Friday, 24 November 2017

What Is "That of God in Every One"?

Engraving of George Fox
We often quote George Fox, but do we do so
without regard for what he meant?
One of the most well-known, and to many well-loved, traditional Quaker phrases is “that of God in every one”. Perhaps because of the advance of liberal sensibilities, perhaps because the phrase is used in isolation so often, rather than in its usually-cited context, the meaning of the phrase seems to have become rather woolly, disconnected from how it was originally meant, and – to my mind – less than useful.
Nowadays, people often seem to take it, or use it, to suggest that there is something good about each person, that there is something worthwhile or even laudable about each of us in this strange species we call “human”. That's an idea, as far as it goes, and it's often something worth pointing to, but people struggle with it when relating it to historical (or modern) figures in whom it is difficult to see any redeeming quality – be it serial killers, genocidal dictators, or ethically and morally bankrupt figures in business and politics. It's still valuable even then, as the reminder that there are essential principles to our treatment of people, now enshrined in law in many jurisdictions, that cannot be compromised however awful we think the people in question might be. However, it misses what I consider to be both the essence of what Fox likely meant in that famous quote, and the most useful interpretation we can put on it today.
It is probably a good idea at this point to have some more context for the most frequently cited use of the phrase by George Fox. It contains several other popular short phrases of Quaker cliché, and so it also puts those in their common context. It comes from a letter to ministers scribed for Fox by Ann Downer, while he was in prison in Launceston, Cornwall. A fuller text can be found in Quaker faith & practice, the Book of Discipline of Britain Yearly Meeting, paragraph 19.32, but that text ends with this:
“And this is the word of the Lord God to you all, and a charge to you all in the presence of the living God: be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.”
And here we have so many of our well-loved (clichéd) phrases: “be patterns and examples”, “that you … life may preach” (often now said as “let your life speak”), “walk cheerfully over the world”, and, of course, “that of God in every one”. This tightly bound series of clauses are clearly dependent on one another, and so, in Fox's conception, so must have been their meaning. That meaning can also be inferred from other elements of the letter, such as, in the preamble:
“that in the wisdom of God over all ye may be preserved, and be a terror to all the adversaries of God, and a dread, answering that of God in them all, spreading the Truth abroad, awakening the witness, confounding deceit, gathering up out of transgression into the life, the covenant of light and peace with God.”
Fox was an evangelist, a proselytiser. He had a message, and it was his calling to spread that message – and to call on others to spread it also. This is a source of some discomfort to many liberal Friends today, whose Quakerism is informed by the legacy of the quietist period of Quakerism, one aspect of which might be summarised by saying “we do not proselytise” – something some of the first Quakers I knew told me when letting me know more about their faith. This is not true for all Quakers today, especially in the evangelical and pastoral branches of the world family of Friends, and it certainly wasn't true in Fox's day. As such, this letter is an exhortation to carry on this work, despite the obstacles and persecution such Friends would face. As well as an exhortation, however, it contains a simple set of principles instructing them on how to do so. It is important, as it gives a somewhat different course to what we might expect simply looking at Fox's own early attempts to instruct the populace as to their religious errors, often involving impassioned speeches in church, during services, and in alehouses. To me, the first extract above is a series of step, a route one must take in order to properly minister and bring people to what the early Friends considered the sole and single religious Truth. We might see these steps clearly as:
  1. Be patterns and examples, wherever you might be;
  2. Let your carriage and life “preach”, or speak by way of instruction, to all those you may come across;
  3. Walk “cheerfully” over the world, answering that of God in each person.
Taking these apart further is, in some cases, made quite difficult due to shifts in the meanings of words that are now hard to be sure of – while there are many hypotheses, some with reasonable evidence, I am not aware of any solid study giving clear evidence of the likelihood of different meanings. Those suggested based on arguments related to Fox's propensity to quote scripture, or to theories of linguistic shifts, include that “cheerfully” meant “courageously”, “fearlessly”, or “comfortably”, but few who have looked at it seriously have, in my experience, suggested it takes the meaning we would naturally give it today.
Discomfort over the word “preach” causes liberal Quakers to substitute “speak”, even though the meaning is clearly different – we may justify it to ourselves by supposing we are simplifying archaic language, but I cannot see that is simply the case; Fox did not mean that the lives of ministers should simply speak to those they came across, but that it act as a means of instruction more compellingly sincere than any sermon. Likewise, it is possible that “world” in this case doesn't simply mean the world we see before us, but the “world” of Christian thought, the place of vices and sin, pain and death, the “world” of unrepentant humans that Christ promises to lift us out of – though denominations and lines of Christian thought differ as to when and how he is to do so.
So, Fox urged ministers to act in a way that others might profitably emulate, in a spiritual sense of profit; in so doing, show them a Godly way to live, and draw that part of those they meet that is in contact with God towards that life; and finally, in so doing, walk over the world – possibly the world of sinners, not of those “in the world, but not of the world” – comfortably or courageously, or without fear, and become able to answer “that of God in every one”.
The central theme of this, to me, is that your actions will speak to “that of God” in the person, but not necessarily to their conscious mind, their current practices, their beliefs. It will draw that divine spark up, in recognition of the demonstrable presence and dominance of the spark of the minister, and allow it to become ascendant. By being thus shown patterns and examples, by being preached to, by being answered by the minister, “that of God” in others would rise up and take control of that person, causing them to repent and discover “true religion”. I think it is safe to say that it was not intended by Fox as a statement of universalism as we consider it now, but rather in the universal ability of sincere belief and practice to convert anyone, whatever their current beliefs and practices, however wicked they might be, or indeed however wrongly pious.
Now, I am certainly one of the most ready to say that we should not hold Fox as the ultimate authority on Quaker principles and practice. Indeed, holding anyone to be such an ultimate authority would be contrary to the principles that Fox espoused; the inward teacher, the Holy Spirit, the Light of Christ – these are the names of the authority Quakers look to that Fox would recognise. Nor should we treat Fox's life in hagiographic manner; while he is often considered the founder of the Religious Society of Friends, he was certainly only one person among many, from different backgrounds and religious persuasions, that gave rise to our Society. Nonetheless, we should not make free use of his words and claim they mean something that we can be fairly certain was not his intention. Claiming that Fox said something, and that it advocates universalism (in the sense of religious pluralism), is either mistaken or intellectually dishonest.
Yet many Quakers, myself included, feel that the Spirit leads us towards that sort of universalism. Indeed, that approach is not entirely absent from early Quakers, as when Penn declared that “humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion” (QF&P 27.01), or Mary Fisher, following her attempt to convince the rulers of the Ottomans, noting “they are more near Truth than many nations; there is a love begot in me towards them which is endless … though they be called Turks, the seed of them is near unto God, and their kindness hath in some measure been shown towards his servants” (QF&P 19.27). It is not necessary to co-opt the words of Fox to promote universalism among Quakers.
And yet, for all its evangelical fervour, and its lack of universalism, that famous quote of Fox, and the well-loved phrases within it, are not meaningless to today's non-proselytising, liberal Quakers. We still hold to the idea of letting our lives preach (even if we don't like that word), and being patterns and examples – often used to argue against the need for explicit outreach, in my experience, which is also a dubious appropriation, but I agree with Fox that even were we to proselytise – which I do not advocate – and when we do engage in outreach, those are necessary prerequisites. We must make of our individual and collective lives an illustration of the benefits of the principles of our faith in order for others to understand and appreciate it, even as we must make explicit efforts to help people understand on a more intellectual level, and to encourage them to try our practices if they feel so inclined.
But we come back to the phrase that is used blithely as a summary of a key point of Quaker theology, as well as misused to advocate universalism. What is “that of God in every one”? What meaning can universalist, liberal Quakers take now, that is useful both for refining our own thought and for expressing our principles? It is one of the few instances where I will often use the word “God” when describing my own beliefs, because it is a quote – where I am speaking entirely for myself, I simply substitute “the Divine” for God, or maybe “that which is Divine” for “that of God”. Theologically, it is a key principle for all Quakers, a reflection of Fox's assertion that “Christ has come to teach His people Himself”. The belief, derived from experience, that each of us has not just a connection to God (or whatever term you prefer), but an absolute in-dwelling within us of that Divine Presence. It is always there, always ready to guide us in our lives.
This does not mean, however, that everyone pays any attention to it. Recognising that there was “that of God” in Charles Manson or Adolf Hitler does not mean according any approval to their lives. As each such person commits their darkest, most evil acts, still the Spirit is within them, weeping at its own impotence against free will, and weeping for the individual whose life has somehow led them to this horrible state. The principle of Love is still in them, and still ready to guide them back to right action, still full of love for them as for the whole world. Recognising that this is within them is to recognise that there is a source of limitless love, unconditional love for all, and that this source is within us as well. It is to challenge ourselves to love their humanity and grieve for its marring, even while we abhor what they do and what they have made themselves. It is to recognise that they must be stopped as a matter of moral imperative, yet also to recognise the imperative to do so in a way that brings the least harm to them, that maintains respect for their humanity even when they show no respect for the humanity of others.
The essence of Quaker practice is the conscious decision to allow ourselves to be more guided by the Spirit that dwells within and among us. Quaker discipline exists, in large part, to allow us to learn to be more guided by it. True Quaker evangelism, to me, consists in helping others to do so, whether or not they are Quakers. This is the great gift we have received, and the great gift we have to give to the world. It is a gift that is not diminished in the sharing, but by being shared grows larger and more powerful, and more ready to be shared yet further.
When we walk cheerfully and answer that of God in each person, we are walking in the comfort of that power, bravely speaking to that “better nature” of even the most hardened criminal. Our Quaker prison chaplains may be the clearest indication of this principle, ministering to the spiritual and pastoral needs of those who have harmed others, and our chaplains can tell us of the times they have succeeded, in small ways or large, in reaching that part of the prisoners they tend. Some may come to profess Quakerism, but the work done and the results of speaking to that Divine spark, in words and in deeds, are found beyond the spiritual life. A prisoner whose faith is in no way changed can still see the better way to approach the world shown in our approach.
This doesn't only apply to those who have transgressed. Our outreach does good in the world even if no-one is convinced by it. Where our message is heard and digested, it will bring those listening closer awareness of that teacher, that seed, that spark within them. Even if they never worship with us, or at all, that consciousness is raised by our work and our words, and the world is made just that little bit better.
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