” he writes that

      … in so far as the word “mysticism” has a contemporary meaning; and … in so far as that contemporary meaning links “mysticism” to the cultivation of certain kinds of experience – of “inwardness”, “ascent” and “union” – then the mediaeval “mystic” offers an anti-mysticism. For though the mediaeval Christian neoplatonist used that same language of interiority, ascent and “oneness”, he or she did so precisely in order to deny that they were terms descriptive of “experiences”. And the central metaphor of this negativity, of this restraint of “experience”, was the apophatic metaphor of “light” and “darkness”, of the “cloud of unknowing”.

      He also says, and I think it describes something like the process that Quakerism has been subjected to as well, that

      What differentiates the mediaeval employment of those metaphors from ours is the fact that we have retained the metaphors, evacuated them of their dialectics and refilled them with the stuff of “experience.” This modern development I will call “experientialism.”

      That “experientialist” sort of thing is characteristic of modernist Quakerism, which took a religion that had cleared away everything other than a particular way of experiencing and interacting with the world and replaced that w/Way with generic “religious experience.” I’m thinking that we find some of the sources of that in earlier twentieth-century Quaker writers like Howard Brinton and Rufus Jones; I may want to look into that for a post sometime.

  15. Pingback: Thought for the Day « Prodigal Valentine

  16. Dear George:

    Thank you for the references and meticulous responses. I particularly appreciate the Turner quotes, as it is a point I make frequently.

    I don’t have any real quarrel with your view or the general direction you indicate; that of rooting ourselves in the early Quaker writings and what they have to say. I am also in agreement that uncovering what “being in the world as a Quaker” means is at the heart of this journey and this tradition.

    Having said that, I am afraid I am simply not in a position to bracket my own background, my own autobiography, and somehow refrain from bringing it forward when entering into a dialogue with the Quaker tradition. It has often been observed how strongly Neo-Platonist early Christianity was; but that’s not in scripture. That was brought to early Christianity by such Sages, Saints, and Martyrs as Justin, Augustine and many others. This Platonic background infused their understanding and they used it to illuminate Christianity (Dionysius is a prime example).

    Bringing to the conversation the multi-faceted views that permeate the world today seems to me to be consistent with this heritage. In keeping with this perspective, I find it helpful to compare, for example, Thich Nhat Hanh with the Quaker tradition. If you start from the premise that Zen, and other forms of Buddhism, have different narratives, and therefore can only distort the Quaker heritage, instead of illuminating it, then I think you are cutting off the Quaker tradition from sources of nourishment. This is a part of what I mean when I say that postmodernism tends to overinterpret narrative significance.

    I’m not advocating a watered down, or a dummed down, Quakerism. But, again, I simply have no choice, given my background, just as Augustine had no choice but to bring Platonism into his interpretation of Christianity. And I think the same applies to many others in the world today.

    Again, thanks for taking the time to post the references and quotes. I find them illuminating.

    Best wishes,


  17. You’re most welcome, Jim. It does appear that we have much in common. I do understand applying other perspectives, such as neoplatonism, to our reading of scripture and primitive Quakerism, but that goes to one of my central points: the primitive Quakers rejected precisely that kind of reading of scripture, and they rejected it because such reading, which on the surface may seem a legitimate elaboration, buries the spirit of the original under the weight of the overlaid paradigm. I think they caution us today to begin by setting other perspectives aside and allowing, as best we can, the primitive Quaker writings, which already harbor a consistent and revolutionary interpretation of the Bible, to speak to us on their own terms; only then, after we have engaged them, received their communication, and appreciated them in their unique alterity, can we safely compare and contrast their ideas with other narratives.

    I wouldn’t say that comparing and contrasting necessarily distorts, nor would I say that it necessarily illumines, and it may well be that we can’t do one without also doing the other. In any case, I think we need to be very careful about how we combine and filter; else, we lose the tradition’s uniqueness, and the religious landscape, like much of the U.S., begins to look the same everywhere. So first of all, before I do anything else with the communication, I want to hear what the other has to say. That feels to me like respect for, not over-interpretation of, a text and its significance. Whether Augustine had a choice or not (I think that he did; he chose what he allowed to influence him intellectually, and he was willing to abandon previously-chosen systems), I suggest that we, with our immeasurably broader knowledge and more sophisticated philosophical, linguistic, and cultural tools, can find a way to choose.

  18. George, I loved this so much. Yes, Christ is indeed come again! It’s like transcendental quantum physics religion or something…know what I mean?! I actually like Mary Baker Eddy for this….that the very STUFF that makes us “us” is G-d. We are reflections of H-m, and are in mystical union with H-m, no matter our “beliefs” about it. The is the essence of communion for me…that my flesh is ONE with the Living and Present Christ. His return is in and through us…sacramental, yes!

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