Wednesday, July 19, 2006

"That of God" and idolizing dead quakers

So, there's lots of discussion of this "that of God" concept out there - mostly on Rich's "Brooklyn Quaker" (I am so not into doing links right now, but they're in my sidebar) and extensions on "Embracing Complexity" and "Plain in the City" (and probably elsewhere)

I'd like to say that I find it an interesting topic, but I have to say I mostly find it a depressing and despair-provoking topic. I feel as if I've just seen this little flurry of quakers getting moved to a sort of exstasy at the beauty and power of the idea that there is NOT that of God in everyone.


If quakers don't believe that there's that of God in everyone (and not just that "from God" to help them find - as I think I've seen suggested) then I'm not a quaker. Whoa, identity crisis.

I'd mentioned a bit ago that I'd probably be a "digger" if that had survived and become some tangible, living spiritual and social movement. Or maybe I am a digger in my heart, but quaker meeting is the best organized place I've found to be one. Not sure, not sure.

But I know lots of quakers who do believe there is that of god in everyone, not as a visitor, but as core to their being. So I'm not giving up yet.

And, in a highly anti-convergent (I guess) move, I have always found that the concept of "that of God" in everyone (and I do include nonhumans in that - another less than common perspective) speaks to my experience of the divine. That it is nearly inseperable from life, and from love, actually that it is inseperable, as it is one body, or being, or element, or any number of words for a thing there are no words for.

Apparently, the topic came up in the context of not torturing and killing people - do we as quakers oppose such things because there is that of God in those people? or for some other reason? I do for a number of reasons, I suppose. One being that there is that of God in me - and it says, no! don't hurt another reflection of the divine, yourself, life, potential goodness. It also says simply don't hurt - don't take that evil upon your own soul. It also doesnt' want to cause pain - regardless of whether it is to a "bit of god" or simply to someone who can feel it (but for me, those things are not so different)

Someone expressed concern, I think, with having so little faith in God that you think you would be killing it if you killed a person. It's not that - though you'd certianly be maiming it, at best (?) It's that when I am most in touch with God - when my breath falls into place with the universal - I stand in awe and love of every living thing,, perhaps of every being thing, and killing or intentional cruelty simply becomes not and option.

Does this mean I think reform is always possible? I have no idea. I don't have a lot of faith that anyone could have broken Hitler's heart (the easy example, forgive me!) and opened it to divine love of life and compassion. what's more important is that I certainly wouldn't want to risk more lives by simply professing a pollyannaish faith in such an outcome. Certainly we need to find a way to heal wounds, to fight infection and disease in our souls, rather than ignoring them in the name of quakerly love. i don't know the answer to this one, and as far as I know no one else does either, but we keep struggling, loving, trying and learning.


Secondly, it has come up a lot that that's not what George Fox meant. He wasn't saying anything about the inherent worth of humans, but was talking about evangelism (answer that of God in each person - perhaps God is like a beneficial parasite??)

I'm not all that sure that I care what George Fox meant. From the little I know (and I never have tried to wade through his journal, or really any of his writings) George Fox was very earnest, a visionary, a passionate spiritual seeker, and a bit of a loon. Clearly there was that of God in him, but there was that of lots of other stuff too, we don't have to bronze all of it and place it on our altars (oops! we don't have altars, we're quakers!) However it came into our quaker vernacular, I am most interested in "what canst thou say?" - and I don't exclude those who think Fox was right-on about this - but don't quote Fox like he's my authority, tell me why the words of Fox resonate for thee, and speak to thy truth today



Liz Opp said...


You ask some hard questions here.

I have started a number of replies to one or more things you and others have either posted or comments, but can't seem to catch up yet.

Hope to get back to you and some of your questions soon.

Liz, The Good Raised Up

david said...

This is a complicated kind of issue no doubt. And I agree -- there's something odd about trying to invoke GF as warrant for a position here.

Behind this are a number of issues. First - whether GF believed there was "that of God in everyone" or not Robert Barclay and Isaac Penington and others did. But they likely meant soemthing slightly different from what most liberal Quakes today meant by it. Some people for soem reasons want to unpack this.

Second, saying we believe in peace because we believe in that of God in everyone is trying to be too much like other (doctrine based) religions I think. Surely we beleive in peace because that which is of God in us leads us to choose peace not becasue we can build arguments based on the more basic doctrine of that of God!

Rex said...

In my quest for 'truth' it occurs to me to ask: For you, is God a Being or is God Being itself? For me, God is not a thing or a person. God is an indescribable animating energy/force that makes possible all Beingness, by endowing it with a capacity for self-(or 'being'-)
directed 'doing'. So (obviously, to me) there is 'that of God' in every 'doing/being'. (I say 'doing/being' because I don't see how any being can 'be' unless it also 'does' (or is done-for by other 'doing/beings')! I also suspect that it is our awareness of the crucial nature of beingness that actives the 'voice of God' within us.
While I'm at it, here's a description of Quakers that I like: Quakers question even their own questions in their quest for peace & justice!

Rich in Brooklyn said...

Since I'm the chief instigator of the current "that of God" debate on the blogosphere (see this post), I'd like to clarify that neither I nor any of the other Friends who share my viewpoint have said that there is not that of God in everyone. I would even agree with Pam that one reason I won't kill is because there is that of God in me. That of God in me (aka "the Light") is that which, above and beyond my natural and human upbringing, shows me what is good and loving and right, and also what is evil and to be avoided (like killing people, for example). Unfortunately, the phrase has come to be used as little more than a religified way of saying "there's some good in everyone, so we should treat everyone nicely."

George Fox comes into this debate only because for so many decades Quaker writers have been carelessly saying that George Fox based almost everything on the presence of the Light, or that of God, in other people. He is said to have treated people as equals because they had that of God in them, to have rejected war because our enemies have that of God in them, etc. The thing is that you can search every epistle, tract, and book he wrote and find absolutely no evidence of this line of thought. I maintain that the same is true of Robert Barclay and Isaac Penington. (especially Barclay; I confess I've only read a little of Penington). They believed in the Light as a God's witness in every soul, not as a little piece of God whose holiness somehow infuses those who have it. So the reason I follow Lewis Benson in discussing what George Fox meant by this phrase, is to refute the widespread misunderstanding of what he meant.

Does it matter what George Fox said? Well, whatever he said certainly doesn't settle the question of whether it's true. But unless we correctly understand what he said, we can't evaluate it. For me, the message George Fox actually did proclaim about the Light of Christ, as well as the message he proclaimed about the spirit and power that takes away the occasion of wars, have been life-changing. My whole spiritual life has been rooted in these teachings, and I find the watered-down sound-byte version to be much less satisfying. It is frustrating to not be able to speak of these things and be understood, even among Quakers, because so many Friends have never clearly heard the powerful message which launched our society, but have heard something else, appropriating the same phraseology.

- - Rich Accetta-Evans

Thee, Hannah! said...

I know I ought to read more historical Quaker writings but I'm torn between the knowledge that it would be edifying and the thought that it either won't change much or will actually drive me away. At the same time, I'm always suspicious of historical writings on ANYTHING because we're all products of our time and, while nothing ever changes, nothing ever stays the same, either. I don't advocate changing out of all relation to our roots, but I'm afraid I believe in "abstract Quakerism" rather than worrying too much about what long-dead English-descent middle-class Christian male said what and how do we need to translate this directly into our present-day lives. Spirit rather than the letter of the law, I guess. I just don't see how a lot of it translates and, besides, Quakerism was in its "protozoan stage"--single-cells in the Primordial Soup. The building blocks are still there but I don't see why people are so distressed that it has changed so much (just as the last time I checked, Homo sapiens had come a long way since the amoeba stage, thank goodness).

Pam then commented that she sometimes wasn't sure where "That of God" left off and "everything we do is OK" ended:

I see these as two separate things. Obviously, everything we do is not OK, but I don't think that means that That of God (yes, I'm still an atheist but I'm not going to argue terminology today) isn't there. Sometimes we forget to listen to it. Sometimes it's blotted out by other crises. Sometimes it's not the same g/God. We're human and the world is a very complex and very stressful place.

I think that denying That of God in our enemies, or taking advantage of their loss of touch with their own That of God, is a very dangerous thing. It's much easier to rationalize hatred and retaliation when we deny that connection.

Plain Foolish said...

Wow, Pam, thank you. This is an incredible post.

Paul L said...

Your questions are good , Pam. I think Rich's answers are the best ones I've seen so far.

To which I'd add: If we claim to be Friends and make public statements under that mantle, citing our tradition as a way of giving additional authority to our statement, we're obliged to state that tradition accurately. In other words, if we want people to give more heed to what we're saying because we've been saying it and living it consistently for several centuries, we shouldn't misstate what "we've" been saying all that time.

If today's Quakers have a radically different understanding of what "that of God in everyone" than what the originator of that phrase had, we need to own our reinterpretation for what it is and not try to claim old George as a witness on our behalf.

That doesn't mean Fox's understanding was right and the modern understanding wrong; it simply means that the modern understanding isn't what Fox meant, and we shouldn't try to put our words into his mouth. If we think the modern sense is a better understanding, so be it, but then take responsibility for it ourselves.

An example: The commandment traditionally rendered in English as "Thou shalt not kill" actually means "Thou shalt not murder," meaning that you should not kill a human being without justification. It therefore cannot properly be used as a proof text for, say, vegetarianism or anti-capital punishment without doing violence to the text itself. (This is not to say that a bibilical case against killing and eating animals or the death penalty can't be made, only that this text is too weak a reed to support the arguments.)

I confess I used to hold to the modern, proto-pantheistic understanding of "that of God" until I read the Benson pamphlet, and the references to Fox he cites. I'm now convinced that Fox's use of the phrase is more meaningful and more powerful not because he said it or because it is more "authenticly Quaker", but because it rings more true.

earthfreak said...

Paul -

Thanks for your input. It does make a lot of sense to me that if we are going to use Fox as an authority, we must be true to what he said, rather than putting words in his mouth.

The first issue that arise for me out of that is that I don't see Fox as an authority, much less do I believe that the public at large does. Still, Quakers do have a history and a "rep" (well, many I would say) and if we are going to choose to bank on that (a choice I am inclined to question anyway) we need to be honest about what exactly we have been doing for 350 years.

In actuality, the testimony against war arose, as far as I know, out of a statement issued to try to cover our asses (excuse me) and not get branded enemies of the state, essentially. I'm not pariticularly proud of that reading of that part of our history.

However, living in the power that takes away the occasion for all outward wars (I dont' remember the exact phrasing) does resonate with me, and really has nothing to do with god or worth or anything else about the other people in the world. I think it is a very good reason to eschew wars (the seeking to "rise above it" as it were)

As far as 'that of God in every person" goes - I do find deep resonance with how I've always interpreted it - though I am perfectly aware that a full fleshing-out of my interpretation would most likely have left George Fox (and most quakers throughout history) cold, if not inspired a good tongue-lashing. I am a pantheist, and find that much more awe-inspiring that the visions of God that I glimpsed through other people's windows as a child.

You get to the most interesting point for me, though. What I am yearning to know is that - why and how is that interpretation more true for you???

I have to admit that for me it's disturbing because I hear overtones of a statement that leaves me cold
- that people are inherently seperate from god, that they may be infused with god, inspired by god, but that left to themselves, they are utterly god-less

And, as far as why we embrace nonviolence, I have a concern about saying what may boil down to

"because we're so enlightened"

rather than

"because each life is precious"


earthfreak said...

Wow, this is all so good! And I just realized I haven't responded to most of the comments here!

Dave - YES!!! what a knack you have for looking at a debate between two "sides" and finding the truth off in a corner somewhere, out of the fray.

We oppose war because we are led by spirit to oppose war. Of course. we can say some of how that feels or manifests to us, but it is NOT doctrinally based, and that it a large part of why I feel like a Friend

Rex - YES! again! For me "God" and "Being" are as good as the same thing (I am re-realizing, that all words have a sort of "margin of error" in attempting to convey the "Truth" - based on what you've said elsewhere) _ thank you!

Rich - I always appreciate your posts. Though I think we agree on very little (and more and less as we delve deeper!) I appreciate how thoughtful and spirit-grounded you usually are.

I agree with you about the frustration of its 'watered down'-ness. it is certainly more than 'be nice to eveyrone, cause they all have some good in them" - though, as far as it goes, I think that's a fine sentiment.

I also understand the commitment to being faithful to what Fox said. One thing I was wondering about though, is that as I recall no mention was made (in the minute that disturbed you) of either George Fox or Quaker history. If your meeting was simply saying "this is what we, as quakers, believe NOW" - neither of those things would necessarily be at issue (except, of course, as there were two members who felt that it DIDN'T speak to what they believed)

I would like to see more people talk more about how what he DID say was life changing. As I've said, it hasn't struck me the same way (perhaps partly because I have never been fully comfortable with christianity itself) and I am hungry to understand more about its power.

TH- I think we share a mistrust of reliance on historical writings. As I referred to in this post, if that's to be and remain the wellspring of our faith, then I will have to seek elsewhere for a spiritual home.

but I think it is very important to make the distinction between rejecting historical writings' authority, and rejecting those who find power in it. While "George Fox said it" has no more power to me than "I saw it written on the subway wall" - if Rich or Paul comes to me and says, "I have read this, and it's had great power for me, and this is why" - That (often) has immense power for me. I suppose that all I am saying is that some traditions serve us well, and are "true" in some eternal sense, and some are not. it is worth keeping them around, "trying them on" as it were - and embracing what fits, or is beautiful, and discarding what no longer fits. (not with convenience, but with the leadings of hte living spirit)

I really like the "primordial soup" analogy. and find that I, too, believe that sometimes George Fox saw things differently from me not because he was more enlightened, but because he had less information. If we have "outgrown" a tradition that has been helpful, let us recognize that and move on. but also, let us check fist, with spirit.

I also agree about denying that of God in others. I think it came up in our email exchange, that it is relatively easy for those of us in the US (or, not in the middle east) to sit here and say what the Israelis, for example should be doing, or wouldn be doing if they were only as righteous as we are. this is a dangerous path.

Paul- Do you have a copy of the Benson pamphlet that I can borrow???


Will T said...

I would like to respond to your comment In actuality, the testimony against war arose, as far as I know, out of a statement issued to try to cover our asses (excuse me) and not get branded enemies of the state, essentially. I'm not pariticularly proud of that reading of that part of our history.

It is true that the letter to King Charles was written to keep the Quakers from being confused with the Fifth Monarchy Men who were found to be plotting rebellion. We mistakenly call that letter the Peace Testimony but it isn't. The Peace Testimony is the testimony of the lives lived. By this point the Quakers had already established a reputation for not responding to violence with violence. They did not respond with violence when their meetings were disrupted. They did not resist beatings. They did not resist being hauled off to prison. Thomas Lurting (Fighting Sailor turned Peacable Christian) reports how Christ showed him that he could not kill another person. This was a particular problem for him as he was boatswain's mate in the Royal Navy at the time. He relates that this happened to him before he learned that Quakers did not fight and his conversion happened before 1655.

The reason Fox and the other ministers gathered in London could write this letter in one night and deliver it the next morning to the King was that it was a describing what was already the accepted practice among Friends.


earthfreak said...

Will -

thanks for the clarification. I must admit, I am pretty skay on Quaker history, though I did assume that they didn't really make it up on the spur of the moment to steer clear of political trouble.

I do still find it interesting, though, in the fact that it would seem to say (or imply) that we don't challenge governments, or were "not a threat" - which in later years we most certainly did. I wonder if this had any part in the original intent (is civil disobedience unquakerly?)

Will T said...

Quakers have performed civil disobedience so it is not unQuakerly. In the instances I am most familiar with, it was not aimed at overthrowing the government. Instead it stands in witness to what the government is doing. It recognizes the power of government to punish but is willing to accept that punishment rather than stand by in the face of injustice.


Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

I've spent some days letting this one settle in my brain, before attempting this reply.

Rich Acetta-Evans has written above that "neither I nor any of the other Friends who share my viewpoint have said that there is not that of God in everyone." But I have since then posted a comment to the relevant article on his blog site, "Brooklyn Quaker", in which I point out that, in the view of early Friends, "that of God" might cease to be present in a person if the person denied it and walled it off long enough.

Thus Edward Burrough, the early Quaker leader, declared, "...Because thou art departed from the Living God by thy Transgression ... he is departed from thee...."

Robert Barclay, the Quaker theologian, stated, "many men may out-live this day [of being visited by 'that of God'], after which ... God ... suffers them to be hardened."

And Daniel Wheeler, the Quaker agriculturalist and missionary, wrote, "We may sin out the day of our visitation; then the candle of the Lord is withdrawn, or put out; for He hath declared, 'My Spirit shall not always strive with man.'"

And many other early Friends made similar statements -- William Dewsbury, Isaac Penington (quoting the Psalmist as an authority), and Deborah Bell, to mention a few in my files.

But let me point out that when such early Friends used the phrase "that of God", they didn't mean by it what you seem to mean by it. By "that of God," they didn't mean, your soul. They meant, the Voice of God in your heart and conscience.

And thus, when they said, "that of God" might depart from a person, they weren't saying what you appear to me to think that statement means. They weren't denying the equality of all people, they weren't denying that all people are special, and they weren't denying that all people are given a fair chance by God to hear and unite with Him (Her). They were simply saying that, if you block off the Voice of God in your heart and conscience long enough, it can go away. You can lose it -- you can even lose it forever.

And they drew a moral from this: Don't miss the chance while you have the Voice speaking in you: hear it now, let it guide you now. "Prize the time!"

So, Pam, you ask: "...Tell me why the words of Fox resonate for thee...."

And my answer is, it is because they match my own experience, remind me of precious possibilities I have nearly forgotten, and have, over they years, helped me to discover new possibilities I had not previously been aware of.

earthfreak said...

Marshall -



Anonymous said...

hi pam,

i'm a newer friend attending a meeting that's part of northern yearly meeting. i don't have a blog of my own, but do occasionally like to check out what some of you folks have to say. after spying this entry this evening i wanted to leave you a quick note to let you know that you are not alone in your beliefs. and i sense that you know that, but sometimes it helps to hear it anyway. :)

in some ways i think the whole liberal-versus-convergent debate has been greatly oversimplified. i understand the frustration a lot of convergent-identified folk express regarding the permissiveness and lack of depth in liberal quakerism and feel that many of their criticisms are spot-on, but i don't know that spiritual orthodoxy is necessarily The Answer to what ails the tradition, either - at least, not for everyone. in other words, i think it's possible to have "liberal" beliefs and not be pushing an individualistic, superficial personal agenda. finding a way between doing your own thing and submitting to a path that is very traditionally christian is difficult, but i think it's doable, with a lot of love and careful, constant attention.

and regarding the whole "that of god in every person" argument, the way that i look at this personally is influenced by a concept from a philosophical branch of hinduism called vashisht-advaita vedanta, or qualified non-dualism. the idea is that there is literally that of god in each human being, but in a limited quantity. the analogy that's used to explain it is usually something like that of god in us is like a raindrop or a glass of water compared to the ocean: the two things are of the same substance, but do not have the same power. so in other words, we have that divine spark which guides us, but we cannot do what god does. whether or not this is what rufus jones or whoever meant by this phrase is not of great importance to me, honestly (i'm confused about whether or not fox actually said/wrote it at this point). regardless, i believe it has something to say about the nature of the light and how it operates in us and through us that is not especially well articulated in christian tradition, but is not inherantly opposed to it, either.

anyway...this is way longer than i intended it to be so i'll sign off now, but know that there are some folks out here in the greater quakerverse with whom your writings resonate. ;) take care of yourself.

James Riemermann said...

I just sent this response to the Quaker Universalist e-mail list, where Pam's post has been discussed, and thought I'd post it here as well:

The well-know passage in which Fox utters the phrase in question is this: "Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them. Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you."

I will grant that Fox said and believed many things that are not amenable to modern liberal Quakerism, and we should not pretend otherwise. In many such cases my personal inclination is to leave Fox behind. I am not a Foxist, but a modern liberal Quaker. But the fundamental intended meaning of "that of God in everyone" seems to me reasonably in tune with the obvious and modern liberal Quaker understanding: every person in the world has something within which is divine and to be loved with all our hearts; by so loving others we tend to draw out the love that is inherent in them. I don't know why one would want to interpret this lovely and generous statement as unlovely or ungenerous.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.