Reflecting Theologically from the Gathered Meeting: The Nature and Origin of Quaker Theology

By R. Melvin Keiser.

To speak of the nature and origin of Quaker theology is to raise the question of how systematic we should be in our theological pursuits as Quakers. As a Quaker theologian and postcritical philosopher I am drawn to systematic theology because I am interested in how intellectual principles structure our thought and life; in how doctrines carry within them a wisdom about life; and in how a tradition is a forest for exploration and a well for sustenance.

But I am pulled two ways. If systematic theology means conquering the absolute and bringing it home; if it means explaining the inexplicable so as to eradicate mystery; if it means a place for everything and everything in its place; if it means finishedness and the end to creativity–I reject it. I am repelled when the principles are dogmatic rather than experiential; when doctrines dominate, demanding logical connections and subsuming all truth under logic; and when the tradition, rather than our contemporary needs and experience, sets the agenda.

Yet I am drawn to it because I discern within its hard shell of thought a seed of life that can help make sense of my and our life, and a comprehensivenss that attempts to relate the many parts to each other and to the whole. In particular Tillich’s Systematics has been and continues to be an exciting venture in making sense of my own life and of my relation to the larger world I inhabit even as I have become more critical of his underlying mind/body dualism.

My current assessment is that not only does what I have said negatively apply to systematic theology but as well to much of mainstream theology, inasmuch as it employs principles, doctrines, and tradition in intellectualistic ways detached from and imposed upon the lived meaning of our ordinary lives. Thus even though Quaker theology can reach for comprehensiveness, can use traditional theological words, and should have a clarity, coherence, and interconnectedness–as systematic theology does–it is not, nor can it be, “systematic.”

But if we cannot call our theology systematic, what kind of theology is it that we do as Quakers? Let’s just call it “Quaker theology”–philosophical in getting at the principles that shape our faith and practice, historical in working with and from both principles and images embedded in the origins of our heritage, and socially transformative in starting in a deep place from which arises the imperative to achieve justice, peace, and mutuality. As such, may it become an opening way that “allows so much to Love” that “there’s no lack of grace.”1

Do we even dare, though, to speak of “Quaker theology?” Do Quakers write, have Quakers done, “theology?” In the beginnings of Quakerism in the second half of seventeenth-century England, there is a voluminous wealth of theological writing which, I believe, emerged from life in the Spirit. The language is laced with traditional biblical and Protestant concepts, yet they are employed in the service of metaphors that emerge from and give shape to the spiritual depths of early Friends’ lives.

So, if we take “theology” not in its normal meaning, but as the logos of theos–as thinking and speaking of divinity–we can affirm “Quaker theology.” While it might be still better, drawing upon the existentialist and phenomenologist Gabriel Marcel, to call what Quakers did and do “religious reflection,” yet I want to retain the word “theology” to maintain some link, however problematic, with the religious thinking of others within and beyond the Christian tradition.

But who is the audience for Quaker theology? Among American Quakers theology is suspect. For many liberal Friends you ought to do and be–let your lives so speak–but not think about it. For many evangelical Friends you should celebrate and witness to Jesus Christ but not engage in thought that might deviate from tried and true biblical expressions. I do want to write for Quakers–as an enterprise of faith seeking understanding, attempting to raise our commitments to a level of articulateness that can enrich our lives, our self-understanding and our socially transformative work.

But I also want to write for non-Quakers. However small and young we are, I believe we have some important things to offer the wider world–Christian, inter-faith, and secular. Quakerism offers a tradition committed to radical social action that is grounded in a life of spirituality. It has provided in the twentieth century a refuge from dogmatic Christianity for those interested in the spiritual life within a Christian context. It maintains a serious religious community without hierarchical authority that is ethically engaged for those seeking to go beyond the impoverishments of secular life. And to the many searching for a deepening of spirituality, it offers a meditative tradition, in fact the sole meditative tradition within Christian denominations outside of monastic orders. Whether or not it entices into convincement, it can be a means of enrichment to other Christians, a place of dialogue with other meditative traditions of the world, and a springboard for social transformation.

The Need for Life

The need in our time around the world is for life. Many people are starving and are without adequate clothing and shelter. They need physical necessities to sustain life.

Many people suffer under oppression–military, racial, gender, socioeconomic. They need liberation from and transformation of those social structures that so diminish life.

All are suffering to some degree under the effects of our exploitation of the earth. We need a new way of relating to the environment that will both free us from the effects of our exploitation on soil, air, water, which are polluting our bodies, and open us to the qualities of nature that nourish our vitality.

We are witnessing and are caught up in the encounter with otherness which is occurring in the global context. We need a way of life that will get along with people very different from ourselves, so that we not merely can tolerate but grow from the encounters.

We are becoming aware of our own cultural hegemony, the expansion of our ways of thinking around the globe, just at a time when we are becoming aware of the inadequate foundations of modern thought as we continue to grope for ways of making sense of our lives under the impact of modern science and technology. We need a new paradigm in cultural life that can enable us to live beyond the fragmenting dualisms that set in opposition science and spirituality, technology and morality, and body and mind.

Many people are living spiritually impoverished or diminished lives. We are in need of a greater fullness of life here and now.

Theology may strike some as an unlikely perspective from which to address these many levels of life’s needs. Because it deals with our fundamental consciousness of self, other, and world, theology–as the quest for meaning, the effort to understand the ultimate context of our orientation in the world, the pursuit of self-transformation, the reflection upon God or the sacred–can contribute to the recovery and enhancement of life. In speaking of God, Christ, freedom, new life, integration, theology must deal with what really matters to us and with the way we relate to everything in terms of what matters. What “matters” is not only what is important to us but the material shape things take in our lives. Theology is able, not only to listen to and articulate what we say matters, but is able to discern in the matter of our lives what meaning we are in actuality living.

It matters to all of us to meet our need for life, on whatever level that we experience that need as acute. There are many answers to our needs on the different physical, social, cultural, and spiritual levels of life–and in different places and situations different answers to the same need–but overall we are all in need of a change in consciousness (of our explicit but much more of our unconscious attitudes) that will enable us to create and live into new patterns of being. To be more fully human with ourselves, with each other, with the cosmos, with that which is ultimate, we need Quaker theology. Along with other disciplines, it can contribute to understanding our present consciousness and can imagine new ways of being that can sustain life and realize its abundance.

To move ahead in hope, we often draw upon ingredients that are buried in our past or that are marginal, hidden, inchoate in our present. In embarking upon a theology of what matters in life, I write from being situated within the Quaker heritage, which is oriented towards life. While many metaphors are used by the first generation of the Religious Society of Friends for the divine and for their way of being responsive to it–such as light, seed, and truth–life is a central one. Without disregarding the others or the importance of employing multiple metaphors, I am presenting this theology of life in the hope, not only of drawing out ingredients in my and our past into greater visibility, but of opening up possibilities inchoate in our present that may contribute towards the engendering of life.

Throughout three hundred and fifty years, Quakers have been involved with every level of nurturing life. From its beginnings in the English Civil War of the 1640s, Quakerism has been committed to the struggle for justice–political, social, and economic. They were the major agent in achieving religious toleration in England. Constitutional government of the United States was fundamentally shaped by Pennsylvania’s “Frame of Government” and commitment to religious toleration. Quakers have consistently opposed war and worked for peace. From the American Revolution to Viet Nam they have provided medical assistance to the wounded on both sides of military conflicts. They fed and clothed many Europeans after World War I and II. In recent times they have provided aid to people suffering from natural disasters. At the beginning of the nineteenth century they sought to provide an economic basis for sustainable life to Native Americans; after the American Civil War to areas in the war-torn South; and in the twentieth century to many people in need around the world. Amidst its active concerns to meet the physical, social, and cultural needs of many people around the globe, Quakerism has sustained a life of worship centered in communal meditation and the deepening of the spiritual life.

While not unique in any one of these concerns, Quakerism is unique in its integration of physical, social, and spiritual concerns. Not that parts of other religious traditions do not achieve an interconnection between these dimensions–from which Quakers can and do learn–but the Society of Friends as a whole is unique as a religious movement in how it unites these different dimensions by being engaged in worship and living shaped by silence. While this uniting of many levels of concern is not true of every Friend, since some focus their energies upon one area of concern rather than another, it is true that each Friend carries the weight of a tradition which addresses the conscience to realize the wholeness of life.

The theological expression of this wholistic perspective, its principles and roots, is one area to which twentieth-century Friends have given scant attention. The feeling is often: do not think and talk about it, live it and benefit humanity. There has, in fact, been a wariness of theology since the beginnings of Quakerism. Yet, while objecting to the dogmatic views of Puritan and Anglican seventeenth-century England and the nonexperiential ways in which theology was done, the first generations of Friends were engaged in developing a different way of doing theology. Through journals, letters, essays, books of discipline called “faith and practice,” and queries (which is probably the only new genre created by Friends), early Friends sought to speak out of the silence, to manifest intellectually their experience of, and the principles involved in, their rootedness in the indwelling presence of the divine.

Seventeenth-century Friends often used the phrase “in the life” or “out of the life.” People’s actions were judged as “in” or “out” of the life, in or out of accord with divine leadings. So also the social structures of oppression and as well the speculations of dogmatic theologians. Because the theology early Quakers wrote was “in the life,” the theological task for Quakers in our own day is to figure out how to write “in the life.” The importance is that life in our day is under threat at every level. Theology written in the life about what matters in life can contribute to contemporary Friends’ own self-understanding the principles upon which we act, and can model for a wider audience a wholistic religious tradition that carries power and hope for meeting people’s physical needs, transforming our social structures, and deepening the spiritual life.

The Gathered Meeting

What is the starting point for Quaker theology? I have learned from a variety of liberation theologies how necessary it is to unmask the systemic oppressions we all participate in, from which older white straight economically-advantaged academic males, such as myself, are benefitting, even when critical of them. The perfectionistic strain that has led Quakers into social action to establish equality, justice, peace, and community is the very thing that makes it difficult for us to acknowledge how we are entrammelled, like others, in these systems of destruction.

Yet Quaker theology is grounded in something more primal in human experience than suffering and more immediate than the words of scripture, and so I do not begin theology from oppression or “God’s preferential option for the poor,” as many feminist and liberation theologians do. The experienced depth of divine mystery is the place wherein resources lie for recognizing and overcoming oppression and affirming and developing life toward mutuality amidst the otherness of humanity and the entire community of being.

I am aware that I am writing from within a tradition that from its outset has affirmed that spiritual development and social transformation are inseparable. The experience of sacred depth can whelm within us in any moment–in private meditation, the meeting for business, education, social action, the experience of oppression, a conversation with another, artistic creation or scientific discovery, a walk in the woods in solitude. Still, I find myself writing Quaker theology from the starting point of the gathered meeting, as the most intense form of communal experience of sacred mystery.

The life of Friends is founded and formed in silence. In worship we gather in silence. People quietly enter the plain meeting house, unadorned with sign or symbol, and take a seat, finding a comfortable position for their body and closing their eyes. From the surface of our lives, filled with the momentary involvements of the morning and the week, we descend into the meditative depths. We call it “centering down.” There in the silence we expect to meet the divine mystery. Always there, yet we live so much of our lives on the surface, we are unaware of it, disconnected from it, not living consciously out of its energy and insight. Silence provides the context for awakening, connecting, envisioning, revitalizing.

While our modern culture treats silence as a vacuum, an emptiness, the absence of sound, Friends experience it as a fullness: a richness of inchoate tacit connectedness with reality (natural, human, and divine) and a well of potentiality–of insight and action, and of new ways to relate to self, world, and God. Silence is the unifying depth beneath our seemingly disparate surface preoccupations; the whole which encompasses and sustains the parts of our being–our thoughts, words, deeds, artifacts, and conscious self; the mystery in which we live and move and have our being.

As we sit in the silence, we may be assailed by clamoring monkeys in the branches of consciousness that insist we deal with the particular demands of the day and week. Or we may encounter a dry nothingness untouched by anything vital, a spiritual torpor that at best can be thought of as a quiet space shared with others after a hard week. But sometimes, perhaps often, after centering down we encounter an unencumbered calm and then a dynamic that moves us into unanticipated regions.

Entering such stillness we may find rest and rejuvenation; we may feel our connectedness with those present, other humans, or the natural world living and inanimate; we may discover our present moment lengthening to encompass the remembered past or anticipated future; we may sense the presence of that which is more than self affecting us. Beyond our possible doubts about how to interpret what is happening, we know experientially that we are in touch with that which is really real, because we are brought into a transformed state of momentary peace and relatedness.

It happens miraculously, from time to time, that a meeting moves as a whole into deep stillness and vibrant creativity in which all feel bound together with each other, with the wider world, and with the divine. Friends call this a “gathered meeting.” There may be no speaking yet people feel this religere, this binding of each to each and to the whole, and emerge from the meeting knowing they have been together in deep places.

Or speaking may occur; if it does, it nurtures the gathering. A theme may be sounded which others are ripe to hear and work with or already have been meditating upon. In my own experience there have been moments when the exact idea or biblical passage I have been led to meditate upon is expressed by another in vocal ministry. We come to know that in depth we are not alone but connected as something more than the ego self is at work there. In a gathered meeting we thus experience the sacred binding us together in community, what Catholics and Anglicans have traditionally recognized in the sacrament of Eucharist as “the real presence of Christ,” although we as Friends stress the experiential aspect of this and the free movement of the Spirit creating it in its own particular way in that moment.

Inward and Outward: Theological Structure and Process of the Gathered Meeting

Reflecting on the structure and process of the gathered meeting, we can get at the theological principles at work within it. Experiencing a gathered meeting is a descent from the surface of our ordinary lives into the depths of stillness, and a return at the end of meeting back to the surface. Friends from the beginning of Quakerism have spoken of surface as “outward” and depths as “inward.” The process in this structure is then a movement from outward to inward and a return to the outward. Inward and outward are not opposites but are interrelated as different levels of awareness of reality, each having their own important meaning, and each gaining in meaning through openness to the other.

Within such depths we experience a connective creativity which moves us into a felt knowledge of our relatedness to that which is present–divinity, fellow worshipers, other humans, fellow earth creatures, the cosmos. We discover that we are parts of a divine whole. George Fox, in his visionary return through the flaming sword back into Eden, discovered this cosmic connectedness as the context of his encounter with the Christ within. The process then is not only descent and return but movement into the breadth of relatedness with all reality. So far then we can discern in the gathered meeting theological principles which are experiential, dimensional, and relational.

Fullness of Life: The Rule of Christ

While I have begun with the gathered meeting, corporate worship is not the authority in Quakerism but only a context for it. Any other time and place in a Quaker’s life could offer other contexts. The authority is not the gathered meeting but the Life experienced in inwardness. The Life is but one of many metaphors that focuses the central authority as the divine presence experienced in its connectedness–illumining the meaning of our lives, guiding us into speech and action, uniting us with others and with the world.

In his first book after convincement, Isaac Penington calls this authority the “rule of Christ.” He asks: “What is a Christian’s rule, whereby he is to steer and order his course?” and answers with a simple definition of a Christian: “A Christian is to be a follower of Christ, and consequently must have the same rule to walk by, as Christ had. A Christian proceeds from Christ, hath the same rule to walk by, as Christ had.” What is the rule of Christ but “the fulness of life”:

Christ had the fulness of life, and of his fulness we all receive a measure of the same life. . . . Yea we came out of the same spring of life, from whence he came. . . . Now what was his rule? Was it not the fulness of life which he received? And what is their rule? Is it not the measure of life which they receive?

To take up this rule of Christ is to be transformed, to be made a new creature by the Holy Spirit: “The Spirit forms the heart anew, forms Christ in the heart, begets a new creature there, . . . and this is the rule of Righteousness, the new creature, or the spirit of life in the new creature.”

He then goes on to quote 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature [or “new creation” in RSV],” and Galatians 6:15, that what counts is “a new creature” [“new creation,” RSV]. The rule is the new creature in the sense that only the transformed self has access to the rule which dwells within as divine spirit. In the language we have been using above, we are only in touch with the rule of Christ when we have entered into the depth of inwardness. In the language of Paul, and his metaphor of the law of the spirit and of the flesh, and John’s metaphor of Light, Penington goes on:

And as any man walks according to this rule, according to the new creature, according to the law of light and life that the spirit continually breathes into the new creature, he hath peace; but as he transgresses that, and walks not after the spirit but after the flesh, he walks out of the light, out of the life, out [of] the peace, into the Sea, into death, into the trouble, into the condemnation. Here then is the law of the converted man, the new creature; and the law of the new creature is the spirit of life which begat him, which lives and breathes and gives forth his law continually in him. Here’s a Christian, here’s his rule: He that hath not the new creature formed in him, is no Christian: and he that hath the new creature, hath the rule in himself (The Way of Life and Death [1658], in Works [London: Benjamin Clark, 1681] 5-6).

The central authority for Friends is whatever measure we have of the fullness of life, the divine presence known in the inward depths of our relational being, which we open to in a gathered meeting but can experience in any other moment. Truth in theology can be measured, then, by our sense of the life and fullness in it.

Quakerism is unequivocally Christian in its origins, emerging out of left-wing Puritanism, i.e., mid-seventeenth-century English Protestantism, and its context which includes strains of experiential and meditative religion from the Radical (or left wing) Reformation of the sixteenth century on the continent and from Catholic spirituality of medieval England. Through its affirmation of the indwelling presence of Christ in all peoples, Quakers have been unusually open to other religious traditions (including secularism), and have been nurtured by them to such an extent in the twentieth century that some Friends resist the title of “Christian.” Quakerism can offer to other Christian groups a companion in dialogue as they also explore their Christian identity and roots in the light of our contemporary crisis. To paraphrase John Woolman’s statement about why he felt led to visit Native Americans in the wilderness during the French and Indian War, we can say that in such dialogue Quakers can learn by feeling and understanding the life and spirit another Christian group lives in, while being able perhaps in some degree to help them forward on their way (see Phillips P. Moulton, ed., The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman [New York: Oxford university Press, 1971] 127).

Life and Form: The Emergence of Inwardness

From the beginning Friends spoke of inward and outward as “life and form” or “spirit and form.” The energy and reality of inward life and spirit would emerge in the outward forms of word and act, ritual and things made, the shape of an individual life and of our lives together. Once emergent, however, the forms do not by themselves preserve the life and spirit. Only in an ongoing interactive process where people descend into inwardness and bear this life with them in a return to the forms are they vital. If a form has lost its connection with inwardness, it must either be revitalized, transformed, or “laid down.” Hence early Friends’ attack on the sacraments and church liturgy as empty forms perpetuating themselves rather than opening people to the indwelling presence of God.

The separation of outward from inward that Friends attacked in Puritan and Anglican England of the seventeenth century became problematic later in the history of Quakerism itself, most notably in the American conflict in 1827 between Orthodox and Hicksites, in which an outward objectivism opposed an inward subjectivism. In this conflict, an outwardness severed from depth led to a dogmatism of belief and practice, demanding conformity to explicit objective standards, while an inwardness disjoined from outward expression led to a quietism of the spirit, demanding conformity to a form of inarticulate subjectivity. From the originating seventeenth-century Quaker perspective of the interaction of inner and outer, we can see that both sides of the nineteenth-century split are self-deceived: dogmatists in thinking their objective forms are true and the only truth; quietists in thinking their subjectivity is free from all forms; and both in thinking that either the outer or inner can exist separated from interdependence with the other. Both assume a superiority, whether of correct belief or spiritual purity. In either case the individual’s creativity of living in and from the divine source is undercut as new forms or deeper levels are not tolerated.

Even though there have been times in Quakerism when inner and outer have been rent apart, the experience of early Friends and of much of Quaker history down to the present has been to affirm and depend upon the existence of an intimate and inextricable relation between them: most evidently in the gathered meeting, but throughout our lives, we move from the outward to the inward and back again, and thus the inward emerges into outward forms which are sustained by a continual openness to the inward source from which they come.

Feeling the Life–Beyond Dualism: Philosophical Innovations in Homespun

Although Friends are not inclined to think of inward and outward as having a philosophical dimension, its epistemological and metaphysical implications are startling. In mid-seventeenth-century England the philosophical and cultural direction of modernity had not yet congealed. Many elements were in solution that could have been configured differently from the way they in fact came to be. Under the impact of Galileo and Descartes, who conceived dualistically of all reality as separated into either subject or object, feelings were to come to lose any bearing on truth, displaced by the subject’s mathematical reasoning that attended to the measurable qualities of objects. At the same time that this view was becoming the precipitate of modernity, Quakers in their simplicity were developing a method of worship, decision-making, and knowing God that depended fundamentally upon feelings.

Over and over again George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, speaks of feeling the Life or Light or Seed or Truth: “Live in the Life of God, and feel it”; “feel the Seed of God”; “feel the presence of God in you and with you” (“The Power of the Lord is Over All”: The Pastoral Letters of George Fox [Richmond, Indiana: Friends United Press, 1989] 78 & 83). He does this because it is through feeling that we are aware of inwardness. Whether outer forms are filled with inward life is discerned, therefore, by feel. Life shows itself in the form of a life lived, a meeting gathered into genuine worship, the fitting word spoken, acts establishing justice and nurturing love. It is through the intuitive sensitivity of feeling that we become aware of the presence or absence of inwardness, and the degree of its fullness.

Within the gathered meeting, therefore, an epistemological perspective is implicit that, contrary to modernity’s grounding knowledge upon reason itself, conceives of knowing as affectional. Reality is known through the feel of it in the depths of inwardness. After three hundred and fifty years of Cartesianism, developed in either a rationalistic or empiricistic manner, some philosophies in the twentieth century have explored a similar alternative orientation that grounds our knowing upon non-rational factors; hence my interest in “background” and “pre-reflective awareness” in Merleau-Ponty, “tacit knowing” in Polanyi, and words as “forms of life” in Wittgenstein. It is by no mere chance that I see similarities between “postcritical” philosophies (to use Polanyi’s word) and Quaker thought, because it was my prereflective Quaker commitments that first drew me to them.

The inward life that is felt in outward forms is, as we have said, emergent. The emergence of form from life offers an alternative to the traditional Western metaphysical dualistic conception of being as divided into spirit and matter. Influential upon Greek, medieval, and modern thought, Aristotle conceives reality as the result of the formative agency of spirit imposing form upon formless matter. For originating Quakers, form emerges from, rather than being imposed upon, matter. The matter of our lives has a fullness within it which can arise in meaningful forms. The silence entered in worship is a formlessness that is a divine fullness pregnant with the possibilities of new words, new ways of being, new life, and old ways and words freshly invigorated. While none to my knowledge have said so, Friends’ experience illuminates how matter is implicit spirit and how spirit is explicit matter–a radically different notion from the dominant western tradition.

The inwardness of silence we enter in our descent into depth is an experience of formlessness–of the inchoate, of mystery. In this formlessness we experience presence, the felt presence of others–divine, human, and fellow creatures–and the creative process that carries us into words to be spoken or deeds to be done. The inward is not “subjective” nor is the outward “objective.” Inwardness is not my own private individuality separating me from the multiple objects of the world but is rather a relational level of consciousness in which I know myself in relation to divinity and world. Nor is outwardness objective as the Cartesian tradition develops it–as quantitatively measurable and unambiguous (an “object” is what it is and that’s all that it is)–since the meaning of an outer form depends on its authenticity: whether it is presently bearing inwardness or has been severed from it.

In this simple practice of descending over and over again into formlessness–in worship, transacting the meeting’s business, and daily living–we are trusting, without knowing how or what, that divinely shaped forms of knowing and doing will arise. In this we have a profound manifestation of the traditional Christian affirmation of “faith seeking understanding.” Not faith as conceptual belief in something, but faith as trust–Friends pursuit of what, from the outset, they called “Truth” is grounded in this experiential reliance on mystery at the bottom of the self. The inchoateness of inward silence does not have to be controlled by an external agency–whether reason, scripture, or tradition; the mystery can be trusted and, in gathered meetings, is trusted again and again.

The Way of Words

Words that often arise in this practice of descent and reemergence are metaphors. In the simple messages spoken out of the silence in meeting for worship, metaphors are frequently used, especially for the divine presence. The divine as Light or Inward Light is the most pervasive image used by Friends today and has been consistently used since Quaker beginnings. In those origins, however, there is a wealth of metaphors used for God. Light is not dominant but co-exists with many others such as Life, Seed, Spirit, Truth, Power, Wisdom, Way, Inward Teacher, That Of God In Everyone. Not only in their speaking of God, early Friends’ language is rife with metaphors. In an early letter, for example, Fox, amidst the use of several of these images for God, enjoins his readers to persevere through the spirit’s winter, that often comes after convincement of the indwelling divine presence, so as to come to summer’s freshness:

And Friends, though you may have tasted of the power and been convinced and have felt the light, yet afterwards you may feel winter storms, tempests, and hail, and be frozen, in frost and cold and a wilderness and temptations. Be patient and still in the power and still in the light that doth convince you, to keep your minds to God; in that be quiet, that you may come to the summer, that your flight be not in the winter. For if you sit still in the patience which overcomes in the power of God, there will be no flying. For the husbandman, after he hath sown his seed, he is patient. For by the power and by the light you will come to see through and feel over winter storms, tempests, and all the coldness, barrenness, emptyness. And the same light and power will go over the tempter’s head, which power and light were before he was. And so in the light standing still you will see your salvation, you will see the Lord’s strength, you will feel the small rain, you will feel the fresh springs . . .

Journal [London: Religious Society of Friends, 1975] 283-84

There are several reasons why metaphoric words should emerge from, and be used centrally in a theology that begins in, silence. In silence Friends know a reality deeper than words. No word can capture it directly, yet a metaphor, as an implied comparison (perhaps the shortest, and certainly least adequate definition of metaphor), can suggest what such reality is like. To use multiple metaphors is to suggest likeness from several angles. Each metaphor for God manifests, therefore, an aspect of our experience of divine reality: Light illumines and purges; Life engenders vitality; Seed grows down into darkness and up into light; Spirit energizes; Truth draws us into knowing reality; Power makes things happen; Wisdom orders our being in the world; Way directs us in our living; Inward Teacher guides and instructs; That Of God In Everyone calls attention to the interiority and universality of God’s presence. Together these metaphors express a richness of multi-faceted reality simultaneously grasped from multiple perspectives.

As a likeness, a metaphor is more readily recognized as a human construct and is less easily confused with the reality it is symbolizing. It thus reinforces our sense, and signals to others, that the divine forever extends beyond our verbal reach. Nevertheless, while it resists identification with reality, it brings us into contact with it. The etymology of metaphor (meta: beyond, and pherein: to bear or to carry) means to bear beyond or to carry beyond. Metaphor bears us beyond the words to the reality itself. In metaphor an aspect of reality is manifest, becomes present to us. Yet the reality can never be known in that way apart from those words. Hence, likening the spiritual life to winter cold and summer fresh-ness puts us in touch with this aspect of our lives. Always there implicitly in our experience, it enters into con-sciousness through this focusing by the seasonal metaphor.

This consciousness involves a feel for the aspect it brings to focus. Winter and summer elicit certain feelings from us; conjoined with the spiritual life, they elicit similar feelings for it: we feel our spiritual life as we have felt winter and summer. Weaving several metaphors together, as Fox does above–tasting the power, feeling the light and the winter storms, being and standing still in the power and light, being patient like the farmer after sowing the seed, feeling the small rain and fresh springs, and all of these signifying our spiritual lives–creates a denseness of feeling that moves us to open to a reality of our lives and the presence of God active within it.

Metaphor connects us with reality because it is itself a phenomenon of connection. A metaphor is always a meaning constructed of at least two terms joined together. The terms are from different realms of discourse (such as taste and power or feeling and light) so exist in tension as they interact with each other. In knowing through a metaphor we are always therefore put into touch with at least two things; in knowing one thing we always know another. Indeed, we know each thing from the perspective of the other, so we experience taste in terms of power and power in terms of taste, feeling in terms of light and light in terms of feeling, or the spiritual life and winter/summer simultaneously in terms of each other.

This interaction is of course going on beneath explicit notice but we feel it, are drawn in by it into contact with both realities. Metaphors are, therefore, a relational way of knowing. They are especially apt to catch up and show forth the relational character of our being–our relatedness to divinity, humanity, and cosmos.

At the same time we are brought into relation to our own self as the user of metaphor, so that in connecting with two things simultaneously we are also connecting with a third, ourselves. Words from different regions of our experience, when connected, bring together these different regions within ourselves; or rather, make us aware of their underlying connections in ourselves. We are changed in using metaphors; we are carried beyond our previous awareness into a sense of further connections within ourselves.

One of the connections the Fox quote above makes, and that is made in much of early Friends extensive use of metaphors, is between sensuality and spirituality. The spiritual life is like light or like growing things or like the seasons. There is a natural welcome in hearing such metaphors, not only because of the familiarity of light, seed, and summer, but because of their draw; they affect us–we are attracted by the pleasures of summer or of light or of plants growing, or we are repelled by the winter’s cold and storm. In either case, metaphors connect our spirituality with the particulars of our sensuous experience as we feel the presence of spiritual meaning embedded in the things of nature. By discovering the sensible world in the middle of our spiritual lives, and reciprocally the sensuous in the middle of spirituality, we are changed.

Not that all metaphors, natural or otherwise, change us all the time; there is a range in metaphoric power from “dead” metaphors to whose tension we are dead (such as in the use of “God the Father,” until the recent feminist critique), through conventional connections (such as in calling someone a “pig”), to surprising ones (I remember, during a summer of much writing on my dissertation, telling my little daughter goodnight once again and saying she was a gem, when she turned on me and said “Good night, Daddy. You are a typewriter.”). At the far end of this spectrum, surprising metaphors can get deep. When metaphors function symbolically, they manifest a richness of hidden meaning.

When Gerard Manley Hopkins says “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” we sense such richness in our bewilderment about his meaning, focused on the word “charged.” Is it a financial verb, or a military, ethical, electrical one? It is, of course, all of these. Amidst the ambiguity we begin to get a glimmer of what he means by “the grandeur of God.” The world in some way–in fact, in many ways–is intimately tied up with divine glory. Bombarded from many angles we are opened to the depth of the divine in nature, of which he in fact says in the next stanza: “nature is never spent;/ There lives the dearest freshness deep down things. . . .” Drawn into such depth through metaphors, we feel in touch with that which is really real. Such a metaphor may be a passing one in a poem or may be a central archetype or paradigm for my life or for our culture or perhaps for humanity as such.

Our speaking and thinking and living are unfinished. This is part of the meaning of Quakerism being a non-credal church. We have no systematic framework or set formula to adhere to, conform to. Rather we live in those connections of which metaphors make us aware and which they shape. We are bound together historically as a people through various metaphors, especially that of light. Seeing things, from shifting perspectives, as aspects of reality, being borne again and again into the depths to experience that evocative mystery, feeling the world and our lives afresh as pervaded by divinity, as sacred–is the Quaker way, the metaphoric way, of words.


So what is Quaker theology? I am a Quaker doing theology but is what I am doing here Quaker theology? In reflecting on what I have said, and even more so on how I have said it, perhaps I can see and say what I believe Quaker theology is. I have spoken in the first person from the beginning. I have spoken not only of specific experiences but of the experiential. This is the realm of the personal, of my relating and responding to the multifarious phenomena in my world, my awareness tacit and explicit, my sensitivities, memories, anticipations, feelings, fears and hopes, defenses and vulnerabilities, and thinking and willing in certain ways.

Within this realm of the personal I have sought a level of depth in which I am ongoingly in touch with mystery felt as sacred. The place in which I have found this and chosen to start my reflection from is the communal space of a gathered Friends meeting. What I am finding in general, but specifically here in the gathered meeting, is that the principles for theological work in Quakerism are: experiential–starting from experience of divinity; dimensional–sensitive to the different levels of meaning experienced on surface and in the depths; relational–aware that experience of the divine carries with it a sense of our relatedness to being; vital–using the fullness of life as a measure for truth; affectional–knowing that life and truth through feeling; and non-dualistic–affirming that the forms of our intellectual, social, and religious lives emerge from and are sustained upon formlessness we indwell beneath our knowing and control.

Starting with this waiting together in silence, structured ritually as the way of Friends worship, I have drawn into my reflections thinkers, images, concepts from the Quaker heritage. To write theologically from the divine within without drawing upon the Quaker heritage would not be Quaker theology. Or perhaps, more accurately, it would be “latent” but not “manifest” Quaker theology. Not that Quaker theology must start with meeting for worship; it can start from any place in which I am aware of sacred mystery. But the meeting for worship dramatizes for me “persons in relation” (to use a word from John Macmurray) and the gathered meeting focuses that communal experience in depth.

Quaker theology, situated in its heritage, is a reflective enterprise that reflects on what is. It is not principally a thinking about the past–as other parts of Christianity do in starting from tradition or scripture–nor is it a judging by some ethical standard what ought to be done, since oughtness is derived from isness of the indwelling present divine. From what is in inwardness, from what is in the deepest reaches of our being–the divine Life–we begin to reflect on the meaning of our lives in the world shaped by the Quaker ethos rooted in the Christian and biblical heritage, speaking in the first person from the here and now, though informed by past and future. Such it seems to me, as I have so far discovered through reflecting on my and our dwelling in the Life, is the nature and origin of Quaker theology.

[This paper is a revision of “Dwelling in the Life: Quaker Spirituality as Theology” presented at the Quaker Theology Seminar meeting November 18-20, 1994 at Woodbrooke, Birmingham, England.]


1 Since a critical moment in my graduate theological formation, this passage from William Langland’s Piers Plowman (as translated by Elizabeth D. Kirk) has illuminated my quandary:

But Theology has troubled me ten score times.
The more I muse on it, the mistier it seems,
And the deeper I divined, the darker I thought it;
It’s surely no science to argue subtly in;
If it weren’t for the love that lies in it,
it would be a lame study.But since it allows so much to Love,
I love it the better,
For wherever Love is leader, there’s
no lack of grace.

(Passus X, B-Text, l. 183-191)

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