Tracing the Light: An Attempt at a Covenantal Quakerism

“Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every reality of evil.”

1 Thessalonians 5:19-22

To speak Quakerly for a moment: I have had a concern placed upon me, and I believe it is turning to a leading. I have been immersed in Quaker writing for about five years. I’ve attended several Quaker meetings. I work in a Quaker school and serve on the Quaker Life Committee. I love Quaker history, especially of the original 17th century Quakers and the early 20th century Friends. The writings of Rufus Jones, especially, have been a Godsend.

In all of this, I have felt something missing. I have not quite found a Quaker community that I could deeply be part of. I have not found most current Quakers to be as interested in theological and spiritual discussion as I am. From what I can gather, this didn’t seem to be the case in the early 20th century. It seems as if something in Quaker culture has waned.

Douglas Gwyn’s book, Personality and Place: The Life and Times of Pendle Hill, would seem to suggest that there was an increase in psychologizing and seekerism that occurred in the 1960’s, which led to an unhelpful kind of individualism. I have benefitted from my own study of psychology, and I could be called a seeker, but I think he’s mostly right. There’s a lack of community in most of the Meetings that I’ve attended and a lack of confidence in claiming to have made any discovery of spiritual substance.

With that being my disposition, I want to set out to discover if there can be a recovery of a substantial, a weighty, Quaker movement. I want something with deep historical roots, something that knows what it stands for, even while it remains quite open to discovering unknown truth. In a phrase, I want something more spiritually scientific, more rigorously Quaker. This is my attempt to outline what that might look like, a vision that I hope will inspire others to put on their climbing gear and take to the spiritual Alps before us. In whatever that follows, take what speaks to your condition and leave the rest.

Quakers have a general consensus that there is “that of God in everyone.” This notion has gone by many names—the Seed, Grace, the Spirit—but I will call it the Inner Light. This will be the theological starting point for a Covenantal Quakerism. Quakers of most stripes could agree with this starting point, Quakers ranging from the theological titan, Robert Barclay, to the most modern, anti-theological Quaker.

The experience of the Inner Light varies from person to person, because the guidance is for a specific person in a specific time and place, but the substance and tenor of the Light is essentially the same. As Francis Howgill once put it: “This day of the Lord, which is eternal brightness, appears in the heart; and the dawning and breaking forth of it is to be waited for there; and as it is witnessed, it manifests evil, and brings it to light, and declares against what is contrary to its own nature.” George Fox further spoke of an ocean of darkness that he could see at the beginning of his experience. But soon there was an ocean of light, moving him from the darkness.

As I have experienced the Light, I can say that it is unmistakably other than my own conscience. It comes in the precise way that is most needful, sometimes overwhelming like a mighty wave, sometimes slow and babbling. Either way, it will take me where it is best for me to go, if I would only listen and follow. I have come to believe that these experiences are amplifications of what occurs in each moment of life. These major experiences of the Light train us to see the Light everywhere and always, to listen to it with the subtlest of attention, and to keep the peace of one’s soul with the Greater Soul.

This experience is inward and unmistakable. It is objective, as Robert Barclay argued. It gives you the eyes to see and the ears to hear. Without this, it seems that all divine things would go unrecognized. The basic texture of the experience is one of love. And Saint Augustine sounded very much like a Quaker, when he said that if one only learned to love truly, then there would be no need of the Scriptures. This experience of the Inner Light is the foundational reality of a Covenantal Quakerism.

It begins in the soul, if you will. It’s a process of conversion toward being able to see the truest Reality, the Divine, and not only to see it but to be like it. It’s the essence of religion as Quakers have come to understand religion.

Even while this experience is deeply personal, it is nonetheless socially rooted and wants to be shared. It occurs primarily in Meeting, among other Friends seeking the same experience. And there is a history behind it.

It has been the sustained experience of the Religious Society of Friends that God meets us primarily in a still, small voice. This is why Friends meet in silence. We follow the way of the one who communed with his Father for hours alone in silence, the one who taught his disciples to join him, even though they couldn’t stay awake to do it. And it is this one, Jesus the Nazarene, who has set the historical trajectory for Quakers. This has sometimes been forgotten in our meeting together. That amnesia has been unhelpful, almost as if we’ve forgotten how to walk. But most early Quakers understood the Inner Light to be Jesus, who has “come to teach his people himself,” as George Fox liked to put it.

Jesus, though a wanderer, was not rootless. He was a Jewish man in Palestine, under Roman rule during the first century. He was a prophet in a long line of Jewish prophets, whose job it was to warn the Jewish people that their leaders had lost their way and to point toward the steady, sometimes narrow, path forward. The Gospels tend to paint Jesus as a prophet in the vein of Isaiah, as testified in Matthew, Luke, and Q (Matt. 4:14-16; 12:17-21; Luke 2:32; 4:17-19, 21; 7:22). Jesus is the one on whom God placed his Spirit, and the one through whom healing came.

The passages quoted from Isaiah reveal something quite interesting. They say that the chosen Servant will be appointed “as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). The Gospels witness that Jesus understood himself to be this Servant (Luke 4:17-21). Jesus is a covenant and a light. And that covenant and light has a specific, Jewish history. For so many reasons, we need to remember that.

A Covenantal Quakerism understands itself to be positioned in a specific history, one defined by God making covenants with God’s people. God has always revealed Godself to people. God has done this in various ways and through various religions, but it does no good for Quakers to attempt to fly above it all, to attempt to be something other than historically rooted, and forget that God has revealed Godself in the history of Jesus and Jesus’s forebears. The covenant is ancient and has long since revealed to the Jewish people that God is struggling with them and for their good, that God has since time immemorial enacted his hesed, his covenant loyalty.

But God also revealed, through the Jewish people—in prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, and Jonah—that God is for the nations. There is a New Covenant. Jesus is that covenant materialized, made flesh. Jesus is God become like us, so that we might become like God, as the ancient Christians used to say, following Athanasius and Augustine. And Jesus set forth the outlines of that covenant in his most well-known prayer, the prayer he passed on to his disciples, what has come to be called the Lord’s prayer.

The Good News, as set forth by Covenantal Quakerism, is that God—as the ultimate Creator of all that is true, good, and beautiful—is in favor of all that is true, good, and beautiful in us and will persuade us to that end. Whatever darkness lies in you, God will give you the Light to dispel it, the power to turn away from it and you can become righteous (1 Cor. 10:13; Ezek. 18:28, 31-32). God’s kingdom will come, his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. God will not let us go; hasn’t let us go through the millenia.

God has come to people through diverse manners, even concentrated in a person who risked his life to bear this message of faith, hope, and love. As Rufus Jones enjoyed saying, Jesus reveals the Heart of the universe, and that Heart loves us. This is a message we cannot afford to lose sight of. Quakers have been fantastic in increasing the Kingdom of God through deeds—they have had an outsized impact considering the proportion of their numbers with the rest of society—though there has been a loss of the Kingdom’s increase in word and understanding among Friends.

So, as John Yungblut has said: “Strange and unendurable irony — that Friends who speak so much about the Inward Light should so timidly hide their own light under a bushel! The time has come to preach the faith we have resolved to practice. If we have good news for our brothers, and I believe we do, let us shout it from the housetops!” It is an exciting message!

But we need not fear any unnecessary exclusivism. I don’t want skeptics and seekers of a certain sort to jump off the train here. Covenantal Quakerism has much room for the Inner Light to explore truth in its fullness. We don’t know it all yet. While CQ can confidently claim that it has received its anchoring Light from this particular Jewish history and this particular Jewish person, it is not at all opposed to Light from other religions, philosophies, and science. On the contrary, CQ’s sense of rootedness gives it the confidence to walk wisely upon the world stage, embracing all that is true, good, and beautiful.

On a personal note: Besides the great wisdom of Judaism and Christianity, I have benefited from Hinduism, particularly the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. Buddhist meditation has also been helpful. Process theology has given me a metaphysical ground, and helped me to make sense of the religion vs. science dialogue. It has also affirmed some of my innately Daoist understanding of God. Evolutionary biology has been incredibly helpful for understanding present human nature, and I believe it can successfully update Robert Barclay’s understanding of people’s “fallen” condition with much more accuracy than he was able to do in his time. Though, his heart was on the right track, for sure.

CQ doesn’t stand opposed to any truth that can be found. Rather, it stands positively as a witness for the truth that it has discovered. It is not committed to believing that all religions are equal, even as it isn’t committed to believing that it has found the only way. For CQ to believe that it is the only way would mean that it has lost sight of Jesus as the Cosmic Christ, which we will speak of shortly.

CQ does maintain the positive belief that religion should be endeavored upon in a scientific manner, with the beliefs of a community being tested through experience and reason over time and always illumined by the Inner Light. Like a scientific theory, CQ provides a framework for the believer to poke, prod, test, confirm some aspects, and deny others.

CQ resonates with the quote by Douglas Gwyn in Faith and Practice: “Quaker faith and practice can be compared and combined with a wide variety of other traditions: such as Buddhism, or ethical humanism. But we will find our deepest and fullest resonances with the biblical Christian traditions that nurtured early Friends and with the Jewish traditions that nurtured Jesus.” Covenantal Quakerism is almost summed up in that very quote.

So far, this has been a general overview of what a Covenantal Quakerism could look like. CQ believes that, given the world’s diverse religious landscape, what has been said is already quite substantial. Should we go beyond this? Can we?

Covenantal Quakerism stands for all of the major testimonies that have historically been adhered to among Quakers: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Stewardship. These are often called the SPICES. Each of these values has held firm in the trials and tests of the past 350 years of Quakerism. All of these values have been tested among other groups and have been corroborated in those experiences. Covenantal Quakerism, then, bears witness to the truth value of these testimonies as a wise way to walk through the world and wishes to add its voice to testify of their greatness.

We are in agreement with Quakerism at large about the SPICES, but a longer note on the Peace testimony is needed. Covenantal Quakerism recognizes that many Friends had felt a deep moral conviction, during the American Civil War and World War II, to enter into these conflicts as combat service people. In the wisdom of the majority of Yearly Meetings, these Friends were not written out of their respective Meetings when they returned. While the position that some wars are morally just to fight in is a minority position among Friends, we feel compelled to recognize the conscience of those who made those gut-wrenching decisions as still maintaining the conscience of Friends.

Therefore, we cannot hold to an ideology of Absolute Pacifism. Rather, we must take the position that most historical wars have been morally wrong, while there are a few that can be morally justified, even if not in totality. Furthermore, any such decision to enter a particular conflict in the present is advisedly made from the normative experience of peace-making—meaning the living of a life that desires true harmony, true shalom, among all people, of all places and every day, insofar as it depends on the peace-makers’ ability to bring this about. Any individual entering upon such a decision is urgently advised to seek the wisdom of a clearness committee. Beyond this, we will say no more at this time.

There are, however, other distinctions between Quakerism at large and Covenantal Quakerism that are worth talking about.

Those coming from outside the Quaker tradition are often interested to understand how the Quakers read their Bible. Others are often interested in what Quaker worship looks like. In the following paragraphs, we will speak to both of these curiosities as they mingle in a distinct way in Covenantal Quaker worship.

To begin with, Covenantal Quakers can agree wholeheartedly with the statement about Scripture set forth in the 2017 Faith and Practice, found here. There are a few aspects, however, that CQ tends to emphasize in its worship. Specifically, “Friends know that their shared knowledge of the Bible deepens both spoken ministry and inward listening. And Friends continue to find the Bible to be an important touchstone against which to test their leadings.”

To continue with the theme of religious experimentation, CQ would say that every good theory has testable claims. In the case of CQ, we have a history illuminated by the Inner Light, and we test the discoveries concerning the Divine through that Light. Like a standard scientific theory, we know that there is a history of interpretation, a peer-reviewed dialogue, through which the theory arises. Our history shows forth the various tests of the Inner Light’s leadings, from Abraham onward. The Hebrew Tanakh and the Christian New Testament, together simply called the Bible, are our primary historical witnesses to our growing understanding of the Divine, our religious theory. The Bible serves as our family story and our peer-reviewed literature. It is the testimony of a grand, spiritual epic, as Rufus Jones liked to put it.

Even still, we do not understand all parts of the Bible to be divinely inspired. There are dark moments of our family history that have been recorded, moments where cruelty and malice come to the fore. When these elements are advocated in the Bible, rather than warned against, we understand by the Inner Light that these elements are not Divine even when biblically advocated. They then serve us as a reminder of how otherwise good people can slip into bad modes of being. They also serve to remind us how religious fervor can go astray if not properly guided by the Peace of the Inner Light. The Meeting can then offer a spiritually criticized version of these passages as the proper way to read them in the Light.

With the foundational experience of the Inner Light, CQ is further guided to read Scripture through two, reciprocal lenses of experience. In the Hebrew Tanakh, the primary lens of experience is that God acts according to hesed. God is loyal to the covenant over thousands of years and is endlessly forgiving and loving. In the New Testament, the covenant comes to Light and Life in the person of Jesus the Nazarene. This Jesus loved and forgave his enemies and taught his disciples to do the same. Anything in the Bible, whether in Tanakh or the New Testament, that teaches the contrary to these two, reciprocal lenses of experience is not normative and is probably not inspired.

Therefore, we highly esteem the statement in Faith and Practice that says: “Friends do not consider any scriptures, including the Bible, to be the final Word of God. Robert Barclay cautioned that the scriptures are only a declaration of the source and not the source itself. Friends believe in ‘continuing revelation’ arising from ongoing communion with the Living God. This expands our sensitivity in relationships with one another and likewise our knowledge of the universe.”

At the same time, we take the biblical history with utter seriousness, and we see the fingerprint of God everywhere in it. We see, with C. S. Lewis, how it “carries the Word of God.”

This seriousness leads to a distinction in CQ worship. Whereas most Friends Meetings, at least on the U.S. East Coast and in Britain, are unprogrammed—meaning the meeting is entirely held in silence except for those spontaneously moved to give vocal ministry—Covenantal Quaker worship rather intends to read a portion of the Bible at each Meeting.

A weighty Friend, someone with much learning about the chosen passage and using the best means possible—including historical criticism, literary criticism, and lived experience—will then attempt to say a few words about the passage. This weighty Friend witnesses about the continued relevance of the passage, using the best of human knowledge and experience available to them. This Witness will last typically around 10 minutes.

After this, the Meeting will move to unprogrammed, silent worship. The Meeting may incline itself toward the Witness, or it may diverge depending upon the sense of the Meeting. The Divine must always have space, and there is no prescription for silent worship other than to hearken toward the Divine. It should also be stated that it is fully acceptable to read from other family stories, meaning other sacred scriptures, than the Bible, but a passage from the Bible will always be read at Meeting, giving our faith mothers and fathers the honor due to them. This is the Covenantal Quaker way of remaining rooted, of attesting to the history of the Covenant, and of living in that continuing history of revelation. At the end of each service, the Meeting will come to consensus on which passage should stand as Witness the following week.

With all of this, we do honestly accept other inspired texts to enter into the Meeting. CQ understands inspiration in a similar fashion as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Rufus Jones understood it. Inspiration is when you meet a text or event that lifts you up to be more than you could have without it, signaling that it comes from a transcendent place. It is when you read a text that seems to read you back more deeply, revealing to you things that you did not know about yourself or other people. It puts asunder the bad in you and raises the good. It evokes transitive concern, a loving disposition toward other people. Inspiration is what happens, through any given medium, when the Meeting is brought into loyalty with itself and toward its ultimate goals of worshiping and experiencing the Divine and then living in Light of that experience. It is anything that spontaneously increases what Paul called the fruits of the Spirit. In short, inspiration is another outworking of the Inner Light.

This view of inspiration leads easily to the CQ stance on sacraments. The Nazarene once said that “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” Quakers have traditionally understood this experience as the center of their worship. They have often chastened Christians for making too much of the forms of worship and not enough of the one through whom they worship and the specific life generated by that worship. Quakers have taken Jesus at his word and have believed that his presence is with them in worship. This has been sacrament enough for them. The forms, Quakers say, are not necessary.

While CQ believes that the intention behind this is mostly correct, it also recognizes the wisdom of recent Faith and Practice books, where the sacraments are understood as helpful, and often deeply meaningful, even if they are not altogether necessary for a life in the Light. Quakers are wary that the Eucharist might become an empty form. They want to emphasize that the point is the gathering of people to remember Jesus and the way he pursued truth, goodness, and beauty in the world so that we might venture along that path. Likewise, Quakers are wary when water baptism replaces the washing and regeneration of conscience that Peter spoke of (1 Peter 3:21). Through all of this, CQ can still find value in these practices if understood as possible moments of inspiration. But we must remember spontaneity, so that we don’t risk returning to a bare form.

So, Covenantal Quakerism shares the wariness toward outward forms that Quakerism generally articulates, though it does not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It doesn’t want to make a legalism of either spontaneity or form.

CQ will offer water baptism to those who desire, particularly to those who have had the experience of regeneration or convincement. Although, children could be included, if their parents desire it, by virtue of a covenantal understanding of God’s promise to all people. Either way, CQ will make it clear that true baptism is to undergo spiritual transformation, which is often difficult, and none will be required to undergo water baptism, especially not those who believe that their spiritual experience has been baptism enough. After all, Christ’s most true baptism was not the baptism of John in the Jordan. It was the cross (Luke 12:50), which the readers will remember included no water except for his own sweat and the tears that preceded the crucifixion.

Similarly, with Communion—sometimes called Eucharist or Lord’s Supper—CQ is guided by the path of its forebears, who were Primitivist Christians and were guided by the desire to be the church as it was in the New Testament time. In that light, Communion will be an actual meal. Bread and wine will be present to serve as ancient symbols, but it will be a meal with whatever food comes out of the bounty of the meeting and it will especially feed the poor among us. In this way, CQ will remember that Christ is there, truly present, in the gathering and communing of people in his name. There is no magic in the bread or wine. The Cosmic Christ is present in all people and all things at all times. It is the Inner Light shining through everyone, like so many gathered candles becoming a roaring fire, which is the important point of Communion.

This leads us to speak more directly about Jesus. So far, we have spoken of Jesus as the Inner Light, “the Christ who comes to teach his people himself,” and the Presence we feel when we gather toward the Divine. This all accords with what Quakers have traditionally thought and felt about Jesus.

Typically, Quakers have not entered into the fray of Christological debate. But Quakers have held to a distinction-without-separation between the historical Jesus and the Cosmic Christ. This distinction is similar to what came about in the Chalcedonian creed of early Christianity, yet with important and helpful differences. Quakers have not traditionally assigned Jesus to any metaphysical box; they have rather stood as witnesses to their experiences of him, which illuminates and deepens the original experiences of the first Christians.

Jesus came in the flesh, in the first century. He grew up in a unique historical situation, and he was part of a specific people group—he was Jewish. He preached a message about the kingdom of God. Many believe this message can be summed up in the prayer he taught his disciples, with the Sermon on the Mount and Plains working to clarify further what that kingdom could look like. This historical Jesus set a trajectory for walking on this earth. This message, by Jesus’s own sentiment (Matt. 15:24), was originally meant for Jewish people of the first century. But his teaching has universal elements that can be taught in any time and place. This Jesus died on a Roman Cross. But…

This did not end the mission or vision of Jesus. In fact, this mission and vision only grew. And it grew because many of his disciples experienced this Jesus in a different form. This Jesus was resurrected, and he went from being a living man to being a life-giving spirit (1 Cor. 15:45). His disciples could not recognize him at first, but as he continued to appear to them, they became convinced that he is alive, including those that deeply doubted (John 20:28). They went forward to spread this message, extending the mission and vision of Jesus, who had now become the Cosmic Christ.

This distinction between the historical Jesus and the Cosmic Christ is similar to the Christology of Lutheranism with some hints of Eastern Orthodoxy, though it doesn’t claim the same metaphysical starting point of either and is open to metaphysical clarification. But Quakerism has experienced Christ in this fashion and desires to live life in the wisdom and hope of this experience. Quakerism has the fleshly, historical model of Jesus to follow, even as it is really illuminated and empowered from within by the risen Cosmic Christ to live that model and to clarify how that model fits into a contemporary person’s experience.

With Jesus, we believe that a good tree produces good fruit and a bad tree produces bad fruit. If this venture in Covenantal Quakerism produces good fruit, if the house stands, then we know it is of the Divine, for a house divided against itself cannot stand. If it does not produce good fruit, then the world is better off without it. Time will tell, but given the long history of experimentation behind it, the theory looks solid; it’s more than a hypothesis.

This, so far, is a vision of what a Covenantal Quakerism could look like in faith and practice. It holds to some definite substance, even as it is quite open to other tested experience. Its primary mission as a religious community is to witness to the truth it feels that it has discerned and to pass that on to the world community, hoping to benefit all who would hear. It is historically rooted, and it is mindful of Christ and the Spirit, and still it says with Paul: “Finally, Friends, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any virtue and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.”

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