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.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

That of God in Everyone

The phrase “that of God in everyone” has become commonplace among Friends but it is not always clear what it is referring to. In fact, it has become one of those phrases that seems to hide as much as it reveals. I am never sure what people mean when they use it. Do they think that there is some sort of spiritual organ inside us like the islands of Langerhans? Is it something fully formed in all of us, or just a potential? Is it one of those phrases that we use that has lost all meaning? I tend to think of it as a phrase used by modern Friends as shorthand for some nebulous concept that they would prefer not to examine too carefully, either for fear of fracturing our unity or just because they have never thought about it much.

This fall I have been reading Volume IV of the Works of James Nayler from the Quaker Heritage Press. This volume contains his writings roughly from his trial for blasphemy until his death. One of the things that I noticed was his use of the phrase “that of God in every man.” I don't recall seeing it in his earlier works but it kept showing up in his later writings. In his tract A Door Opened to the Imprisoned Seed in the World I found a section headed Grace received, and Grace rejected which seemed to describe what he meant by that phrase. I want to examine this in the hope that this might be useful to Friends.

The grace of God is that which brings salvation to man, all men being natural darkness, as they are in the world without God, so the grace of God is tendered to all without respect of persons. And that's it in every man which gives him a sight of truth in himself, which truth God by his grace accepts in every man, who would have all men to come to the knowledge thereof that they might be saved. Now this grace in itself is one in every man and is of God in every man...

Here Nayler is equating, that of God in everyone with the grace of God and that this is what brings all people to salvation. One of the things that I think is important to note is that the grace is the same in all people. This is the basis of Quaker Universalism. This grace is available to all and the same grace is available regardless of the words that they use to formulate their understanding of God or the spiritual life. But note also, that it says that there is only one grace. It is not that we each have our own grace, that somehow they are different but of equal value. There is no relativism here. There is one grace here and it is the same grace in every person. This is not cheap grace and it is not anything goes. It is not everyone can believe what they want. There is one grace, one voice, that is present in everyone. This voice, if listened to and followed will lead us to God. We may have different words or understandings about this voice. These are not important. What is important is the obedience. This does mean that our communities are required to do the careful listening and discerning with each other to see when we are using different words to refer to the same thing and when we are using the same words to refer to different things. This is not easy to do and requires a lot of humility, listening and trust to achieve.

The second thing to notice is that this grace is from God. It is not something that we can lay claim to. It does not, by itself give us any claim to being better than anyone else. It is not something peculiar to Quakers. In fact, the natural state of all is to be in darkness and without God. This initial state of darkness does not need to imply some state of Original Sin or that we are somehow guilty or sinful. (I do realize that there are Christians who do believe in Original Sin and in the fundamental guilt of mankind. I also know that there are many people who have been wounded by that theology. Robert Barclay was clear about denying an inherent sinfulness of mankind, but that we all became sinful as we united with sin in our actions.) It does recognize that we all begin our spiritual journeys by looking for God. If we are looking for God and the Light, we must be in darkness and without God. We would not be looking otherwise. There does not have to be condemnation here. It is just the way it is and we are. Babies are born helpless and unable to move about. There is no blame in this, this is just the starting point of their physical development. Likewise, our sense of the separation from God is the starting point for our spiritual development. It is only by the grace that God has placed in us that we can see the truth in ourselves. God would have us all accept this grace and see that truth in ourselves but it is our choice. It is this grace that comes from God that is “that of God within us.” It is important for us to remain clear that this voice of God within us is not of ourselves in any way. There is always the temptation of pride to claim this voice for ourselves, as if we can control it or posses it. This is setting ourselves in the place of God and we must always be vigilant against this.

So that is the grace of God which is of God in man, ministering in Spirit light to the soul in the midst of darkness, ministering life to that which is dead in sin, leading that through the vale of death up to God from whom the grace hath appeared, and of whom it is; and the light thereof is judgment and discerning in everyone that receives it to be led with it in judgment, and condemnation to such as turn it into lasciviousness, denying the life thereof and the truth that leads thereto, and so cannot be saved through it, but he that receives it and joins to it in Spirit becomes one with it, and by his daily sinking into it in counsel it grows in him and he in it, until it becomes a habitation and cover for him against all evil, and so he becomes gracious in words and works, daily receiving grace for grace, of his fullness.

That of God is that which will guide us if we receive it and join with it but becomes our condemnation if we reject it or use it as a cover for following our own wills and if we deny within ourselves the life and truth given to us by grace. Understood this way, “that of God within everyone” is not a safe and soothing concept. It is great strength hidden within meekness and humility and it drives everyone to make a choice as to whether to unite with it and come to transformation and the life of the Spirit or to reject it and with that rejection a rejection of the fullness of life.

This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.
Deuteronomy 30:19-20

Blessings to all

Will T

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Thursday, December 02, 2010


There seems to be a common distinction made by Friends between orthodoxy, right belief, and orthopraxis, right action. It is postulated that liberal Quakers are more interested in orthopraxis and the Orthodox and Evangelical Friends are more interested in orthodoxy. One such example is from C. Wess Daniels' article in Quaker Life on Convergent Friends.  I think that this distinction misses the core of what Quakerism is about. The core is not orthodoxy or orthopraxis, it is orthoakoe. What is orthoakoe? It is a word that I just made up which means right listening. According to the lexicon in Strong's Concordance, akoe means “hearing (the act, the sense, or the thing heard).” Since I don't know Greek, if any readers who have a knowledge of Greek have suggestions for a better word, I would be glad to hear them.

The key to the spiritual life is to listen to the voice of God, the Divine, the Spirit, the Guide, whatever you call that still small voice that nudges you towards God. An important part of the spiritual journey is learning to recognize that voice and be able to distinguish its voice from all of the other, often much louder, voices within us. As Robert Barclay puts it, “It is the privilege of the Christian to know their Shepherd's voice.” This voice does not much care what we call it. It also does not care particularly about what mental constructs we create to make sense of it. What it wants is for us to pay attention to it. Sometimes it shows us our shortcomings and it expects that we will sit with that until we see the way forward to overcome these. Sometimes it shows us the nature of the other voices we hear so that we can learn which voice to follow. Listening transcends belief.

Once we have heard the voice, the voice expects us to follow its promptings. We have a general idea of what changes will happen to us if we obey these nudges. We expect that they will bear the fruit of patience, forbearance, peace, equanimity, integrity, love and compassion. But there is no set of rules or actions to take. We have to rely on the promptings of this voice in determining what particular action we should take in the particular case that is before us. Listening transcends practice.

It is difficult to listen when you are talking. This is why centering practice is so important. If we are going to hear the voice within, we have to quiet the din within. I don't know where I got the idea from but I remember as a small child lying in bed as went to sleep trying not to think. I got to the point when I was only thinking the thought that I was trying to not think any thoughts. Then I tried to make that thought go slower and slower. I remember wondering what would happen if I stopped thinking even that thought, but the prospect scared me. Only later did I discover that I had taught myself to meditate with the help of one of the most cumbersome mantras I have ever heard of. Lately I have had moments when meditation when that inner chattering voice has gone silent. It does make it easier to hear God.  Listening requires practice.

As we learn to hear the voice of God in ourselves, we are called to another form of listening as well: Listening to the voice of God in others. At one level, this is the ability to hear when people are saying things that apply to us. Sometimes this is when they are speaking directly to us and sometimes it is taking to heart what they say about themselves or their experience. There is another level to this, and that is listening words into being spoken. Sometimes we need to listen deeply to provide that space for the words to come into. This is part of what we do in unprogrammed meetings for worship. The intensity of our listening may draw forth words of ministry from someone in our midst. This does not deny the role of God in prompting vocal ministry, but a lack of receptivity in the body can sometimes block a minister from giving a message and intense listening can draw forth a message that might not otherwise have come. A harder form of listening is to listen deeply to those that we disagree with, people we find objectionable, and even those we might consider our enemy. But we must listen to these people as well to hear if perhaps God is sending us a message through them. The hardest part is to listen to these people so intently that we draw out the words of God from them.

All of this is orthoakoe.


Will T