How we relate to the Divine remains crucial to our daily conduct. It’s not just a matter of who God is – or, in polytheistic systems, who the gods are – but ultimately how Divinity relates to us personally. The answer determines whether we react with fear, guilt, indifference, adoration, joy, or some other response. It also influences whether we respond to community with a pursuit of justice or with injustice, violence or pacifism, aggression or love, domination or equality, and much more. In a monotheistic system, especially, we have a dilemma placing ourselves in relation to a cosmic deity – one whose very name is unspeakable – and a deity who can be present with us. Which is it? Even the two creation stories at the beginning of Genesis reflect this polarity: in the seven-day version, God appears distant and all-knowing; in the Garden of Eden, God is shown as emotional, perhaps even lonely, and surprised and perplexed by the humans’ actions and reactions.
The implications of interpreting New Testament Logos as Light, as Quaker history demonstrates, are enormous. In the Hebrew Bible, God usually communicates with humans by means of angels (“messengers”), prophets, or even dreams. But the concept of the Word (Logos) being with God and then being made flesh bridges this in a new way. Angels can come and go; the Seed of Christ within us, however, remains a basic part of our nature. Extending this Word to Spirit or Light within each one further strengthens that sense of being made in God’s image-reflection-shadow. Though this, we are not servants after all, but children of God and friends in God’s Spirit.
This message had an enormous, emotional imprint on individuals who felt they had no hope, no help, and no reason to live; it is seen in accounts of early Quaker convincements as well as in Third World nations today. There is no reason it couldn’t sweep through Meetings and congregations, here and now, anew.
The revolutionary impact of Christ as the Word/Logos or Light is something Friends encounter in virtually every aspect of historic Quaker practice, from the way of addressing other individuals and society to the ways of worship and understanding of church itself. It appears, for example, as Friends meet together for worship: “For where two or three are gathered in my name [power], I am there among them” [Matthew 18:20]. That is, both within us and around us.
One way of distinguishing Christian denominations is by looking for their locus of authority. In the Roman Catholic church, for instance, it is in the person of the pope and the office of the Vatican. In the Anglican communion, it is the bishops. For Lutherans, the synod. For Presbyterians and Congregationalists, the elders or deacons. For Southern Baptists, more and more, it’s the preacher – even as the official authority is proclaimed to be the Bible. In each denomination, custom, teaching, practice, and Scripture are given different emphases and relative importance. An answer may be framed as, “According to Catholic tradition …” or “In our catechism …” or “In the mutual discipleship of Mennonites …” or “The Bible says …” – leading to specific, and often varied, conclusions.
The traditional Quaker insistence on the Logos of Christ – and its recognition as Inward Light – contrasts sharply with other denominations. In historic Quaker teaching, the church is not an organization or outward structure, but the body of believers. Furthermore, Friends have met together as a gathering to await Christ’s Light. There is an expectation that Christ will be present in Quaker worship and also lead Friends in their deliberations over congregational business. The Light is available to all, depending on individual faithfulness. Thus, Friends wait and listen. The process of Quaker church government, with its search for agreement without the use of voting, is rooted in a recognition of the unity of a single Light – which can be accessed by faithful listening.
I would argue that the tragic separations that have wracked the Society of Friends have occurred precisely at those points where individuals leaned too heavily on “the letter without” – which can include Quaker tradition and form as well as interpretations of Scripture – or drawn heavily on the “collection of notions and opinions,” largely assembled from the surrounding culture. Friends’ reluctance to teach practices that might enhance the experience of quietist worship – in particular, techniques of meditation or varieties of prayer – upheld an expectation that whatever happens in the yielded gathering is to be a gift from God. But it also left open the possibility that at least some Friends had not experienced such intimacy, as either Light or Seed; for them, expressions of this encounter must have sounded peculiar, or even incomprehensible. In many ways, that may very well be where the Society of Friends stands today.
As Jack Smith of Ohio Yearly Meeting has observed, “The different groups among today’s Quakers tend to different emphases concerning the Bible and the Word of God. Liberal unprogrammed Friends tend to deny that Jesus Christ is the Word of God. On the other hand, evangelical and pastoral Friends tend to substitute the Bible for Jesus Christ as the Word” (Friends Understanding of the Word of God, Ohio Yearly Meeting, 1991).
Both stances set Friends down far from the vital connection Robert Barclay voiced on behalf of the early Quaker movement. This original and still startling nexus of Spirit, Logos, Word, Life, Light, Love, and divine Truth with Christ, with Jesus, with you, and with me remains dynamic, vital, moving, alive. It tastes and looks quite different from any stained-glass Christianity one encounters. And, yes, it truly can lead people to “walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one” – as George Fox insisted, 1656 – in dimensions yet to be envisioned.
I would argue that a rediscovery of the full range of knowledge too often hidden under the historic shorthand expression, “Inward Light,” has the potential of healing the divisions within the Society of Friends, even as Quakers continue to worship in different ways. At present, the differences aren’t so much over the varied forms of worship, anyway, as they are of differing interpretations of Word of God, or Logos – regardless of whether individual Friends are even aware of the role of the phrase within the Quaker heritage. What has become known as unprogrammed worship was initially called the “retired meeting,” where the newly convinced Friends settled in to savor the Spirit of Christ in their presence. But there has also been a place for public preaching, as is evident even in the length of Elias Hicks’ sermons in traditional “silent” worship. Pastoral Friends’ worship resembles typical Protestant services to the extent that the accompanying theology has been imported, and far less to the extent that its liturgy has been adapted.
Curiously, today’s evangelical Friends describe their faith as an experience of the Holy Spirit, with an expectation of its presence during their worship. This, then, transforms their perspective from Christ in Bible times to the Spirit of Christ working among believers now. In that are glimmers of possibility for reconnecting the Society of Friends.
The central opportunity for bridging the distances between today’s “unprogrammed” (or quietist) and “pastoral” (or evangelical) branches arises within the experience of open worship – whether it’s presented as the traditional waiting silence or as quiet moments in which prayers, concerns, and requests may be voiced by anyone assembled in the room.
Of course, one can ask why Friends should even consider possibilities of reconciliation, given their history and differences. I must admit, I know of nobody who’s holding his or her breath for it to happen. In our own time, however, Douglas Gwyn has thought deeply about these divisions, and his Unmasking the Idols: A Journey Among Friends investigates the shortfalls and opportunities at both ends of the Quaker spectrum. “I am convinced that there is no future for pastoral Quakerism along it present course,” he writes. “Pastoral Quakerism has become an anonymous Christianity, without a clear sense of identity, history, and mission. An abrupt change of direction, a return to roots, a radical repentance is our only hope.” This, from someone who has labored as a pastor. Meanwhile, “Quaker liberalism has drifted away from the Christian spirituality and into the many cross-currents of secular humanism. This is really much the same dilemma as faced by evangelical Friends. In this case, however, the idolatrous impulse seems to be toward a facile world citizenship that can embrace and even include people of all faith traditions. Liberal Quakerism’s idealistic universalism seeks to subsume all things in general but embodies nothing in particular. As with evangelical Quakerism, this path has left us with a general loss of identity, history, and mission.”
He sees these conditions as a mirror image of each other, both employing contemporary idols – images, ideas, and forms we erect as a means of “distancing ourselves emotionally and spiritually from others, including God.”
He observes, “As evangelicals, we want to celebrate the forgiveness we obtain from Jesus’ death two thousand years ago, but we do not want to enter that drama and feel the pain of it here and now. As liberals, we want to place Jesus among the great teachers, Christ among the holy names of world religions, and thereby enact an etiquette of global consciousness that makes us feel worldly, not noticing that the world is an incoherent Babel of contending powers.” He argues that neither branch of Friends can face the future successfully without the other: “We cannot unite meaningfully with people of other faiths unless we regain unity with those of our own faith – present and past. The bulk and wealth of our Quaker tradition is a unique stream of Christian spirituality … let us not sell it out for cosmopolitan platitudes about ‘all religions.’ Quaker universalism is primarily a conviction about encountering God with all people, not about comparing religions. It is a specific path of spiritual formation the world needs today – and we need it most of all!”
The situation Gwyn describes is not entirely confined to the Society of Friends. Many denominations today are stressed by major differences across their organizational spans. But splintering is no answer, either. I believe that a clearer understanding of the thinking that underpins our distinct practices is essential to a revitalized faith. Without that, religion too often becomes a matter of custom, losing both its sharpness and value in daily encounters.
A renewed understanding of the Light/Seed dynamic within early Quaker experience is more than a point of dialogue between the two extremes of today’s Society of Friends. It also heightens a distinct identity within the world of Christianity, placing Quakers in a unique position to interact with other people of faith. The fact that Friends’ faith is based on individual experience cannot be overstated. To express this as Light, on one hand, allows Quakers to reach out and converse with many others, not all of them Christian, who have experienced similar spiritual encounters. To express this as Christ as Logos, on the other hand, reaches out to others who emphasize Spirit-filled worship and opens a new understanding of New Testament passages, liberating their revolutionary meaning afresh. This is not ecumenism or comparative religion, but an enhanced embrace of experience. Ideally, in either case, the dialogue encourages each of us to deepen our practice and our fidelity.
The evangelicals of the late 18th and early 19th centuries did not confront Quakerism out of nowhere; the ones who overturned the Society of Friends were raised within it. Their initial criticisms addressed what was a Quaker retreat from the Lamb’s War, a denomination that had become timid in proclaiming the Gospel throughout the world and was repeating a form and language to distance itself from others; they were right in accusing the quietists of no longer going forth to convict and convince the world in its sin and direct it to a new, Spirit-infused, love-filled life. But they were clueless regarding what had given Quakers such incredible power in the first place.
In our own ways today, both halves of the Quaker equation have erected idols. Gwyn is right about that. Both halves have also been led away, for a host of reasons, from the original Quaker experience and vision. In failing to openly articulate and expand their implicit and radical Christian theology, early Friends left a vacuum that later generations would eventually fill with imported concepts. The original and revolutionary impulse of early Friends became muted and clouded.
As I’ve been arguing for a restoration of the original Quaker concept of Inward Light shining into an individual, rather than emanating from within, I’ve also come to see the importance of their corresponding concept of the Seed, the potential and awakening within that individual. The reality is that any awareness of the Seed of Christ becoming activated in our individual lives points us toward an apocalyptic faith: Christ present now, within us and without, can be – and ought to be – both terrifying and breathtaking. This is a much different image of being born again than Friends hear from other denominations. This is the reason early Friends staked everything on their mission.
Those of us in quietist Meetings have welcomed “religious refugees” who have come wounded from other backgrounds, found healing in our circle, and then moved on to more focused bodies of faith – sometimes it’s a church, sometimes a Zen center. Others have relied on loose fellowships with local synagogues or Mennonite “small groups,” for instance, for nurture not available in their own Meeting.
On the evangelical side, there are stories of entire congregations that, having found ecstasy in the Holy Spirit, have wondered how to live within its power and, as a consequence, have moved on to Eastern Orthodox rituals and discipline or to other denominations. There are examples, too, of widespread movements – powerful ministries – that have emerged out of these Quaker roots. Garner Ted Armstrong and today’s Vineyard Ministries are two that come to mind. Alcoholics Anonymous, founded by the son of a Quaker woman, also draws on these roots, with its telling emphasis on Meetings where personal testimonies are voiced.
At times Friends’ criticisms of each other are unnerving and on target. For even more devastating accounts, turn to the teenagers. As things stand today, both branches are fragile; their future, questionable. But the Mennonites have a saying, “God has no grandchildren,” and I take comfort in that. I believe that rediscovering the Seed of Christ accompanying the Light of Christ has revolutionary potential for bringing individual renewal as well as societal change.
From that perspective, when I look at the unprogrammed versus pastoral range of Quakerism, I see a new appearance of the Ranter versus Authority tension – this time, with Ranters, as individuals having an experience of the Spirit, existing in both camps. As Jim Corbett recognized, this can clear the way of established community practices that have become dead forms and it can be a sign of renewed life, as long as we can find meaningful ways of upholding covenant community.
I find it curious that as liberal Friends shifted from “Inward Light” to “Inner Light,” the concept of “Seed” dropped out of consideration – as it apparently already had among the evangelical Friends. It’s as if the concept of Light now replaces the Seed, without any replacement for the Light.
Let me explain. As I contemplate a Logos-based theology, I sense a wonderful balance in having something as ethereal as Light being countered by something as earthy as Seed. For whatever reason, in this context I always think first of fruit, with flesh, before I think of seed as grain or nut, with a hard kernel or shell. Either way, here is something that can take root, that becomes a grounding for Soul, that even becomes flesh. If the Inward Light is the Spirit of Christ pouring into the human heart, the Seed then opens in response and extends its leaves to receive this energy. Here, then, is an answer to the question of why the Light must seek the Light: as light becomes embodied, it turns toward its source. Here is something the Light stimulates and opens.
I think of a Gary Snyder poem about righteousness that opens, “The Dharma is like an Avocado!” – even though his Zen Buddhist look at Seed imagery in relation to religion bends ways my Logos perception doesn’t.
Symbolically, the forbidden fruit of Eden also contained seeds – so that the Light now brings a transformation to the expulsion itself, a reversal much like Calvary’s relation to sacrifice, kingdom, and death – a positive prompting of the Law or Dharma written on our hearts rather than a negative set of prohibitions. Cast out of Paradise, the offspring of Adam and Eve still carry something of it within themselves.
Approaching this from with a Buddhist background, John Tarrant links Light and spirit. “Spirit is the center of life, the light out of which we are born with eyes still reflecting the vastness, and the light toward which are eyes turn when our breath goes out and does not come in again.” But he also acknowledges, “Adept at transcendence, spirit gives us the foundation for understanding reality, but is of little help with the day-to-day arts of relishing life.” He then counters this with what he calls soul, “not taken in the theological sense of an immortal being putting up for the night in the inn of the body – that is spirit. Soul is the part of us which touches and is touched by the world.”
In a leap, I find myself substituting “seed” for “soul,” and Tarrant deepens the dimension: Seed is always learning, always fallible. Seed is weak because it loves – which is, of course, its strength. Denser than the spirit, seed gets in the way of the arriving light just enough, delaying it, making it linger. On the other hand, spirit knows that seed, in itself, does not have enough of a center. When seed is too dominant, we lose connection with the infinite source and fall under the thrall of the world. Seed wanders ever deeper into the marsh of emotion. If seed gives taste, touch, and habitation to the spirit, spirit’s contribution is to make seed lighter, able to escape its swampy authenticity, to enjoy the world without being gravely wounded by it. And so on.
In Quaker practice, the Meeting, regardless of its outward structure, exists to facilitate individual growth of the Seed of Christ. The initial burst of enthusiasm, once inculcated, needs support as it matures; as one seasons in that faith, there will be times of drought and doubt to endure, which will also need nurturing. We need to remember that we are minding not just the Light, but also the Seed – our own sustenance as well as our spiritual descendants. As quietist Friends reclaim the connections of Inward Light with the Word of God and the Christ-present-with-us, they will reclaim much more of that revolutionary power. For pastoral Quakers, the rediscovery may come through connecting an awareness of the Holy Spirit, which many evangelical Friends today acknowledge as being an essential experience in Christian life, with the Spirit of Christ and then with the Word of God that was from the beginning and became flesh. From either direction, this Christ-centered faith unleashes renewed and awesome power.
The Light, as energy, transforms the Seed, as matter.
Surprisingly, this understanding of Christ and the church leads into an astonishing universalism; in Proposition X:ii of the Apology, Robert Barclay describes the church as “the society, gathering, or company of such as God hath called out of the world, and worldly spirit, to walk in his light and life,” one that comprehends “all, and as many, of whatsoever nation, kindred, tongue, or people they be, though outward strangers, and remote from those who profess Christ and Christianity in words, and have the benefit of Scriptures, as become obedient to the holy light, and testimony of God, in their hearts. … There may be members therefore of this Catholic church both among the heathens, Turks, Jews, and all the several sorts of Christians, men and women of integrity and simplicity of heart, who … are by the secret touches of this holy light in their souls enlivened and quickened, thereby secretly united to God, and there-through become true members of this Catholic church.” He was not alone among Friends espousing this insight – one that confounds those who insist salvation is found only through an acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. (For an overview of the ways this dilemma faces missionary fieldwork, I suggest Who Do You Say That I Am? Christians Encounter Other Religions, by Calvin E. Shenk.)
To perceive the Inward Light as simply intuition or individual conscience is to ignore its revolutionary, cosmic, and even scandalous fullness. For here, connecting it to the Light of Christ, will unleash a radical Christianity, indeed.
Early Friends hoped to see this Light guide not just their religious activities, but those of the marketplace and government as well. It propelled them into a Lamb’s War that rocked English society before Quakers settled into a denominational respectability and acceptance, leaving behind a raft of changes in the larger society. Their power and influence came at a heavy personal price, just as it did for early Christians.
Some contemporary Friends, recognizing the power exhibited by the early Quakers, sense that something is missing or at least diluted in their own Meetings. For English Friend Rex Ambler, this has led to reexamining the writings of George Fox, “marking all of those passages that struck me for their clarity and depth, then listing the reference under one of his keys words, such as ‘truth,’ ‘power,’ ‘life,’ light’ (these four, as it happens, are the most frequent in his writing).” Ambler’s reason for undertaking this project was that Fox “nowhere set out his ideas as a whole, systematically. His writing (or dictating, as was usually the case) was nearly always occasional, responding to a particular situation and with the particular inspiration that came to him.” In the published version, Truth of the Heart: an Anthology of George Fox (Quaker Books, London, 2001), Ambler presents the original quotations side by side with modern translations, a decision he made after circulating his selections among a number of friends. Ambler admits he “didn’t anticipate the difficulty others would have when they came to Fox for the very first time, or even the second or third time.” For that reason, he also includes a glossary and closing essay.
In trying to make sense of other readings in Early Quaker Writings compiled by Hugh Barbour and Arthur Roberts, Ambler noticed he had marked a passage in their introduction, a section beginning, “The Light, a metaphor which suggests a searchlight into a well or a candle in a dark closet and not man’s own mental power, is not to be distinguished in early Quaker experience from Christ or the Spirit within men. The Light searched out sin and brought into sight all of a man’s inward emotions and outward acts, showing a man who he was, as through long evenings alone or at Quaker gatherings the hearer opened himself to Christ’s Spirit for redemption.” As his investigation deepened, Ambler deduced, “And here, in the early Quaker writings, I was being told that the first thing I had to do to gain liberation and peace was to face the truth about myself. But how?” He presents his findings in Light To Live By: An Exploration of Quaker Spirituality (Quaker Books, London, 2002), a companion volume to his Fox selections. Here he suggests ways of experiencing the Light, both individually and as a group, to deepen one’s worship. He includes a set of six-step guided meditations, to further understanding of the dynamics of silent worship in relation to the Light. He tells of ways the practice transformed problems he was experiencing and brought him peace.
Brian Drayton presents a parallel argument in Getting Rooted: Living in the Cross; A Path to Joy and Liberation (Pendle Hill Pamphlets, 2007). “In this attitude, minding the Light and not your trouble, I believe that in time you will find yourself relinquished from the grip of the problem and drawn more strongly to a new way of life, able to live into a new habit of mind.” He adds, “I have discovered that the sense of foundation that comes with even a small advance towards the Light is extraordinarily nourishing.”
Notice that for both Ambler and Drayton, steeped in early Quaker writing and now applying it to their own lives, this Light is a beacon that draws them out into a new realm. It is a more universal response than the highly personalized expressions of “Inner Light” might encourage.
To return to Scriptural foundations of understanding this Indwelling Light, listen to Paul of Tarsus, Ephesians 5:8-14: “You were darkness once, but now you are light in the Lord; behave as children of light, for the effects of the light are seen in complete goodness and uprightness and truth. Try to discover what the Lord wants of you, take no part in the futile works of darkness but, on the contrary, show them for what they are. The things that are done in secret are shameful even to speak of; but anything shown up by the light will be illuminated, and anything illuminated is itself light. … and Christ will shine on you.”
William Penn expressed this as well (A Brief Account of the Rise and Progress … of the Quakers, 1694): “The Light of Christ within, who is the Light of the world, and so a light to you that tells you the truth of your condition, leads all that take heed unto it out of darkness into God’s marvelous light; for light grows upon the obedient. It is sown for the righteous and their way is a shining light that shines forth more and more to the perfect day.” (Incidentally, the image of Light being sown, like seed, quotes Psalm 97:11.)
This inward revelation of God, continuing, becomes both an intensely personal experience and the force that draws its followers together. It makes Christ not some remote event in history, but a living Spirit across time and space. It leads people to look for God’s touch in those we meet, and to address those wrongs we encounter. How remarkable, then, that yielding to what has been called the Inner Light (with its own entry in dictionaries) can now be restored to its more revolutionary metaphor of the Inward Light, unleashing a force that can then also turn us inside-out, to stretch out through the universe and connect us to each other in daily relations.