Quaker Theology #15

The Psychology of Salvation: Recovering, Reframing, and Reclaiming
the Early Quaker Experience

by  George Amoss Jr., MSW

Returning to Our Roots

As it continues to lose its historic identity as a distinctive Christian movement, contemporary Quakerism becomes increasingly diffuse, a condition leading to diminished vitality, commitment, depth, community, and influence. Throughout the range from Christocentrism to nontheism, Friends express various views of what Quakerism is about, what its essential principles and practices are.

Withering in this identity crisis, Quakerism is at risk of losing the unique spiritual power that has made the Religious Society of Friends a respected and effective influence for equality, justice, peace, and compassion.

I propose that we can best resolve this crisis by returning to our roots, recovering the heritage bequeathed by our founders, and reframing that heritage in contemporary terms that can speak to theistic and nontheistic Friends alike.

The first Friends returned to their own roots in biblical religion in a bold and revolutionary way. Their religion derived from a brilliant and radically(1) metaphorical exegesis, or interpretative reading, of scripture, and it led them to lives of great spiritual depth and power.(2) But their belief system, as creative as it was, retained too many na vely literalistic elements to be tenable for many of us today.(3) We simply cannot reproduce the mindset of mid-17th-century Friends.

Nor, however, can we afford to allow continued erosion of our foundations. As a religious society shaped by both our history and the unprecedented development of human thought and knowledge since our founding, we need to continue to grow into the future–from the roots that give us our Quaker identity. An essential element of that task is to examine the first Friends’ reported religious experience, the experience that created our religious society; to express it in concepts that are meaningful for us today; and to draw out its implications for faith and practice in our times. In hope of contributing to that project, this essay will focus on understanding the original Quaker experiential process of salvation–that is, of spiritual conversion and development–in contemporary terms.

Because the Quaker process of salvation is an inner process that has profound and highly visible effects on behavior, it can be described with concepts from the science of psychology. To express our religious experience in such terms is not to deny a place to those who believe in God, but to return to the very early Quaker insight that, as contemporary thinker John D. Caputo puts it, "[T]he event that stirs within the name of God can take place under other names, which complicates the distinction between theism and atheism." (4) James Nayler, whose writing will be our principal source as we investigate the early Friends’ experience, stated the similar position of the first Friends powerfully and unambiguously:

Thou asks further whether the name of Christ may be known to all the world by the [L]ight within them, without Scripture or tradition? I say, yea, and by nothing else without it, for the name of Christ consists not of letters and syllables, but in righteousness, mercy and judgment, &c., which name none can know but by the [L]ight of the [W]orld, though many of you read your Bibles who are the greatest enemies to his name, such is your knowledge as appears by your practice. (5)

The first Friends insisted that "knowledge," or religious experience, and practice must arise together and nurture each other. Consequently, they rejected the more commonly accepted understandings of God and religion, and the corresponding interpretations of scripture, which they felt had led to much evil. Approaching religion and the Bible with critical but open minds, those Friends came to experience God as the dynamic principle of love within them, a principle that reshaped their psyches and their conduct. Consistent with that, they interpreted scripture as applying to inner events evidenced outwardly in behavior.

As we interpret their reported religious experience in psychological terms, then, we are continuing along the path they traversed. In moving forward on that path, we can develop a conceptual basis for a twenty-first century Quakerism that can trace its legitimacy, through organic development and consistency of essential experience and practice, to the religious experience of the first Friends.

In thus rediscovering and reaffirming that, as indeed the early Friends asserted, salvation is an inward process of reorientation and transformation that is independent of belief (but not, as we shall see, of faith), we will confirm that the essential elements of that experiential process remain accessible to us today, whether or not we hold theistic belief. And we will see that our lives as Friends, individual and corporate, can be re-centered and renewed through a thorough commitment to the essential Quaker experience of salvation.

Our Principal Source Text: Love to the Lost

Our primary early Quaker source text will be Love to the Lost (6) (1656) by James Nayler (1618–1660), the leading Quaker in London as the Quaker movement took hold in the mid-seventeenth century. Nayler is best known for his imitation of Jesus’ reported "triumphal entry" into Jerusalem, and for the resultant trouble that his action brought upon him and the movement. But he is also known for his deep, love-centered spirituality and his skill in writing, both in evidence in his famous final statement ("There is a spirit that I feel that delights to do no evil …"[7]), and for his clear, structured presentations of Quaker theological thought.

In the opinion of historian Rosemary Moore, Nayler was "the most competent Quaker theologian," and Love to the Lost "the most comprehensive Quaker theological work" of the early years of the movement. (8) Love to the Lost is, for its day, an admirably succinct and clear piece of Quaker writing that, unlike Barclay’s better-known Apology for the True Christian Divinity (1676), flows directly from the early experience and does not attempt to bend it into a more mainstream Christian form or otherwise dull its radical edge. Love to the Lost is an accessible gateway into the unique spiritual world of the first Friends.

We will supplement that primary source with additional material from Nayler and with quotations from two other very important first-generation writers, George Fox and Isaac Penington.

A Contemporary Tool: The Concept of Schemas

In order to facilitate a psychological understanding of the experience described by Nayler and other early Friends, we will borrow the concept of schemas (9) from learning theory and psychotherapy. Schemas can be defined as interlocking subliminal principles of interpretation, generally acquired early in life, that organize our experience. In performing their organizing activity,

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