I Am the Way

He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? (Micah 6:8)

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Liberal Quakerism sometimes defines itself as a “big tent” religion, a community that welcomes (please pardon the jargon) all sincere seekers, regardless of the spiritual path they follow, and does not require or expect them to walk a specific path even if they become members of our community. Behind that is the doctrine that there are many paths up the mountain, all of them meeting at the top. Behind that, of course, lie the beliefs that there is only one mountain and it has only one summit — and behind even those is an assumption that the spiritual life is like mountain-climbing, a matter of ascent to the heights.

Some three and a half centuries ago, George Fox responded quite negatively to an earlier form of the “big tent” doctrine. In this meditation, we will examine his response and the powerful alternative that it offers us, whether theists or not,1 to what we might call “mountain-climbing spirituality.” Along the way, we’ll briefly explore the Quaker concepts of perfection and measure.

The following excerpt is from Fox’s The Great Mystery.2 In this passage, “P” is a principle asserted by an opponent of Quakerism named Magnus Byne, author of The Scornful Quakers Answered; “A” is Fox’s response to that principle. Byne’s assertion is similar to that which some liberal Friends make today. Fox will have none of it.

P. [Byne] saith, ‘There are many ways to Sion.’

A. There is but one way to God, out of the fall, into the paradise, to the tree of life, out of the condemnation, and that is Christ the light, the covenant of God. Now with the light the way to the Father is seen. In the first Adam are many ways, fighting about their ways, and destroying one another about their ways; but Christ the light, the way to the Father, teacheth otherwise, ‘to love enemies and to do good to them, and to overcome evil with good,’ and ‘heap coals of fire upon their heads’; which way is but one, which you who deny the light are out of, in the many ways, and names, horns, and heads, and images, which is the beast’s number, ravened from the spirit of God, and from the one way, Christ the light, in which is unity.

“Sion” signifies Jerusalem: in the Christian context, it is the New Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God, a re-created world graced and governed by God-who-is-love. But a just, peaceful, and even prosperous world in which righteousness reigns is but one possible human desideratum. There are, of course, many others, even for religious people. One such is seen in the perennial quest for “direct experience” of God. How is such a quest related to the Quaker way? Does Quaker spirituality subsist in our climbing a path to peak experience? Are we essentially seekers (as Baltimore Yearly Meeting’s proposed new Faith and Practice book implies3), our living the divine life deferred as we seek the summit? George Fox would answer those questions with an emphatic “No!”

“Every Mountain Shall Be Made Low”

Diagram of the ascent of Mt. Carmel

The Ascent of Mt. Carmel

In considering Fox’s perspective, we must distinguish his spiritual experience from what has come to be called “mystical experience.” George Fox was a righteous Quaker, not a mystical Carmelite: he would not produce a work such as John of the Cross’s The Ascent of Mount Carmel. Fox implicitly denies the very concept of climbing a mountain, or simply walking a path, to reach a destination; for him, path and destination are one. To set foot on the path to Sion is already to be in Sion, for the path itself is Christ, who is the Kingdom of God.

“There is but one way to God,” says Fox, for to go to God is to move “out of the fall, into the paradise, to the tree of life, out of the condemnation.” In other words, it is to reverse the fall from innocence that is symbolized in the myth of the loss of Paradise by Adam and Eve (i.e., man and woman). That reversal is accomplished simply in our turning from the tree of knowledge – whose fruit is our narrowly narcissistic4 ideas of right and wrong — and back to the tree of life. Christ, the spirit of justice and mercy, is that tree of life. Thus turned — converted — we are joined with Christ, becoming, as it were, branches of his spiritual body, living by the same life and power, the same spirit, by which Jesus lived.

To go to God is, then, to turn and begin to live in and as a “new creation,” having been “born again” into a new, divinely-ordered life.5 That new life in God is the authentic spiritual life of perfect love, for “God is spirit,” “God is love,” and God-who-is-love is seen to be perfect because he “makes the sun to rise and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike.”6 For the Quaker tradition, spiritual life is that “universal love” (John Woolman) through which the basic needs of all are met because the spiritually-reborn, who are of one nature with God, love their neighbors as they love themselves.7 And we all, despite the self-loathing that some of us feel, love ourselves in the sense in which Jesus spoke of love: we all try to feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves; to comfort ourselves when sick or confined; to bind up the wounds that a violent world inflicts upon us. To do the same for others is to be spiritual, to be godly, to be righteous. That is the condition which, historically, Friends have considered to be the one thing necessary. Righteousness — the living of justice, peace, and mercy — is the path we walk.

Thus Fox says, “There is but one way to” that divinely spiritual life, “and that is Christ the light, the covenant of God.” That is a remarkable assertion: the path or way to the life of Christ is Christ — not a journey to Christ, we should note, but Christ himself. Thus the Johannine Christ, who is the sign (eikon) of the Logos, the creating and right-ordering power of God, declares, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). And thus the apostle Peter avers that “there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12) — which we understand in context of James Nayler’s assertion that “the name of Christ consists not of letters and syllables, but in righteousness, mercy and judgment, &c.”8 In the Quaker tradition there is no duality between means and end. (Our business meeting process, in which loving each other takes precedence over efficiency, is a practical outcome of that unity.) Path and destination are one in the spiritual life and power we call Christ: that is of the essence of the Quaker experience.

“The Light, the Covenant of God”

Fox spoke of Christ not only as the light but also as “the covenant of God.”9 What might that signify for Friends? A bit of postmodern analysis may be helpful here. According to Robert Magliola in his Derrida on the Mend,10

the beginning of “history” is the “rupture” within God whereby God chooses not to continue His “speech,” but to write (to write the Tables of the Law). …[T]he writing of the Tablets by Yahweh is already a departure from the “conventionally formulated” unity of God, whose Being and Voice are one. Writing is God “at a remove.” … It is precisely the remove, the “silence” of God’s voice, this interval, this difference … which constitutes the writing whereby we know Him, but this writing is not God. This writing is a trace ….

The tablets of the law signify the “old covenant,” the mythic postlapsarian contract which is but a written trace of God’s Logos, of the divine “Voice” by which God created and ordered the world.11 A religion based on that trace is a religion of law, at a remove from the divine life; such a religion Friends would contrast with that of the spirit, of immersion in the divine life — a contrast of bondage to freedom and of alienation to the unity of love.12 Magliola, continuing his explication of Derrida’s thought, will go on to say that “God [is] infinitely postponed by graphic signs” (emphasis original). But the world-changing experience of the first Friends, an experience encoded succinctly in Fox’s “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,” is that the trace is no longer all that we have: God is fully present to us by his indwelling Logos, the new and living covenant, which we recognize as Christ, the voice and light of righteousness that guides us to itself and shares its nature, its “Being,” with us.

“Now with the light, the way to the Father is seen.”

We should remind ourselves here that the light, which is the love we call “Christ,” is the way: it does not illuminate a path that is other than itself. And because “I and my Father are one” (Jn. 10:30), “the way to the Father” is itself unity with the Father who is love. Thus Fox tells us that

Christ the light, the way to the Father, teacheth [us] ‘to love enemies and to do good to them, and to overcome evil with good,’ and ‘heap coals of fire upon their heads’; which way is but one ….

We are being called not to walk a path that will lead us into unity with divine love but to walk the path that is divine love here and now. To walk that path is to actively care for our neighbors as we care for ourselves. Thus we say that to set foot on the path is to arrive at the destination: to love is already to walk with God in Paradise. For there is no path that can lead us into Paradise, the gate to which is blocked by an angel with a fiery sword. Responding to the invitation of love, dying to the delusion of self-centrism, we are reborn there, and from that time forward we dwell there (although we may sometimes forget where we are); there is no question of following a path to a spiritual summit. When we make ready the way of the Lord, when we submit to the baptism of accepting the truth of ourselves and our spiritual ambitions for love’s sake, then our turning to love levels the mountains and plows up the paths. To allow ourselves to love as Jesus taught, to act in accord with the self-sacrificing (kenotic) love already present in our hearts as Christ the “seed,”13 is to be “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4), which is by definition perfect love. That is the Quaker doctrine of perfection.

“Our Conversation Is in Heaven”

According to the first Friends, then, it is quite possible to live “in the Paradise of God” (Fox),14 the divine perfection that is righteousness, here and now. Yet there is no summit to be sought. This is where the doctrine of the measure becomes important. Each of us, it teaches, has at this moment a certain measure of divine life, of “universal” love, a measure that we trust will increase as “we all come into the unity of the faith and of the realization of the Son of God, into a perfect man, into a measure of stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). To be reborn in spirit is simply to turn and be re-centered in that measure of self-giving love. To the extent that our selves and lives are shaped and led by that love, we are living in perfection. We need climb no mountain nor travel any path in search of that perfection: it already abides in the human heart, if only as an obscure and fragile seed. Nor, however, need we attempt to nurture that seed.

In the book of Luke, Jesus tells a parable of the Logos-seed. It goes like this:

Sowing by the path - Canterbury Cathedral“A sower comes out to sow his seed, and some that he sows falls by the path and is trampled, and the flying creatures of heaven devour it. And other seed falls upon the rock, and, after sprouting, is withered because it has no moisture. And other seed falls in the midst of the thorns and, sprouting together with the thorns, is choked by them. And other seed falls on the good earth and, sprouting, produces fruit a hundredfold.” Saying these things, Jesus cried out, “The ones having ears to be hearing, let them hear!”

Walking our precious spiritual paths, climbing our mountains of mystical experience, we risk trampling the seed (a favorite metaphor of early Quaker writers): we prize our path and our apparent progress over the tiny germ of God’s righteousness that lies ready to grow and blossom in our hearts. But if we remain still, our hearts, prepared by the work of love’s light, will permit the seed to mature and bear fruit. To borrow a Buddhist verse:

Sitting quietly, doing nothing.
Spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.15

The God who makes the sun to rise and the rain to fall doesn’t need our help in nurturing the Christ-seed: the seed grows of itself when we stop stepping on it. Perhaps our new life begins, then, with the simple realization that walking a spiritual path gets us nowhere, that what we need to do is, as Fox tells us, to “be still awhile from thy own thoughts, searching, seeking, desires, and imaginations,” to “stand still in the light.”16 Our standing still is our saving act of faith, for it takes faith to stop our seed-trampling travel toward a goal, to accept that we are citizens of the Promised Land here and now if only we have ears to hear the voice of love in our hearts.

There are many paths, Fox tells us — perhaps 666 of them!17 — but they are not the one way of truth and life. But to walk the way of righteousness is to walk anywhere, even in the valley of the shadow of death, with and in God-who-is-love. “Christ,” the image and likeness of God,18 is that way’s name, the only name that is salvation from the dark delusion of self-absorption, for “the name of Christ consists … in righteousness, mercy and judgment, &c.” To walk the path of righteousness is to walk in Paradise, even when the walking is painful. For there is no way to Paradise: Paradise is the way.

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NOTES for I Am the Way

[1] Nontheists are asked, as always, to read my God-talk as referring to inner possibilities and conditions, not to any kind of metaphysical entity. That would be to read the text in the spirit in which it was written.
[2] George Fox, The Great Mystery of the Great Whore Unfolded; and Antichrist’s Kingdom Revealed unto Destruction, Vol. 3 of the 1831 edition of his Works, page 157.
[3] See, for example, the historically inaccurate “Today we are still a community of Seekers” in the draft Faith and Practice, Baltimore Yearly Meeting, 2012. The draft also promulgates the “many paths” doctrine: one example is, “The passion of Friends is not in limiting or directing Seekers [sic] to a particular Truth, a common path….” Both statements are from page 20 of the 2012 draft.
[4]“There is not narcissism and non-narcissism. There are narcissisms that are more or less comprehensive, generous, open, extended. What is called non-narcissism is in general but the economy of a much more welcoming and hospitable narcissism. One that is much more open to the experience of the Other as Other. I believe that without a movement of narcissistic reappropriation, the relation to the Other would be absolutely destroyed, it would be destroyed in advance. The relation to the Other, even if it remains asymmetrical, open, without possible reappropriation, must trace a movement of reappropriation in the image of one’s self for love to be possible. Love is narcissistic.” — Jacques Derrida, Points (Stanford University Press, 1995), p. 199.
[5] See 2 Cor. 5:17 — “If anyone is in Christ: new creation! Old things are passed away; behold, all things are new.” See also Jn. 3:3 — “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
[6] Jn 4:24 — “God is spirit.” “God is love”: see 1 Jn. 4. Mt. 5:44-48 — “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”
[7] “Partakers of the divine nature”: see 2 Peter 1:4. “Love your neighbor as yourself”: Mk. 12:31 and par.
[8] James Nayler, Weakness above Wickedness and Truth above Subtlety (originally published in 1656). From The Works of James Nayler, Vol. 3 (Glenside, Pennsylvania: Quaker Heritage Press, 2007), p. 458.
[9] See Isaiah 42:6 — “I the Lord have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles.”
[10] Robert Magliola, Derrida on the Mend (Perdue University Press, 1984), p. 30. An intriguing aspect of the passage, not mentioned in the body of this essay, is the image of history’s beginning in a split that silenced the Logos, for first Quakers believed that they were living at the end of history, that the new world had already dawned as the Logos had become incarnate in them. (Interestingly, Magliola is a Third Order Carmelite.)
[11] “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God” (Jn. 1:1).
[12] Paul speaks of a “new covenant, 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).
[13] The image of the seed goes back to the Genesis story of God’s promise to Adam and Eve that the seed of the woman would bruise the tempter’s head. God later promised Abraham that his seed would be innumerable as the stars: “That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice” (Gen. 22:17-18). That seed, Paul taught, is Christ, who is one and yet whose members, those who share his nature of love, are innumerable, a great people who are a blessing to others. See also Fox, Works, Vol. 1, page 365: “So that all might come up into this seed, Christ Jesus, walk in it, and sit down together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus ….”
[14] Fox used the phrase “in the paradise of God” a number of times; see, for example, his Journal, p. 84 (1831 edition of Works).
[15] Zenrin-kushū. See Alan W. Watts, The Way of Zen (1957), p. 134.
[16] See Fox’s letter to “the lady Claypool (so called).” Fox often advised people to “stand still in the light”: see, for example, his beautiful Epistle X.
[17] In referring to “the beast’s number,” which is 666, Fox has of course identified all paths except Christ himself as Antichrist. In more contemporary terms, Fox’s idea of “antichrist” signifies anything that presents — and probably believes — itself to be spiritual when in effect it denies or leads people away from the life and power of the Christ-spirit that is already present and available in their hearts.
[18] According to Genesis as read in light of the gospel book of John, human beings are created in the “image and likeness” of God through the Logos who is Christ. Paul reminds us that Christ is the image of God (Col. 1:15). In the Christian myth, then, human beings were created in Christ, which is why they dwelt in the Paradise of innocence. It was when they lost that image, by turning from it to seek nourishment elsewhere, that they lost righteousness, which is regained through rebirth into Christ’s spiritual body.

10 thoughts on “I Am the Way

  1. George, you might be interested in this quote from Thomas Kelly’s The Gathered Meeting:

    But what if the meeting has not been a gathered meeting? Are these meetings failures that have not been hushed by a covering? Quite definitely they are not. If we have been faithful, we may go home content and nourished from any meeting.

    Let us be quite clear that mystical exaltations are not essential to religious dedication and to every occurrence of religious worship. Many a [person] professes to be without a shred of mystical elevation, yet is fundamentally a heaven-dedicated soul. It would be a tragic mistake to suppose that religion is only for a small group who have certain vivid but transient inner experiences . . . The crux of religious living lies in the will, not in transient and variable states. Utter dedication of will to God is open to all, for every [person] can will. Where such a will is present, there is a child of God.

    And as individual mystics who are led deep into the heart of devotion learn to be weaned away from reliance upon special times of vision, learn not to clamor perpetually for the heights but to walk in shadows and valleys, and dry places, for months and years together, so must group worshippers learn that worship is fully valid when there are no thrills, no special sense of covering. The disciplined soul and the disciplined group have learned to cling to the reality of God’s presence, whether the feeling of presence is great or faint. If the wind of the Spirit . . . warms the group into an inexpressible sense of unity, then the worshippers are profoundly grateful. If no blanket of divine covering is warmly felt, and if the wills have been offered together in the silent work of worship, worshippers may still go home content and nourished, and say, “It was a good meeting.” In the venture of group worship, souls must learn to accept spiritual weather without dismay and go deeper, in will, into Him who makes all things beautiful in their time.

    • Thanks, Steven. Kelly’s not my cup of tea, so to speak (although I’m about to write an introduction for a new presentation of his work). A major concern is that his notion that the “experience of the Divine Presence” is “the central message of Friends” (see A Testament of Devotion, p. 67) seems to me to be inaccurate and probably detrimental to Quakerism.

      A closely related concern is that Kelly tends to ignore the influence of cultural context, including his own immersion in the experientialist paradigm of mentors such as Rufus Jones and Douglas Steere. I see danger particularly in his idea that “the paradox of true mysticism is that individual experience leads to social passion” (The Eternal Promise, p. 3), a notion that many well-known thinkers and scholars of religion (see Horne’s The Moral Mystic), including Robert Magliola (quoted in this post), find to be incorrect — and one that a even a cursory study of the history of mysticism will quickly debunk. (In fact, I think that the “true” in that sentence is a deconstructive opening, the point where we see that the sentence includes a tendentiously narrow [re-]definition of mysticism serving the writer’s need to present Quakerism as essentially mystical.) So while I’m grateful for Kelly’s mention of “dedication to the will of God” in the passage you’ve provided, I’m concerned about how that notion is understood outside of Kelly’s own (sub)cultural context — as one might well be when confronted by religion-inspired terrorism as we are today.

      I wonder, too, by the way, about the passage’s implication of separation of wills, not only in context of Paul’s “you have the mind of Christ” but also in that it can create precisely the problem this post deals with: the belief that the fullness of spiritual life is available only to those who believe that they experience mystical union with God.

      Overall, Kelly impresses me as a generous and enthusiastic soul, perhaps of an emotional temperament, who was evidently not a careful, contextual thinker. But I think it’s past time for the 20th-century Quakerism of experiential (and even “scientific”!) mysticism, developed and promulgated by by the likes of Jones, Brinton, Steere, and Kelly, to fade into history.

  2. Dear George, I think I am not sufficiently aware of the experiential writers you refer to, but I would welcome your comments on Fox’s phrase ‘and this I knew experimentally’.

    I found your comments very helpful in their precision and distinctions being made between descriptions of spiritual realities. It illuminated my own recent experience, that when I use the ‘experiment with light’ steps to stand still in the light, I only manage to ‘stand still’ if I don’t expect it to have any result. This is a normal paradox. Rather like when as a small child afraid of dogs, I was told ‘don’t be afraid, and then they won’t attack you.’

    • Susie, I apologize for my cultural myopia: the writers I mentioned were very influential in U.S. Quakerism, particularly the liberal form, from the last century on.

      My reading of Fox is that he felt that inner and outer events confirmed his unusual insight, an insight derived from a particular reading of scripture; namely, that the antichrist had been unmasked (at that point, perhaps only for Fox) and was about to be overthrown because Christ had returned in power. It would be Fox’s calling to announce that good news — including his identifying the antichrist publicly — and to turn people from antichrist to Christ the inner teacher, the life and power of God in the heart. I think it likely that Fox must have already been in touch with the love in his heart and found “life and power” in its expression, which is why I find it significant that he came out of his long depression and began having “openings” after he began visiting needy people and helping them.

      For more detail, please see the posts “Questioning Quakerism as Mysticism” (Jan. 20, 2012) and “There Is One” (Aug. 1, 2009). Those posts, written with the prevailing “experientialist” reading in mind, stress the scriptural and environmental aspects of Fox’s insight. I hope to highlight the inner element and then weave the aspects together more tightly in a future post. (This blog records the development of my thought about these questions, so a given post may present an incomplete analysis.)

      It’s evident to me, though, that the inner element, the experience of empathy and self-giving, was not what the experientialist hypothesis calls mysticism (see the first post listed above): there’s nothing of that in Fox’s account. For Fox, “mystical” refers to the Mystical Body of Christ (a theological term he adopts in argument with opponents who use it) and to Mystical Babylon, Revelation’s “whore” of false religion. (Interestingly perhaps, the word “mystical” appears only in his The Great Mystery of the Great Whore Unfolded, a book of arguments with opponents: it does not appear at all in any of the other seven volumes of Fox’s Works.) With the evangelist John, Fox insisted that Christ the light enlightens every one who comes into the world, and that one need only accept that fact and trust in that light, allowing it to do its work of “convicting” and making righteous. No paths or mountains; no “pure experience”; no transcending the dichotomy of subject and object: just faith in and submission to the purifying, empowering, and guiding working of the light, of divine love, in the heart.

      That’s my reading so far; it is, of course, subject to correction and change.

      By the way, I think that my experience has been similar to yours in Experiment with Light — and in zazen as well.

  3. I find your thoughts in this post deep and beautiful. I’ve been reacquainting myself with the theology of Thomas J.J. Altizer, and have always found him compelling for his celebrative this-worldliness and visionary reworking of Christian symbols and language, but his rejection of traditional moralism for what seems a reflexive and empty antinomianism has always left me cold; your reflections, on the other hand, lead out of doctrinaire Christian moralism into an intelligent and committed Christ-centered ethic without sacrificing the this-worldliness that I find so compelling in both Altizer and Zen Buddhism. For a non-theist, you do damn good theology.

  4. I commend you for actually having read “The Great Mystery”. Not easy reading by any means. I have also read and studied it because I wanted a better understanding of George Fox’s thoughts and beliefs. Most liberal Quakers that I know don’t want to be held to any authority other than their own. Fox believed in Scriptural authority as a guide to measure the Spiritual experience.by. I think this is a good measure of what we as Quakers today should continue to be guided by. I’m indeed grateful for all of George Fox’s writings and what we should be learning from them today.

    • From my perspective, everyone lives out of some sort of narrative, a worldview. For a liberal Friend who claims to be his own authority, that narrative is likely to be shaped by the prevailing culture or a subset thereof. It is also likely to remain subliminal and therefore unexamined, and to be defended by appeal to private experiences, critical examination of which is also taboo. While unthinking allegiance to a scripture-based narrative would be irresponsible, a decision to live by the scriptural narrative as constructed by founding Quakers and critically interpreted today would seem to be a sine qua non for membership in the Society — but of course it no longer is. I’ll be touching on some of these issues in a forthcoming post on the notion of spiritual experience.

      • “A decision to live by the scriptural narrative as constructed by founding Quakers and critically interpreted today would seem to be a sine qua non for membership in the society”?

        A sine qua non? George, are you suggesting that we enforce a creed as a filter for membership?

        I’ll bet not. But you’re getting close. We Liberals have only two tenets left in our creed: that there is that of God in everyone, and that we have no creed. My hackles are lifting my shirt.

        But seriously. I guess the critical term here is “critically interpreted”. Because the “founding Quakers” have constructed a scriptural narrative out of some pretty flawed material.

        Take your quote from Fox’s The Great Mystery, with its focus on the Fall. Well, do we really believe there was a Fall? A fruit, a serpent, and a woman tempting poor innocent Adam away from God? In a garden? At the dawn of creation?

        The story of the Fall is one powerful myth—but it is not reality. It has nothing to do with how humans really were created and so it should have no overweaning authority in a religion that honors the truth. What truth could such a story tell us about the relationship between God and the human that you did not read into it with an act of shadow-weaving? Oh, you could extract some principles from it, I suppose (like dominion over creation, or the culpability of woman, or, more to the point, original sin), but why would you? Why give such a story any authority over your relationship with God?

        But okay, so imagine we let go of the scriptural account and we do some “critical interpretation”, but we still take for granted the basic idea, that from the beginning we humans are inherently rebellious and corrupt, that God is primarily a lawgiver and a judge, that for our sins and especially for our sinfulness, He demands not just a human sacrifice (Jesus) but a divine sacrifice, as well (Jesus), a la Dionysus, or Osiris, or Mithra, or Tammuz, or, for that matter, Yahweh’s arch-rival, Baal—all dying gods, not living gods, as Yahweh was proclaimed to be by the prophets, a god who did not need to die and be resurrected to bring his people the blessings of fruitfulness and salvation from the enemy.

        I am not saying there is no sin, or that we are not sinful. It’s this god I’m worried about. Why would anyone want a relationship with such a god, a god who demanded human/divine sacrifice for sins as relatively paltry as yours or mine are? To follow such a god is . . . Well, look at the things that Baal’s worshippers apparently did. It’s about death, in the end, isn’t it? And, okay, the PROMISE of resurrection.

        There’s no wonder that the traditional Christian gospel does not speak to many thinking and spiritually alive people. It is a quite bizarre story and makes unacceptable demands on our reason, let alone our moral sensibilities. And as much as Liberal Friends may nod respectfully, if not reverentially, in Fox’s direction, we rightly recognize a great gulf between his worldview and ours, in this primary respect, at least.

        What are we to do? This is the question I have been exploring in my own blog.

        The main thing that we—or at least I—can still connect with in your account here is the unity of “the love we call Christ” and the light. That is, the real thing that is happening within me and among us when we seek, not some mountaintop of experience, but the Spirit of Love and Truth that we know experientially does exist—most palpably in the gathered meeting for worship, but also, usually rather more quietly, in moments of quiet personal repose in the arms of an abiding love and peace . . . wherever that comes from.

        • Steven, I can attempt to clarify some points here; others may need to wait for future posts, including my forthcoming “A Song of Experience.”

          Let’s start with the question of a creed. “Creed” is, of course, a dirty word among liberal Quakers. It is also a word that has shades of meaning, some of which we like to play with. We may, perhaps with a wink, say that our only creed is that “there is that of God in everyone” — but in effect that creed is, as the forthcoming post will assert (in an endnote), meaningless, because we decline to agree on what the word “God” means. (See “Quaker Theology in Brief.”) But maybe that’s why we wink.

          And we sometimes assert that we have no creed at all. But that is not, I argue, an accurate statement: the case is not that we have no creed but that we deny having any. Many liberal Quakers, for example, hold a creed which I call “experientialism,” a doctrine I see implied in your statement about “the Spirit of Love and Truth that we know experientially does exist.” (I’ll say a little more about that below, but please refer to “A Song of Experience,” when it appears, for a more detailed critique of that doctrine.) It’s not that we don’t have creeds, but that we’re not always honest — first of all, with ourselves — about them.

          But do I argue for a creed in the sense of a formal statement of belief to which all must subscribe? What you quoted from my response was this: “A decision to live by the scriptural narrative as constructed by founding Quakers and critically interpreted today would seem to be a sine qua non for membership in the society.” Please note that it is a decision to live by something, and that that something is carefully specified: the (Christian) scriptural narrative (1) as constructed by founding Quakers and (2) critically interpreted today.

          That, in a sense, may be what you are already doing, if in a relatively non-reflective manner: your “the Spirit of Love and Truth” is a biblical image. You seem to value deeply something which you learned from the (Quaker-interpreted?) scriptural tradition while, at the same time, wanting to disown that tradition. But I suggest that what you present as worthy of disownment is a poor caricature.

          The interpretation you offer of the Christian story is, frankly, biblically and theologically uninformed. It is critical only in the sense of tearing down – and I note that you seem to acknowledge a weakness there, for you speak of “some ‘critical interpretation’” (my emphasis). What you have offered would qualify as a relatively unsophisticated reading on the level of what Paul Ricoeur called first naivete. When I ask for a critical reading – and not of the scriptural story as in that caricature but specifically as constructed by the first Friends – I am asking for a more responsible, informed, careful, and, as Phyllis Shawver would say, generous (or “paralogical”) contemporary critical reading of a prior critical reading from our founders. And I am asking for it as part of a movement, as in Ricoeur’s second step of critical reflection, toward a second naivete, which is an interpretation “in,” as Ricoeur put it, “the full responsibility of autonomous thought.”

          Why would I ask for such a thing? Recall your scripture-based phrase, “the Spirit of Love and Truth that we know experientially does exist.” While the current “(inter)spirituality” myth tells us that the content of our spiritual/mystical experiences corresponds with objective reality, I, along with others much more capable (see, for example, William James, Steven Katz, Ann Taves), argue that such content is constructed: “Spirit,” “Love,” and “Truth” – all capitalized in order, presumably, to sacralize them — are interpretive mental formations. We seek or experience what we believe in or hope for, and that belief or hope was transmitted to us through the scriptural tradition, both in itself and as embedded in our culture. In, as you say, “a religion that honors truth,” should we not acknowledge the source of our values and constructions? Should we not, in fact, acknowledge that our valuing of truth itself comes from our tradition?

          And if, as is evident, we Quakers continue to base our religion on teachings of George Fox and others (if irresponsibly, often by using partial and incorrect “quotations”), such that our speech – “Spirit of Love and Truth,” for example – is often very similar to or even interchangeable with theirs, we can’t successfully argue that there is a “great gulf between [their] worldview and ours.” The great gulf, I suggest, is between their acknowledgment of the present, living power of tradition and the naïve liberal Quaker belief that we’ve pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps and discovered all of this by our own efforts in miraculously culture-free “experience.”

          Once again, thanks for commenting. I always enjoy dialogue with you. And you’ve helped me see a need for more discussion among Friends of hermeneutics (that is, thinking about interpretation), both in general, as in the thought of Ricoeur and others, and in the specific hermeneutical approach that characterized the Quaker reading of scripture. I hope to direct my work here into that direction in the near future.

  5. In studying George Fox’s writing one needs to dig deep into the meaning of phrases and the words he uses. His writings align with the Scriptures and as I study both I find a confirmation in my spirit and mind that sets me at peace.

    When early Quakers speak of, “that of God in everyone” they were actually making a reference about how “everyone” could come to know Christ personally and experience salvation. In the 1600’s in England there were those religious leaders who believed that there were certain people who could not know God because they didn’t have a soul and spirit. George Fox and the Quakers very much opposed this idea and thought and viewed all as equal in the sight of God.

    “The light within” was Christ Jesus who allows us to see and to know God. George Fox very much believed in the concept of darkness and light. Sin keeps men in darkness and from seeing God. When men are obedient to the “Light Within” they see God through the Light of Christ Jesus.

    Another Principle and Answer from “The Great Mystery p. 362” regarding Fox’s beliefs.

    Principle. He said, ‘That Christ who enlightens every man that comes into the world, does it not by a direct illumination, not the elect themselves, to bring them to salvation.’

    Answer. Does not Christ say, ‘I am the way, the truth, and life?’ And he is the door, and no man comes to the Father but by him, and we are to learn of him. ‘This is my beloved son: hear you him,’ said God. And is not he the new covenant in the heart, by which men need not say, ‘Know the Lord?’ And there is no other name by which men can be saved, but by the name of Christ, who enlightens every man that comes into the world, that all through him might believe. And he who believes in the light, abides not in darkness, but has the light of life; and they who believe not in it, but hate it, the light is their condemnation; and the light ‘that enlightens everyone that comes into the world,’ is the salvation, though men neglect it, which the elect walk in, which condemns the unbeliever, which is direct; and no man sees salvation but who comes to the light.

    Quaker beliefs and doctrine were based on Scripture and confirmed by the Light in the 1600’s and its no different today.

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