If you ask most liberal Friends (i.e. FGC affiliated or Beanite) what Friends (Quakers) believe you will most often hear them say Quakers believe there is “that of God in everyone.” While this is true, I disagree with this as a statement of Quaker belief on two counts. This belief does not differentiate us from other religions. Others share this belief.
First, “that of God” sounds much like what others call the soul. By itself that is not an argument against, as much as to say it is inadequate. It really doesn’t tell us much. A Sikh teacher I once heard speak defined namaste (the traditional greeting) as meaning “that of God in me greets that of God in you.”
Secondly, back in 1997 I wrote an article published in Friends Journal entitled “What Quakers Believe.” “That of God” was mentioned in connection with the peace testimony; some Friends explain the refusal to kill as being because the other person has that of God, so we can’t kill them. I pointed out that in the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna is reluctant to go into battle against his relatives. His charioteer, Krishna (a divine avatar), points out that the divine in them can not be destroyed, a twist on the significance of “that of God.” But this also points out that “that of God” is an important belief for Hindus. This makes both points, it is not unique, and it is so vague as to be used to reach contradictory positions.
But as uttered (or rather written) by George Fox, “that of God” was never meant to be doctrine. The phrase comes from George Fox’s pastoral writtings, particularly from a letter found in his Journal (reproduced by Simon StLaurants). He was addressing those in the pastoral ministry. Several Friends have commented on this subject from different viewpoints. I commend two in particular, from quite different perspectives: George Ammos in “The Postmodern Quaker”, and Steve Davison in “throughtheflamingsword.” But they don’t address the central point that concerns me here.
Some fifteen years ago I was discussing an environmental concern with a Friend. He stated his preference for ecological concern rather than environmental concern as the former put humanity at the center while the latter sees all of life as interrelated with no one species being center. Later, when drafting a minute for Friends United Meeting, I chose to speak of “care for God’s creation.” This was to move the locus of concern from humanity to God, to see things through God’s eye, to put God at the center. The language was, and is, important. It places us in relation to that of which we speak.
Keeping this in mind consider that Friends make much of the theology of the light. It is important to the author of the Gospel of John, particularly in John 1:9 which Robert Barclay identifies as the Quaker text: “That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” (KJV). It is found in Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome (Romans 13:12) where he speaks of putting on the armor of light. And it is found in the letter to the Ephesians (5:8) and in 1 Thessalonians (5:5) which gave rise to an early name for Quakers, “Children of Light.” Thessalonians is considered to be the earliest writing in the Bible.
I take this Light as metaphorical. I have never experienced the literal as Light as described in Acts 9:3, which was given to Saul (Paul) on the road to Damascus. A good exposition of the Quaker understanding of the Light is provided on a page at the Conservative Friends in America site.
A central belief of Friends is in the inner Light. It is the Light that exposes our sins (literally, places where we miss the mark). To hold a person, group of people, or a situation in the Light is a common way of saying we will pray for them. Is this that of God in us? Early Friends were more likely to speak of the inward Light. The distinction is important. The inner Light is like that of God in us, a piece of God we all have. On the other hand the inward light is a light is from outside and shines in. It exposes our shortcomings. The question here is whether the light in ours (inner light) or from God. Either way it is universal.
Is “that of God” a piece of the divine in each of us, or our capacity to respond to God. I prefer the latter.