The Psychology of Salvation, Pt. 1 — Returning to Our Roots

“The Psychology of Salvation” was first published in 2008 in the independent journal Quaker Theology. Interpreting the early Quaker view of salvation — conversion of heart — through contemporary psychological concepts of schemas and cognitive dissonance, the essay seems appropriate for this time of pandemic when many are rejecting the advice of medical experts and refusing to protect themselves and others. I am reprinting the essay in serialized form for readers of The Postmodern Quaker. A full PDF version is available here.


Recovering, Reframing, and Reclaiming
the Early Quaker Experience

Part 1

Returning to Our Roots

As it continues to lose its historic identity as a distinctive Christian movement, contemporary Quakerism becomes increasingly diffuse, a condition leading to diminished vitality, commitment, depth, community, and influence. Throughout the range from Christocentrism to nontheism, Friends express various views of what Quakerism is about, what its essential principles and practices are. Withering in this identity crisis, Quakerism is at risk of losing the unique spiritual power that has made the Religious Society of Friends a respected and effective influence for equality, justice, peace, and compassion. I propose that we can best resolve this crisis by returning to our roots, recovering the heritage bequeathed by our founders, and reframing that heritage in contemporary terms that can speak to theistic and nontheistic Friends alike.

The first Friends returned to their own roots in biblical religion in a bold and revolutionary way. Their religion derived from a brilliant and radically1 metaphorical exegesis, or interpretative reading, of scripture, and it led them to lives of great spiritual depth and power.2 But their belief system, as creative as it was, retained too many naively literalistic elements to be tenable for many of us today.3 We simply cannot reproduce the mindset of mid-17th-century Friends. Nor, however, can we afford to allow continued erosion of our foundations. As a religious society shaped by both our history and the unprecedented development of human thought and knowledge since our founding, we need to continue to grow into the future — from the roots that give us our Quaker identity. An essential element of that task is to examine the first Friends’ reported religious experience, the experience that created our religious society; to express it in concepts that are meaningful for us today; and to draw out its implications for faith and practice in our times. In hope of contributing to that project, this essay will focus on understanding the original Quaker experiential process of salvation — that is, of spiritual conversion and development — in contemporary terms.

Because the Quaker process of salvation is an inner process that has profound and highly visible effects on behavior, it can be described with concepts from the science of psychology. To express our religious experience in such terms is not to deny a place to those who believe in God, but to return to the very early Quaker insight that, as contemporary thinker John D. Caputo puts it, “[T]he event that stirs within the name of God can take place under other names, which complicates the distinction between theism and atheism.”4 James Nayler, whose writing will be our principal source as we investigate the early Friends’ experience, stated the similar position of the first Friends powerfully and unambiguously:

Thou asks further whether the name of Christ may be known to all the world by the [L]ight within them, without Scripture or tradition? I say, yea, and by nothing else without it, for the name of Christ consists not of letters and syllables, but in righteousness, mercy and judgment, &c., which name none can know but by the [L]ight of the [W]orld, though many of you read your Bibles who are the greatest enemies to his name, such is your knowledge as appears by your practice.5

The first Friends insisted that “knowledge,” or religious experience, and practice must arise together and nurture each other. Consequently, they rejected the more commonly accepted understandings of God and religion, and the corresponding interpretations of scripture, which had led to much evil. Approaching religion and the Bible with critical but open minds, those Friends came to experience God as the dynamic principle of love within them, a principle that reshaped their psyches and their conduct. Consistent with that, they interpreted scripture as applying to inner events evidenced outwardly in behavior. As we interpret their reported religious experience in psychological terms, then, we are continuing along the path they traversed. In moving forward on that path, we can develop a conceptual basis for a twenty-first century Quakerism that can trace its legitimacy, through organic development and consistency of essential experience and practice, to the religious experience of the first Friends.

In thus rediscovering and reaffirming that, as indeed the early Friends asserted, salvation is an inward process of reorientation and transformation that is independent of belief (but not, as we shall see, of faith), we will confirm that the essential elements of that experiential process remain accessible to us today, whether or not we hold theistic belief. And we will see that our lives as Friends, individual and corporate, can be re-centered and renewed through a thorough commitment to the essential Quaker experience of salvation.

[Next: Texts, Tools, and Thesis]

NOTES for Part 1
[1] The Latin radices (roots) is the origin of our word “radical.” Stephen W. Angell writes that “If being a ‘radical’ means addressing the root causes,… Fox was a radical. … Getting to the root meant rooting one’s life and teaching in the ‘wisdom of the Holy Ghost.'” Stephen W. Angell, “The Catechisms of George Fox,” in Quaker Theology #9, 5.2, Fall-Winter 2003.
[2] George Fox and other early Friends may have insisted that their inner revelation was chronologically primary; however, as Fox’s Journal makes quite clear, they were steeped in scripture well before those experiences, and the content of their experiences was undeniably scriptural. It is sufficient here to note that Fox’s early period comprised a continuous interplay among inward and outward experience, cognitive reflection, and scripture, an interplay that led him to a new hermeneutical, or interpretive, key to scripture. “When I had openings, they answered one another, and answered the scriptures; for I had great openings of the scriptures; and when I was in troubles, one trouble also answered to another.” (George Fox, Journal, in Vol. 1 of the 1990 reprint of the 1831 edition of Fox’s Works — hereinafter referred to simply as Works — p. 73.)
[3] Just one example: convinced that they were the vanguard of the new creation predicted in the Bible, the Friends believed that their children would be born perfect and would never sin — see Richard Bailey, New Light on George Fox and Early Quakerism (San Francisco, Mellon Research University Press, 1992), p. 85.
[4] John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?: The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Academic, 2007), p. 58.
[5] 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. Online edition: Quaker Heritage Press.

The featured image (seen on this site’s home page) is a photo of Swarthmore Hall by Matthew Emmott, whose work has been featured here before. The photo appears on the Visit Cumbria Web site.

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