When Is a Creed Not a Creed?

A Quaker meeting in the eighteenth century, vintage engraving.


Revisiting That of God in Every Man

“That of God in every man” is a phrase from George Fox that Friends often bring up when asked what Quakers believe. And we are asked. Many of us live in cultures where religion equals belief or faith, and faith is defined less as fidelity or trust and more as assent to specific ideas.

But Quakerism isn’t entirely that sort of religion. Quaker pastor Philip Gulley, in his introduction to Living the Quaker Way, addresses the question of whether Quakerism is a way of life or a religion:

For some, Quakerism is a religion, a way of comprehending and relating to God, usually through the life and witness of Jesus. But that is not all it is. For the atheist Friend, Quakerism is a way of living in the world so that the world is made more just, loving, and peaceable by his or her presence.

Creeds creep up on Quakers despite our inherited suspicion of theological “notions.” Ben Pink Dandelion’s hilarious bit on YouTube describes his teasing Friends about the need for a creed, even if it’s just a little one, only creed-ish, renewed and revised perhaps at yearly meeting. In his sketch, Friends grow increasingly intense in their resistance until they almost shout, “We believe that we do not have a creed!” (the video is an excerpt from a 2013 talk at Canadian Yearly Meeting).

Creeds are the kind of growth that, under ideal conditions, flowers and crowds out the weeds. You know what you’re getting right up front, for example, when you attend a church of a specific denomination, as opposed to one set up by a freelance pastor. “Drinking the Kool-Aid” is an expression of the risk inherent in following a self-appointed leader. Creeds can make religious belief safer.

And easier: many religious beliefs are comparatively hard to hold onto in isolation. How a person sees the Divine, or the nature of the universe, or the purpose and meaning of life is different from how a person sees a chair, or a car, or even another person. When contemplating the unseen, company is reassuring. Skepticism rocks the boat. Group agreement makes belief much easier to sustain.

When contemplating the unseen, company is reassuring. Skepticism rocks the boat. Group agreement makes belief much easier to sustain.

But apparently many contemporary Friends don’t even agree with George Fox, let alone with each other. Lewis Benson looked deeply into Fox’s writings in his article “That of God in Every Man”—What Did George Fox Mean by It?” (originally published in Quaker Religious Thought in 1970).

Benson attributes the original drift away from Fox’s distinctly Christian view to the works of Rufus Jones and the literature of American Friends Service Committee. He states the influence it’s had this way:

The elevation of “that of God in every man” to the status of root principle has affected Quaker life in several areas, namely: the peace testimony, social testimonies, the meaning of membership, and missions.

Reading Benson and a later commentary from George Amoss Jr. in his blog, The Postmodern Quaker, I still find it hard to pin down exactly what Fox meant by the expression. Just when I think it’s conscience, the writers say “no.” When I imagine it as a sort of innate potential in each person, I’m getting warmer, but that’s not right either.

It is, as I understand Benson’s explanation, an ability, sometimes unrealized, to know God through an Inner Christ. Awakening that ability is seen as the sole path to relationship with the Divine, and it can be awakened by the teaching and behavioral examples of others in whom it is more completely realized. Jesus did this in a way Fox and his contemporaries viewed as necessarily unique, and Fox told Quakers to strive to be similar examples.

The awakening Fox described was not only an enlightenment but also an impetus to repentance. The world that Fox advises Friends to walk cheerfully over probably was not the planet but the fallen realm Jesus refers to when he tells his followers to be of good cheer because he has overcome the world (John 16:33).

“That of God in every man” apparently started out not a statement about the innate nature, let alone the value, of people. It was part of a prophetic message, in that Fox promised that under the right circumstances Quakers might be “cheerful” or confident their lives would inspire that particular change in others—a change imagined in terms Christian Puritans of the seventeenth century would have found familiar.

Amoss says he is himself not a Christian theist. He seems not to recommend that modern Friends take Fox literally but that they take his words seriously and look for elements of lasting relevance. Our testimony about integrity, he says, requires that when we attribute an idea to somebody, we are not “walking cheerfully over the facts.”

Our testimony about integrity requires that when we attribute an idea to somebody, we are not “walking cheerfully over the facts.”

This past November, when my meeting discussed Benson’s and Amoss’s articles and grappled with their interpretations of Fox’s words, we determined that we could be Quakers as legitimate as Fox, even if we saw things differently from him. The leaps from us back to Fox and from Fox to Paul, writing centuries before about Jesus who lived before Paul’s own time, were seen as comparable.

However any one of us may have experienced “that of God in every man,” many of us readily admitted that we had known times and people that made us ask, “Really? If it’s there, where is it? And why is it so hard to see?” But nobody complained that the idea caused us to overvalue people or give them the benefit of an optimistic portrayal they didn’t deserve.

I think our conversation had deep, secure roots in our tradition—a tradition with its own built-in iconoclasm. Often Puritan and reform movements seem to hope that they’ve finally “found it,” and that the seeking process may safely stop. Not so for modern liberal Quakerism. From the start, Quakerism has continued to invite Friends down new byways.

If Protestant thought simply stopped right after Luther got the reassuring idea that faith is more important than works, creedal varieties of Christianity might have been the only brands offered. We might not now be remembering that George Fox fussed about “notions” and asked people to let their “lives preach.”

Quaker practice presupposes that religion will not be static. Whether any individual person calls that progress or degeneration, and no matter how people may long for the security of creeds, thought seems to always slip the bonds.

No matter how people may long for the security of creeds, thought seems to always slip the bonds.

As Friends, we continue to hold group meetings for worship to inspire us and to convene clearness committees to help test our leadings. In our queries, we have devised an unusual catechism that contains only questions. We have to provide the answers not once and for all but over and over.

Jesus’s statement in Mark 6:4 that a prophet is not without honor except in his own country has special significance, I think, for Quakers. Our religion tends to be more prophetic than theological, more practical than theoretical. To the extent that Quakerism itself is our “own country,” there will always be tension at home. We may long for creeds and occasionally welcome those that spring up wild in our midst at the same time that we struggle to slough them off. Our processes, though they may leave us yearning for certainty, conspire instead to offer the hope of Truth.

Watch Ben Pink Dandelion’s playful teasing of Friends’ need for a creed (referenced above):


Ann Birch

Ann Birch is a member of El Paso (Tex.) Meeting, where she is currently the clerk. She is a librarian, a grandmother, and active in local theater.

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