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.
Blessings to all
Labels: James Nayler, That of God