When Quakers talk about spiritual reality, they often produce lists of substitute words, such as 'God, the Divine, the Tao, Goddess, or whatever you call it'. The implication seems to be that all of these terms are synonymous, and the point of the list is to indicate that diverse names and beliefs are equally acceptable, and are all talking about the same thing. The specific connotations of different words are usually downplayed, because the list is a way of signalling our openness to theological diversity, rather than describing our own spiritual experience.
By contrast, the religious language of early Quakers was not concerned with abstract theological gestures, but with communicating real personal experience. Early Friends avoided the tendency of much mainstream Christian theology to try to tie down spiritual reality into neat categories that can be intellectually mastered, independently of our own lived experience. The first generation of Quakers created a shared vocabulary that was extraordinarily rich in symbolism and metaphor, rather than a system of precise theological definitions.
Early Friends used a great diversity of spiritual language, drawing on the rich metaphorical resources of the Bible as well as inventing their own terms, such as 'the Inward Light', 'the Seed', 'the Principle of Life', 'the Guide', 'the Inward Teacher', 'Inward Christ' and many others. This rich vocabulary was not just a list of interchangeable synonyms. The different metaphors expressed the diverse range of personal spiritual experience, and hinted at the multifaceted nature of ultimate reality.
The language used by modern Quakers draws on a much wider range of religious traditions, but our specifically Quaker vocabulary is rather thin by comparison. The most popular modern Quaker religious metaphor is probably that of 'the Inner Light'. The symbolism of light suggests something that reveals and informs. This is, of course, an important aspect of Quaker spirituality, but it is far from the whole of it. Doug Gwyn has contrasted this modern focus on the metaphor of light with the more neglected early Quaker language of the 'seed':
'We speak of the light to describe the revealing, guiding, discerning aspects of God's presence within. By contrast, the language of the seed hints at other aspects, ones we are more likely to avoid. Early Friends wrote of the seed as the power of God, the promise of God, the inheritance of God sown within each human heart. It is sown there in compassion toward us, sown in the hope that each one of us will become a true and faithful child of God. But this seed within germinates and rises to new life only as we sink down to it. The Seed is the power of God's will. While the light reveals God's will to us, lets us know it, the seed is about the power to do it here and now . Or again, while the light inspires in us thoughts that are not necessarily our thoughts; the seed raises a will in us that is not necessarily our will. That implies that there is some kind of death to be encountered in ourselves if we are to know the power of the seed.
That dimension of our spiritual growth is threatening to all of us. We want more light, we want to see more. Then we will make our own decisions. We do not want to give up control. We do not want to subject our will to something beyond us, even if it is something deep within us. Perhaps this is why we do not hear the language of the seed often among Friends today! Yet I find that Friends that want to go deeper, Friends who want to expand the horizons of their faith, end up going elsewhere to find that other dimension. Some leave Friends altogether, feeling that their meeting can't get to that deeper level. But many are able to remain Friends while finding that other dimension through other spiritual disciplines. They go on Buddhist Vipassana retreats, they spend time at Zen Centers, or at Catholic monasteries. They find the rigor of spiritual discipline, the depth dimension, elsewhere, and that's fine. But we have that depth dimension in our own tradition. We need to reclaim it today.'
(Douglas Gwyn, Sink Down to the Seed, 1996)
There are, of course, many other aspects of spiritual experience that call for attentive naming. Another key early Quaker metaphor was that of the 'Inward Guide'. The image of the guide perhaps points us towards an area of experience that links the seed and the light. The guide draws us towards what the light reveals. It creates the willingness to 'sink down to the Seed', to give our consent to the new will that is gradually germinating within us.
I understand this guide not just in the sense of one who shows the way, but also as the one who reveals to us the beauty of the journey, and awakens a desire to follow. It is the voice of the guide that is heard by the prophet Hosea in the Bible; 'So then, I Myself will entice her, I will bring her into the wilderness and speak to her heart.' Hosea (2:14)
The Inward Guide could stand for that aspect of our inner experience that awakens to the beauty of life when it is lived from the seed of God within. Often, the Guide speaks to us through the example of others' lives, revealing the attractiveness of compassion, generosity and courage, and awakening a desire to discover our own potential for these qualities. We have encountered the Guide at those times when the world appears illuminated by the possibility of selflessness and communion; when we sense the promise that 'the world will be saved by beauty' (Dostoevsky, The Idiot, 1868).
True inward transformation is not effected purely by ethical idealism or a sense of duty. It relies on longing desire; a movement of the heart that opens us to the possibilities of a richer, more beautiful and selfless life. People whose hearts are awakened in this way become willing to surrender themselves, to sink down to the seed, to consent to become someone else for other people. Simplifying their lives, sharing their possessions, and even physical risk and hardship become easy and attractive in the course of this movement. They willingly and enthusiastically abandon anything that hinders them from pursuing the 'pearl of great price', the new richness of life that has been revealed to them.
What words or images help to express your experience of spiritual reality? Are there aspects of your spiritual experience that call for new or rediscovered religious language?