Quaker Theology #6 -Spring 2002


By Robert Griswold


Save us from what our own hands might do; lift the veil
but do not tear it.
Save us from the ego; its knife has reached our bones.
Who but You will break these chains?
Let us turn from ourselves to You
Who are nearer to us than ourselves.
Even this prayer is Your gift to us.
How else has a rose garden grown from these ashes?

– Jelaluddin Rumi, Mathnawi, II, 2443-49

The Experience of George Fox

Quakers generally are familiar with the record made by George Fox of his first and perhaps most personal and most profound spiritual experience. "I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’ and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy." 1 A lot has been written about Fox’s experience and its effects and, in a sense, all of Quaker theology flows out from this point. The personal relationship with the Divine, Christ Within, the Inward Light, the Seed, Christ as our direct teacher, convincement, the universal availability of the Light, the testimony against creeds, silent worship, all these and more can be seen to grow from this foundational statement.

The one word in Fox’s statement, however, that has not been given much consideration is the word ‘condition.’ I want to bring this term to the fore because I believe that it needs a central position to aid us in understanding Friends theology. I hope that this understanding can help us be more coherent and relevant witnesses in our times.

For the voice that spoke to Fox to have an impact, Fox must have had a sense of himself as being in a condition and an unsatisfactory condition at that.

But what was his condition? In the prior pages of his journal there is evidence of restlessness, dissatisfaction with the conduct of peers and religious leaders and perhaps some depression. He was seeking an authority to guide his life but not finding it. Even so, there is no evidence that Fox had fallen into bad habits, bad behavior or had committed any offense against anyone. He doesn’t fit the category we usually designate with the term, "sinner." He was not suffering from guilt. On the contrary, he had a reputation for exceptional honesty and went to great lengths to keep from falling into temptation. Yet, though there appears to be no one reproaching him and he isn’t conscious of doing wrong, that was not enough. He is still possessed of a sense that things weren’t the way they should be. And, in spite of the experience cited above, it still took Fox time to work out its implications in himself.

There seems to me to be only one helpful and meaningful answer to the question of what Fox was sensing about himself. That is that Fox felt that he lacked an understanding of who he was and what his relationship was to the Divine. Indeed, he felt his whole life was lacking authority. His experience of the voice showed that the inadequate authority he was following was none other than himself; that is, his own judgement and powers of understanding. What he had wanted was a more solid ground than his own notions, a connection to reality, an experience of reality that was authentic. His condition prior to this inward voice was his awareness that he was connected to his own notions rather than to spiritual reality.

Quakers Today and the awareness of our condition

This sense of "condition" may seem subtle and distant to us. What could Fox’s sensitive spiritual quest have to do with us in our present time? Most of us most of the time are not aware of being oppressed by the kind of feelings that Fox describes. I assert that our lack of our awareness is due to the massive cultural weight being brought to bear to keep this condition obscured from us. We are far from the quiet pastoral life that dominated the England of Fox’s time. We can read Time or People and watch the evening TV news for weeks and only get the faintest glimpse that, as a society, we are in a condition of acting deceitfully without a connection with reality.2 Even those faint glimpses – crime, corruption, celebrity misbehavior, etc. – are offered as for-profit entertainment so that we can be pleasantly shocked and enjoy the "tut-tut" factor of being separated from "those people."

The massive and general personal concerns of people are almost never acknowledged. When they are, they are often pejoratively labeled to assure that "those people" are dismissed from consideration. (A good example is the Wall Street Journal which dismissed the World Trade Organization demonstrators in Seattle as "lunatic Luddites.") Our media feeds us a steady diet of shallow thinking designed to keep a mask of normalcy firmly in place over the abyss. When something like Columbine or the Oklahoma City bombing threaten to tear off this mask, our news media occupies itself for weeks with law enforcement and court processes to keep the mask on by pretending that events are being brought under control. The focus is always on finding the guilty and exacting retribution and never lead to a sincere effort to expose the actions of the powerful that have contributed to these events.

These efforts are deceitful ways of maintaining the illusion that our society is just fine except for these few aberrations. I believe that in the past Quakers have made a contribution to revealing hidden deceit within individuals and within society thereby encouraging us to live more authentic lives. We Friends of today could have that role again. But first, we need to clarify our own understanding; we need to consider afresh the role of the term "condition" in our own theology.

As Friends we are usually aware that the Inward Light as proclaimed by George Fox was universal, that is, to be found within everyone and available to everyone. But as Friends we have entered the third millennium having minimized Fox’s knowledge that the need for the Light is also universal. We need the Light within because there is darkness within where the light needs to shine. What the Light is for is to illuminate what is dark in us, what we are using to deceive ourselves, what we have sacrificed for a "mess of pottage" by absorbing the lies of our culture, what we have made part of us but hidden from ourselves.

Quakers, like many others, have become very comfortable with the acceptable illusions. We tend to be puzzled by the fervor of early Friends who saw themselves in a "Lamb’s War." We like to remember these Friends sitting quietly in meeting – we can relate to that. It’s a nice picture. But in truth, however good these people were, I suspect that they did not fit this nice picture.

These early Friends were worked up. They saw their message as apocalyptic and one that could change the way people would relate to the world and to each other.3 They knew their lives were changed and they were out there uncovering the deceits of people around them and they were brutally punished for their efforts.

What brought the wrath of others down on them was not Friends positive message of the Light but the fact that they called attention to the deceitfulness of the "condition" of people in their times. Having found this deceit in themselves Friends naturally became an offense to those still clinging to the illusions of the culture in which they lived. Friends took many contrary positions on tithes, hat honor, plain speech, etc., which greatly offended their fellow citizens. I believe that it was the message behind these positions that caused Quakers to be rightly perceived as a threat to the existing order. They were a threat by what these positions implied.

What Quakers threatened was people’s basic sense of satisfaction with who they were and how they were living. The Quaker’s words and their conduct said, "Who you think you are is founded on a lie and a corruption of what you could be. And the more you are satisfied with who you are the greater the lie and the greater the corruption."

Before people can change their condition they have to be aware of the need to change their condition and that is done by challenging people’s illusions. As Friends of today, we should expect that living our message of love and hope (figuratively, not taking our hat off) will provoke a hostile response from those who want to hold on to their illusions. As Paul saw, if we are at home with the Divine, we are not going to be conformed to this world, and, those who are conformed will be upset by that. Quakers of today are not sufficiently despised.

Our times are not different from theirs except that we have invented new and powerful tools to distract us from the deceitfulness of our lives. It should not surprise us that Friends of today have lost much of the sense of their condition and the universality with which they share that condition with others. We are all subject to the miasma of cultural blather in which we are immersed. Imagining ourselves to be "in the world but not of it" is a pleasant notion but it is also an illusion to which Quakers may be more vulnerable than others.

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