A Short Course on the Theology of Friends
It has long interested me that members of unprogrammed meetings of the Friends of Truth have, as a group, taken very little interest in the theology of their sect. Undoubtedly there are reasons for this. One possibility is that, in our haste to let our lives speak, we place action first, focusing on our immediate good works, and see less need to spend time considering a broader context for our action. Another possibility is that since Friends have no creeds they believe there is no need for Quakers to have a more articulated understanding of their faith than what each individual member comes up with on his/her own. A third possibility is that we have simply failed to acquaint new members with our theology, leaving it up to them to discover it or not, as may be the case. There may be other reasons for the dearth of theological dialogue in our meetings, but all of them together do not constitute an excuse.
Because we have let theology lapse as a common subject for discussion among us, we have lost some of the source of our vitality. We live in a culture designed to distract us from consideration of more than our immediate impulses. Theology is generally considered an arcane subject that deals with meaningless questions having no relevance to our lives. This is not so. We are famished for meaning in our lives and in our actions.
What is essential for meaning is context. Context means placement, location, home; a perspective from which our experience of the world makes sense. Context has to do with our relationship to what is and our understanding of who we are. Theology is nothing more (or less) than our effort to gain a better awareness of the profoundest context of our lives. How could that not be important? Without this context our lives are set adrift on a sea governed by currents of desire or fear with no compass or destination. Without this context as firm ground under our feet we are in a condition that prevents us from answering that of God in everyone.
We need to let our lives speak, but we also need to be confident of what it is that we want that life to say. This power won’t be ours until we have made it ours by laboring together to test our understanding. A separate peace, in which I don’t question what you are thinking and you don’t ask me to account for my notions, won’t serve us. Our faith is personal, but it is not private. We are required to grow in the measure of Truth that is given us, and to do this we must get clear by sharing what we are given with those who are with us in the covenant of membership. We cannot speak to those outside our sect if we do not have some positive things to say. Saying the negatives, “Well, we don’t have pastors and we don’t have a program for our worship service and we don’t vote on business matters,” may succeed in persuading others that we are quaint but does little to help the world understand our message.
There are positive things to be said. I will risk stating some of them in hopes that Friends will revive a dialogue among us that will enable us to bring our message to a world that needs to hear it.
A theology is nothing if it is not a unified whole. Theologies don’t work as hodgepodge amalgams of clever ideas. An encompassing, coherent organization of our understanding is required. This is not to say that any particular statement of a theology is complete and finished. In fact, one of the aspects of Friends theology is that it expects us to grow in Truth. However, the changes that will come as we grow will not destroy the foundation, but rather will add strength to what we know. Friends theology is a solid unit, and though we can talk of separate points we need to be cognizant that in doing so we are not claiming that these can stand alone and apart from the rest. The separation is only to let us focus on one aspect at a time.
The first point of Friends theology is that Divine Love, Divine Power, and Divine Authority exist and are known to exist by direct personal experience. We have called this experience the Light Within or the Light of Christ within. We have also used many other names (“Truth,” “Seed,” “God,” “Word,” “Power”) to point to our experience. The proliferation of these names is evidence for the fact that the name is not the thing named. We may have a personal fondness for a name, but the fact remains that the name is only a pointer by which we point to our experience. The experience is primary. The name is secondary. Elizabeth Bathurst, a Friends theologian writing in 1679, had other names but she was clear about this matter.
For ’tis still but one thing I am describing, although rendered by divers Names: In as much as the sure Word of Prophecy, and the Day‐Star here spoken of, differ only in Degrees, not in Nature and Kind: both which Expression denote to us, that one gift of Light and Grace through Christ Jesus freely bestowed on all Men.…
In the rest of this essay I will generally use the name God to refer to this personal experience of a relationship with the divine. In doing this I risk some misunderstandings that I would like to clear up at once. I specifically reject all imaginings that have grown up around this name and all the games that ask pseudo‐theological questions such as, “Can God be in two places at once?” or “Can God keep secrets from himself?” These are games invented by those who have no experience of God and who are confined to the presupposition that God can be the product of their efforts to understand. What I want to discuss is the impact on me of the experience I have had and that I can see (by the fruits of their actions) others having as well. When I get clever and try to describe God, I find myself alone with my cleverness. My relationship with God is not an understanding relationship. It is a “standing under” relationship. I can describe the relationship because I am in it and I know its effects, but describing God requires a presumption I lack. Friends theology is about a relationship based in experience.
A key qualification needs to be made about this experience within. This is not a self‐experience or one generated by self‐will. In fact, the experience illuminates the conscience in a way that reveals the vanity of self and the hopelessness of relying on self as a guide to give meaning to our lives. This is what the “Light” lights up. Instead of self, we are brought to something stronger and more enduring. Fox called it the “Seed” to show that there was something else that could be nurtured and brought up in us. This experience of the Seed may grow slowly in some and faster in others. Some may be suddenly convinced of their condition and the need for loyalty to the Seed. Others, and I am one, come to this convincement slowly over many years as the inadequacy of the powers of self are revealed. Divine Love and Grace come to us when God finds us ready to receive them; not when we get a notion that they might be a nice thing.
A second point of Friends theology is that this Light, this Christ, is universal and there for all people. This experience, this relationship, is not just for me or for the “elect” or for proto‐Quakers. It is accessible to all. George Fox said, “Our God is a God at hand.” God is not a character in a book or story that we get to know by hearing or reading about God.
What is critical is the personal experience of the Divine; and that is possible for everyone. It does not matter if they cannot read or speak an articulate sentence. If they have the experience of the Divine, and respond to it, they are part of our fellowship. If they have not had the experience of the Divine or have not yet responded to it, they are still part of the covenant and one with us. This is why Friends are not evangelical in ways similar to other Christian groups. We have no Truth to bring to others like a product to be sold. We are called to show that Truth has us and, by example, to demonstrate to everyone that they too can be found by God within.
This point of Friends theology is the source of our Peace Testimony. We cannot make war on others because for us there are no “others.” We know from our experience that we stand in need of the Light in our consciences as part of our condition and in this respect we are no different than any other people. We understand this condition to be universal and the remedy of the Light to be universal also.
A third point of Friends theology concerns our understanding of Christ. Many liberal Friends of today would like to shed the concept of “Christ” and avoid any connection to a Christian past. I have even heard of Friends reprimanding other Friends for offending them by using the word “Christ” in their presence. I, also, have, in the past, declined to count myself a Christian. I now believe that what I was rejecting was something that came out of my experiences with the Jesus Christ I encountered in the fundamentalist and evangelical churches of my childhood. You most likely know the Jesus Christ I am referring to here. This is the one who came along about 2,000 years ago and preached until he got himself killed and came back to life and went up to heaven (whatever that is, it always seems to be up) and, if I now believe (a willful action on my part) that he did that for me, personally, I (ego intact) can get off the hook of my own mortality and be up there with him when I die.
This theology has two fundamental errors in it. The first is that it connects Christ solely with the person of Jesus. One might get the impression in following this erroneous theology that Christ was Jesus’ last name. The second is that it reduces the relationship between Christ and the individual to a voluntary contract. Historically, Friends have declined to be in any quid pro quo relationship with the Divine. We are the Friends of Christ and friends are bound by love, not by contract. The Christ put forward in Friends theology is much different and much more than the “contract” Jesus. In saying this I do not want to imply that Friends think Jesus’ life is without significance. The Christ of Friends was certainly manifested completely in Jesus, but early Friends could not leave Christ in that singular embodiment, however important that was to them. For Friends, Christ (by whatever name) is a reality that we can know personally and be in a relationship with now. This is why we do not consider the Bible to be the Word of God and why we do not believe that revelation is finished. Revelation is not finished because the Divine is not done with revealing to us an understanding of our relationship with God.
This we know by experience. Early Friends theologians made this point clearly. Elizabeth Bathurst maintained that “True Religion is of great Antiquity” and went to some length to argue that Christ was known to Abel and Abraham. The Christ of Friends is here now and always. Fox spoke of Christ being before time was. The life of Jesus is a demonstration of the Word being made flesh. The Word, Christ, is always being made flesh and always dwells among us. Thus for Friends, Christ as Jesus is important in history, but Christ is not confined to the box of that historical manifestation. Christ is the in‐breaking in time (including our time) of the eternal Word (John 1:1–2, Col. 1:15–20). And that Word is with us. Christ lives in us.
This brings us to a fourth point of Friends theology. The self we acquire in the process of our immersion in our culture, the ego we learn to defend and support in our daily lives, is not our most fundamental reality. George Fox talked about the Seed of Christ that could be nurtured within us and lead us to give up service to self. I would assert that to early Friends “convincement” meant they had the beginnings of a release from service to self and had come into service to the Seed.
These Friends got into a lot of debate with the Puritans over the concept of “perfection” based on Jesus’ command that his followers and friends should be perfect. Friends condemned the Puritan leaders for “arguing for sin,” meaning for the idea that human beings were fated to wallow in the fears and lusts of self throughout life and only discover after death if they were a part of the elect or the dammed. This theology left Puritans uncertain about their fate. The anxiety caused by this uncertainty led Puritans to look for “signs” that could indicate whether they were elected to salvation after death. Many came to see their business prosperity as a sign of God’s favor. (The wealthy of today still consider their wealth a manifestation of their superior virtue.)
Fox and other Friends were not satisfied with this view and knew by experience that it was false. They knew they had changed into a new service—service to the Seed of Christ within. They knew they had shed service to self and the will of self that had held them in bondage. They knew that by staying close to the measure of Truth they had in the Seed they were in that state that Jesus had spoken of as perfection. This is why Fox could make the radical assertion that Friends were brought back to that state that Adam was in before the Fall. Friends have long felt that if you have been convinced by an experience of the Divine within you, you have a totally new meaning and context for your life. You are shaken (and do quake) and your foundation in self is overthrown. Everything must change. Subscribing to a patch of belief wasn’t enough for us. We understand in our personal lives Jesus’ saying,
No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the new piece will pull away from the old making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, he pours new wine into new wineskins. (Mark 2:21–22)
Some early Friends demonstrated this estrangement from their own past self by odd locutions. For example, James Naylor who, when asked who he was, responded, “One that the world calls James Naylor.”
A relationship with God changes us or it is not a relationship with God. If you are holding on to the fears or the comforts or the pride of your old self, then you should question what sort of Quaker you are.
Finally we come to a fifth point of Friends theology. God finds us—not the other way about. No act of self can bring us closer to the Divine. The foundation is a new relationship that happens when we let go so that the “still, small voice” can be heard and come to lead us. If God, the Christ within, is here now with us, the meaning of our lives depends on our being in a relationship with that reality. We have to discipline our lives by ceasing to follow where our egos lead us and let the Teacher within find us and become our guide. This is the meaning of Matt. 10:34, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” and Matt. 10:38, “and anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” This new relationship has to sever us from our old allegiance to self, and when we begin to act from lives centered in the Divine, the fruits of our actions will show a difference.
Friends worship in the way we worship because we know by experience that God must find us. The form of our worship has to make it possible for the Seed within to come forth and lead us. The problem Friends found with the old forms of worship was that there was more form than worship. Those forms didn’t bring us out of the acts of self. Churchgoers sang and prayed and the pastor exhorted the congregation with the ideas he had collected that week. These forms treat God as though God is found “out there,” and Friends knew that God finds us when we turn away from “out there”—and self is part of the “out there.” God is not an object of the perceptual processes I control, so it is only by laying down those processes and being empty of my own will that God can find me and the relationship can happen. Hence the Friends program of worship is no program. God is worshiped in spirit by the laying down of our pride and ambition and coming to that which is eternal and eternally present. Worship is about being changed so that our lives are manifestations of love.
Friends worship is not meditation or quiet reflection on the week’s happenings or a chance to tell others of our angst over world events. Friends meetings can be used that way but it misses the point, which is to continually refresh a relationship with the reality of God. This is the relationship that brings us into a life that has meaning. Anything less is a mistake and an illusion. Fox called it a “deceit” to show that this illusion was false and a deception. For Friends, sin is whatever we do under the illusion that our ego‐centered selves are sufficient for a meaningful life. We can only escape this illusion if we let go of it and give ourselves up (literally) to be found by God.
Others might wish to divide differently aspects of the theology of the Friends of Truth. We have a rich heritage to consider. But for me, the points I have set forth are the ones that I can attest from my experience as a Friend. I offer them in the hope that we can work to bring our understanding together and strengthen our witness in the world.