The Psychology of Salvation, Pt. 6 — Inheriting “the World’s” Perspective


Recovering, Reframing, and Reclaiming
the Early Quaker Experience

Part 6

In the Beginning: Inheriting “the World’s” Perspective

As we have seen, Christianity has explained the need for salvation from sin as a result not of our evolution and socialization (which, of course, were not understood during the formative periods of Christianity and Quakerism as they are now) but of the sin and “fall” of the first humans, the negative effects of which supposedly are inherited by all human beings. Many of us have resolved the dissonance between that belief and our scientific understanding by modifying the belief: we now understand the fall narrative as a mythical etiology, a prescientific attempt to explain the human condition. In our scientific understanding, we might explain selfishness as our “inheritance” from evolution, as the product of a terrible struggle for survival against the ruthless, impersonal force of natural selection. But rather than be content with that explanation, we might also ask ourselves whether we are perceiving the issue through a distorting schematic lens.

Whatever self-centeredness we receive through selection-driven biological evolution68 is entrenched and elaborated by socialization. “What’s wrong with you? Don’t let them hit you! Fight back!” “When someone gives you something, you don’t give it away: that’s ungrateful.” “Look out for yourself; no one else will.” These commands will be familiar to many of us: they and others like them are among the more explicit ways in which “the world’s” values, the values of the normal self-centered schematic orientation, are implanted within us.

But even before verbal indoctrination can be understood by us, we are taught the same message in nonverbal ways, both direct and indirect, when as developing children we learn, from observation of and interaction with others, what it means to be human in a given society. We are created in the image of our caretakers and our society, shaped to be self-centered as they are (whether they acknowledge their character or not), to resist impulses of “abnormal” generosity and vulnerability, and to see life’s basic parameters as they see them. Without needing to understand conceptually the nature and use of rationalization and other defense mechanisms, we adopt them from those around us as part of the worldview they impart to us, so we are well-equipped to maintain our core belief system through cognitive assimilation. And we are taught that above all we must present ourselves as “normal” within the definition of the circle in which we are formed; we must avoid the isolation and other undesirable consequences of having what Erving Goffman called the stigma of “spoiled identity.”69

That “normal” orientation is, then, instilled within us from very early on, etched into our brains. We naturally believe in it, and we tend to accept its judgments without question. It feels, in fact, like our essential nature, and indeed it is an integral and prominent part of who we are. But it is “inherited” through our parents and culture. Combined with the “selfish” biological drives which it both serves and exploits, and set in context of social expectations and constraints, it can feel like a sinful nature.

The classic Christian doctrine of “original sin” attempts to explain that phenomenon. The Friends rejected that doctrine — not because they didn’t believe that all humans inherit a powerful proclivity to spiritual blindness and sin and therefore need redemption (they did believe so), but because the doctrine asserts that, along with the tendency to selfishness and sin, damnation-deserving guilt is transmitted from parents to children. The practical Friends, convinced that God is love and therefore is just, insisted that one cannot be guilty until one has actually done something wrong.70 Although we cannot be held responsible for the nature we inherit, they maintained, we are nonetheless responsible for what we do with that nature, because God has provided, within each of us, the means of redemption for it.

While the story of the fall, as told in the book of Genesis, functions more narrowly in traditional Christianity to “explain” the etiology of sin and death (and the need for redemption and the church), its imagery is central throughout the Quaker experience of salvation. We will devote a few moments to reviewing that story, as found in the third chapter of the biblical book called Genesis, in light of the first Friends’ exegesis. (All quotations from Genesis will be taken from Young’s Literal Translation unless otherwise noted.71

After all other creatures have been created, the first human being, the man Adam (Adamah, earth), is formed by God in God’s own image (that image is Christ, the Friends asserted: see Col. 1:15) and placed in the Garden of Eden, or Paradise. There he is innocent and happy, and he has dominion over all other creatures, whose natures and needs he understands perfectly. Presumably, he is also immortal, although that is not unequivocally stated in the (composite) narrative. Wanting to give Adam a companion, God takes one of the sleeping Adam’s ribs and from it creates the first woman, which leads Adam to make a statement, later applied to Christ and his saints by Paul,72 that will hold a prominent place in early Quaker thought: “This now is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.” The Friends would claim so intimate a union with Christ that he became their flesh and bones and they became his.73 They became so fully centered in love as to “become of one heart, one mind, one soul, one Spirit, one flesh and bone, and blood, and one obedience, and one life, that it is no more we that live, but Christ that lives in us….”74

But to return to the story of how that union was disrupted and why it needs to be restored: God has told Adam that he may eat the fruit of any tree except that of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and that if he eats that fruit, he will die on that very day (emphasis added: if the statement is true, then the death is spiritual): “for on the day of thine eating of it — dying thou dost die” (Gen 2:17). But a serpent, who represents “the god of this world”75 who will blind the spiritual eye of the human race, soon appears. He tells Woman (Eve’s original name) that eating the forbidden fruit will not result in death; on the contrary, “Dying, ye do not die, for God doth know that in the day of your eating of it — your eyes have been opened, and ye have been as God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4-5).76 They eat, and “the eyes of both of them are opened, and they know that they are naked” (v. 7). For the first time, Adam and Woman associate nakedness with evil and shame. Innocence has been lost; under the influence of “the wisdom of this world,”77 the young human being has begun to judge by outward appearance rather than by the inner guidance of the image of God within.

In falling under that influence, Adam and Woman have moved from their primal, other-attuned, ecological consciousness to a restricted, self-centered consciousness that we might call egological.78 According to the Quaker reading, Adam and Woman have fallen into the spiritual death of the “way of self-wisdom and knowledge,”79 attempting to usurp God’s knowledge and role as the Light which shows us what is good and what is evil. Each person will now define good and evil in terms of his or her self-interest, often unaware of doing so. (Thus, Adam and Woman immediately deny their personal responsibility for what they have done, Adam blaming Woman and Woman blaming the serpent.) The “spiritual man,”80 the open and giving heart, the divine Christ-Light within, is lost in the darkness of “self-wisdom.”

As Adam and Woman soon discover, with innocence are lost also Paradise and eternal life. But God first chastises the serpent, cursing him to go about on his belly and making a prediction that will become highly significant in traditional Christianity (as a reference to the “virgin” Mary) and, for a different reason, in Quakerism: “enmity I put between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; he doth bruise thee — the head, and thou dost bruise him — the heel” (v. 15). The image of the “seed of innocency,”81 “to which the promise is,”82 and “which is Christ” (Gal. 3:16) and his Kingdom (i.e., his powerful activity in the human heart: see Lk. 17:21), is one of the most important in Quaker thought and is used in fascinating ways by Nayler. In remarkable passages, Nayler even asserts that what has “fallen” because of our self-centeredness is the seed itself: “and so [the serpent] keeps the creature in self, that he regards not the seed of God, which is fallen under all this death and darkness…,” and that the seed (which is in practical terms the orientation to love) must be “raised out of the grave.”83 The image of God, our original Christic innocence, has been crucified by worldly wisdom, but it can be raised.

To return again to Genesis 3: now God, turning from the serpent, curses Adam and Woman to lives of hardship that end in death, including painful childbirth for the woman, whom Adam now names Eve, “for she hath been mother of all living” (v. 20). Before expelling them from Paradise, God, in a statement that appears to include a remnant of polytheistic or henotheistic religion, says “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever …” (v. 22, KJV). Adam and Eve are then sent out of Paradise, and the way back to the Tree of Life is barred. “Jehovah God sendeth him forth from the garden of Eden to serve the ground from which he hath been taken; yea, he casteth out the man, and causeth to dwell at the east of the garden of Eden the cherubs and the flame of the sword which is turning itself round to guard the way of the tree of life” (vv. 23-24).

That sword of fire, always turning (or converting: the Hebrew word includes both connotations) as it guards Paradise, will also be an important element in Quaker theology. The turning sword is, according to the Quaker reading of New Testament passages such as Eph. 6:17 and Heb. 4:12,84 Christ himself, through whom our return to the wise innocence of Paradise is possible through conversion here and now: “by the light that’s in the midst of all this darkness and death you may be led in again by the blood of the cross, through the fire and sword, into the garden of God….”85 How that process of return to innocence begins and proceeds, how “the seed of innocency,” the Christ-nature that understands and responds to the nature and needs of other beings, is recognized, raised, and nurtured, will occupy our attention in the next sections.

[Salvation from Sin: Schematic Accommodation] [Next: The Call of Salvation]

NOTES for Part 6
[68] “So far, most … research on cooperation has focused on humans. As it turns out, humans are not as selfish and self-centered as we’re sometimes made out to be,” wrote cognitive ethologist Marc Bekoff in The Emotional Lives of Animals (Novato, California, New World Library, 2007) p. 105.
[69] Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963).
[70] See, for example, Barclay’s Apology for the True Christian Divinity, Proposition IV, IV: “That this evil and corrupt seed is not imputed to infants, until they actually join with it. … And this is suitable to the whole strain of the Gospel, where no man is ever threatened or judged for what iniquity he hath not actually wrought: such indeed as continue in iniquity, and so do homologate the sins of their fathers, God will visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children.” Online edition: Quaker Heritage Press.
[71] In our retelling here of the story of the fall, all quotations from Genesis, except one taken from the King James Version (KJV) for clarity, are from Young’s Literal Translation (YLT), which is careful to preserve not only verb tense but other word forms as well. On the significance of the present tense for Quaker theology, see note 34, above.
[72] Ephesians 5:30
[73] Bailey, op. cit., p. 19.
[74] Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 90.
[75] Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 80.
[76] The King James Version (KJV) reads: “And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” The YLT, however, translates the Hebrew elohim, which is plural, as “God,” because elohim is used in the Hebrew scriptures to refer to the one God.
[77] See 1 Corinthians 2:6: “Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world….” See also 1 Corinthians 3:19: “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”
[78] I have borrowed the term “egological” from Mark Sacks, who uses it in a different, technical manner in his Objectivity and Insight (Oxford University Press, 2000).
[79] Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 52.
[80] Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 91.
[81] Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 135.
[82] Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 53. The promise was made through Abraham in later sections of Genesis; Friends interpreted it in a thoroughly metaphorical sense as applying not to Israel but to Christ and all those “saints” who are one with him.
[83] Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 52. His editor later changed “is fallen” to “suffers”: see Quaker Heritage Press.
[84] Ephesians 6:17: “And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God ….” Hebrews 4:12-13: “For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do.” As we’ve seen, the word of God is always, for Quakers, the living Christ.
[85] Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 53. On “the blood of the cross,” see note 117, below.

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