Contrary to the opinion of many contemporary Quakers, theology among Friends did not cease developing after the death of George Fox. While I have argued that early Friends had their reasons for not fully articulating their radical vision publicly, they left us enough dots to connect to rediscover their revolutionary line of thinking. As I’ve written, this is built on three central metaphors: Light, the Seed, and the Truth.
Of the three, I’ve found Truth to be the most difficult to grasp. Metaphor typically builds around an image, but just what works for Truth, no matter how many layers of meaning and experience we compress into it? Moreover, metaphor rarely settles into something as comfortable as a noun. In other words, just how do we turn Truth into a verb?
I was delighted to see Douglas Gwyn pick up on in his book Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experienence, with his own elegant turns. He begins with a concept of spiritual formation: “The Quaker truth-stance was constituted by four distinct aspects, or ‘moments,’ … that can be related to four standard philosophical accounts of truth.” He addresses this from the psychology perspective of individual experience as a reality. Among them:
Powerful catharsis of being “convinced of the truth”
Gwyn begins with the sensation early Friends reported in their encounter with the Quaker apocalypse:
At that moment, the light of Christ gave them a searing, unmistakable knowledge of themselves. They were confronted as never before with their alienated conditions (including overt sins) and by the power of God to redeem them.
Yes, they were shaped by earlier teachings and beliefs:
The first moment of truth, therefore, was one of correspondence between propositional belief and lived experience. … The insistence on a lived experience of Christian beliefs … was an important breakthrough at the culminating – and self-defeating – moment of the English Reformation.
Making sense of the experience presents its own challenges.
The truth of any proposition is established by its consistency or harmony with a larger body of previously established truths. Coherence, then, implies a framework within which one interprets either ideas or the data of experience (spiritual or empirical). But simultaneously, new experiences, while corresponding to elements within that existing framework, may also alter the framework (“shift the paradigm”), sometimes drastically.
Gwyn notes that Quakers could be more orthodox, especially in their insistence on moral accountability or the behavioral codes, which
not only expected outcomes of the convincement process but also the necessary means of conformity with Christ. This strong “process” aspect of Quaker truth has affinity with operationalist philosophical theories, which posit that a hypothesis must be verified by appropriate procedures of investigation. Here, the emphasis is upon the active means of testing the proposed idea or action, in contrast with the static framework of established truths suggested by coherence theory.
But truth’s fourth moment is still rightly called pragmatic. … Like operationalism, pragmatism is concerned with action, but judges truth by end results, rather than means.
Gwyn delves deeply into the workings of these, and more, but as he observes,
these comprise the framework within which early Friends found, served, and remained faithful to the truth. The truth itself remains a divine reality, defined by God’s loving faithfulness to humanity and all creation.
Here, then, is Gwyn’s breakthrough key in approaching this Truth – it’s active, as love, allowing him to present us at last with a requisite image: Jesus himself!
While not all metaphors have to be visual – the ringing of a bell, for instance, might be a richer connection than the bell itself – I’d simply overlooked the idea of using a person itself. But why not? The English can speak of the Crown, after all, and in our times, a picture of the Queen comes to mind. Americans have long spoken of George Washington as the Father of Our Country and Gilbert Stuart’s portrait springs forth, along with statuary in parks and other public places across the land. We even have a major city and a vast state named in Washington’s honor, which simply magnify him as a metaphor.
To continue, Gwyn turns to the gospel and letters of John, who
portrays Jesus in conversation with a variety of individuals who take different positions in relation to him. A Christian dialectic emerges from these conversations. … John’s dialectical universalism contrasts with the syncretistic universalism of Hellenic culture, where various deities mixed and matched for the masses, while philosophy served the more refined pastime of the privileged. … The Gospel of John called various peoples into service to the one true God. … Again, this God who sent Jesus is less “true” in the sense of opposition to false gods, than in the Hebrew sense of faithfulness. … One did not choose Jesus from a long list of seeking options. Rather, “I choose you” (John 15:16). That call of truth was enormously energizing …
Gwyn’s insight certainly opens John 3:16 in a fresh light: “I am the way, the truth, and the light.” Look at the compression of metaphor!
More of my own reflections on alternative Christianity are found at Religion Turned Upside Down.