‘That of God,’ the Light, etc.: the Dynamism of Quaker Imagery

A reflection developed from vocal ministry offered on May 3, 2020.


[The] ministers of the spirit must minister to the spirit that is in prison, which hath been in captivity in every one ….” – George Fox1

We liberal Friends have a tendency to reify – to make a res, a thing or object, of – the meaning harbored in traditional Quaker tropes. Perhaps the most conspicuous example is the doctrine that “there is that of God in everyone,” with “that of God” signifying a divine essence inherent in, even constituting the true self of, human beings.2 It is not unusual to hear that idea put forward as the foundation of Quaker faith and practice. Faith then becomes belief in, or experience deemed to be of, a metaphysical res signified by “that of God” and related images such as “the Light.” Practice becomes the application of ethical norms derived from that belief. For example, it is often said that Friends are pacifists because, given that there is that of God in everyone, human life is innately sacred. Values such as honesty and equality are also said to be founded on an obligation to honor or respect that of God in others. But there are serious risks in all of that, including but not limited to loss of moral freedom. Fortunately, our tradition offers an alternative way of understanding its central images such as “that of God” – namely, as pointing to dynamism, movement, activity – and a corresponding understanding of Quaker faith and practice.

George Fox was once offered early release from prison if he would accept a commission in the army. In declining, he did not justify his pacifism by asserting belief in a sacred essence within human beings; rather, he described his own disposition. “I told them,” he later reported, “that I knew from whence all wars arose, even from the lusts, according to James’s doctrine; and that I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars.”3 When, about a decade later, Fox and other Friends composed a declaration of their pacifism to the king, they offered the same justification. Having surrendered to the spirit of Christ within, they were no longer in thrall to the desires and drives that can lead to war: “We know that wars and fightings proceed from the lusts of men (as James 4:1–3), out of which lusts the Lord hath redeemed us, and so out of the occasion of war.”4 Their pacifism was the result, not of a process of moral reasoning from belief (or believed experience) to practice, but of a fundamental change of orientation, a decisive turn from norms to the present leading and empowering of the spirit of Christ in their hearts. (For that reason, they took care to assure the king that Christ’s spirit could be expected to lead them consistently.) They were radically changed, and they hoped that others would be changed in the same way:

“we do earnestly desire and wait, that by the Word of God’s power and its effectual operation in the hearts of men, the kingdoms of this world may become the kingdoms of the Lord, … and that … ‘Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’ (Isa.ii.4; Mic.iv.3).”

Fox used the phrase “that of God” many times in his writings,5 but not as signifying an inherent essence or as constituting the basis for a derived ethic. Nor did he urge people to honor or respect that of God in others. Significantly, the seemingly objectifying phrase “there is that of God” occurs but once in the eight volumes of his collected works. That single occurrence is in his polemical book called (in brief) The Great Mystery. There, Fox pointed out that his opponent had contradicted Paul’s assertion that sinners are “without excuse” because “that which may be known of God is manifest in them, for God hath shewed it to them” (Rom. 1:19 & 20, KJV). That is, Fox was asserting, not a divine essence inherent in human nature, but the empowering activity of continuing revelation in everyone, even in those who reject it.6 I suggest that if we rein in our reifying tendency, we can see that Fox’s other references to “that of God” also point to that activity.7

Other fundamental Quaker terms and images – the light, the Word, the spirit, the life and power, the seed – have the same quality of dynamism. Light is vibration moving through space and time, revealing what had been hidden in darkness. The Word (Logos), divine speech, is also moving vibration, creating and ordering the world, revealing God in its activity.8 Likewise, the spirit, the divine breath that “blows where it wills,” is an ordering and revealing movement/vibration. (Genesis 1:2b, in a literal translation, says “and the spirit of Elohim [is] vibrating over [the] surfaces of the waters.”9) The “life and power,” an oft-used phrase that we saw in Fox’s statement above, is clearly dynamic: life is change, and power — dýnamis in Greek — performs work only when it moves from potential to kinetic. Even the classic image of the seed is dynamic, for a seed, too, is useful only if it moves from potentiality to growth.10

For Fox and other first Friends, “belief” primarily meant faith in the dynamic working of the light of Christ within. In their preaching, therefore, they sought to direct people to the powerful activity of divine revelation in the human mind and heart. That activity was the phenomenon that people were to know “experimentally.”11 The tradition that those Friends founded invites us to cease from objectification of God and self and to put our trust in the present inward operation of that spirit which was in Jesus. To the extent that we allow it, that operation opens our minds and hearts, illuminating both our present enclosed condition and the promise of a new kind of being.

Thus opened, living then in “that life and power,” we see the superfluity of belief in and experiences of a metaphysical essence. We see, too, how they can be inimical to the Quaker charism. Although one may find comfort and self-validation in believing that we all possess a divine nature, the reification of inward revelation can misdirect one’s faith, investing it in a static object that lacks the life and power which animated the first Friends. The object then blocks, imprisons, both oneself and the light. Cut off from the power of continuing revelation, bound by a legalistic morality of values derived from belief in the cherished object, one denies oneself “the glorious liberty of the children of God.”12 One’s condition, although it may mimic inner peace, entails a need for continually weighing one’s performance against norms and making adjustments to behavior, norms, or both. The movement of inspiration effectively stilled, the psyche must move in perpetual seeking for an ever-elusive homeostasis.

“The first step of peace,” in George Fox’s paradoxical expression, “is to stand still in the light (which discovers things contrary to it) for power and strength to stand against that nature which the light discovers: here grace grows, here is God alone [not we] glorified and exalted.”13 Certainly, objectification and stasis are contrary to the nature of light, which exists only as movement – the movement, for that inward light of which our tradition speaks, of continuing revelation. Rather than attempt to capture the light – or that of God, the spirit, etc. – in belief or experiences, we can allow ourselves to become still, to cease from our compulsive, semi-conscious shifting away from the light’s unsparing illumination. We can take the step that is no step, the first step of peace: the abandonment, in sincere waiting worship, of our reification and other spiritual machinations both supra- and sub-liminal. Then the light is able to move freely in and through us; then the spirit is released from our imprisoning – as are we.


[1] The epigraph is from George Fox’s Journal, Vol. I of his Works (1831 ed.), p. 288.
[2] I trace that development to a convergence of a number of factors. I note particularly the reframing of Quakerism as Neoplatonic mysticism by Rufus Jones and his students in the 20th century, which combined with William James’s inadequate definition of religion (as picked up by other writers such as Mircea Eliade) as a matter of personal experience to make fertile ground for the influence of Vedanta/yoga, New Thought, New Age ideas, etc.
[3] George Fox, Journal, p. 113.
[4] The text of the peace declaration of 1660 is available at http://www.qhpress.org/quakerpages/qwhp/dec1660.htm.
[5] A computer search of Fox’s 8-volume Works turns up 181 occurrences of the phrase “that of God.”
[6] Fox, The Great Mystery, p. 50. The opponent was arguing that “The light doth not shine in the consciences of them that [Christ] lost.” In Fox’s view, that contradicted scripture. His response: “But John saith, the light shines in darkness, but darkness cannot comprehend it, and there is that of God in the children of disobedience, and reprobates, as in Rom. i. and ii. chap.”
[7] Further discussion of Fox’s other uses of “that of God” is beyond the scope of this reflection, but an analysis of that usage could be an interesting project. For an earlier study of the meaning of “that of God” for Fox, see my “That of God: a Quaker Reading of Romans 1:16-20.”
[8] God and his speaking are one: “the Logos was God,” or, more literally, “God was the Logos” (John 1:1). God, infinite by definition, cannot be an object.
[9] See the interlinear translation of Genesis 1 at https://scripture4all.org/OnlineInterlinear/OTpdf/gen1.pdf.
[10] The image of the seed, which goes back to the story of Abraham, was prominent in early Quakerism. For examples of its use by James Nayler and Isaac Penington, see my “The Psychology of Salvation.”
[11] As a forthcoming essay on Fox’s convincement experience will argue, “the Word of God’s power and its effectual operation in the hearts of men,” as Friends put it in the peace declaration of 1660, is what George Fox referred to when he said, “and this I knew experimentally.”
[12] Romans 8:21, KJV.
[13] Fox, “To All That Would Know the Way to the Kingdom,” from Gospel Truth Demonstrated, Vol. IV of his Works (1831 ed.), p. 17. In his journal, Fox uses “to peace,” not “of peace”; e.g., “This I told them was their first step to peace, even to stand still in the light that showed them their sins and transgressions; by which they might come to see they were in the fall of old Adam, in darkness and death, strangers to the covenant of promise, and without God in the world …” (p. 148).  I think that each phrase conveys a truth of the experience, because peace deepens as surrender to truth becomes more complete. I am reminded of A. J. Muste’s remark, “There is no way to peace; peace is the way.”

5 thoughts on “‘That of God,’ the Light, etc.: the Dynamism of Quaker Imagery

  1. George,

    I thought a lot about your post this weekend. It touches on a disconnect that I have been thinking about for some time. I will set a couple of things as granted, then get into my questions.

    My (oversimplified) understanding of your beef with the common contemporary understanding of “that of God in everyone” is that it is spiritually dangerous to take a description of a dynamic process (of giving over one’s will to the power of God), and turn it into a concrete, constituent part of a human being (an essence) which can then be used as a constant from which one can logically derive a set of ethical principles. I apologize if I have grossly misstated your viewpoint, but if I haven’t, I will say that I agree with it, a lot.

    Setting aside any spiritual ramifications of misinterpreting “that of God” I also think that contemporary Friends should, as much as possible, reckon with the writings of ancient Friends in their original historical and theological context. Doing otherwise would be as foolish as asserting that the meanings of all sorts of words in Fox’s writings (convince, sensible, professor, several) are the same as their current meanings, and interpreting accordingly. That’s not to say that original=truest=best, merely that we shouldn’t blithely assume we know what they meant.

    Now, here are some questions I’m pondering: Why do so many friends find this conception of “that of God” so important? What do you think we could learn from that? You’ve elegantly described what is wrongheaded and un-Quakerly about “that of God,” but is it desirable to find some bridge between current Friends’ emphasis on “that of God” with the statements you’ve made here?

    I am motivated to ask these questions out of my own experience attending meetings in the Western U.S. over the past several years. It’s my experience that while lots of Quaker meetinghouses may display the SPICES, most people in meetings are not terribly fond of them, or at the very least, they do not place SPICES as such at the center of their spiritual understanding.

    “That of God” is different. It pops up when people talk to first time attendees, it’s in quakerspeak videos, and, crucially, I’ve heard it identified by many people as one of the main reasons they were attracted to Friends meetings in the first place. I believe it speaks to something powerful for people who may be profoundly damaged by religion as it was handed to them: a way to mark out the elect from the damned, a tool used by the powerful to manipulate, punish, and control. Many people experience late capitalist life as profoundly dehumanizing and alienating. The blood, tears, and pepper spray running through the streets of our country today are a reaction to (and a demonstration of) how little our society values the lives of so many.

    I appreciate that you did not roundly condemn the use of this phrase but instead offered your own up as an alternative. I also don’t want to imply that your statements are at all dehumanizing – as I said, from what I understand I much prefer your interpretation than some pat ethical framework. But most Friends (including Fox!) are much less rigorous in their definitions and word choices than you are. I’m all for tossing some 20th century Liberal Quaker innovations into the bin (dash the SPICES!), and there are some things I begrudgingly accept (so much damage has been done in Christ’s name that I understand ambivalence and even antipathy towards Christocentric language, even as it is so very dear to me). But when “that of God” is so central to people’s beliefs and so useful for getting people interested in our little society, when it so succinctly tells people that “we value human life because we value God, and where human life is not cherished, it is impossible to cherish God,” when it feels so heart-wrenchingly timely…I think it’s worth it to continue to dig deep into what this little phrase means in the hearts of Quakers today, even as we try to find ways to remind ourselves to stop objectifying and seeking when we should be standing still and listening.

    I love this site – thank you so much for sharing your insights and fostering these discussions.


    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Colin.

      To clarify: the aspect of the revelatory process that I wanted to stress is not so much that of one’s “giving over,” although that is a classic idea in Quakerism, but of, in theistic terms, the prior revelatory giving by God. One can give over one’s own willing, etc., as Isaac Penington would say, only because of, in response to, the revelatory activity already happening. I think it’s important that we allow tropes such as “that of God” to direct us first of all to that activity.

      Reasons for Friends’ holding of a reified concept of “that of God” are not my concern in the essay, which intends to caution about some of the expected and observed consequences of that reification and to describe an alternative way of thinking about our traditional imagery. I can say that a gain such as gathering more members does not seem to me to be worth the loss of direct inspiration — and there’s the question of whether we are gathering members into a group that validates repression of revelation in favor of ideology, which I think would be a lamentable loss of potential.

      Regarding valuing human life, I prefer that we value it as human life, not because we value an imputed divine essence that is the same in everyone. Actual human beings are selfish, neurotic, dull, nasty, violent, and so on: quite a challenge to love. “Respecting that of God” in others implies that we love something Other in them as a consequence of our belief; in that case, it is quite possible that we are not loving them as unique human beings even though we may believe that we are. If, as theology holds, God loves individual humans as they are in their sinfulness, then perhaps we might do the same, without attempting to project into them a universal, divine element that is worthy of our love. I’ve seen many examples of the failure of ideological love of neighbor — especially troubling when the one who believes that she is loving is oblivious to the damage she does — but I take hope in the experience of love as relationship with individual human beings.

  2. Pingback: ‘That of God,’ the Light, etc.: the Dynamism of Quaker Imagery — The Postmodern Quaker | Quaccheri cristiani ecumenici per fare il bene

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