“That of God” and the Other

The following is from vocal ministry, transcribed as closely as my memory allows, that I offered during worship at Homewood Meeting on 3/25/2012.

* * *

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.)


Related posts:
“That of God”: a Quaker Reading of Romans 1:16-20 (9/2/13)
“Answering That of God as Revolutionary Praxis (12/1/12)
“Answering That of God” (7/20/11)

8 thoughts on ““That of God” and the Other

  1. Supposing there is some divine spark within all humans (and I’ve read some interesting scholarship that George Fox did actually believe this, with his own truly unique take on it), so that we are all in principle “One,” I don’t see how that makes us all the same at all. In Advaita Vendanta, the philosophy from ancient India that has most fully developed this idea, individual karma makes us all as different as can be—within the limits of maya, or the illusion of separation from the One. At the level of “the One,” or atma, in Vedanta, the individual is not the “same” as another person, either. Atma is none other than brahma, all is “One,” there is no “other” to be the “same” as. Plotinus and other Idealists and neo-Platonists would agree, that the Good (God) within us, the One, lies beyond otherness, sameness, or individuality of any kind, though while we still live in the darkness of Plato’s cave, individuality persists in its deceptions.

    So far, I’ve not seen a serious attempt to work out the philosophical/metaphysical implications of the neo-gnosticism that has been emerging among Liberal Friends for the past several decades. Part of the reason we seem to be adopting this pseudo-theology is to avoid doing real theology—to have a sound bite that seems to wrap up something that we believe is essential and true, but because we hang the phrase on George Fox, we feel like it’s explanation has already been covered, and we don’t have to bother with questions like what “that of” means and who “God” is when we say “that of God” and then what “that of God” means. It’s a divine spark. We share something of the essence of the Divine. (Whatever that is. Whatever that means.)

  2. Steven, it’s the practicalities that concern me most — either about behavior as application of beliefs or beliefs as “feeling right” while insidiously supporting our unconscious self-centeredness. (If I had expanded the message before posting it here, I may have gone into that in some detail.) Philosophically or theologically speaking, God may be beyond all categories, even beyond being itself in some views, but it seems that human minds can’t abide with that. The “spark of God” becomes ontologically reified somehow, even if quite thinly, into something that’s essentially — and that’s a key philosophical word in the post — the same in all of us. For the normal self-centered bias, that’s likely to have the practical meaning of “essentially the same as I am,” with “essentially” losing its philosophical meaning to function as a synonym for something like “basically” or “deep down.”

    Speaking more specifically in philosophical terms, I think it’s intrinsic to monistic systems to see individual differences precisely as I identified them in the post: as “accidents” in the philosophical sense. They are ultimately negated by the single essence, “the One,” which in systems like Advaita Vedanta is the only true reality. Practical consequences can be seen in, for a most egregious illustration, Krishna’s instruction to Arjuna (in the Bhagavad Gita) to go ahead, despite what his heart tells him about the physical reality of others, and kill large numbers of people in war because they’re all ultimately eternal Spirit (in Fosse’s translation, “a particle of Me having become an eternal soul in the world of the living”); that is, as Edwin Arnold’s (Westernizing) version put it, Arjuna is to “part essence from accident” and then act on that basis. Ideology here overpowers compassion by eliminating the Other into the One — or, as Levinas would say, into the same. And if then, as you note, “there is no ‘other’ to be the ‘same’ as,” in practice (back to practicality here, in good Quaker fashion) that means that, as Krishna might say, there is only Me. Ethics, therefore, is about Me, not Thee (so much for I-Thou); thus, remarkably, Krishna cautions Arjuna that people will talk about him if he is so soft and unspiritual as to refuse to kill those who are really eternal Spirit anyway.

    I quite agree that many of us Friends, of the liberal sort at least, demonstrate an aversion to doing theology or even allowing that theology has a legitimate place in our Quaker culture. It seems to me that the pseudotheology that ensues not only is incoherent but also poses dangers to the viability of our community. To attempt to address that mindset is to swim against the current, but I think it’s a necessary endeavor.

    • Maggie, it’s from Romans 1:19: “Because that which may be known of God is manifest in {c} them; for God hath shewed [it] unto them” (Geneva). Early Quakers would have had access to both the Geneva Bible and the KJV. The 1:18-21 passage, as it is in both versions, is reproduced here in the post called “Answering That of God.” As I’ve noted in a number of posts (this is an important topic for Quakers), the Geneva Bible’s marginal note (indicated by the “{c}” above) says that the locus of that manifestation is “in their hearts” — see note 2 under “The Religion of the Broken-Hearted” for a link to the Geneva’s marginal notes for Romans. I’ve also noted in a post or two that the word translated as “manifest” is phaneron (Strong’s G5318), which comes from phaino (φαίνω), “to shine” — and ultimately from phos, “light.” The connection that Quakers made between “that which may be known of God is phaneron in them” and “[That] was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world,” although perhaps unusual, seems natural enough to me — especially in view of George Fox’s translation of John 1:14a as “the word became flesh, and pitched his tent in us.”

  3. Thanks very much. That really helps. I want to include a brief passage in my new book about the preserving of this insight among Quakers—it has to be brief; the book is already too long!

  4. What Krishna counsels Arjuna in the Gita is that he should follow his true nature. That the imaginative world the Gita presents is that of the contemporary Indian society in which it is taken for granted that Arjuna’s true nature is to fulfill his role as warrior is entirely accidental and unremarkable. J.D. Salinger’s “Franny and Zoey” presents the same message in updated version. In that story, Franny is stricken with the same kind of battlefield malaise that afflicts Arjuna, and Zoey, filling in for Krishna, counsels her to follow her true nature, which is being an actress. He tells her to be an actress for God…”What could be more beautiful?” Follow your bliss, follow your true nature, follow your heart. The question is this: Is heeding your Inner Light the same as following your true nature? What’s missing in all of this is what traditional Christianity calls carrying your cross, which involves, among other things, recognizing that there is that in you which is not of God, and that following what you take to be your true nature may result in allowing this not of God to lead you into a place where there is no light.

  5. I appreciate the distinction you are making here, George, but I am still perplexed. Can’t we be different, and Other than “that of God” and still have the “that of God” that is within us, the same one as the “that of God” within others? If “that of God” is not “divine essence”, what is it? Is it conscience? Christ-ness? Possibility of Moral Perfection?

  6. Aimee, this is a subtle distinction that I haven’t described well so far, so I can’t promise a very clear answer: I’m still learning how to speak about it. But we can begin by saying that “that of God” and “the Inner Light” are not ontological terms. That is, we’re not talking about an essence or entity or identity — an isness. (Depending on how we interpret “Christ-ness,” then, that may rule out that term, too.)

    Nor does the concept refer to conscience. The title of Rosemary Moore’s book expresses that well: The Light in their Consciences. As William J. Whalen put it in a 1973 Claretian pamphlet called The Quakers, “The Inner Light is not conscience but that which enlightens conscience.” If I were a theist, I would say that it is, therefore, the work of God in the soul, the enlightening and reforming of the conscience by God. (And I do say just that when I speak metaphorically or theopoetically.) Conscience, what we know together, is shaped by society: a primary function of the Inner Light is to take that apart and re-create it, making a sanctified conscience that is not what we know together with our (unjust) society but what we know with and in Christ — that is, an ongoing critique of self and society from the perspective of justice.

    There’s a similar issue in Buddhism: often, the concept of Buddha-nature is taken to signify some kind of ontological entity. Friend Sally B. King’s book, Buddha Nature, offers an analysis of Vasubandhu’s Buddha Nature Treatise which demonstrates that, at least for that author, the concept is not about any kind of entity: “Buddha-nature” can be understood as our innate potential for enlightenment. (Because self is empty, we can be freed from ontological beliefs, such as eternalism, about it, and therefore we are potentially Buddhas.) Likewise, “that of God” can be understood as, as you put it, the innate “possibility of moral perfection.” “Moral perfection” here must be defined in the biblical context, as the perfection which Jesus teaches in the scriptures, particularly in such passages as the sermon on the mount. As Jesus tells us, what makes such moral perfection possible, that in which moral perfection subsists, is love (agape).

    If we think of “that of God” as potential for loving, or simply as loving, then we are more likely to understand it as dynamic and relational rather than as a thing we can “have,” a metaphysical essence, or a secret identity. But if we think of it as a divine essence (whatever that might mean), it’s easy for us, especially in the current Vedanta-soaked climate, to imagine a “true identity” that is the same in all beings: “the One.” But that attacks the unique and fragile integrity of each person. That’s why I love the Zen koan, “If all things are reducible to the One, to what is the One reducible?” And that’s why I find myself joining with Badiou in deciding for fundamental multiplicity. I resist the reduction of living beings to an ideological mass.

    If we all have the same identity, then differences are not important because not ultimately real; in fact, even individuals are not quite real. The moral consequences of that, typified in Krishna’s instructions to Arjuna, are what we would expect. But if we’re all, while human, different in real and even fundamental ways, we can still have the capacity to love in our individual “measures.” So we can all be different and yet all be enlightened by the same light, all more or less able to learn from “that which can be known of God” which is shining in us, all more or less capable of changing our priorities for love’s sake. And when we then encounter an other, we really do encounter an other, not simply a mental construct or a projection of self — we meet a stranger with thoughts, feelings, and needs that may differ greatly from ours. Only then can we respond to her actual existence and plight.

    From this perspective, we are “partakers of the divine nature” not by virtue of being, as in monistic systems, but by virtue of cooperating. We are not intrinsically at one with God: if we want that oneness, then we must submit to the working of the light and allow ourselves to be radically changed by it. (As the first Friends would remind us, there can be no darkness in God, and darkness is our normal state.) It’s a different narrative with, again, very different moral ramifications.

    I don’t know how clear that is; it’s certainly not succinct. Thanks for raising the question; you’ve alerted me to the need to clarify my thinking on this distinction.

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