Quakerism began as a mystical religion. The earliest writings, like George Fox’s well known, “Friends, meet together and know one another in that which is eternal, which was before the world was” (QFP 2.35), attest to this, as does William Leddra’s moving testimony the day before he was martyred:
As the flowing of the ocean doth fill every creek and branch thereof, and then retires again towards its own being and fulness, and leaves a savour behind it; so doth the life and virtue of God flow into every one of your hearts, whom he hath made partakers of his divine nature; and when it withdraws but a little, it leaves a sweet savour behind it; that many can say they are made clean through the word that he hath spoken to them. In which innocent condition you may see what you are in the presence of God, and what you are without him… Stand still, and cease from thine own working, and in due time thou shalt enter into the rest, and thy eyes shall behold his salvation, whose testimonies are sure, and righteous altogether.
We forget this too easily, and at our peril. Craig Barnett, in his post yesterday on Reading Quaker Faith & Practice, Chapter 2, reminds us that “[t]he Christian mystic Simone Weil once wrote that God has both ‘personal and impersonal aspects’.” He goes on to explain,
Contrary to the way that this is often caricatured, a personal understanding of God does not mean believing in ‘an old man on a cloud’. Instead, spiritual reality is known as an active, intentional, loving, guiding and protecting presence…
Another common way of experiencing God is as an impersonal energy, principle or universal interconnectedness. This perspective is particularly emphasised in religions such as Zen Buddhism and Taoism. It also runs through the Christian tradition from very early times, especially in mystical writings such as Meister Eckhart and The Cloud of Unknowing, as well as modern theologians such as Paul Tillich.
and he points out the parallels in Quaker language: Guide, Lord, Seed, Inward Light, Principle of Life and so on.
Craig Barnett shows that the differences in approach and understanding between those who experience God as personal presence, and those who experience God as impersonal principle, form a creative tension present throughout Quaker history, and as far back in the history of spirituality as there are records. He continues:
Rather than defending my images and opposing yours, we could accept the necessity of multiple images for appreciating the many-sided nature of God. This requires me to acknowledge the validity of other people’s experience of spiritual reality, even where it differs from mine. This presupposes, of course, that I do not already ‘know’ that everyone who claims to have any kind of experience of God is deluded, and that there is ‘really’ no such thing as any spiritual reality at all.
It is not coincidental that it is the small number of Friends who reject even the possibility of spiritual experience who have been most active in promoting the identity politics game of ‘theists and nontheists’. In fact, the most significant distinction for the practice of Quaker worship is not between those who adopt personal or impersonal images of spiritual reality, but between those Friends who are open to the possibility of spiritual experience in any form, and those are not.
This seems to me to be the crux of the matter, and in reading Chapter 2 of Quaker Faith and Practice it should be immediately obvious that the possibility, and indeed the actuality, of spiritual experience lies at the very heart of Quaker worship, and at the very heart of what it means to be a Quaker at all; and all the works that Quakers have done, and still do to this day, exist and flourish out of, because of – not despite – our shared spiritual experience in worship, and in our own lives of prayer. Without this, there is nothing, except a vague inclination towards good…