What Friends call the “inner light” has been an integral part of Quaker Faith and Practice from the very beginning. Here are the words of George Fox from his journal as he describes his opening regarding it:
“Now the Lord opened to me by his invisible power “that every man was enlightened by the divine light of Christ”, and I saw it shine through all. And that they that believed in it came out of condemnation to the light of life, and became the children of it. But they that hated it and did not believe in it were condemned by it, though they made a profession of Christ.”
The “Light of Christ Within” is that central, divine principal which has been referred to by Quakers in a variety of terms: The Light Within, Christ Within, Inward Light, Inner Light, Spirit of God, Holy Spirit, Seed, Measure, and—also by George Fox himself –“That of God in Everyone.”
As we heard in our scripture this morning, the Light is a biblical term for the divine presence. It is found in John chapter 1 and in John 8:12 (Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.); and besides in John, we find it in 1 Thess. 5:5 (for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.) and Eph 5:8 (For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—.)
It is clear that Fox and other early Quakers understood the Light to be referring to Jesus Christ. Also crucial, is that for Fox, the Light was that which shows us evil and that which brings us into unity with God. Wilmer Cooper explains these two ideas well when he says “The first is an ethical emphasis on turning from evil to the good, whereas the second has to do with salvation, which is reconciliation with God and with one another in the community of faith.”
Howard Brinton, a modern day Quaker scholar defines the Light with these words: “the Light is the source of Truth, the source of Power to act on the knowledge of that truth, and the source of unity wherein as we are obedient to the Light we are brought into unity with God and one another. This is the redemptive process by which we are reconciled with God and all creation.”
To more clearly define the meaning of the light within, Cooper offers several distinguishing characteristics that I feel are important to name as we attempt to acquire a complete understanding about it.
First, the Light is experienced as the direct and immediate presence of God. It is God’s grace that allows us to receive this and enable a divine-human encounter. We Humans cannot work to acquire it on our own.
The Light is divine in origin and it stands apart from our finite existence. It is not just a part of human nature. “That of God” is OF GOD.
The Light is understood to be universal. This means that everyone has this ingredient within their being. Believers AND NON BELIEVERS. The Quaker founders held that it was possible to be “saved” by Christ whether or not one had heard of the historical Jesus through the work of the Light.
As inward teacher, the Light has the capacity to instruct and direct and should be obeyed. The personal connection between oneself and God that enables hearing, learning, and responding is the work of the inner Light.
“The Light Within is not to be identified with or confused with conscience and reason, but both can and need to be illuminated by the Light of Christ.” Robert Barclay used to explain this distinction by comparing conscience to a lantern and the Light to a candle that burns within the lantern.
Finally, response to the Light is to be discerned in the community of faith. Christ is not only the Inward Teacher for the individual, but also the one who can instruct and guide the group of believers.
There are problems and challenges that have resulted from the idea of Inner Light. One is how to relate the Light of Christ to the Jesus of History. According to Friends, these two separate realities are united. The leadings of the inward Christ are in agreement with Jesus’ teaching and character. Howard Brinton has maintained that although Jesus was completely human, he was also divine in that he possessed the Light without measure.
Additionally, Friends themselves throughout history have differed and divided on the role and authority of the inner Light. More evangelical Friends understand scripture to be the primary means of revelation of God’s will. More liberal Friends understand the inward Christ as being the focus of guidance that will enable living a good and faithful life. More evangelical Friends believe that humanity is so evil that the death of Christ is the only atonement that can save us; those on the liberal end of the spectrum emphasize the redemption of humankind that Jesus brings through his life and teachings. They argue that Jesus’ death on the cross was the ultimate act of love, a way of showing how God suffers for the evil humans do. Many evangelical Quakers understand the Holy Spirit as the divine presence that is active among believers today. The inward light Quakers—most generally are liberal Friends and are those who emphasize the Light motif.
While Friends have never been very precise about theological language or very orthodox in their view of the Trinity, all this juggling of terms and understandings can create confusion and obviously has led to conflict. The ideas about inner Light almost seem to me to add another dimension to what Christianity has long defined as the Trinity—God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. My practice is to try not to become preoccupied or overwhelmed with terminology; and as much as I would love to have an orderly, well-defined Divine presence—one that I can get a handle on, I seek to understand that there are many aspects of God beyond my knowing. I delight in using many of the terms: Light, Spirit, Christ, Jesus, God, and so on. I have experienced first hand the illumination, warmth, energy, and revealing nature of the Light. I have also delighted in the Holy Spirit’s instruction, comfort and enabling power. Does the Light convey power? Does the Holy Spirit teach? Yes, just as the Light can comfort and the presence of Christ can bring knowledge. The one thing I know for certain is that my encounters lead me to be in relationship with a Divine Presence that can and will do many things in order to reveal itself and become partners with humanity. Quakerism is a faith that allows for all sorts of experiences beyond doctrine and theology. The inner light is a distinctly Quaker term and understanding that can open the door to faith, and has become the way for many folks to experience God.
I want to close with the New York Yearly Meeting’s statement about the inner light. It is found in the section called seeking the spirit…notice as you listen to this reading the interplay of the terms we have utilized and begun to explore this morning.
This section begins with a quote from Early Quaker Lucretia Mott:
‘My faith is firm in the blessed, the eternal doctrine preached by Jesus and by every child of God since the creation of the world, especially the great truth that God is the teacher of his people himself; the doctrine that Jesus most emphatically taught, that the kingdom is with man, that there is his sacred and divine temple.’
Faith and Practice goes on to say: There is that of God in everyone. This principle of the Inward Light, the Christ Within, illumines for us every corner of religion, philosophy, ethics, morals, daily living, social relationships, and international relations. Before we can express this faith to others, whether in words or in deeds, we must first experience the reality of the Inward Light in our own souls. Then we are released to be faithful to this Spirit. The corporate and personal disciplines Friends have used are the means by which we have found and experienced the presence of God. Through these disciplines we have been able to remain faithful in our witness to the world. “Seek, and ye shall find,” said Jesus. From the beginning Friends have emphasized the search. We do not have the whole truth. But we can search diligently for understanding and use some of the guides that help us grow toward the Light.
And so, we go back once again to what Caroline Fox asks:
What canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?
May we all be blessed and taught and accompanied and empowered and supported as we seek our way in the Light and Love of God.