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?




Blogger Liz Opp said...

Thanks for this post, Will. I especially appreciate the seemingly trivial, down-to-earth examples you give. They speak to my condition.

A while ago, while surfing the net, I came across a reference to the "quadrilateral" and sources of authority in religion, and your post again reminds me of it.

Though the quadrilateral is attributed to John Wesley, Quakers seem to rely on these sources of authority as well to test a leading. Quakers may also add community, as you reference here, and continuing revelation as additional tests... or maybe they are encompassed in the other four:

(Continuing revelation)

Anyway, I would have to agree: there have been times when I have felt a clear leading, which at the moment made no sense and surely did not have "reason" nor even "community" behind it. But the EXPERIENCE of God's prompting (or push!) was undeniable...

...and following that leading has led me into a cherished friendship that I could not have discovered otherwise, I do believe. What the fruit of that friendship may be--the fruit of the individual leading--may take years to be revealed, but I do in my heart believe I was faithful. Nothing has pointed to the contrary.

Liz, The Good Raised Up

July 22, 2006 10:05 AM  
Blogger Rex said...

I know of only one sure-fire test for 'leadings': wait&see! {Reality always has the last word!) If the results turn out to be seen as good by everyone affected, I would be satisfied to claim that the 'leading' was from God. But since 'everyone' is alot of people (over 6 billion now) & because it may take a long time before the impact of my action reaches all of them & because, even after it reaches them, it may take even longer before any one of 'them' has an opportunity (& the motivation) to tell anyone else how they feel about that impact, we are all forced wait forever before we pass (rigid) judgment on our leadings! [That may be why we are advised to judge not (at least not rigidly) that we be not judged (rigidly)! So my policy is to seek community discernment whenever possible but to go ahead & act whenever the time seems right. And then, of course, watch & wait to see what actually occurs & to see how others are affected!

July 22, 2006 10:44 AM  
Blogger Will T said...

Thank you for the quadrilateral. I think that there are a number of things we use to test our leadings. What Barclay was saying, I think, is that the leading comes first. You can test the leading but you cannot create a leading out of Scripture or reason or tradition or whatever.

I think that waiting is often a good test, but I am not sure about waiting forever. I think that the Quietism of the Classical period of Quakerism has left us with the ideal of waiting to be absolutely sure that we are led and that there is no trace of our own ego in what we do. That tradition led to habitually silent meetings and a declining membership. One of the ways we learn is by doing something and seeing what happens. Perhaps we need to give oursleves permission to act and pay close attention to the results. I have read an account of William Penn, having been detained for some reason on the way to a Meeting, walked in when the meeting had already gathered and started giving ministry before he had even gotten to his seat. While I don't recommend this as a normal practice I think it is an interesting story in light of the knots that some people seem to get tied up in trying to decide whether or not to speak in meeting.

Thank you both for your comments.


July 22, 2006 11:00 PM  
Blogger Rex said...

Will, please note that I did not suggest that we wait 'forver' before acting on a leading, but only that we wait forever before we pass a rigid judment on wether or not it was from God. The implication here is that we should never make rigid judgments about anything!

July 25, 2006 7:37 AM  
Blogger Will T said...

Point taken. But I still think that Friends are often too comfortable with waiting and too reluctant to be doing. We want to be absolutely sure before we act but my experience and what I read in the journals is that the indications of faithfulness only come after the act. While we don't want to be rigidly judgemental we do need to make discernments and at least conditional judgements about whether we were rightly led. This is part of the feedback loop that is how we learn. There is a place for boldness as well as meekness. It is getting the balance right that is hard. And I know that I need more work on that myself.


July 25, 2006 9:36 PM  
Blogger Rex said...

Sure "we want to be absolutely sure before we act," but since we can never be abolutely sure about anything, we're stuck with just having to be human and just do our best in every situation we meet! And part of that 'best' is (or should be) challenging each other to our best & the best way to do that, it seems to me, is just keep doing our very best ourselves (so our verbal challenges are backed up by our own efforts!) Let's keep trying to live love & love life (as best we can!) always trying to keep a double focus on maintaining our personal well-being so we can do our part in maintaining our corporate well-being!

July 26, 2006 7:15 AM  
Anonymous Richard NCYM (c) said...

Here's another slant on discernment of true leadings.

1. Start with the inner sense of conviction but don't stop there.

2. Ask for help with discernment from other experienced Friends. that's why we have clearness committees.

3. Look for what Quakers have called "Way opening" or what Jungians would call synchronicities. External events sometimes fall into place in a way that confirms--or corrects!--a leading.

Finally, if the leading is small and doesn't seem to involve danger or major disruption to anyone's life, just act immediately. The feedback from following these "microleadings" gives valuable experience that helps one over time to discern the difference between that which is genuinely from God and what is just another one of my crackpot ideas.

July 31, 2006 11:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Scriptural test is not problematic at all as you wrote at the beginning of your post. The problem is with people who do not have God's one and only Holy Spirit baptism that we must have to be born again. Robert Barclay described God's one and only Holy Spirit baptism in much of his Apology. The Scriptures remain sealed to everyone without God's Holy Spirit baptism. The Scriptures seem to contradict themselves but only for those who do not have God's Holy Spirit baptism. The Scriptures remain the letter that kills but only for those who do not have God's Holy Spirit baptism. Jesus Christ said those of us who hold on to His Teaching will know the Truth and we will be set free from sin, Jn 8. Jesus Christ said He will give His true followers Words and Wisdom no one can resist or contradict, Lk 21. What He said is 100% accurate and i can prove it again and again. What i learned, i learned 3 and 1/2 years before i knew what the first true Christian Quakers believed in and wrote about but i learned exactly what they did and we only differ on very few, very minor non-salvation issues. That is not possible unless it really is God's exact original Gospel Truth and it is. I boast in the Lord as the first true Christian Quakers of 350 years ago did. God's Word was written on their hearts and in their minds as it will be for everyone with God's one and only Holy Spirit baptism, the baptism we must spiritually drink, 1Co 12:12-13; Eph 4:4-7. anne robare / canawedding at aol dot com

June 21, 2007 2:47 AM  

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