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.
 The epigraph is from George Fox’s Journal, Vol. I of his Works (1831 ed.), p. 288.
 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.
 George Fox, Journal, p. 113.
 The text of the peace declaration of 1660 is available at http://www.qhpress.org/quakerpages/qwhp/dec1660.htm.
 A computer search of Fox’s 8-volume Works turns up 181 occurrences of the phrase “that of God.”
 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.”
 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.”
 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.
 See the interlinear translation of Genesis 1 at https://scripture4all.org/OnlineInterlinear/OTpdf/gen1.pdf.
 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.”
 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.”
 Romans 8:21, KJV.
 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.”