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The statement “There is that of God in everyone” is often attributed to George Fox, but he didn’t actually say quite that: we’ve inferred it from his exhortation to Quaker ministers to conduct themselves such that they would always be “answering that of God in every one.” We know that to answer is to respond to. But Fox took the phrase “that of God within” from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, so for him and for generations of Friends before us it had an explicitly biblical meaning, one that seems to elude us today. As the assertion that “there is that of God in everyone” increasingly acquires something like doctrinal status, I am concerned about meanings, and their ramifications, that might be harbored in our contemporary use of it.
In particular, it seems easy for us to slip into a New Age kind of definition of “that of God” as a divine essence, a divine identity or true nature, in each person — an essence that makes us all One, and that therefore makes us all essentially the same. That’s troubling to me because, as thinkers like Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas remind us, the biblical ethic is about being addressed by one who is Other, the stranger who is so radically alien to me that she cannot simply be assimilated into my worldview.
I try, as many Friends do, to respect and even celebrate differences among people, but I can see only such difference as my worldview permits me to perceive. If I assume that we’re all essentially the same, then the differences I see are accidental, superficial; there can be no radically Other to call me to authentic relationship. But if I check my reflexive use of the Other as a screen on which to project sameness, to project me, then I can encounter her, in unknowing, as the unfathomable, unassimilable mystery that she is. Then her unique being — her fragility, her hope, her suffering, her need — addresses me directly, awakening compassion in me. That is, she answers that of God in me as she opens a way for me to answer that of God in her, and together we enter into the unitive mystery of love-in-relationship, which, as theology teaches, is the mystery of the inner life and creative power of God — precisely what Paul was talking about in that passage which George Fox quoted from Romans.
It seems clear to me, then, that different definitions of “that of God in every one” hold potential for very different types of consequences, even if I may not see those consequences while I am enclosed within the walls of a belief system. This difference that I’ve spoken about this morning feels to me like the difference between, say, living in an Aesop’s fable, in which flat characters and interactions are choreographed in service of an abstract principle, versus living in a novel, in which complex characters interact and develop in relationships that unfold in time in a revelatory way. That latter is what I want for me, and, if I may be so bold, for our Quaker community.
Note: The message, which is a development of the thinking in my “Outside of the Text” post (12/30/11), was also inspired by discussions of ethics in Yuki Miyamoto’s “The Ethics of Commemoration: Religion and Politics in Nanjing, Hiroshima, and Yasukuni” (Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 80.1) and Edith Wyschogrod’s Saints and Postmodernism: Revisioning Moral Philosophy. (That’s not to say that it accurately reflects the thinking of those authors.)