Friends within God's Light

My initial experiences of traditional Quaker worship left me wondering just how Friends, working within Western Christian teaching, had essentially rediscovered silent group meditation, something widespread among yogis and Buddhists in the Far East. Coming, as I was, from life in a Hindu ashram, I could criticize the postures and breathing of individual Friends within the room, but I could not escape acknowledging the underlying current. I was home.

Only much later would I also discover how much of the Quaker practice is also found within and supported by biblical texts. First, there are the many passages, especially in the Hebrew Bible, urging people to wait for God—much as a good waiter stands ready to respond, when needed. As Quakers, we maintain a "waiting worship."

Second, and of particular importance to Friends, are the New Testament passages of Light and Christ that embody a concept of Logos, which is usually translated as "the Word," as happens in the opening of the Gospel of John. Logos, a stream of Greek philosophy predating Jesus by at least five centuries, has been traced to Heraclitus (ca. 535-475 BCE); the term is described variously as a "principle," "agent of creation," "agent through which the human mind can apprehend and comprehend God," "intermediary," "soul of the universe," "reason," "plan," or even the underlying connection between opposites—a means of reconciliation. This is certainly the sense of both Light and Christ I find in the close reading of early Quakers.

"Mind the Light" is an ancient counsel among Friends. Indeed, when our movement first swept across the British Isles, we frequently referred to ourselves as Children of Light, applying a name found in Luke 16:8, John 12:36, Ephesians 5:8, and 1 Thessalonians 5:5.

While early Friends were hardly alone in using Light as an element of religious discourse, their encounters and descriptions did advance Light as a defining element of Quaker faith. In rejecting dogma and creed, while emphasizing instead direct spiritual experience, Friends spoke of Light in ways intended to direct others toward what they themselves had felt. Their representations were often passionate, profound, and even radiant, but their arguments ultimately emerge as circular, or tautologies. They never quite said exactly what this Light was in ways that people who hadn’t encountered it might understand. Part of the problem originates in the New Testament passages of Light that Friends applied to their own discoveries. A more difficult part of the problem, however, originates in the blasphemy laws facing early Friends. Systematically following their arguments to logical conclusions would have led too far into what would have been considered heretical, prompting authorities to invoke the death penalty.

Friends were under enough persecution as it was, something that forced them to couch their words carefully despite their apparent boldness. As a result, crucial gaps developed in their message, so we are left without key parts of the equation. In the process, Friends never satisfactorily counterbalanced their expressions of Light against trinitarian Christian arguments regarding the crucifixion, resurrection, and atonement of Jesus. I am convinced that this reconciliation can be accomplished, but only after methodically working our way through the veiled implications of early Quaker thought. Indeed, it appears the failure of the original Quakers to fully articulate their revolutionary understanding of Light left the Religious Society of Friends vulnerable to the divisions that ripped it asunder in the 1800s, especially when faced with language and practices based on Jesus as one’s personal savior.

Of course, this is the field of theology, an inquiry to which many Friends express aversion. We have seen theological disputes too often lead to schisms, rather than deepening a common understanding and experience. Nonetheless, throughout history, people have sought answers to life’s central questions—the mysteries regarding creation and origins, life and death, birth and sexuality, family, ethical behavior, poverty and wealth, peace and conflict, persecutions and suffering, disasters and abundance, and so on—and the responses often appear in the context of religion. Attempts to make sense of them, then, leads into theological discourse. Its conclusions, in turn, direct individual and group practices, a sharing of experiences, and teaching a next generation the evolving traditions.

The fact remains: we Friends do engage in meticulous theological inquiry, despite claims that such labors have largely rested since Robert Barclay’s cornerstone Apology was first published—in Latin in 1676 and English in 1678.

Because Quaker theological work has typically been personal, small-scale, focused on daily practice, and often pragmatic rather than theoretical, we may not even perceive it as theology unless we reconsider. A crucial element of Quaker theology, especially in its first century and a half, was its emphasis on individual experience. Truth, Friends proclaimed, was to be uncovered within oneself, rather than without. Unlike the legalistic logic employed by Calvinists on one hand, and Jesuits on the other, in which theology becomes an elaborate system of law and speculative verdicts, Friends largely related their encounters within the process of metaphorical thinking, with Light as its unifying image, which led Friends to engage the Bible from a unique perspective.

George Fox argued, "You will say, ‘Christ saith this, and the apostles say this,’ but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?" At another point, he contended: "The holy Scriptures were given forth by the Spirit of God, and all people must come to the Spirit of God in themselves . . . for as the Spirit of God was in them that gave forth the Scriptures, so the same Spirit of God must be in all of them that come to understand the Scriptures." Within the early Quaker manner of thinking in metaphor, Light and the Spirit of God are synonymous.

In my early years among Friends, I related the image of Light to the way I had been taught to meditate: sitting before a single candle, we would gaze at its flame and eventually close our eyes, holding the afterimage behind the bridge of our nose, as long as we could—in a space referred to as the Third Eye, the opening into intuition. Light also worked to relate another sensation of deep meditation, where we begin to feel "light," as in weightlessness; in this, one may also relate a sense of being transformed from bodily matter into something ethereal, such as the energy of light.

Those of us who came of age in the 1960s and ’70s can also relate light to illegal drug use; hallucinations, after all, are an entirely individual experience, and psychedelic is a synonym for colorful. Strobe lights, ultraviolet "black" lights, and light shows were all part of the scene. For many youths, these encounters did open awareness that there were other ways of experiencing mundane life.

As a spiritual metaphor, light works marvelously. It is not seen in itself, but in what it illuminates. It comes from a source and travels to an object. It reveals anything from a lost object or one’s place in a landscape to Revelation itself. It sustains life through photosynthesis in chlorophyll-containing organisms. It accompanies warmth and comfort. It represents knowledge and wisdom, in contrast to ignorance. It is energy, rather than matter.

This emphasis on Light set Friends apart from conventional Christianity, where "Word" was instead applied as a central religious metaphor. Through the knowledge of modern physics, we can appreciate the spoken word as a vibration—that is, as energy (a commonality with light). Word can also be a means of conceptualizing and conceiving, of naming and claiming, of commanding and ordering, of relating and evaluating. Word, moreover, can also become an object, especially with the appearance of writing. It becomes a vessel and a tool. From Word, then, one can pass easily into words, and away from metaphorical thought. Crucially, words are also the basis of law, leading to an entirely different kind of religious experience and practice, and a different kind of theology.

Both metaphors are at work in the opening verses of Genesis:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. . . . And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

Over the generations, most of the religious teachers who have pursued this religious branching—Jewish, Christian, and Muslim—have concentrated on what God said, that is, the words. Friends, however, returned to the Light, essentially focusing on what God did and does. As the Quaker saying goes, "Mind the Light." Freed of the blasphemy laws, persecution, and subsequent self-censorship that inhibited early Friends from rigorously defining and fully expressing the dimensions of this Light, modern Quakers are now finally beginning to reinvestigate this essential metaphor of their legacy. Author and teacher Rex Ambler, for instance, describes his work and the resulting "Light groups" in Light To Live By: An Exploration of Quaker Spirituality (2002) and Truth of the Heart: An Anthology of George Fox (2001) [both published by Quaker Books, London]. In a recent Pendle Hill Pamphlet, The Mystery of Quaker Light, author Peter Bien includes a presentation on Logos as well as author and teacher Samuel Caldwell’s list of characteristics from Quakerism 101: A Basic Course for Adults. Here, the Light is defined as:

  • divine—not equivalent to reason or conscience; not "natural"
  • single—one and indivisible, not my Light vs. your Light
  • unifying—brings us into unity, draws Friends together
  • universal—works in the life of every person
  • eternal—existed before time and will exist forever
  • pure—perfectly good, unerring, and infallible
  • unchanging—our awareness of the Light changes, but the Light itself does not
  • personal—not an abstract force
  • inward—implies action, dynamic; the Light shines withineach of us
  • saving—brings us into right relationship with God, ourselves, and each other
  • guiding—will lead us into a more meaningful, richer life
  • resistible—we are free to ignore the guidance of the Light
  • persistent—our perception of the Light may dim, but we can’t completely extinguish it
  • empowering—will empower us to do what is required, even if we feel inadequate
  • ineffable—cannot be fully understood and described

We should note that while these qualities are offered from the unprogrammed end of the modern Quaker spectrum, some individual Friends in that range may quibble over various points. More important, though, is the admission that Friends at the pastoral, evangelical end of the spectrum are likely to be largely baffled by the list. Here, many would find the words "Christ," "Jesus," or "Holy Spirit" to be more meaningful than "Light"—a substitution that would prove equally as baffling for most quietist Friends.
A dialogue addressing these differences will, I believe, bring all strands of today’s Friends to a profoundly revitalized faith and teaching, with revolutionary consequences. For non-Quakers, the conversation promises to expand an understanding of what it means to be Christian, regardless of whether one approaches the subject as a member of another denomination or a non-Christian religion. Along the way, the implications can be unsettling for all, which is all the more reason to mind the Light as we grow.

In 1654, in a remarkable epistle to "Friends in the ministry," George Fox brings these concepts together:

There is no justification out of the Light, out of Christ. Justification is in the Light; here is the doer of the will of God, here is the entering into the kingdom. Now believing in the Light becomes a child of the Light, and here is received the wisdom that is justified of her children. Here believing in the Light, you shall not abide in darkness, but shall have the Light of life and come every one to witness the Light that shines in your hearts. . . .

With this life you come to reach the Light in every man, which Christ enlightens every man that cometh into the world withal. And here the things of Christ come to be known and the proof of Christ heard. Keep in the Light of the covenant of peace and walk in the covenant of life.

While Fox maintains the convention of applying male pronouns to Christ, as he does later in the letter, "Christ has come to teach his people himself," here Fox tellingly mixes the gender of reference: Light to her children. And how has Christ come to teach this people? As Light! Here, then, in male and female, is another reconciliation of opposites.

Here, too, is a key to my early question of how Friends came to practice group meditation. In simple sitting, we feel the Light itself. Our awareness grows, leading us to follow it ever more conscientiously. "Mind the Light," with its variants, such as "Stand in the Light" or "Walk in the Light," expresses a revolutionary theology. It arises from extended personal experience, rather than creed. No wonder we speak of Quaker faith and practice as one.

Jnana Hodson

Jnana Hodson is a member and clerk of Dover (N.H.) Meeting. Raised in a mainstream Protestant household, Hodson came to Friends after dwelling in a yoga ashram in Pennsylvania, not realizing many of his ancestors had been Quakers and Dunkers (German Baptist Brethren). An editor for the daily New Hampshire Union Leader, he is also the author of two published novels, and his poetry has appeared widely.