The following is adapted from vocal ministry offered at Homewood Friends Meeting on December 15, 2019.
Speaking in worship recently, I made a mistake, inadvertently substituting something that I must have imagined for historical fact. I said that when, at “the time called Christmas,” the young George Fox gave money to poor widows, he did it anonymously, but his Journal implies that he did it in person, face to face. And that would have been a healthy thing for him, given that he was beginning to emerge from a years-long depression during which he had isolated himself from others.
Although it’s true that I have somehow become old and that age is exacerbating them, my problems with memory, and with fallibility in general, are long-standing. So, many years ago when I began to read the writings of George Fox, I was fascinated to learn that he and other early Friends believed that they possessed infallibility. Having been a Catholic seminarian, I was leery of that. I wondered what kind of infallibility they had claimed, and I kept that question in mind as I continued reading.
At one point, I read in Fox’s Journal that he was once put into prison with some Ranters — a name applied to some unconventional religious enthusiasts at the time — who believed that they were God. In an effort to disabuse them of that, he asked them whether it would rain on the morrow. They had to admit that they didn’t know. God knew, he told them. But, although he felt himself to be one with God in Christ, Fox didn’t pretend to know. Apparently, infallibility didn’t mean omniscience.
I found something more definitive in the book called The Great Mystery of the Great Whore Unfolded. Fox spoke there of infallibility of judgment; specifically, of Quakers’ ability to judge or discern spirits in other human beings.* Whatever else may have been encompassed by their doctrine of infallibility, Friends believed that, being in the spirit of Christ themselves, they could infallibly judge whether another person was in that same spirit. And judge they did: many of their writings are replete with condemnations of wolves in sheep’s clothing, false prophets, seducers, hypocrites; that is, priests, ministers, preachers, and mere “professors” of Christianity who perpetuate oppressive, even murderous, religious ideologies.
If those Children of Light were somehow to come back to life and join us now, they would probably say that the relatively recent embrace of “non-judgmentalism” by many Friends is an indication that we have, so to speak, gone over to the dark side. Personally, I think that non-judgmentalism is a bad idea; yet, as Pope Francis said recently (and absurdly, given his position), who am I to judge? Unlike earlier Quakers and popes, I know that I’m not infallible, whether it be in remembering facts, discerning spirits, or evaluating moral precepts. Consequently, my judgments are provisional. And if those Friends would say to me, as they said to others in their time, that I am therefore out of the divine life, how could I respond? I don’t know whether I am in or out of divine life, or if that trope is even useful any longer. But one thing I have learned experimentally (as early Friends would say), from many decades of life experience, is that believing, feeling, or “experiencing” that I am in such life wouldn’t mean that I really am. In other words, I’ve learned that, when it comes to seeing the truth about myself, I can’t trust my own eyes.
I’ve also learned, and I recall speaking of it in worship during this season a couple of years ago,** that the first principle of the spiritual life is that it’s not about me — that concern about my spiritual condition is generally a symptom of a self-absorption or self-enclosure that, unperceived by me, effectively blocks spiritual life and growth. I think that George Fox must have been learning that lesson when he allowed his focus to shift from his own spiritual/psychological troubles to the troubles of others, leading him to share some of his wealth with poor neighbors as he began to emerge from the self-enclosure of his depression. I see that process culminating in his celebrated convincement experience, in which, as I read it, the significant element was not that he heard a voice or experienced the presence of God — such experiences were not unusual for him by that point in his life — but that he saw why he had not been able to help himself or obtain help from any other human being; namely, because the birth and growth of spiritual life is solely the work of God — agapē — in the soul, and the proper human role is simply to refrain from hindering that work.
Infallible or not, the first Friends were onto something real, something revolutionary yet timeless: that the spirit of that love which we rightly call divine, our best basis for discernment, is like a seed that grows of itself when we learn not to interfere with it.
* See, for example, The Great Mystery, pp. 35-36, where, in response to an opponent who argued that “They that had the anointing within them, had not an infallible judgment,” Fox wrote, “John said, ‘They know all things;’ and bid them, ‘try the spirits,’ whether they were of God. And said, they had the spirit of God, which spirit is infallible, and gives an infallible judgment; which spirit was to try the false prophets that were gone out into the world.”
** See A Quaker’s Christmas Reflection.