31 March 2022

Our inner flashlights

Years ago, in a post entitled Worship seeking more understanding, I made an offhand reference to "inner-flashlight Quakerism." In this admittedly snarky comment, I had a specific trend in mind: the use of the classic Quaker terms, Inner Light (or Inward Light, as some prefer) to reinforce individualistic concepts of what we Quakers do when we gather for worship. You follow your light, I'll follow mine. Now, fifteen years later, I still agree with my basic point, but I wonder if I could have said it more kindly.

Margaret Fell, in a powerful letter written in 1656, used a variety of "Light" phrases to direct us to the true and unifying source of the light we share: (all pronouns as in original text

Dear Friends, brethren and sisters in the eternal light, by which we are gathered, which is our teacher and leader: which light cometh from our Lord Jesus Christ, the Captain of our salvation, in whom is life, and this life is the light of men; who has laid down His life for sheep, and who gives unto His sheep eternal life; and this life is in His Son: your righteousness is of me, saith the Lord; and this is the heritage of the saints: this you are made partakers of, who walk in the light, and dwell in the light, you shall have the light of life, and come to know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom He hath sent, who is come a light into the world: he that believes in Him, shall not walk in darkness, shall not perish, but have everlasting life. ...

Friends, deal plainly with yourselves, and let the eternal light search you, and try you, for the good of your souls; for this will deal plainly with you; it will rip you up, lay you open, and make all manifest that lodgeth in you; the secret subtilty of the enemy of your souls, this eternal searcher and tryer will make manifest. Therefore all come to this, and be searched, judged, led and guided....

A few weeks ago, before the present Russian-Ukrainian war diverted most of my energy and attention, I wrote about my experiences editing a translation of George Fox's Journal. Fox made bold, almost outrageous claims about his own spiritual discoveries, but he also said that he was not special and exalted; we can all have those same discoveries, and achieve the same state of transformation, if we simply turn to that Inner Light, the inner witness of God that confirms the Scriptures and makes them our own rather than an external authority.

So, as it turns out, we do need to go within, to find that Inner Light that witnesses to us about God, and about God's love for us -- the very reason God created us in the first place.

How did that specific understanding, of Whose Light is within us, change into a more disconnected "inner flashlight"? Quaker linguistics are in part to blame: the early generations of Friends seemed reluctant to over-use the names of God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit, probably not wanting them to become commonplace, and wanting to avoid an unbecoming glibness about precious things. An example of this reluctance is in the explanation William Penn uses to explain Friends' approach to the Trinity:

Perversion 9: The Quakers deny the Trinity.

Principle: Nothing less. They believe in the holy three, or Trinity of Father, Word, and Spirit, according to Scripture. And that these things are truly and properly one; of one nature as well as will. But they are tender of quitting Scripture terms and phrases for schoolmen’s, such as distinct and separate Persons or substances are, from whence people are apt to entertain gross ideas and notions of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. And they judge that a curious inquiry into those high and divine revelations, or into speculative subjects, though never so great truths in themselves, tends little to godliness and less to peace, which should be the chief aim of true Christians. Therefore, they cannot gratify that curiosity in themselves or others. Speculative truths are, in their judgment, to be sparingly and tenderly declared, and never to be made the measure and condition of Christian communion. Men [intentionally not marked sic!] are too apt to let their heads outrun their hearts, and their notions exceed their obedience, and their passions support their conceits, instead of a daily cross, a constant watch, and a holy practice.

Whatever their intentions, their euphemisms became our cliches. Phrases such as "inner light" and "that of God" became even vaguer than they might have been originally. Increasingly, as some Friends meetings became gatherings of people who loved the atmosphere and found a refuge in the freedom of Quaker community, and as the surrounding culture became more hostile to claims of faith, the folkways of Quakerism became more important than the core teachings -- at least in the London-Philadelphia axis and its offspring.

Let's face it: that refuge became more important as certain quarters of Christianity became more obnoxious and authoritarian. It's unfair to charge that hostility to Christianity simply began to be fashionable. Too often, we Christians did it to ourselves, projecting a false certainty and a fearsome God instead of the actual Gospel. In that light (or shadow), the mellow expectations of some flavors of Friends, packaged with carefully-selected 17th-century bits of lovely Quaker verbiage, would be, if you'll forgive my crass comparison, far better than nothing. That inner flashlight fits right into the overlap between liberal Quakerism and contemporary Buddhism, to cite just one popular hybrid.

Because we Friends actively avoid false certainty, the invitation to everyone in the world to turn to the Witness of God inside us must be risky. We understand that Jesus is waiting, knocking at that inner door, but we cannot simply force our interpretation on anyone. All we can do is testify to our own experience, trust in the power of unforced honesty, and leave the rest to the Holy Spirit.

As the ripple effects of violent combat sweep over the world, I find that Inward Light more important than ever. Much of the western press treats the Russian-Ukrainian war as a contest between Good and Evil, and the journalistic task is reduced to analyzing team tactics and keeping score. I do believe that a contest of Good and Evil is going on, but the alignments are spiritual, not military. I need to turn to the Light constantly to anchor myself against the temptation to give in, to follow the waves of combat with that scorekeeping mentality. I need to ask myself daily, sometimes hourly: what does it mean to be a follower of the Prince of Peace in full view of constant tragedy?

And, sadly, this hellish war is not the only place on the planet where this question is urgent.

Some reports refer to increases in human trafficking in the war context. This reminded me of our old friend of Reed College and Reedwood days, Sarrah Lynne Havens, who has a ministry to those working against that traffic, and to its survivors.

Another friend, Michele Berdy, is one of the Americans who are fleeing Russia in droves.

The other journalists who used to form Russia's independent press may have mostly left Russia, but they are not silent.

Nancy Thomas: The increasing rebellion of body parts is one of the greatest challenges of aging. 

More blues from Ukraine:


kfsaylor said...

I can't say specifically why, but this piece brought to mind William G. von Peter's thoughts on Vladimir Soloviev from his preface to "Russia and the Universal Church" :

"A passionate defender of the human person and allergic to every philanthropy; a tireless apostle of peace and adversary of pacifism; a promoter of Christian unity and critic of every irenicism; a lover of nature and yet very far from today's ecological infatuations – in a word, a friend of truth and an enemy of ideology. Of leaders like him we have today great need."

These words speak to the impulse of the immanent presence of Christ inshining upon my conscience and consciousness.

Johan Maurer said...

"...A friend of truth and an enemy of ideology." Sums it up!