The Psychology of Salvation, Pt. 2 — Texts, Tools, and Thesis


Recovering, Reframing, and Reclaiming
the Early Quaker Experience

Part 2

Our Principal Source Text: Love to the Lost

Our primary early Quaker source text will be Love to the Lost6 (1656) by James Nayler (1618–1660), the leading Quaker in London as the Quaker movement took hold in the mid-seventeenth century. Nayler is best known for his imitation of Jesus’ reported “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, and for the resultant trouble that his action brought upon him and the movement. But he is also known for his deep, love-centered spirituality and his skill in writing, both in evidence in his famous final statement (“There is a spirit that I feel that delights to do no evil …”7), and for his clear, structured presentations of Quaker theological thought.

In the opinion of historian Rosemary Moore, Nayler was “the most competent Quaker theologian,” and Love to the Lost “the most comprehensive Quaker theological work” of the early years of the movement.8 Love to the Lost is, for its day, an admirably succinct and clear piece of Quaker writing that, unlike Barclay’s better-known Apology for the True Christian Divinity (1676), flows directly from the early experience and does not attempt to bend it into a more mainstream Christian form or otherwise dull its radical edge. Love to the Lost is an accessible gateway into the unique spiritual world of the first Friends.

We will supplement that primary source with additional material from Nayler and with quotations from two other very important first-generation writers, George Fox and Isaac Penington.

A Contemporary Tool: The Concept of Schemas

In order to facilitate a psychological understanding of the experience described by James Nayler and other early Friends, we will borrow the concept of schemas9 from learning theory and psychotherapy. Schemas can be defined as interlocking subliminal principles of interpretation, generally acquired early in life, that organize our experience. In performing their organizing activity, schemas filter and color our experience automatically and effectively, transparently shaping our thoughts and feelings, our interpretations of new experiences, and our behavior.

Schemas can be thought of as patterns of connections in the brain. The human brain comprises a network of interconnected, interoperating regions. Those regions have electrochemical pathways, like intranets, and are connected to other sections by other pathways, like the Internet. Pathways are formed and reinforced by cycles of external stimuli (interactions with the world) and internal stimuli (emotions, thoughts, feelings, memories, and physical responses such as release of hormones, change in heart rate or respiration, etc.). Thus schemas possess a kind of physical reality. They form a networked processing template that gives us a strong feeling of “rightness” about our perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. Our schemas are integral to our sense of identity and can feel to us like our core self.

Schemas are, therefore, resistant to change. Even to uncover and acknowledge them can be very difficult, because schemas shape the mind that would search for them: a schematic network can be, as the Zen saying has it, “Like the eye that sees but cannot see itself.”10 Further, schemas may seem to have vanished, only to be triggered later by some stimulus: it is possible that schemas never totally disappear. But we can learn to detach ourselves from habitual modes of thinking and feeling sufficiently to observe them. And new connections can be made and reinforced over time, so that impulses coming from unwanted schemas can be modulated by the higher brain centers and perhaps even bypassed.

While psychotherapy tends to concern itself with schemas that are obviously maladaptive, original Quakerism calls into question the rightness, the healthfulness and virtuousness, of our normal, adaptive schemas, and it challenges us not only to examine those schemas but also to modify them radically. As we shall see later in more detail, the early Quaker experience of salvation can be described as a process of “conversion” or (in New Testament Greek) metanoia, which denotes changing one’s mind, re-forming one’s way of perceiving and thinking, and thereby being transformed.

Our thesis is that, in psychological terms, the biblically-shaped experience of the first Friends implies, first, that the characteristic of commonsense, “normal” self-centeredness constitutes a pervasive schematic bias in the psyches of most human beings, and, second, that Quaker conversion/salvation is a process of detaching from that self-centered bias — the “fallen nature”11 of “the first Adam” — and adopting a new, love-centered orientation — the “pure nature”12 or spirit of Christ, “the second Adam.”13 Successfully negotiating that process can lead to so profound a change in self-concept that one feels as if a new self has been born, a self that enjoys hitherto unimaginable freedom, depth, power, joy, and peace.

[Previous: Returning to Our Roots] [Next: The Heart of Quakerism: A New Orientation]

NOTES for Part 2
[6] James Nayler, Love to the Lost: And a Hand held forth to the Helpless To Lead out of the Dark (originally published in 1656). From The Works of James Nayler, Vol. 3 (Glenside, Pennsylvania: Quaker Heritage Press, 2007). Online edition: Quaker Heritage Press.
[7] “There is a spirit which I feel, that delights to do no evil, nor to avenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself. It sees to the end of all temptations. As it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thought to any other: if it be betrayed, it bears it; for its ground and spring are the mercies and forgiveness of God. Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love unfeigned, and takes its kingdom with entreaty, and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind. In God alone it can rejoice, though none else regard it, or can own its life. It is conceived in sorrow, and brought forth without any to pity it; nor doth it murmur at grief, and oppression. It never rejoiceth but through sufferings; for with the world’s joy it is murdered. I found it alone, being forsaken. I have fellowship therein with them who lived in dens, and desolate places of the earth, who through death obtained this resurrection, and eternal holy life.” From William Sewell, The History of the Rise, Increase and Progress of the Christian People Called Quakers (New York, 1844), pp. 202, 203.
[8] Rosemary Moore, The Light in Their Consciences: The Early Quakers in Britain 1646-1666 (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), p. 104.
[9] The more correct plural form is “schemata,” but recent use of “schemas” by theorists has brought acceptance to that form. The concept of schemata was used by Jean Piaget in his work on childhood development and has evolved from there. For a good brief presentation of Piaget’s ideas about schemata, as well as the concepts of assimilation and accommodation (mentioned later in this essay), see K. Bhattacharya and S. Han, S., “Piaget and Cognitive Development” in M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging Perspectives on Learning, Teaching, and Technology.
[10] Eicho (1429-1504), compiler, Zenrin Kushu. Quoted in Alan W. Watts, The Way of Zen (New York: Pantheon, 1957), p 134.
[11] Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 97. See also, for example, Romans 6:6.
[12] Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 62.
[13] Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 89. In speaking of the first and second Adams, Nayler is using language from Paul: see 1 Corinthians 15:45-49.

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