The Quaker Enterprise of Metaphor

By Jnana Hodson

In early Quaker usage, metaphor engages far more than its definition as a figure of speech would presuppose. The central overlapping images – principally Light and Seed, linked to a concept of Truth – advance a complex logic grounded in an outpouring of spiritual experiences by many individuals. Given the constraints established by the blasphemy laws of their time and their own subsequent self-censorship, as well as the turbulent circumstances in which their expressions arose, we should not be surprised to find wide variation, irregularities, and possible public equivocation when we examine their tracts and letters and seek clear definition of their meaning.

Even so, their application of metaphor suggests an evolving radical awareness while sidestepping stringent taboos. Today, of course, freed of those prohibitions, we may more openly consider implications embedded in their logic of metaphor, and in the process come to a sharper understanding of the ways such thinking differs from the reasoning employed by other denominations, exposing in part why their teachings so baffled and threatened non-Friends.

Metaphor is defined as a “condensed verbal relation in which an idea, image, or symbol may, by the presence of one or more other ideas, images, or symbols, be enhanced in vividness, complexity, or breadth of implication.” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics entrythen continues for more than five pages of amplification.

The definition introduces other concepts. Image, for one, which is typically but not exclusively visual (sound, such as the ringing of church bells, or taste, such as a ripe fig, might be used as images) and symbol, for another, where one thing can stand in for something else (Jacob’s ladder, for instance, goes from being a simple ladder to a pathway to the Divine). While simile compares two things side-by-side, metaphor overlaps and compresses them. Love is no longer like a rose but rather becomes a rose, fragrant and blooming.

When I write poetry or fiction, these elements are so deeply ingrained in my practice I’m seldom conscious of their essential presence, as such. The same goes for our Quaker practice. Over time, I’ve also realized how basic they are to Judeo-Christian prophecy, as well. This stands in contrast to the many times we’ve heard references to the “poetic language” of a passage, as if praising only its beauty, or of attempts to define a sequence of symbols as a kind of equation that adds up to a simple command-ment for living, while simultaneously disdaining symbolism itself as a somehow more feeble form of communication than exposition, exhortation, or a quasi-mathematical equation.

Moreover, this points to a crucial division between those who read Scripture as a set of regulations and guidelines, that is, in a legalistic approach determining what a believer may and may not do, and those who read Scripture as a record of profound human encounters and insights within an emerging stream of prophetic history. Examining Scripture through the eyes of modern science, history, mathematics, legal systems, or strict logic may enrich or refine our understanding of the text, but each of these disciplines carries its own limitations in addressing personal experience.

Without an awareness of metaphor, however, we are likely to miss entirely the emotional depths of a passage. Consider, for instance, Isaiah 55:12, “and all the trees of the fields shall clap their hands”; anyone who has been astonished by the sound of wind passing through leaves immediately recognizes the message, while those who want to insist the trees have suddenly sprouted fingers and hands (which, after all, God could do) fail to connect it to their own living experience.

Comprehension of this order is a response to metaphor being applied as a system of thought on its own and not just as a rhetorical tool within another logic. Scientific method, in contrast, relies on measurable observations and actions that can be predictably repeated; history examines the lives of individuals, places, and events that can be independently verified; legal systems invoke contracts, rights, obligations, and prohibitions; while mathematics, the arts, athletics, and Aristotelian logic operate according to their own strict decrees and procedures.

Metaphor, on the other hand, attempts to make sense of what is essentially ungraspable. It begins with personal experience – mental activity, emotions, sensations revealed as taste, sound, smell, touch, even autonomous muscular movement – and endea-vors to communicate this in ways other people will recognize. In one range, metaphor gives voice and validation to an otherwise incoherent episode. On a broader scope, metaphor encourages and directs others to seek a similar experience and grow in it; here, metaphor may even lead to mutual action, societal change, and group identification.

Metaphor is especially well suited as a form of thinking for advancing both poetry and religion, which, I believe, spring from the same source: the unending mysteries of creation and origins, life and death, birth and sexuality, family, disasters and abundance, and so on – the great questions that are so central to the human condition – as well as the realization that the experience they engender cannot be related, except through relationship. Any attempt to explain a mystical encounter already reduces it, from an overwhelming, multi-dimensional mind-spirit-emotions-body engagement, casting it instead as a flat representation we typically convey in words. Words, of course, will prove inadequate to such heightened awareness, even when offered by a great storyteller.

This conflict is reflected in the emergence of the Society of Friends. Their use of extended metaphor – Light and Seed, especially, in many varied phrasings – points toward an alternative understanding of both Christ and Christianity, a theology early Friends never articulated fully in the face of extended persecution.

Crucial to the Quaker metaphor of Light is its origin in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. There, the Light is presented as an aspect of Christ and of Logos, which is commonly translated as the Word, losing its reference to a system of Greek philosophy predating Jesus by at least five centuries. By definition, Logos variously appears as the underlying connection between opposites; the soul of the universe; the divine plan; an active rational and spiritual principle that permeates all reality; the intermediary between God and the cosmos; both the agent of creation and the agent through which the human mind can apprehend and comprehend God; and, in some early Christian applications, Christ.

Regardless of whether early Friends were fully aware of this philosophy (it’s possible some had encountered it through neo-Platonists or alchemy), they nonetheless sensed its working in what they voiced as Christ and the Light. As Rosemary Moore observes (The Light in Their Consciences),

“In the first years of the Quaker movement, … [George] Fox was mainly concerned with the unity between Christ and the believer, for which he was several times charged with blasphemy. When he spoke of ‘the light,’ sometimes he used the phrase as an equivalent to Christ and sometimes he meant the way Christ made himself known. It may be that ‘the light’ developed into the characteristic Quaker phrase because it was a safe alternative to ‘Christ,’ to be used with less risk of blasphemy charges.”

One quality of metaphor is its ability to convey multiple meanings, with the reader or listener responding from individual experience. It may simultaneously embrace a number of images and corresponding ideas, to be applied at will; light, for instance, may be seen as the sun, a rainbow, a ray or beam, a flame, a wood fire, a forest fire, a neon bulb, a house ablaze, or even a specific frequency somewhere between infrared and ultraviolet, each with its own set of personal associations. Light, alone, remains abstract and flexible, as does Seed. In addition, the metaphors Friends used were drawn from and built upon Biblical passages that would have been widely recognized at the time. Their metaphors also directed action and shaped identity.

Still, the very imprecision of metaphor allowed Friends some wiggle room. As Moore explains,

“It was perhaps the experience of several trials for blasphemy, and possibly the advice of such people as Judge Fell, that persuaded Quakers to adapt their language. The more extreme language describing union with God or with Christ is confined to letters, while material for publication was more cautiously expressed. Apart from inviting prosecution under the Blasphemy Act, such language risked encouraging Ranterish behavior, and the many exhortations to Friends not to go beyond their measure, and to pay attention to the light in their consciences, indicate that the leaders of the movement were well aware of the risk.”

Where Moore finds “that Quaker teaching about ‘the light’ was very confused” and “Quakers were not consistent in the ways they used the word ‘light,’” I instead see individuals experimenting with various formulations within the metaphor to best express their intense experience. We might see this as a set of Venn diagrams in motion as various concepts, images, and shades of understanding are overlaid, unlike a linear progression of syllogisms leading A and B to C. Instead of examining these expressions for their underlying unity or fuller possibilities, however, the Society of Friends ignored the opportunity in successive generations and instead veiled the meanings in the gray garb of later respectability.

The muddle lingered nearly a century and a half, up to Quaker minister Job Scott, who, according to Arthur J. Worrall (Quakers in the Colonial Northeast), “carried to extremes the beliefs which critics had always maintained were basic to Quakers and which Friends had in some fashion or other denied publicly for a century.” On the verge of plainly advancing implicit logical deductions within the dynamic of the Light and Seed metaphors, Scott’s life was instead cut short by smallpox in 1793.

In the schisms that erupted shortly after his death, the two central metaphors fell from understanding and their traditional use. In their place, we have in some branches, but not all, a concept called Inner Light, carrying much different characteristics. In effect, Quakers dropped the metaphor of Seed altogether and grafted many of its assumed meanings onto Light, which then lost its connection to Christ and Logos. Other Friends turned increasingly toward conventional Protestant theology and worship.

Admittedly, metaphor can be slippery in its application and have limitations. Too much light, for example, would blind or kill. On the other hand, any light in darkness is helpful. At some problematic points, shifting to one of a given metaphor’s overlapping concepts can be helpful: moving “too much light” to “too much life” or even “too much love,” for instance, animates the underlying thought again.

Metaphor can also be misunderstood. The Light is not the same as a measurable range of energy to be studied in physics. Nonetheless, adeptly applied, an extended metaphor may lead its faithful followers, as Zen Buddhists observe, from Right Thought to Right Action to Right Wisdom.

Examining this dynamic within poetry, Robert Bly (Leaping Poetry: An Idea With Poems and Translations) argues,

“In ancient times, in the ‘time of inspiration,’ the poet flew from one world to another, ‘riding on dragons,’ as the Chinese said. Isaiah rode on those dragons, so did Li Po and Pindar. They dragged behind them long tails of dragon smoke.”

Bly explains,

“In many ancient works of art we notice a long floating leap at the center of the work … from the conscious to the unconscious and back again, a leap from the known part of the mind to the unknown and back to the known.

He sees, too, that authors “make the leap in an instant” and “the unknown part of the mind lies at the very center of the work.” This sounds, too, like the intense religious experiences reported by early Friends, except that I see their encounters plunging not only into the unknown parts of the mind (or, as Bly contends, the three different regions of the brain) but also into intuitive, emotional, and even muscular and tactile awareness. Rather than dragons, we could say they were riding beams of Light, sometimes bouncing with reflections, sometimes opening through prisms into rainbows, sometimes burning away debris.

Bly, however, opens an additional line of debate:

“As Christian civilization took hold … this leap occurred less and less often in Western literature. Obviously the ethical ideas of Christianity inhibit it. From the start Christianity has been against the leap. Christian ethics always embodied a move against the ‘animal instincts’; Christian thought, especially Paul’s thought, builds a firm distinction between spiritual energy and animal energy, a distinction so sharp it became symbolized by black and white.”

Bly adds: “Christianity taught its poets – we are among them – to leap away from the unconscious, not toward it.”

These are serious charges. They may also explain some of the controversy surrounding early Quaker exhortation. Jackson I. Cope (“Seventeenth-Century Quaker Style”) finds at the outbreak of the Friends movement, “when the Quakers pour forth their heart’s belief and hope, they do so again and again in the same modes of expression, modes only approximately and infrequently appearing in the sermons and tracts of non-Quaker contemporaries.” He presents a sample passage from Fox and remarks, “although the universe of spirit might smell of heavenly flowers, or might glisten with holy light, spiritual food was no staple of his religious imagery.” Instead, with “his actual practice of eating and drinking . . . in the front of his mind, [this] is evidencing a tendency to break down the boundary between literalness and metaphors, between conceptions and things.”

What emerges across Friends’ literature is a “relationship of language to experience in the early Quaker mind.” Indeed, Cope perceives “the distinction between metaphoric and literal expression wholly obliterated on occasion” and “metaphor has transcended its normal function, and instead of merely indicating a point of resemblance between two differentiable entities, it has totally merged them.” He continues with more examples, and deduces, “This ‘incantatory’ style is ubiquitous in early Quakerdom.”

One characteristic that so bewildered and alarmed critics is the absence of orderly progression in these Quaker utterances. Rather than having a beginning, a middle, and an end, the Quaker message erupts at the middle. While this has much in common with modern micro poems and flash fiction, it also returns us to Bly’s insights on leaping poetry and what happens when it is oppressed:

“The loss of associative freedom showed itself in form as well as content. In content, the poet’s thought plodded through the poem, line after line, like a man being escorted through a prison. The ‘form’ was a corridor, full of opening and closing doors. The rhymed lines opened at just the right moment and closed again behind the visitors.”

This is, of course, also a description many well-crafted sermons or homilies, rather than a prophetic message arising out of the silence of a traditional Quaker meeting for worship, where the speaker must be faithful not to say more than is given at the moment, and then to sit down before crafting a conclusion or running beyond the inspiration.

Cope further explains, “The ‘incantatory’ style is an epistemological tool: it appears when Christ is speaking within the Quaker, and showing forth the Word [Logos] which is Alpha and Omega, beginning and end of understanding the runes of eternity.” His point becomes clearer once one recognizes how, in the Quaker metaphor, Light serves as another name for Christ and the Word. That is, the Light speaking through the individual brings enlightenment. In a similar compression, the passage from Genesis could also be turned: “God emitted light and it sounded good”; the sequence of events becomes one overlapping wholeness.

The application of metaphorical theology is not confined to early Friends. It influences our own practice, often without our being aware of its activity. In Quaker Religious Thought (May 2007), devoted to the Friends’ maxim, “Speak Truth to power,” Shannon Craigo-Snell looks closely at metaphor and places the Light in an equation with Truth:

“The various traditions of Christianity over the centuries have used many metaphors to describe the power of God. God is Father, Mother, potter, king. God is Son, the way, the door, the vine. God is Spirit, breath, light, wind, fire, and seed. The multiplicity and fluidity of these images prevent us from reducing God to something we can grasp, while the comparison to familiar things acknowledges that we think about God with minds formed in mundane reality.”

Turning specifically to Quakers, Craigo-Snell continues:

“Friends have embraced biblical metaphors that help us understand God in a non-mainstream way, such as Light and Seed. … For example, the metaphor of Light, so vital to Quaker theology, was actually a fairly common image used in discussions of epistemology in the early modern period during which Quakerism arose. … The Quaker affirmation of the Inward Light has ramifications for understanding power – religious authority cannot be confined to an elite few if all persons can know God in and through the Inward Light – yet it is primarily an epistemological term.”

That is, Light is a way of knowing. In an imaginative and contemporary twist, she then explores virus and infection as a metaphor of God’s operating from the bottom-up. In her vision, our faith spreads unseen, one person to another, rather than by commandment from hierarchical authorities.

In the same edition, Newton Garver examines the Light metaphor as an equivalent of Spirit. His systematic description of Light, something not found among early Friends, probes Light from the perspective of Spirit, rather than Christ, and avoids discussion of Jesus. Would early Friends have embraced his definition, or instead quibbled with it? We do know that in the 1800s, Joseph John Gurney also equated the Light with Spirit and came to conclusions that shunted Friends toward a quite different understanding. Tellingly, Garver says little of what this Spirit or Light is, per se, but focuses largely on what it does and how it acts. In effect, the metaphor of Light gives face to action.

The reality remains that Light is a mysterious and powerful metaphor connected to many Biblical verses. Examined with an understanding of metaphorical process, early Quaker writings on the Light present a rich source for advancing a unique spiritual practice. Seed appears as much more of a work-in-progress among early Friends and holds the potential for greater development in our own time as we apply insights from expanding fields, such as psychology or contemporary literature of the Soul.

The very difficulties Rosemary Moore details may bring heat and energy to the investigation. Where Bly argues that the apostle Paul leads away from a leap into the unconscious, early Friends, often applying quotations from Paul’s epistles, demon-strate quite the opposite. Paul, after all, had been knocked to the ground by a flash of light and become both blind and speechless. The associative freedom in the narrative turns everything on its head, as does the active image of light that blinds, silences, and knocks one over.

Bly’s caution about Christianity acting to inhibit the wild associative leaps, however, strikes soon in the early Quaker experience. Even before passage of the Toleration Act in 1689, Friends were moving toward inhibitions. The establishing of the Second-Day’s Morning Meeting in 1673, to pass on Quaker manuscripts submitted for publication led, Cope observes, to “curbing extravagancies” in exchange for a long list of pardons for imprisoned Quakers. The consequence, according to Cope, is that “Quaker style henceforth was to be distinguished only by a few pathetic anachronisms of diction.”

That’s not all that became lost in the transition from scandal to respectability. Cautious about offending the wider public, Friends declined to use their new freedom as an opportunity to fully and openly present the theology implicit in their metaphors.

Today, however, we are free to reclaim the early “enthusiasms” and the essential vitality in those early Friends and their seemingly peculiar language. For us, “Mind the Light” now means listening in a different context. Here, the Seed – not the ear – will hear and respond.

Works Cited

Bly (Robert) Leaping Poetry: An Idea With Poems and Translations, Beacon Press, Boston,1975

Cope (Jackson I.) “Seventeenth-Century Quaker Style,” PMLA, LXXI (1956), Modern Language Association of America, quoted here from Seventeenth-Century Prose, edited by Stanley E. Fish, New York: Oxford University Press 1971

Craigo-Snell (Shannon) “Empowering the Truth,” Quaker Religious Thought (May 2007)

Garver (Newton) “Speaking Truth to Power,” Quaker Religious Thought (May 2007)

Moore (Rosemary) The Light in Their Consciences: The Early Quakers in Britain 1646-1666, University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University, 2000

Preminger (Alex) ed. Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1974

Worrall (Arthur J.) Quakers in the Colonial Northwest, Hanover, New Hampshire, University Press of New England, 1980


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