This post is an expansion of my notes for a presentation, the second in a series, given at Homewood Friends Meeting on November 6, 2011. Unfortunately, we did not record the session, so I am unable to include the insightful comments offered by Friends that morning. As always, those who, like me, are nontheists (or, perhaps, anatheists – see below) are invited to translate the God-talk into other terms, a process that I hope I have facilitated in the writing. (Note: this post is self-contained; however, readers may want to refer to previous posts on “Answering That of God” for more information on that topic.)
The Revolutionary Meaning of “That of God” and “the Inner Light”
We saw in the first session that the phrases “the inner Light” and “that of God” can be traced back to scripture, to passages from the first chapter, or prologue, of John’s “gospel”1 book and Paul’s letter to the Romans. We also mentioned that the marginal notes of the Geneva Bible, which George Fox and other early Friends knew, unite the two images in a way that is significant for our understanding of early Quaker thought.
The phrase “that of God” comes from a passage in Paul (Romans 1:16-25) that can be read as a warning to those who practice external religion – that is (from the Quaker perspective), religion that locates the divine life and power outside of the human heart and therefore doesn’t revolutionize one’s life for the good. Those who turn from the life and power of God within them to the worship of a God conceived in the form of a creature – including that of a human being – and who by professing their religion garner the esteem of others2 are, says Paul, without excuse. Why? Because “that which can be known of God – namely, his divine power [which we meet in John as the Logos] and nature [which, John’s first epistle tells us, is love] – is shining3 within them.” Significantly, the Geneva Bible’s marginal note informs us that “within them” means “in their hearts.”
Paul’s passage has a number of connections with the prologue of John. First, the Logos, introduced in John’s text with reference to the creation story of Genesis, is God’s creative power which brings the order of love to the chaos or disorder of both the external and internal universes, thereby creating a cosmos, a well-ordered whole. The reordering of the external world is, in the teaching of Jesus, begun but also still to come: “the time is coming and now is” (John 4:23). The re-ordering of the inner world of the self is known in the Christian and Quaker tradition as spiritual rebirth, and that, too, involves maturation to fullness, as in Ephesians 4:13: “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 stature of the fullness of Christ….” The hidden impulse toward godly order both outwardly and inwardly is the continuing work of the Logos.
Second, the Logos is shining within us (“in their hearts”). According to John, the divine Logos is “the Light that enlightens every one who comes into the world,” the Light which “shines in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.” Here, the Geneva Bible’s notes make an explicit connection between John and Paul, even quoting Paul’s phrase, “they are without excuse.” Because the Logos, the power of God, shines or is manifest within us, there is no legitimate reason for us to look elsewhere for a source of spiritual life; indeed, there is no other source. Everything else is a dead imitation, what philosopher Alain Badiou might call a simulacrum,4 what the first Friends called apostate Christianity and even Antichrist, the wolf in sheep’s clothing.
“Logos” names that power which, when accepted or received (as John put it), begins to re-create us in the image of God – that image being Christ, “the eikon of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). That re-creation entails what Fox called our passing through the flaming sword, our being taken up here and now into the Paradise of innocence, into that life and power which is Christ. Passing through the turning, the revolution, of that sword, which cuts off the delusion of the self-absorption and self-reliance of which our simulacrum of religion is a symptom, we return to the prelapsarian state of living as the image of God, as the human form of “his divine power and nature.”
We see, then, that “that of God” is not a static thing, not something like a “part of God” or even a “supreme identity” (à la Alan Watts) in human beings, nor is it something that we can idealize or worship as an object. The phrase “that of God” refers, rather, to the Logos, the creative inner power that orders our lives and our world according to that love which is the nature of God. It begins our reordering by enlightening and guiding us: “that which can be known of God is shining within [us],” showing us our darkness (which we probably thought was light, our spiritual eye being accustomed to darkness) and how to walk out of it. In doing so, it changes who we are. That’s the revolution – or the beginning of the revolution – that begins our journey in Quaker spirituality.
This Revolution Begins at Home
Quakerism has had a number of phases, but even in its “quietist” periods it has been possessed of at least some revolutionary energy, resisting injustice and violence. Not unexpectedly, we find that the first generation was the most revolutionary. They had an apocalyptic sensibility that feels appropriate in these times. The theologically more conservative William Penn, looking back on their amazing accomplishments, noted that, “They were changed men themselves before they went about to change others. Their hearts were rent as well as their garments changed, and they knew the power and work of God upon them.” (Penn made a little pun there about changing clothes instead of tearing them: Quakers dressed plainly as a result of having experienced the rending of their hearts.) Penn was referring to a passage from the book of the prophet Joel:
Joel 2: (11b) …for the day of the LORD [is] great and very terrible; and who can abide it? (12) Therefore also now, saith the LORD, turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning: (13) And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil.
First, they were changed; their hearts were opened, rent. Before anything else, they first answered – i.e., responded sincerely to – “that of God” in themselves. As we’ve seen, “that of God” refers to the same dynamic reality, the Logos, which is named by the phrase “the inner Light.” When we discern and accept the working of the Logos-Light in us, we receive, as John says, “the power to be becoming children of God.” Note that this teaching, which has echoes of the idea of maturation in Ephesians 4:13, may contradict the belief that all people already are the children of God: to be the child, the offspring, of a parent is to share the nature of that parent, and therefore the children of God are those who, by accepting and being transformed by the Light, have become, as Peter put it, “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). Here we can see that the change the Friends experienced was more radical – much deeper and more essential – than a change in values or beliefs: as we’ll see later, the internal change – revolution – at which Quakerism aims makes such things unnecessary.
From the first Friends’ perspective, there is nothing more crucial to the spiritual life than discerning and responding to the Light, to “that of God,” which is the living power, already available in us in some measure, of what the later Quaker John Woolman called “universal [i.e., nondiscriminating] love.” This event of encountering and responding to the power of love in the heart is the very beginning of the Quaker life, which is therefore a life that begins in revolution, in radical change. It is only when that encounter has begun to turn around, to turn upside-down, our normal way of experiencing and being in the world that we enter into the life of the spirit.
To accept the Light is initially to be “low and humble before” it, as Sally Bruyneel, author of a recent book on the theology of Margaret Fell,5 puts it. Ultimately, the Friends tell us, that results in one’s becoming centered in the Light as one’s self, such that, as George Fox liked to say, “Christ is not distinct from his saints.”6 Or as Paul put it, allowing for a distinction that is not a distinction, “I am crucified with Christ, yet nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life that I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of [emphasis added] the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”7 (Interestingly, George Fox did not fail to point out such use of the word “of”: if Christ and the saints are not distinct, then the faith by which the saints live is Christ’s faith, which perhaps is best understood as fidelity to God-who-is-love “even unto death on the cross” [Phil. 2:8].)
This transformation is obviously very different from holding a belief or ideal: to hold an ideal and then work to conform our actions to it is to remain essentially unchanged while living under the law, even if it be a new, improved law. Under law, we may lie to ourselves about how well we’re measuring up, become disheartened by our inability to obey completely, or settle for “doing as well as we can” – a kind of attempted bargaining with God which our Quaker ancestors would call “preaching up sin.” The Quaker tradition, along with the Christian scriptures on which it was based, offers us a way out of the hypocrisy and inevitable failure of life under law: a life of the freedom of the Spirit.
Such a life is one in which the moral impotence that struggled under law is turned – revolved, converted – into a life of spiritual power that has no need of law. In the new covenant, the law of love is “written” in our hearts (see Jer. 31:33), which means that the structure and nature of the heart is now godly; all of one’s actions partake of that divine nature. The experience of the first Friends (and I think we see here why we do them a dishonor to imagine that their appeal to experience guarantees the validity of our own subjective feelings and beliefs) was that they could and did live in and by the actual “life and power” of the God who is love.
Why We Need This Revolution
In the classic Quaker experience, the power to which we give such names as “that of God,” Logos, and inner Light is initially a hidden and oppressed power. As writers such as Nayler and Penington warned, this Light at first seems so small, weak, oppressed, despicable, and different from what we expect that, failing to recognize it for what it is, we disregard and even disdain it. We write it off; we marginalize it. And then we turn to something else, perhaps to the following of the gospel or the imitation of Christ; that is, we try to content ourselves with a simulacrum, an imitation. But that’s the betrayal, the apostasy, for which Paul says there is no excuse. And original Quakerism agrees with Paul completely on that.
The Logos is hidden and oppressed (“trampled” like the seed, which Jesus says is the “Word,” or Logos, planted in the heart – see Mark 4) because it is not what we’re looking for; in fact, it may be what we’re not looking for. It is a light which would show us things about ourselves and our world that perhaps we’d rather not see, and which would show us a path, the path of righteousness or justice, on which we’d really rather not walk. Therefore, neither accepted social discourse nor our “personal truth” recognizes it. As the myth of the Fall tells us, we have gone from innocence into a knowledge which, being self-centered, is harmfully incomplete and therefore ungodly.
To borrow, perhaps inappropriately, a saying from Jacques Derrida: “The temptation of knowing, the temptation of knowledge, is to believe not only that one knows what one knows (that wouldn’t be too serious), but also that one knows what knowledge is, that is, free, structurally, of belief or of faith….”8 When I encountered that statement, although Derrida had already said that he was not talking about “some original sin,” I was reminded that our knowledge rests on a world-view: in the traditional terms, it is the knowledge proper to the fallen state, the self-reliant, and “subsequently” also culture-reliant, knowledge for which Adam and Eve traded the Paradise of innocence and peace. It is knowledge that rests on what it does not acknowledge; shaped by an ungodly human logos, it is an incomplete kosmos, one that coheres by excluding what does not fit. Although it believes itself to be universal, our knowledge is established on ignorance (ignore-ance). But what is ignored, what is marginalized, remains true and integral to the reality of which our knowledge is a partial and distorted reflection. We repress that aspect of reality because we know subconsciously that its revelation will be revolutionary.
In other words, without even realizing it consciously, we resist the work of the Logos in every moment. Our belief that we know what’s good and true is naïve because we don’t and normally can’t take into account not only the limitations of knowledge but also the unconscious biases that foster the coherence of our worldview. (As we may learn from the story of the Fall, normal maturity can be seen as entailing loss. For example, a very young child can recognize sounds from a variety of languages, but that ability is diminished or lost by six months of age as she gains experience in her own language.9) Acting on the seemingly solid basis of our constricted (and constructed) knowledge, we make decisions which contribute to disorder in both the external and the internal worlds. Yet generally we are convinced that our disorder is order, even the divine order of love’s Logos.
That’s why, for example, the Quaker tradition teaches that a crucial criterion for whether a leading is genuine – from God rather than the fallen self, as the tradition would say – is that it is uncomfortable for us: the more we feel right about a leading, the less likely that leading is to be right for us. And conversely, the more resistance we feel to a leading, the more likely that leading is to be a motion of that love which is “that of God in [us].” Living in knowledge that is disordered, ungodly, divorced from the divine Logos, we can’t trust our own thoughts and feelings. And yet we cling to them, even exalt them.
We need a change in perspective – most likely, we need someone to answer what Quaker James Nayler called the crying of that of God in us – in order to see that what we thought was light is darkness, and that turning from that darkness to the divine Light, although contrary to the wisdom of “the world” and to our own deep fears, is a good thing, is the passage past the revolving sword into authentic spiritual life. It is the way in which, to borrow more terms from Alain Badiou, we move from being “individuals,” which for many of us means privileged but nonetheless interchangeable consumer-cogs in the machinery of an unjust world, to “subjects,” free human beings who have been grasped and radically changed by encounter with the power of universal love, in fidelity to which we now live.
Our Quaker tradition can help bring about that change: in answering that of God in us, it can open our eyes to the marginalized reality of the Christ-power in our hearts. That power, as we attend to it, begins to rend, to tear open, the closed world in which we have been living. Badiou says that, “A truth is always that which makes a hole in knowledge.”10 What Badiou calls “a truth” is the irruption of an element of reality which has been repressed in order to make the system work smoothly for those who hold power in that system. It is the appearance of the nothingness, the “void,” which was implicit but not counted in the situation.
1 Cor. 1:(27) But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; (28) And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: (29) That no flesh should glory in his presence. (30) But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: (31) That, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord. [Emphasis added.]
“Things which are not”: including those who, like Lazarus starving outside the gate of the rich man (Luke 16:19-31), have been marginalized, made invisible, of no account – those who have been sacrificed to our worldview.
The little, unimportant people, the poor and the wretched, are the victims of the wicked, who feel that they are the darlings of their gods. The victims are the losers in our success-oriented society. The winners look down on them because, as opinion goes, ‘they haven’t made it.’ In every society, ancient, modern, or postmodern, we find these victims on the underside of the history of the powerful. But we have to seek them out; for people sitting in darkness cannot be seen. — Jürgen Moltmann11
Revolution and Rebirth
Religious philosopher Richard Kearney, who coined the interesting word “anatheism” (by which he refers to religion “after God” or after theism), contrasts what he calls our “causal generation from the past,” which is to be born into a present that is continuous with our human history of injustice, to our “procreation from [God’s] future,” from the kingdom (which Jesus proclaimed and lived) of justice, mercy, and peace.12 I think that the distinction points to the difference between living in the world of “what’s possible” according to human wisdom and living in the seemingly impossible world of divine love – impossible because our normal bias (which, we should be clear, may be a function of natural concern for self-preservation) marginalizes it as a potential lived reality.
Kearney notes the close etymological connection between “power” and “possibility”: they have the same root in Greek. He points to Luke’s story of the annunciation, in which the angel says to Mary, “The power (dunamis) of the Highest shall overshadow you … for with God, nothing shall be impossible (adunatesei)” (Luke 1:35-37). To be impossible is, etymologically, to have no power, but Paul taught that God’s power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9) and that Christ emptied himself and became obedient even unto death (Phil. 2:8). To be born from the womb of God’s future is to embody the possibility of that future, as Jesus did, here and now – to make present what the world insists cannot be. That’s quite revolutionary. To bear witness to that presence by one’s life and words is to witness to that which is ignored and trampled by worldly knowledge. It is to be an often-unwelcome stranger in the world, one whose empathetic knowledge is deep, inclusive, prophetic, and threatening. But it is also to be one who, in responding to the call of divine love in her own heart, is able to answer that of God in others as well.
Discerning and responding to the cries of that Logos-Light which had been marginalized in us, we discern and respond to the cries of the powerless, marginalized beings around us – beings that, even if we previously had some awareness of their existence, we hadn’t really seen until now because, as Moltmann says, we can’t see people who exist in the dark. But now we see by a Light that shines in darkness. And as Christ the Logos said, whatever we do to his brothers and sisters – and every person is at least potentially that, for the Light “enlightens everyone who comes into the world” – we do to him. When we see and accept the marginalized Light, we see and accept marginalized beings: it’s one event. And so the inward revolution spreads outward in the praxis of love, in the prolepsis, the making present, of a divine future, as we walk the way to whatever measure of peace, justice, and mercy may be possible for us – a measure that can’t, as it were, be measured in advance.