Quakerism Unites Universalism and Christianity
by Samuel D. Caldwell
are all well aware of the long-standing tension in the Religious
Society of Friends between Christianity and Universalism. Each pole of
this historic tension has had its partisans over time. The Quaker
Universalist Fellowship represents one pole of the contemporary debate.
Evangelical Friends International is an example of a group that
represents the other. Each side of the debate claims that its own view
of Quakerism is the true one, and each side feels that the other side's
position is a negation of its own. Typically, the debate is cast in
logically exclusivist terms: if one position is true, then the other
must of necessity be false; both cannot possibly be true at the same
For my part, I have never accepted the terms in which
the debate has been cast. It is my own view that Quakerism is neither
exclusively Christian, as some Quaker Christians would have it; nor is
it exclusively Universalist, as some Quaker Universalists would have
it. The fact is Quakerism has always been a powerful amalgamation of
both. My thesis is that not only is it possible to be both Christian
and Universalist at the same time, but it has always been the very
essence and peculiar genius of Quakerism to join the two in holy
matrimony! I wish to explain how this is so.
Let me start with
the Universalist side of the equation. What many Christian Quakers fail
to understand or accept about the Quaker approach to Christianity is
that it is Universalist to the core. Universalism is thoroughly
embedded in the Quaker perspective precisely because it is intrinsic to
our most central and distinctive religious insight: the principle of
the Inner Light.
It is helpful to remind ourselves of the
essential core of this important insight. Historically, it is this: God
gives to every human being who comes into the world a measure of the
divine spirit as a Living Witness and a Light to be inwardly guided by.
Those who learn to heed the promptings of this Light within them come
to be "saved" - that is, they come into fullness and wholeness of life
and right relationship with God, themselves, and one another.
who resist, ignore, or otherwise deny the workings of this pure spirit
within them, though they make a profession of faith, are "condemned" -
that is, they become alienated from God, from themselves, and from one
another. The chief end of religious life, therefore, is to hearken to
and act in accordance with the promptings of the Inner Light in one's
life. This description closely parallels George Fox's original
"opening" concerning the Light in 1648, as recorded in his Journal
(Nickalls edition, p. 33).
A number of important
characteristics of the Light can be readily inferred from this
description. First, this Light is "divine" or "supernatural." That is,
it pertains to God and God's activity. Numerous Friends, among them
George Fox and Robert Barclay, have been urgent in cautioning us
against confusing the Inner Light with such natural phenomena as reason
or conscience, both of which are physically and socially conditioned.
Rather, they have emphasized that the Light is God's eternal and
indwelling power resident within our mortal frames, there to enlighten
and inform the natural reason and conscience with truth of a higher
This Light is personal. It is no mindless, purposeless,
undifferentiated force or power. It is the mind and will of God - the
God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Sarah - who indwells our souls. To
claim, as we do, that we are led or taught by the Light is to accept by
inference that the power by which we are led or taught is capable of
actively leading or teaching us. This requires a personal or theistic
conception of the Spirit, which Friends have traditionally held.
Light is saving. It is the instrument or means by which we are drawn
into fullness and wholeness of life and right relationship to God,
ourselves, and one another. It is not primarily through the mechanism
of assent to certain theological propositions, however heartfelt, nor
by participation in certain established rituals, however sincere, that
one comes to be "saved" in- Quaker faith and practice; it is chiefly
through the operation of this Saving Light in human hearts - in the
hearing and doing of the Living Word as inwardly revealed in the course
of common life.
This Light is eternal. It was before time, is
now, and will be forevermore. As the writer of John says, "in the
beginning was the Word." Friends have always identified the Inner Light
with this "logos" or Eternal Word. It is by this Eternal Light and Word
that all of the saints and sages down through the ages have known and
spoken the Truth. It is by this Light that the Holy Scriptures of the
ages have been written (and must be read). It is by this Light that
whatever is true, good, and beautiful has been brought forth in human
community over time. This Light is and has always been the source and
fountain of all human creativity.
This Light is resistible. It
is not an inevitable force or automatic power; it can be resisted,
ignored, or otherwise denied in the human heart. To quote C. S. Lewis,
"God does not ravish; He only woos." Although we receive this Light
freely and from birth, we are free to choose whether or not and how to
respond to its promptings. As someone once remarked, "We are
predestinated and foreordained to decide for ourselves!"
Light is persistent. The Light never ceases to make its Living Witness
within each and every human heart, even when it is resisted. Although
stubborn resistance and persistent disobedience may greatly dim its
luminosity, the Light can never be fully extinguished within us. This
is the unfailing love and mercy of God which passes all understanding.
Light is pure. It is utterly infallible and perfectly good. Although we
may err in our discernment of the Light's witness within us, for any
and all who turn to it in humility of heart, the Light is an inerrant
guide to truth and wisdom. And, because it is the pure love of God
within us, this Light is completely good and trustworthy.
Light is ineffable. It defies complete and accurate description. Like
much in the realm of spirit, the Light cannot be completely understood,
but it can be experienced and known.
Lastly, and perhaps most
important to the present discussion, this Light is unequivocally
universal. It is freely given by God to each and every human being who
comes into the world, regardless of race, sex, nationality,
philosophical orientation, religious creed, or station in life. It is
the divine birthright and inheritance of all, not the privileged
possession of a few. To paraphrase the scripture, it is the Good News
of God "preached to every creature under heaven" (Colossians 1:23).
it can readily be seen from these characteristics that the Quaker
concept of the Inner Light is radically universalist in its thrust. As
such, it offers a strong challenge to many of the exclusivist
assumptions of conventional Christian faith. Here is where the tension
between Christianity and Universalism in Quakerism begins to be felt.
is hard to overstate, for instance, how radically different the Quaker
view of salvation is from the popular Christian conception. According
to our understanding of the Inner Light, any person of whatever
religious persuasion, who turns in sincerity of heart to the Divine
Light within, and lives in accordance with its promptings, will be
saved. All of God's children, Christians and non-Christians alike, have
equal access to salvation through the Light.
constitutes an outright denial of the exclusivist Christian assumption
that salvation comes only to those who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and
Savior and participate in certain established rituals of the Church.
One need not be a professing Christian, in other words, to be saved;
and many who are professing Christians are (apparently) not saved.
Quaker Universalism challenges the now-prevalent evangelical Christian
view that the Holy Spirit "comes into one's heart," presumably from
outside, at the moment of conversion. Friends have testified throughout
their history that this Holy Spirit is already resident as a Divine
Seed in every human heart, waiting to be decisively accepted and
nurtured through attentive obedience in daily life. This difference in
viewpoint explains the real distinction between Quaker "convincement"
and evangelical "conversion. "
Salvation and conversion are
not the only fronts on which Quaker Universalism challenges
conventional Christianity. From the beginning, for instance, Friends
have vociferously challenged the fundamentalist Christian assumption
that the Bible is the Word of God, insisting instead that the Holy
Spirit, the Christ Within, is the Word of God. The Bible is a
declaration of the fountain; it is not the fountain itself The fountain
is Christ, the Living Word. George Fox argued disarmingly that, if the
Bible were really the Word of God, then one could buy and sell the Word
of God and carry it around in one's pocket!
In a similar vein,
the Quaker doctrine of "continuing revelation," which says that God
continues to reveal Truth to those who have ears to hear, directly
challenges the fundamentalist Christian belief that God's revelation
was completed when the books of the biblical canon were finalized by
Quaker Universalism also challenges the
conventional Christian definition of the Church, insisting that the
Church is not a building. Nor is it an identifiable group of confessing
Christians. It is, rather, the universal fellowship of all those
persons, of whatever background or persuasion, who know and live in
accordance with the Living Witness of God's Light within them. Unlike
the standard Christian definition, the Quaker definition of the Church
embraces non-Christians, and even theoretically excludes professing
Christians who have no real inward, life-changing experience of God.
few examples should make it clear how deeply-rooted and fundamental the
Universalist perspective is in Quakerism, and how profoundly, in turn,
this perspective affects the Quaker approach to Christianity - so much
so that Quakerism takes a strongly prophetic stance over and against a
number of widely accepted interpretations of Christian faith.
should also be clear, however, that Quaker Universalism, as we have
described it here, has little or nothing to do with that brand of
eclectic, humanist philosophy called "universalism" that is so
prevalent in liberal Quaker circles today. This sort of
pseudo-universalism - "pseudo" because it bears a superficial
resemblance to Quaker Universalism, but is really contrary to it in a
number of crucial ways - poses such an insidious threat to the true
Quaker view that I would like to spend a few moments describing in more
detail how the two are different.
While Quaker Universalism is
strongly religious in content and devotional in orientation,
pseudouniversalism typically maintains a pronounced philosophical
detachment from all religious traditions (especially, as we shall see,
from Christianity). Unlike Quaker Universalism, which calls for a faith
commitment to- a specific religious path, pseudo-universalism teaches
non-adherence to any particular religion at all, referring a kind of
smorgasbord approach to religious ideas instead.
Universalism acknowledges the differences between the major religions
of the world, but calls them all to the same universal standard of
Truth: the Living Witness of God within. Pseudouniversalism often
ignores, trivializes and obfuscates the real differences between world
religions, claiming that "all religions are essentially the same." In
effect, it denies all religions by affirming all equally and embracing
While Quaker Universalism is a specific religious path
that leads the seeker toward transformation and salvation,
pseudo-universalism institutionalizes seeking and is highly suspicious
of finding in religious life. Partly because it considers the major
religions of the world to be primitive (and therefore false?), and
partly because it is highly intellectual in orientation,
pseudo-universalism discourages the sort of existential faith
commitment that is essential for real spiritual growth and
transformation. It offers no genuine spiritual path of its own, while
discouraging its adherents from embarking on any established path.
it is a view of religion and not a religion itself, and because it
accepts no particular religious tradition as normative,
pseudo-universalism has within it no principle whereby it can
discriminate between what is true and what is false in any particular
religious view. To what standard, for instance, would
pseudo-universalism appeal regarding a membership application from an
avowed practitioner of the religion of satanism? Quaker Universalism,
on the other hand, is founded on the premise that there is one true
principle of discernment, and that is the Inner Light. In addition, as
we shall see momentarily, although Quaker Universalism radically
challenges Christianity at many points, it also has historically
accepted Jesus Christ and the gospel tradition as normative for
Lastly, while Quaker Universalism is firmly
rooted in the Christian tradition (albeit not always comfortable with
it), pseudo-universalism often acts as a smoke screen for
anti-Christian sentiment. In my conversations with Friends who have
been influenced by this kind of universalism, I frequently encounter
significant discomfort with, if not open hostility to, Christians and
the Christian faith. This, of course, is in direct contradiction to
their own professed principles. To this sort of universalist, it seems,
all religions are equal except Christianity!
Perhaps you have
heard of H. L. Mencken's famous definition of a "puritan" as someone
who is obsessed with the fear that somehow, somewhere, someone is
having fun? The pseudo-universalist is one who is obsessed with the
fear that somehow, somewhere, someone has "gotten religion," especially
the Christian religion.
As you can see, the two types of
universalism, while similar on the surface, are as different as night
and day. It is easy to see why pseudo-universalism is uncomfortable
with the practice of Christianity. The two are philosophically
incompatible. True Quaker Universalism, however, has a uniquely
symbiotic relationship with Christianity. And this brings us to the
Christian side of the equation.
If I did not make the
Christian party happy with my remarks on Quaker Universalism, it is
certain that I will not make the Quaker Universalist party happy with
my remarks on Christianity. As we have seen, Christian Quakers have to
accept the fact that Quakerism is radically universalist in its
interpretation of Christianity. Universalist Quakers, on the other
hand, have to accept the fact that Quakerism is radically Christian in
its interpretation of Universalism. For, the truth is that, despite its
somewhat testy relationship with conventional Christianity, Quakerism
is and always has been decidedly Christian.
We have already
sketched how the Quaker view of Christianity is distinctively
Universalist. How is the Quaker view of Universalism distinctively
Christian? It is really quite simple: Friends have always identified
the Inner Light with the living Christ. Christ, in Quaker theology, is
the Light. "There is One, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy
condition," said the voice to George Fox at the moment of his
convincement. And this Christ Jesus, Fox perceived and subsequently
preached, was the Eternal Risen Christ, the Light of the World, come to
teach all people who would hear his voice, not just professing
Christians. To be Quaker is to be a follower of Christ, Who witnesses
Within each one of us as we walk through life.
equivalency of Christ with the Inner Light is the key to understanding
how it is that Christianity and Universalism are so inextricably bound
together in Quaker faith and practice. Not only is it possible to be
both Christian and Universalist at the same time; it is the very
essence and peculiar genius of Quakerism to marry the two in one
powerful synthesis through the doctrine of the Inner Light. In the
final analysis, the Quaker doctrine of the Inner Light is really a
radically Universalist interpretation of the Christian doctrine of the
Holy Spirit. To be Quaker is, therefore, to be radically Christian.
a result of this unique marriage that Quakerism has effected, the
quintessentially exclusivist text of the Christian faith - "I am the
Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes unto the Father except by
me" (John 14:6) - is transformed into a powerful Universalist message
for the whole world. Friends have witnessed for 350 years that the
Light of Christ Within is indeed the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and
no one comes to God except by it. This Light is the universal, saving,
eternal, personal, resistible, persistent, and pure witness of God
within every human heart, and no one is excluded from partaking of its
riches. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, "Christ has returned,
and everyone is invited to the reception!"
And, how fortunate
for both Christianity and Universalism that Quakerism has joined them
together. Fully embedded in the context of Christianity, Quaker
Universalism is richly informed by all of the pregnant imagery and
profound meaning of the Judeo-Christian tradition and the transforming
story of Jesus Christ. In the Quaker synthesis, Christianity saves
Universalism from the vapid sterility of mere abstraction.
Universalism, in turn, saves Christianity from the spiritual poison of
religious parochialism and exclusivity. The two not only complement
each other, they are essential to one another.
In the end, the
marriage metaphor we have been using is not very satisfactory, for it
implies a kind of voluntary association that is not applicable here.
The union of Christianity and Universalism in Quakerism is one of
mutual entailment - more like two sides of one coin than like a
marriage. Friends on both sides of the discussion need to face the fact
that divorce is out of the question. Quakerism is, by definition, both
Universalist and Christian at the same time
Discovered online at freedomfriends.org
The Promotional material and Angelfire advertizing below may not reflect the views of this site.