Growing Together in the Light

A place for Friends and others to explore Quakerism. A place where, in the Light that comes from God, we may all grow and where we may hope to find a unity that underlies our diversity of language.

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Location: Arlington, Massachusetts, United States

Raised a Friend, I am currently a member of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, Mass. I am also active in Salem Quarterly Meeting and in New England Yearly Meeting.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

How do we know it is God?

Barclay, and early Friends, claimed that the promptings of the Spirit were the ultimate rule. As Barclay said, “for this divine revelation and inward illumination, is that which is evident and clear of itself, forcing, by its own evidence and clearness, the well-disposed understanding to assent, irresistibly moving the same thereunto,...” In more modern language he is saying that divine revelation would be self-validating. You would just know that it was correct. Of course this is also a symptom of schizophrenia, so how do you know that it is God and not the voices?

Barclay proposes two secondary tests. First of all, divine revelation will not contradict Scriptures and secondly it will not contradict sound reason. But the Scriptural test is problematical. A lot of the Apology is Barclay's attempts to show that Quakerism does not contradict scripture but it is clear that the Quakers interpreted the Bible differently than most Christians of their time. In fact, they interpreted the Bible differently than many Christians of this time as well. So what is the proper interpretation of Scripture or is it sufficient to come up with a possible interpretation that fits your revelation. And since Quakers also claim that you can only understand the scriptures properly if you are living in the Light and Power that gave them forth, the logic begins to seem suspiciously circular. The Quakers used the Bible to argue in favor of ministry by women. And those who oppose ministry by women to this day use the Bible to justify their position as well.

The other test, that of sound reason fares little better. Many people claim that sound reason leads them to conclude that God does not exist. Depending upon your premises, sound reason can lead you to a number of different conclusions. What is reasonable depends upon what you are trying to do. At times in our lives it is reasonable to save money for the future. At other times it is reasonable to spend the money we have saved. So when is the prompting to save prudence and when is it miserliness. When is spending our savings a right use of our resources and when is it being spendthrift. How do we tell God's promptings from our own sometimes neurotic inclinations?

Besides, what God asks us to do does not always look that reasonable. Do you think that building an ark and gathering animals would have passed the sound reason test if Noah had applied it before it started raining. Often we don't know that we have been rightly led until afterwards. I suspect that one reason that there are so many Quaker stories about unlikely leadings speaking to someone unexpectedly is to provide encouragement to not lean excessively on the test of reasonableness. But for every Stephen Grellet preaching to no one at the abandoned logging camp only to find years later that he had converted a hung-over logger hidden from sight, there is a perhaps deluded James Naylor riding into Bristol. And how do we know which it is in the heat of the moment before we have the advantage of historical hindsight?

The limitations of both Scripture and reason are why Barclay only claimed them to be secondary tests. They can only serve to suggest that we examine our leadings more carefully. Quakers are often admonished to not outrun their Guide. But it often seems that our Guide is leading us out of our comfort zone. So when is “I am not comfortable with this” proper restraint and when is it unfaithfulness because God does not want us to be comfortable? Much of the spiritual life is learning to tell these kinds of differences but it is not easy. Often it is a matter of trial and error with many cases of error.

But in spite of all the questions, I can testify that Robert Barclay is right. There are times that God has opened things to me and I have known them to be right. Sometimes they have been insights about myself. Sometimes they have been courses of action that I have had to take. When this has happened there has been a deep seated feeling of rightness about it. So I am slowly learning to recognize right leading in myself. What is sometimes harder is to recognize right leading in someone else. But that is the heart of corporate discernment. And how do we recognize right leading when looking across the issues that divide us as Friends?