Thursday, January 26, 2012

“This I knew experimentally”: Friends and the Inward Light/Voice

This is the text of a message I have been asked to share at Pima Meeting in Tucson, AZ, this weekend for a workshop entitled "Quakers and Christianity: Personal Experience Vs. Religious Affiliation." This is the second half of my presentation. The first half was posted at under the title: "Are Quakers Christian, or non-Christian, or both, in the historical perspective of 400 years." 

“This I knew experimentally.” With these words Fox summed up his “enlightenment experience,” his realization that only the Inward Christ could “speak to his condition” and guide him along the spiritual path he needed to follow. The word “experimentally” meant “experientially” in the 16th century, and Quakerism has been an experiential religion ever since.

What was the spiritual experience of early Friends and how can it speak to us today? I’d like to look at two famous passages in which Friends finds their inner voice. In his Journal, Fox writes about his struggles to find answers to deep spiritual questions, and how he finally hit rock bottom and was “saved” by an inward voice.

But as I had forsaken the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those esteemed the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh, then, I heard a voice which said, 'There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to your condition;' and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give Him all the glory; for all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the pre-eminence who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power. Thus when God doth work, who shall let (hinder) it? and this I knew experimentally (through experience)."

Fox realized that he could not find the meaning and purpose of his life by going to “experts.” Nor could he find the answers in books or through other outward means. He had to wait upon the Invisible God and listen for the Inward Voice. He had to put all his trust in the experience of God and Christ.

This realization was tremendously liberating for Fox and for his followers. No longer would they be bound by dogmas, or rituals, or paid clergy who spoke of spiritual matters they themselves had never experienced.

Fox realized that most people are “concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief.” Let’s unpack what he meant by this. By “unbelief” Fox meant that many people pretend to believe what the church and the Bible teaches, when in fact they act like unbelievers. For example, they claim to be followers of Christ, but engage in war, accumulate riches, discriminate against the poor, etc. This disconnect between faith and action is what Fox meant by sin. We might call it “lack of integrity.”

The point of Quaker worship is to enable us to get in touch with our Inward Guide and to live a life of integrity, a life in harmony with what we know to be true and honest and real.

Margaret Fell captures the power of George Fox’s message in her journal. She was the wife of a prominent judge and led a conventionally religious life, dutifully going to church and listening to sermons. During one of these church services, a young man named George Fox stood up, boldly walked up to the pulpit and began to preach. Like Jesus, he “spoke with authority,” not like the paid priests she was used to hearing. Unlike these “hireling,” Fox spoke of a religion that was spiritual and heart-felt, not bound by outward forms. Fox affirmed that

“Christ was the Light of the world, and lighteth every man that cometh into the world; and that by this light they might be gathered to God, etc.”

Margaret Fell was so amazed by Fox’s utter confidence that she stood up in her pew and “wondered at his doctrine for I had never heard such before.” She described how Fox’s teachings rocked the foundation of her faith and brought her to tears:

“He went on, and opened the Scriptures, and said, "the Scriptures were the prophets' words, and Christ's and the apostles' words, and what, as they spoke, they enjoyed and possessed, and had if from the Lord": and said, "then what had any to do with the Scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth? You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?" etc.

This opened me so, that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat down in my pew again, and cried bitterly: and I cried in my spirit, to the Lord, "We are all thieves, we are all thieves; we have taken the Scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves."

For Margaret Fox, this was a life-changing realization. No longer would she be a passive “consumer” of sermons. She actively sought to find the truth within herself and this led her to become a religious leader and inspired preacher. As we moderns would say, she found her voice. She even wrote a pamphlet justifying women preaching—an idea that seemed utterly radical at this time, or for the next two centuries. Like Fox and other early Friends, Fell had the courage of her convictions and went to prison for her beliefs.

For the past 350 years, Quakers have been pioneers and leaders in religious movements because we have not relied on second-hand opinions and beliefs. We have tried to discover the truth “experimentally.” For this reason, Quakers rejected interpretations of the Bible that justified slavery or the oppression of women.

Not all Quakers have been comfortable with a creed-less religion, however. Some Friends worry that if there is no creed, Friends might lose their way and Quakerism might lose its Christian identity. This fear has led Friends to formulate the Richmond Declaration, a theological statement that affirms the basic truths of Christianity. It was adopted by Friends United Meeting in 1887. Evangelical Friends have similar statements of faith.

Creeds have value in that they can unite people and provide a sense of identity. But creeds can also be divisive. Rufus Jones and Howard Brinton were both adamantly opposed to creeds and creedal statements.

This morning, I asked you to think about what it means to be Quaker and to have a creed-less religion. What are the defining characteristics of our faith?

Historically, the basis of our faith has been the experience of the Inward Light. Although this experience can’t be reduced to words, it can be said to have at least two distinctive characteristics. First, the Inward Light reveals our shortcomings (sins) and second, it guides us towards a better life. Many liberals don’t feel comfortable with the word “sin” so I’d like to suggest a definition that is both biblical and compatible with our modern Quaker ideas. “Sin” in the Bible is not primarily about morality; it is about ethics. Jesus didn’t condemn the adulterer; he lambasted religious hypocrites and those in power, especially the 1%. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible were more concerned with justice than with personal morality. Prophets condemned the rich, lifted the concerns of the poor, and called on God’s people to live lives of justice and truth.

James, who was supposedly the brother of Jesus, defined sin as “partiality.” In his letter, which was a favorite text for early Friends, James wrote: “Whenever we show favoritism, it is a sin.” This teaching of James is the basis of our equality testimony. Whenever we discriminate based on class, race, or gender, we are hurting ourselves as well as others. James says that such sin can lead to deadly results. Racism, sexism, and economic injustice (capitalism) are all deadly “sins” because these “isms” keep us from experiencing our deep interconnectedness with our fellow human beings and with Spirit. Carried to the extreme, theses isms lead to violence and war. When we “see the Light,” we can no longer rationalize our hurtful behavior or attitudes. It was this Inward Light that revealed to John Woolman it was wrong to notarize a document authorizing a man to bequeath a slave in a will.

The Inward Light is also a source of joy and peace. George Fox’s heart “leapt for joy” when he heard an inward voice telling him “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to your condition.” Fox realized he didn’t need to go to priests, pastors, or other “experts” to solve life’s problems; the answers were within him, if he lived a life faithful to the Inward Light. What a liberating realization! This liberating Light is identified with the Logos, the Creative Word of God, described by John as the “the Light that shines in the darkness.” John also said that this Light is the Spirit that created and sustains the universe.

Universalist. The Light shines on and in everyone, regardless of sex, nationality or religious persuasion. “The Light that enlightens everyone was coming in the world” (John 1:9). This Light, which Quakers believed was fully embodied in Jesus Christ, is a universal light, the source of wisdom, inner peace, and just/righteous living for everyone. Those who turn away from the Light are doomed to a life of darkness and misery since this Light is the loving energy that created and sustains us and the universe. Those who turn towards the Light find peace, joy, and fulfillment (what some Christians call “salvation” or “holiness” and others call simply “wholeness.”).

Spirit-guided. Quakers believed that the holy spirit is more authoritative than written scripture (though the Bible is inspired and therefore deserving of study) or tradition. “The letter killeth, the Spirit giveth life.” This is what distinguishes Quakers from traditional Protestants and Catholics. Quakers are “Spirit-led,” not literalistic or tradition-bound.

Prophetic. Quakers are called to speak truth to power, just like the prophets of old. Our social testimonies about equality, peace, economic justice, etc. spring from this prophetic tradition which calls us to live up to our highest ideals. George Fox and William Penn along with other early Friend met with, and challenged, those in power to practice justice and truthfulness, and to be concerned for the marginalized and the oppressed.

Evangelistic. I know many liberals are uncomfortable with the word “evangelism” but we cannot deny that early Friends traveled far and wide to share their message with others, and won many over to what they called “the Truth.” I believe Quakers are still called to share the good news of the Inward Light with others, to “walk cheerfully on the earth, answering that of God in everyone.” As Fox wisely pointed out, the best way to share the Truth is by example. He urges us to live a Spirit-centered life, and to see “that of God” in others and respond to it.

Peaceful. Quakers are Pre-Constantinian Christians. That is, they reject empire and the worldly power associated with the Emperor Constantine, who converted to Christianity in the 4th century CE and used the cross as a talisman to wage war. Quakers reject this perversion of Christianity and call for a new order of society based on what Jesus and the prophets said about peace/shalom. Peace is not simply the absence of war. It is state of society in which every person can live a life of dignity and hope. This is sometimes called “the kingdom of God,” or “the beloved community.” Each of us carries a vision of this ideal society within us, and we cannot find true peace within until we are working to make this vision a reality in the world. Jesus expressed it beautifully: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled” and “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God.”

I am ending this talk by focusing on peace because I feel peace is the heart of our Quaker faith, and of Christianity. Peace doesn’t mean the absence of conflict. The Hebrew word for peace, “shalom,” means wholeness, health, well-being. When we experience shalom, we can face conflict in a spirit of love because we aren’t afraid to be honest, to share what we know to be true “experimentally.” Friends have sometimes shied away from theological discussions because they fear it can be divisive. But if we listen respectfully to each when we share our beliefs and spiritual experiences, it can bring us closer together.

I know this not only from my 25 years of taking part in Quaker worship sharing groups, but also because I have helped to organize “interfaith cafes.” These cafes are a lot like our worship sharing groups and were developed by a woman named Kay Lindahl who wrote books about “Sacred Listening.” The interfaith organization I belong to in Long Beach, CA, uses this model and invites people from various faith traditions to come together and sit around a table in groups of eight and reflect on open-ended questions, like, “What does prayer/meditation mean to you?” “How does your faith help you to make decisions?” “What does your faith teach about justice and peace.” People take turns speaking from their own experience and don’t argue or try to proselytize. These interfaith cafes draw 40-50 people and are helping to build a community of people in Long Beach who are learning how to get along with their neighbors at a deeply spiritual level. They are also deepening their own faith by learning to listen sympathetically to others. They also work together to address vital community needs, like homelessness and environmental concerns.

As a Quaker, I am grateful to practice a religion that emphasizes experience rather than dogma, and integrity rather than conformity. It may be hard to put into words what Quakers believe, or to fit us into a theological pigeon-hole, but I appreciate the freedom I have as a Quaker to “experiment with Truth,” to use Gandhi’s phrase. This freedom has allowed me to explore other religious practices, such as Zen meditation and Muslim prayer and fasting, and still feel rooted in my Quaker faith and my commitment to Christ. I know by experience that there is a Light within that can help me to see my weaknesses and guide me towards a better life. And I know that this Light is present in every person I encounter, and therefore every one can be my teacher as well as my friend. This realization has filled my life with joy and hope, and has enabled me to do things I never imagined possible. The Spirit is always full of surprises, as unpredictable as the wind, the holy breath of God….

Thank you for letting me share with you some of my experiences with this Spirit….


  1. Thank for this post. I'm leaning toward becoming a full member of our meeting. This post certainly helps with that decision!


  2. Dear Paula, I appreciate your comment and am glad I can be helpful. I wish you all the best in your discernment process.

    In friendship,