Most Quakers agree there is an Inner Light in every person. But is the Light Christian or is it universal?
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The central paradox of Quakerism is the belief in a Light that’s in each person’s conscience. Early and traditional Friends understood that Light to be the presence of Christ. But they, from the very beginning, also believed that that Light was in everyone’s conscience beyond the realm of Christendom.
The Paradox of Quaker Belief
I’m Doug Gwyn. My work is being a Friends minister. That has taken me into pastoral work among Friends as well as traveling ministry and writing among Friends.
What Do Quakers Believe?
“What do Quakers believe?” is a big question for a group that has no creed. For me, I see it all going back to the central paradox of Quaker spiritual formation. Historically, we have tended to believe that the Light is Christ’s presence within each person, able to enlighten and teach each person, lead a person into a better life.
On the other hand, we believe that this same Light is present universally in all peoples’ consciences, and does not depend on them having ever heard of Jesus, or ever having read the Bible, or even if they have they don’t necessarily need to believe it. They may have other ways of understanding what the Light is. As long as you’re centering your consciousness in the Light and trying to follow it, good things will happen.
So those two things are hard to hold together. Friends have tended to favor one side of the paradox or the other: the Christian sense of the Light, or the universal sense of the Light. Out of which way you lean, many different realms of belief can generate, from very Christocentric and even very Evangelical even Fundamentalist forms of Quakerism generate from the Christian side, as well as—on the other side—very Universalist views that connect with other world religions and aren’t necessarily even theistic in orientation.
A Dynamic Tension
I think Quakerism works best when we’re trying to come closer to the center of the paradox, listening to people on the other side of the paradox, learning from them, not being threatened or discounting them.
A paradox is not something you ever live perfectly in the center of all the time, but the conversation across the paradox can be very fruitful and I know that as a Christ-centered Friend from the Evangelical stream of Friends I continue to learn from Friends across the spectrum and it keeps me honest.
- Where do you fall in the continuum of the “Quaker paradox”? Do you tend to think of the Inner Light as more Christian or more universal? How does your understanding of the Light impact your practice of Quakerism?
- Doug Gwyn says that theological diversity in modern Quakers can be traced back to our understanding of the nature of the Inner Light, and that at its best, Quakerism is always listening across theological divides. What experiences have you had with Friends who had a fundamentally different understanding of Quakerism than you?
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.