Part Two of “Ohio Yearly Meeting Gathering and Quaker Spring”
At the 2016 Quaker Spring gathering in Barnesville, Ohio, one evening’s panel discussion focused on the meaning of early Quaker terms. While this may seem dry, it was in many ways the highlight of the week and gave me new insight into several important issues.
One discussion was about the term “Inner Light.” It prompted me to think about my own idea of the Inner Light and provided an insight into my current feeling of being lost. For me, the Inner Light is like a powerful flashlight I hold in my hand while I am standing lost in a dark cave. First, it shows me dead ends: ways I cannot get out, where I am deficient, what things need to change. Then it shows me a way out; it illuminates a path, a right direction that draws me forward to the light beyond the cave opening and into the bright light outside, to the spiritual life I want. But it does not in itself propel me forward: I must decide to follow it and leave the cave myself. Parts of the way out are likely to be difficult to traverse—a low tunnel with rough rocks under knees as one crawls, a slippery upward slope, even a chasm that must be leapt in faith. The Inner Light illuminates and beckons. In addition, God’s loving power provides energy and courage for the journey, when one asks for them.
The most interesting discussion to me was about the meaning of “the Truth.” Susan Smith of Rockingham Meeting near Harrisonburg, Virginia, led the discussion, drawing on ideas from Brian Drayton’s book A Language for the Inward Landscape, based in part on work by Bill Taber. Susan and her husband, Jack, are two of the reasons I’ve found both the General Gathering of Conservative Friends (hosted by Ohio Yearly Meeting) and Quaker Spring so meaningful. Both are incredibly spiritually grounded and speak with an authority that comes from long and deep personal experience, knowledge, and following the Inner Light.
Susan Smith: For me (and Jack, as well) the Inner Light is not particular to any person. It exists as an entity independent of any of us, while still within each of us. It is “the” Inner Light, just as Truth is “the Truth”—not “his Truth,” or mine. That’s why following the Light, just like standing in the Truth, draws us into unity when we all do it.
She said that for early Friends, the Truth was not a set of doctrines to be learned and followed, but rather a state of being. This phrase, “a state of being,” resonated with me immediately because it is the phrase I used to define what I thought was meant by “living in the kingdom of God,” in a book I self-published with that title. She and Brian defined the Truth as living in a state of being that was in complete harmony with God. Drayton states it in this way:
Truth is not a set of propositions or doctrines to be asserted, refined, and debated in the light of reason alone. When Jesus said “the truth will make you free,” he meant freedom into a fuller life and a greater ability to act on one’s understanding of God’s will.… The truth was a reality to be entered into by one who was ready.… Those who enter into the Truth, this reality, come to feel a sense of the divine harmony that holds our universe together.… A person who is in the Truth can be expected to act in harmony with the laws of what John Woolman called “universal righteousness.” To be in the Truth means that one can and will live out those standards of inward peace through outward gentleness, tenderness to all creation, and the right and just ordering of human society.
Rex Ambler puts it similarly when he writes: “Friends do not so much believe a set of truths or values, as trust a sense of insight that can show them the truth and then live according to that insight.”
Susan went on to say that someone living in the Truth behaves in a way that is consistent with what we refer to as testimonies, not because they had learned an acronym of items to be believed but because it was a natural outcome of being in the Truth: a normal way of behaving in contrast to the “abnormal” way of the world. This, too, resonated with something I had written in my book when I described the difference between how the man left beaten on the road and the good Samaritan would have described their experiences to their wives. For the beaten man, to be helped by a Samaritan, a presumed enemy, was astonishing: a contradiction of everything he thought about those people. For the Samaritan, it was nothing unusual or out of the ordinary because he was a man already living in the kingdom of God; his actions were the normal way a man living in such a state of being would behave.
This idea of a state of being occurred in several discussions I had about another term often used by Conservative Friends, a word I have trouble understanding: the word “Christ.” Although I consider myself a follower of Jesus’s teachings, “Christ” is still a word that causes me difficulty. I do not understand what people mean when they use this word, something that is undoubtedly influenced by my association of it with fundamentalist Christians. At Quaker Spring in 2014, I had quietly asked a number of individuals what they meant by this word, but in 2016 I decided to share my confusion more publicly, and asked the question during one of the meetings for worship. Jack Smith responded, and Susan Smith later amplified his comments. What I am writing here—about everything in fact—is how I understood it, which, I think, is consistent with what was said.
We each have within ourselves an Inner Light that is the presence of God. It is this that leads us to understand and overcome our shortcomings, and enables us to live in harmony with God’s will. Sometimes this inner presence is described as “Christ consciousness”—or, as Canadian psychiatrist Richard Maurice Bucke described it in 1901, “cosmic consciousness”—an awareness of the divine essence of the universe and the unity of all within it. The word “Christ” is a shorthand way of referring to that. It is not the name of a person; it is something each of us has that is not the same as conscience or reason but something deeper for which George Fox used the phrase “that of God.” Each of us strives to live in a state of Truth whereby this inner presence influences our thoughts and actions to the degree that we are able. The only difference between Jesus and us is that he was able to live in the state of being in Truth completely, something the rest of us have not achieved but which early Friends felt was possible to achieve.
Susan Smith: I believe that this doctrine of “never getting there—never being complete— until we die” is erroneous and leads not only to confusion but also either to despair or to detachment from things spiritual. I concur with early Friends and many later ones that not only is it possible to live in Truth, or in the kingdom of God, but that we are called to do that; indeed, that’s what getting out of the cave is. God doesn’t ask us to do something impossible—hard, yes, challenging, yes, but not impossible—for anyone! The goal is not to get there, but to live in God’s love and Truth and power as we go. Oddly, the metaphor that comes to my mind right now is working a yo-yo, which I find really hard to do. Nevertheless, when I have had a yo-yo going well, I’ve felt wonderful. When it (I) failed, I started it up again and felt good when it worked. I didn’t worry about my not being able to yo-yo successfully forever.
For Conservative Friends, Jesus is called Christ, meaning the Anointed One, because he was anointed by God to embody this perfection from birth, whereas we strive to achieve it during the course of our lives. And because he embodied this from birth, those actions or ideas of his that we think of as radical, and were thought of as radical by people of his time, were for him just the natural way to behave—the normal way, that is, for a person living in that state of being.
These are ideas that I can grasp intellectually. They make sense to me; in fact, they make more sense to me now as a result of the conversations I had at Quaker Spring. But I still stumble over the idea of Jesus being uniquely anointed by God to personify this state of being from birth. I think of Buddha and George Fox. Buddhists believe that all people have the potential of achieving Buddhahood, of achieving enlightenment, to be awake, which, after all, is a state of being, too. The words are different, but the concepts are the same. Gautama Shakyamuni, the one we call Buddha, is recognized as having been the first to achieve this fully, as a result of various experiences he had during his lifetime before he was enlightened at age 35. The potential was always there, but the realization was not present at birth. In a way, it was the same for George Fox. He always had an Inner Light but began his life in a state of confusion. It was the result of his experiences, his “openings,” that he came to realize “that of God” within him, and could live “in the Truth.” Each provides an example I see as relevant for me: if they can do it, I have the potential to do it, too, something Jesus’s anointing by God takes away, thereby preventing his example from applying to me.
Susan Smith: Thee is right in sensing a difference. There is a difference with Jesus, a difference that can be sensed but that cannot be effectively captured with rational thought. Jesus was different from birth, even from before birth. Many of Jesus’s specific acts can be examples for us personally: binding up the wounds of a robbery victim, refusing to deal with fraudulent vendors, calling out and avoiding hypocrisy, being willing to suffer personal insult and harm, and more. And we can ponder, discuss, and endorse his teachings. But we cannot achieve Jesus’s complete and perpetual spiritual state only by emulating his example, however hard we try. And here may be where human understanding fades out. Through Jesus, God offers more than an example, and more than a legacy of important teachings. The fullness of what the man Jesus had and the spirit of Jesus now can only be felt and known through our spiritual experience.
And when we come into that spiritual experience, even if only very briefly or partially—just a flicker—we are enabled to live more fully in Jesus’s example. Perhaps, during that brief moment, we are flooded with love for someone we’d been annoyed with, or scared of. There may not be time to do much about it before the warmth is gone, but that’s a beginning. Spiritual growth is a term we use to refer to the increasing frequency or length of those flickers of living in the Light of divine guidance, of obedience to Christ. (Sorting out the “right” name for the experience is a distraction from the experience itself.) When we are willing, even briefly, the Inward Light draws us more and more into that experience of unity in and with Christ. Our feelings, our attitudes, and our actions become more harmonious with God.
So how do we get to feeling that spiritual experience? Not, ultimately, by thinking about it. The Inward Light, the Holy Spirit, and the Seed are all words used to point to that spiritual connector that lies within each of us that we cannot turn on or off. The best we can do, I think, is to have faith that it is there and be open to its work. Yes, it is a light shining in that dark cave, chasing away shadows, discovering dead ends, illuminating right pathways, healing hurting places, suddenly blinding in its glory, and drawing us all into the unity of Life with God.
When we move into picturing that light and describing its work, we are back into rational terms for a spiritual force. The real Life and joy and power are in the spiritual, where we can also be when we’re willing. We learn that it is safe to let ourselves be brought back and forth, sinking down into that place where we give over our own willing and then rising up again, refreshed and invigorated and full of the love and power that flows through Christ.
I sense the measure of the uncertainty of my faith in the face of the certainty of faith I find among Conservative Friends and among those who attended Quaker Spring. It is a certainty that continues to inspire and challenge me and draw me back into their presence.
Susan Smith: So who or what is Christ? Feeling after what I have been writing here, I conclude to say that Christ is the spiritual connector between human beings and God. The man Jesus was anointed to be that connector in person, to show and personally teach the people around him how to know (that is, experience) God’s love and power and joy. The people around Jesus were sufficiently impressed and changed that they wrote down their experiences and went to great lengths to offer other people the good news that they, too, could experience that deep connection with God.
But no one can have it secondhand. Knowing about it is not that experience (just as knowing about the Grand Canyon, for instance, is not knowing it). But Christ-the-connector continues to be available to each of us, within us, drawing us into God’s love as our own experience and as the love with which we embrace others.
Many other things happened at Quaker Spring, including important discussions about how to make the event more welcoming to a greater diversity of Friends. Other participants undoubtedly found different aspects of it more relevant to them than were the ones that were more relevant to me. That is part of its beauty. Quaker Spring is held every year in June or July, alternating between Barnesville, Ohio, where it is held right after Ohio Yearly Meeting’s General Gathering of Conservative Friends, and a location nearer New England. In 2017, that will be the Oakwood Friends School in Poughkeepsie, New York, June 23–28. For further more see Quakerspring.org.