The following is a copy of an email exchange that occurred May 4th – 6th between Marilyn Vache and me. Marilyn has been attending our New Foundation Fellowship (NFF) Fox study group, as well as Zoom classes offered by Henry Jason under the care of Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative): classes I also attend. She begins her correspondence by referring to an essay by Lewis Benson titled “The Future of Quakerism.” Benson, along with several others, founded NFF half a century ago to be a vehicle for presenting the writing of Fox to modern Friends, who had wandered far from the original faith. Our NFF work today continues his own: to proclaim and speak of Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and today, and forever (Heb. 13:8).
As an introduction to Lewis Benson’s work I am reading None Were So Clear (nice to see you and the Heins acknowledged). In the lecture on “The Future of Quakerism” he describes much of modern Liberal Friends’ thought and states it more clearly than anyone I’ve read before: I find your answers to questions to be deep and wise, so I’m addressing mine to you.
The religion of the modern Friend is a philosophical structure whose chief cornerstone is the affirmation of the inherent native spirituality of man. This is what the modern Friend means when he uses George Fox’s phrase “that of God in every man”…Christ, or rather Jesus, is understood to be a rabbi who taught that we must follow our Inner Light…He is not the Light, but he received it in the same manner we do. Thus, the Inner Light is one thing and Jesus is another (Benson).
I think somewhere else in the essay he indicates that modern Friends no longer see the necessity of Christ as intermediary between God and man.
The support for this modern belief seems to come, as well, from early and current-day Quakers’ universalism, saying that the Inner Light existed in all people well before Jesus and exists within everyone. My question is this: What were the early “evangelists” doing when they traveled as far as Turkey to talk with a Sultan or when Fox encouraged Friends to speak with American Indians? Were they saying that the full expression of the Light required familiarity with or acceptance of the direct teachings of Jesus? Did they believe that only with that could the Light be fully present or active? Another way to ask this is, can there be two legitimate tracks for Friends, one that relies on Christ as both message and messenger and another that relies on a shared sense of the presence of the Light?
I think that Benson goes on in that lecture to say, basically, that the second form of belief is anemic, that it won’t support an eternal fellowship in the same way the first one does. The argument against that might be (within a very time-limited framework) that modern Liberal thought seems to be more robust and attractive than the Benson version. It’s a small group, of course, but all mainline denominations are. And the reply to that is yes, of course, they’re small because they’ve lost nearly everything of early Christianity to secularism.
Well, I will be interested to see you reply if you have the time. If you’d rather just talk, I can be reached at [xxx-xxx-xxxx] most mornings. I want you to know that I am still interested in the Fox studies, though I believe that I have a conflict again this Saturday. I’ll be certain to listen to the session when you post it in “Abiding Quaker,” which I greatly appreciate.
In grace, Marilyn
Thank you for writing and for posing these questions, Marilyn. I’ve often felt that your questions in our Fox study groups show a seriousness and an intelligence that is welcome. I’ve been considering your email since first reading it yesterday, and feel I may be able to shed some light, though perhaps not fully clear up the matter for you. If that’s the case, please let me know, and I’ll try again.
You had asked about the evangelical work of early Quakers to non-Christian people, such as the sultan in Turkey and the American Indians: whether in evangelizing, Friends were saying that “the full expression of the Light required familiarity with or acceptance of the direct teachings of Jesus. . .that only with that could the Light be fully present or active?” Barclay in his sixth proposition in his Apology refutes that idea when he states “that as some of the old philosophers might have been saved, so also may now some – who by providence are cast into those remote parts of the world, where the knowledge of the history is wanting – be made partakers of the divine mystery, if they receive and resist not that grace, ‘a manifestation whereof is given to every man to profit withal'” (1 Cor. 12:7). He goes on to identify where the true distinguishing event of salvation lies: “they may be made partakers of the mystery of his death (though ignorant of the history) if they suffer his Seed and Light (enlightening the hearts) to take place; in which Light, communion with the Father and Son is enjoyed” (italics mine). Verses 9 through 12 in the prologue of John likewise state that the light is universally given but not universally received.
Benson recognized that modern Friends – for the most part – had not entered in at the strait gate, had not received the light of Christ, but instead had misconstrued the relationship between Christ Jesus and themselves. As he wrote in the passage you quoted, they attributed the divine nature to themselves as an “inherent” function of their human nature. It is this claim of a natural inherency that stands in opposition to original Quaker faith. Early Quakers received Christ, knowing his being to be wholly other than themselves, having a different will and wisdom beyond their natural human capacity but which, nevertheless, could visit, enlighten, and direct them. Benson picks up on Fox’s use of the idea of “the offices of Christ” which emphasizes the distinction between Christ and human beings, who yet, though distinct from one another, can be in relationship: one entity to another.
Modern Friends sometimes claim to be in unity with early Friends and feel entitled to use the same terms to describe their spirituality, but the way in which they use these terms show that their understanding is different from early Friends. For example, a modern Friend believes he possesses his own unique “inner light,” which “leads” him in ways that differ from the ways others’ unique inner lights lead them. (This idea is held forth in the Quaker song “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”) For early Friends, the light of Christ is not a personal possession, and one cannot control whether or not it shines within. They felt and knew Christ reveal himself to them within. This specific revelation brought them into unity with others who likewise felt the same being descend upon them from above; Fox wrote: “your faith being in the power you are all one if ye be 10,000” (The Works of George Fox, vol.7, p. 58). Unity in Christ, arising from an inward conviction, engendered an assurance and strength both in individuals and in the corporate body that is evident in their writings and history. They had a clarity, power, and unity which is non-existent in modern Quakers, leading Benson to use the term “anemic” to describe what the Society has come to.
In your email you asked, “can there be two legitimate tracks for Friends, one that relies on Christ as both message and messenger and another that relies on a shared sense of the presence of the Light?” Perhaps the previous paragraph has answered this already in presenting the idea that a legitimate shared sense of the Light will occur only upon the visitation from Christ, the transcendent Being. Unity can be engineered by human means, but it is not the unity of spirit that is revealed from heaven, which exhibits a specific quality of grace and truth that leads those who have known it into a unity with one another. This unity extends beyond the people gathered in a particular space; it is found among those from different times and cultures, allowing us to read and understand the Scriptures, understanding them as did the early Friends, because we know – as they knew – the Spirit of Christ in which the Scriptures were written. Modern Friends tend to avoid the Scriptures, whereas early Friends highly valued both the Scriptures and the Spirit they spoke of; they knew and loved that Spirit, in which they lived and moved and had their being (Acts 17:28).
Please let me know if this response has sufficiently clarified the matter, or if not, feel free to pursue it further.
This was most helpful, and I appreciate the time you took to think it through and write back to me.
The main question that remains for me, the larger body aside, is about receiving Christ. About thirty years ago I had a “born again” moment in which, in accepting Christ, I was promised abundant and eternal life. As satisfying as that was, I recognize that receiving Christ is not a one-time event. Since I first heard of it, when I was young, I was moved by the instruction to “pray without ceasing.” I am still trying to understand what it takes to maintain that connection: some study (I know scripture is important), willingness, openness, desire, paring away of distractions, or….something. How do you see that continued work? How do you listen for Christ’s leadings? Are there early Friends who speak of it and might help me expand into that state?
With much gratitude,
I appreciate your writing of your present condition and doing so in such a concise, essential way. My condition mirrors your own: I was given knowledge of God several decades ago, and since that time, have been striving to “maintain that connection.” To live in the fear of God is one principle that has become a part of me. It is within our human capacity to sustain and is usually present, a consequence of knowing and desiring life: a spiritual survival “instinct.” Like an instinct, the fear alerts me to situations where I’m spiritually endangered. It preserves me, keeping me safe from sin that would take my life. But that’s all it does; as an embodied principle, fear of God doesn’t and can’t precipitate the bestowal of grace, as grace is God’s alone to give.
You also asked how I listen for Christ’s leadings. I am open to being judged, knowing what has prevented my receiving Him are my natural – perhaps unseen – shortcomings, sometimes subconsciously hidden so that I’m unaware of them. To get these errors visible, I open myself to receive any information that I’ve kept hidden away from sight; I trust God to reveal whatever is necessary and to sustain me through the indictment, as I’ve experienced this process so many, many times. Listening also requires focus, and one technique I find helpful is to repeat the Lord’s prayer at the beginning of worship, one phrase at a time, allowing each one to deepen and focus my attention. Following that exercise, I simply wait, alert and scanning the inward horizon for signs of any movement of the Spirit.
Having friends who are honest and dedicated to the same goal is helpful, for the obvious reason that having another’s perspective can add information and understanding. Reading of Scripture and early Friends writings are useful for the same reason. I like Isaac Penington’s writings for his sensitivity to and articulation of the inward workings of mind and heart. His four-volume Works are available from Quaker Heritage Press http://www.qhpress.org/books/penington.html#v1 and Friends Library has published a two-volume set of his Works, “conscientiously abridged,” https://www.friendslibrary.com/isaac-penington/writings-volume-1. Here’s an example of his insightful writing taken from a treatise that is titled “Some Questions and Answers, Conducing Towards the Further Manifestation and Opening of the Path of Redemption And Eternal Life to the Eye of Spiritual Israel”:
Now the more the spirit is broken by the hand of the Lord, and taught thereby to fear him; and the less strength it hath in itself, to grapple with the persecuting spirit of the world; the fitter it is to stand in God’s counsel, to wait for his strength and preservation, which is able to bear up its head above all the rage and swelling of the waters of the worldly spirit in the men of this world (vol. 2, p. 249).
Thanks again for sharing your interest and progress in these matters. I look forward to engaging in joint efforts in the work with you.
Once again I feel deeply heard and attended to. You have set before me a banquet.