MYSTICISM: The Quaker Conception Of Man by Rufus M. Jones

The Quaker Conception Of Man by Rufus M. Jones

From Friends Intelligencer

It is of all things important for us as members of the Society of Friends to have a vivid and vital conviction of the reality of the living God. It is difficult to see how we as God’s people can be spiritually effective if we are halting and stumbling between two opinions: (1) that the universe is a blind-chance mechanism which has fortuitously come into being with no guiding, creative mind at the helm, and (2) that there is before, above, and within the processes of the universe one Eternal Creator Spirit, the living God, who has revealed himself, and is still revealing himself, to those who have ears to hear his word.

But hardly less important for our spiritual mission in the world of today is the possession of a vital and vivid interpretation of man as a spiritual being in mutual and reciprocal intercourse with this living God. We shall not have great faith in God, nor a religion that convinces and convicts the modern world around us, until we recover the divine possibilities of the moral and spiritual inner being in man, which George Fox proclaimed with such power in the seventeenth century.

A very large proportion of the American population, and a still larger proportion of the European population, have been fed for two generations now on the theory of man as a biological species, struggling for existence, only partially adapted to life on the crust of a cooled earth, aggressive, shrewd, clever, acquisitive, but at bottom a cruel, power-seeking animal, doomed after a brief period of consciousness to fall back into the dust he came from, as all dust wreaths do. We have had sufficient demonstration in these last awful years of the moral debacle into which such theories of life plunge the world, for it is quite obvious that this theory of man has been one of the contributing factors to this appalling catastrophe.

It seems to me, therefore, to be an important service to interpret for this critical time the essential nature and mission of man’s spirit in the light of the full Christian revelation of man. That is precisely what the early Quakers did to a Calvinistic Age, and their new, vital, optimistic proclamation of man’s potential nature as a child of God and as a possible organ of God’s purposes in the world is undoubtedly one of their major contributions. They were confronted, on the one hand, with a prevailing Calvinism which insisted that man’s life begins with a seed of sin implanted in the soul of the child, who arrives with his inner being loaded toward evil, and with only a few out of the many persons born into the world foreordained to be saved, the vast majority being doomed from birth to eternal fire in a real and hopeless hell. On the other hand, Thomas Hobbes, the foremost philosopher of that period, was describing the life of man as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

George Fox met this dark outlook by asserting, in the opening of his Journal, that there was “a seed of God” in his father, “Righteous Christer.” “In my very young years,” he declared, “I knew pureness and righteousness, for I was taught how to walk to be kept pure.” “The Lord taught me,” he insists, “to be faithful inwardly to God and outwardly to man.” Then a little later came “great openings.” “I was sometimes brought into such Heavenly joy that I thought I had been in Abraham’s bosom.” “I knew God experimentally.” “I was taken up into the love of God.” “I saw that there was an ocean of darkness and death in the world; but I saw that there was an infinite ocean of light and love that flowed over the ocean of darkness. In that I saw the infinite love of God.” “I came up in spirit through the flaming sword into the paradise of God.” “I saw the Light of Christ, that it shines through all.”

This is the striking testimony of our founder. He is not formulating a theory. He is reporting an experience. It goes straight counter to the prevailing theology, and also to the dominant philosophy of his period. And when he began to preach, he spoke to “that of God in men,” as anybody can see who reads the Journal. It was when he was going through the most appalling of all his imprisonments – the one in Launceston dungeon – that he wrote to Friends to “walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.”

Man’s Divine Possibilities

That is the way Quakerism began, with tremendous faith that God is a living and revealing God, and that man is fashioned so that he can have direct, vital experience of the divine reality and presence. Is there solid ground in man’s fundamental nature as we know it, in the New Testament account, and in the experience of the prophetic leaders and saints of the Christian church
through the centuries, to give backing and weight to this optimistic account of man’s divine possibilities? I believe the answer is, yes. I am very familiar with the evil in man. It is not far to seek. I know how many villains there have been in the pages of history. And I know how wicked masses of men have been, can be, and still are. But I still believe that the soul that rises with us does come “trailing clouds of glory from God who is our home.”

This spirit in us is not of the Earth’s crust; it is not a curious dust wreath. It is spirit and not flesh or matter. It is the most unique thing about us or about our world, and we have the high authority of Christ himself that little children belong to the Kingdom of God and not to Satan. There is very widespread testimony that little children very frequently are acutely aware of a Divine Presence and find it as easy and natural to accept the reality of God as they do the reality of the external world. We have unfortunately – with all our types of psychology – no adequate interpretation of the ultimate nature of spirit in man and its immense scope. But what we do possess does not militate against the firsthand report of George Fox. I hope that the next great advance in our knowledge of the universe will not be concerned with the rings of Saturn or the canals on Mars, or with the nature of the atom, but rather with the inherent upward capacity of man’s soul.

The most important event in history which throws light upon the divine possibilities of human nature is the vivid report in the New Testament of the incarnation of the divine in the human. There have been again and again attempts so to interpret this event that the reality of the human in Christ has been lost, and with that loss the whole significance of incarnation has been missed. If Christ is treated as a visitant from another world who did not really “increase in wisdom and stature,” was not really and truly “tempted,” was not really acquainted with “our griefs and sorrows,” did not really agonize and weep, did not actually love and pity and understand from within what our strange life is like, did not himself suffer and feel forsaken and die, he cannot in any true sense speak to our condition and be our Savior. The moment you take him out of this truly genuine sphere of life and introduce a sharp dualism of this world and a remote other world, he is out of touch with our lives and cannot speak to our human condition, for everything becomes foreign and miraculous and outside the sphere in which we live. There can be no question that the Gospels fully support the view of Christ’s life as a genuine incarnation – a life in the limits of time and place and in human flesh, which is what “incarnation” means. So only does he become, in Saint Paul’s extraordinary words, “a new Adam” and “the first-born among many brethren.”

We cannot be too thankful for the written Gospels and for the actual recorded words of Jesus, but nothing can take the place of that new stream of spiritual vitality which flowed into the world through the inward operation of the Spirit of Christ, revealing his continued presence through the apostolic community – the living, continuous, ongoing experience of Christ. This mighty
experience was never actually “lost,” though form and system and organization tended to become mechanical, and the vital presence of a living Christ was too often a remote memory rather than a fact of experience. But there have been no periods so dead or so dull and mechanical that there have been no voices raised to bear testimony to the reality of a living Presence, inwardly
felt and known. Saint Augustine’s great testimony has been repeated by a thousand voices down the years of darkness that came after his time: “Thou hast made us for thyself and our hearts are restless until we find our rest in thee.” But it was always so easy to fall back on an ecclesiastical substitute for the vital experience!

It is difficult to imagine what the world would have been like, what indeed the church would have been like, if it had not been for the almost unbroken succession of mystics and saints all the way down the corridors of the ages from Saint John to the present time, testifying to the Real Presence, not alone through symbols and visible substances, but quickening the soul and making the heart burn with love and joy in the silence, with no visible sign in sight.

These mystics, through the whole apostolic succession, have insisted that there is in man’s soul an unlost point of junction, like a natal cord, forever unsundered from the supreme Spiritual Source. If an individual centers down to that Seed and Center of his being, he is in sight of Home and Fatherland, and can come into communion with the Life of his life. These mystics have variously named this center “the Ground of the Soul,” “the Apex of the Mind,” “the Uncreated Center,” “the Divine Spark,” “the Inward Light,” and “that of God in you.”

Man, a Spiritual Being

All that this, which sounds a bit like jargon, is endeavoring to say is that man is potentially a spiritual being with something in his structure that is not of the Earth’s crust. He is not essentially, through and through, a dust wreath but from an ampler, diviner Source and made for communion with the Eternal Spirit. This potential alliance with the Higher Sphere and this nearness of the Brooding Spirit do not settle our destiny, nor dispense with the mission and ministry of the outward revelation through the Bible, the church, the influences of education, and personal or group guidance. They do not lessen the importance of any of the gifts and graces which have to do with salvation and nurture. The inward and the outward processes go together as truly as the convex and the concave sides of a curve belong indivisibly together.

The forerunners of the Quakers, the so·called spiritual reformers of the sixteenth century, gave powerful testimony to the continued life and work of Christ as an inward Presence, and they joined with this faith a correspondingly lofty estimate of man’s divine possibilities. Their first apostle and martyr, Hans Denck. is a noble witness to the Divine Light operating in the soul of man. “The Kingdom of God is in you,” he said, “and he who searches for it outside himself will never find it, for apart from God no one can either seek or find God, for he who seeks God already in truth has him.”

Jacob Boehme held in lofty fashion the pre-Quaker exalted conception of man’s divine possibilities. “The center of man’s soul,” he wrote, “came out of eternity. As a mother bringeth forth her child out of her own substance and nourisheth it therewith, so doth God with man his child.” William Dell, a contemporary of George Fox but not himself a Quaker, who was in the line of succession with the spiritual reformers on the Continent, wrote: “The living and Eternal Word [i.e., Christ within] dwells in our heart, and this word dwelling in us by faith changes us into its own likeness, as fire changeth iron.” He is the author of this remarkable saying, often quoted as a Quaker testimony: “In the Kingdom of Christ all things are inward and spiritual; and the true religion of Christ is written in the soul and spirit of man by the Spirit of God; and the believer [i.e., the Christian] is the only book in which God himself now writes his New Testament.”

The man that Dell and Denck and Boehme and Fox are talking about is not a mere biological specimen, not a curious piece of Earth’s crust; he is a spiritual being with a divine capacity, and the Christ they talk about and love is not a dead Christ, or a remote person of a past dispensation. He is alive and operative now.

Warm, sweet, tender, even yet
A present help is He;
And faith has still its Olivet,
And love its Galilee.

It was Amiel who wisely said that there are persons who can be called “true persons” because they are the persons “in whom Nature has succeeded. They are not extraordinary – they are in the true order. It’s the other species of persons who are not what they ought to be.”

This, then, is the Quaker philosophy of life. It has not always been clearly formulated, and it has not always been faithfully translated into life and action. But it has now for three hundred years been one of the most impressive attempts to take seriously the lofty interpretation of God and man, given to a chance comer at Jacob’s Well in Samaria: God is essentially Spirit, which means
Mind and Heart and intelligent Purpose, most like what is highest and noblest in us as free persons. And man’s noblest attitude and action is sincere, honest, truly real worship and communion of the human spirit with the Divine Spirit. And life in man comes to its full function and fruition when he partakes of the divine resources within his reach – “the water that I shall give him will be in him a vital source, welling up to eternal life.”

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