A long and thoughtful amount of comment has been generated in the last week or so about Rich's objection to his meeting citing the concept of "that of God in every one" as the principal basis for the Friends' Peace Testimony.
Pam, in her own posting on the topic at Reaching for the Light, asks why it makes any difference what George Fox meant by the phrase; if our modern understanding of the words rings true for us today, why shouldn't we use it in our own way?
I commented on her post and concluded:
I confess I used to hold to the modern, proto-pantheist understanding of "that of God" until I read the Benson pamphlet, and the references to Fox he cites. I'm now convinced that Fox's use of the phrase is more meaningful and more powerful not because he said it or because it is more "authentically Quaker", but because it rings more true.Pam replied, identified herself as a "pantheist" and asked:
What I am yearning to know is that - why and how is that interpretation more true for you???So, here's my attempt to reply to Pam's question and tell why (or, perhaps "how") I believe that God is God and I am not. That is, I understand God as having a distinct identity and existence from myself or any other part of Creation. Creation is the Creator's work, and reflects much about the Creator's nature, but is nevertheless distinct, just as an author of a book or painter of a painting is distinct from the book or painting.
I have to admit that for me it's disturbing because I hear overtones of a statement that leaves me cold -- that people are inherently separate from god, that they may be infused with god, inspired by god, but that left to themselves, they are utterly god-less.
I therefore recognized as true Lewis Benson's explication of what George Fox meant by "that of God" in every person, referring not to some piece or spark of God's "essence" that is innate to a human being, but refers rather to that part of every human being that reflects and is aware of God and which, if answered, will increase and deepen the person's awareness of God.
Fundamentally, I can't "explain" why I believe as I do; I just do. I got here by a long spiral of spiritual and religious study and growth that is peculiarly my own, (and who knows, I may someday leave it by the same route). I certainly didn't get here by a strictly logical analysis, though I do think it makes the more sense than any alternatives I know of. And I don't believe it solely because it is the way God describes himself and is described in the Bible, though it would be difficult for me to accept a concept of God that cannot be squared with the biblical account. And I don't believe it solely because it is the way Quakers have understood God, though knowing that this has been Friends' understanding confirms that my understanding is correct.
I can't date exactly when I first tilted towards this view, but I think it might have been when I took a class on "Holocaust Theology." The rabbi who taught it explained that, to Jews, the relationship of God to human beings is analogous to that of a parent to a child. By that, he meant that the Living God created and loves humankind in the same way as a mother gives birth to and loves her child. The two beings are distinct, but in a relationship that is intimate, loving, eternal, and evolving; the child is made in the image of the mother and father, but is not identical to either of them. This explains in part why so many of the characters in the Hebrew Bible are depicted as conversing with God, or arguing or bargaining with him as a child might with a parent. (Ever have a teenager?)
I can't vouch that the rabbi's statement is an accurate representation of Judaism, but in the context of what we were studying, it began to make a lot more sense than my previous I-am-God-and-God-is-me-and-we-are-all-together understanding. That is, we learned that the Holocaust happened in large part because of human beings' idolatrous deification of themselves as the ultimate source of moral authority. When freed from the belief in a transcendent God, distinct from themselves and in relationship to them, they goose-stepped into the void and commited horrific crimes without as much as a blush. The 20th century should be Exhibit 1 in the argument refuting the proposition that human beings possess anything "divine" as part of their natures.
But the fact that God is God and I am not is only half of the story; the other half makes us Quakers instead of Calvinists.
Being human and not divine does not imply an unbridgable gulf of separation any more than the fact that two human beings are distinct from each other eternally prevents them from becoming lovers. Rather, it means that we -- God and humanity -- exist in relationship to each other, despite our ontological differences. To cite another rabbi's analogy, God says "I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in me, and I in him, the same brings forth much fruit. For without me you can do nothing." The vine is not the branch, but they exist only in relationship to each other; they are inseparable, but not identical. There can be no branches without the vine, of course, and the vine may exist without branches, but it won't bear fruit. Each is needed.
As long as I understand God to be distinct from myself -- but accessible to me -- I have someone to talk with, to guide me, to be accountable to, to bind me to my fellow human beings. I am not separated from God but in an intimate relationship.
So, apprehending God as a parent -- or as a lover, to use another commonly held Christian analogy for the relationship -- to whom I relate feels much more real and congruent with reality than the apprehension of God as an impersonal force of which I am a temporary manifestation. It gives meaning to my own existence as a human being while simultaneously ordering my relationship with all other human beings and the rest of Creation with which I'm irrevocably connected.
As firmly as I believe all this, I also realize that it is difficult to grasp. It's hard for me, and I believe it; I can only imagine how hard it must be for one who doesn't understand or accept the basic vocabulary of the argument. That's why I am so grateful at having been told the good news of the gospel by the Quakers. For me, Quakerism (or, more properly, God as preached by Quakers) has saved me from a life of isolation, fear, uncertainty, and impotence, terminated by death. Because of this, I fervently want others who are mired in such a life to understand that they have already been saved from such a fate and to live free from it. (If you're already free, then good for you; you don't need the gospel.)
I also realize, with my apostolic namesake, that no matter how logical, eloquent, or clever my explanation might be, if I can't say it with Love, it's as useless as a tinkling cymbal. For me, the hard work isn't in explaining what I believe, and why, it's in demonstrating it in my day-to-day life.