Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these conflicting attitudes is that both those Friends who reject Christianity and those who defend it often share an understanding of Christianity that was explicitly rejected by the first Quakers.
Early Friends described the Quaker movement as 'primitive Christianity revived', but they had a distinctive interpretation of Christianity that was passionately opposed to the orthodox Protestant theology of their day. The first Quakers rejected religious dogmatism, authoritarianism and collusion with powerful elites, quite as vehemently as any modern-day nontheist. Early Quakers believed that they had rediscovered the core insights of Jesus and the first Christians, which official Church teachings had systematically evaded, ignored or misrepresented since the 1st Century.
The Quaker understanding of Christianity emphasises the primacy of inward experience of spiritual reality – the 'Inward Christ'. Early Friends understood 'Christ' as an inward reality, accessible to every person by experience, to guide and empower them to live the kind of life that Jesus lived. Faith in Christ means trusting in this Inward Guide, which enlightens everyone who is willing to open their lives to it. The Inward Christ is luminously present in the life and words of Jesus of Nazareth that are recorded in the Bible, but in a more obscure degree it is present, if only as a potential, in every person – this is what George Fox meant by 'that of God in every one'.
This understanding of Christian faith is not an intellectual commitment to a set of abstract propositions about the nature of the Trinity and the atonement, or beliefs about the creation of the world or the afterlife. It is a practical commitment to living in a way that is illuminated and guided by the inward spirit of Christ in daily life – ‘here you will see your Teacher not removed into a corner, but present when you are upon your beds and about your labour, convincing, instructing, leading, correcting, judging and giving peace to all that love and follow Him.' (Francis Howgill, 'Lamentation for the Scattered Tribes', 1656)
Robert Barclay distinguished between these two ways of knowing as ‘the saving heart-knowledge, and the soaring, airy head-knowledge. The last, we confess, may be diverse ways obtained; but the first, by no other way than the inward immediate manifestation and revelation of God's Spirit, shining in and upon the heart, enlightening and opening the understanding.' ('Apology for the True Christian Divinity', 1678)
For George Fox and other early Quakers, there was no value in simply holding an opinion about Christ, or in any religious 'notions' whatsoever. All the traditional Christian 'beliefs' – in the incarnation, resurrection, atonement, redemption etc, are primarily symbolic expressions of experience. They have no meaning as verbal doctrines or intellectual commitments; their only value is as descriptions of real states of awareness and relationship. The ‘soaring, airy head-knowledge’ cannot help us. Real Christian faith is knowing the power of the inward presence of Christ, experiencing its struggle with the darkness of addiction and temptation within us, and coming to live a transformed life of selflessness and integrity.
This was the transformative experience Friends called 'convincement', and in it they recognised all the symbolic imagery of the Bible, come alive as vivid depictions of their own reality. For Quakers, the Bible was never the primary source of religious revelation and authority, but as a record of the discernment and actions of others who have been led by the Spirit, it is useful for testing our own often uncertain discernment. George Fox claimed that everything he had discovered 'experimentally' through the direct openings of the Spirit he later found confirmed in the Bible, but also that even 'if there was no scripture... Christ [ie the inward spirit of Christ] is sufficient.' (Epistle 320, 1676)
Early Friends believed that as people come to follow the leadings of the Spirit of Christ, we begin to share in the life of communion with God and with each other that Jesus called 'the Kingdom of God'. According to Jesus, the Kingdom of God is a new social reality which favours the poor and excluded. The core of Jesus' teaching was this 'good news to the poor', that the reign of God is on its way, growing invisibly throughout humanity like yeast through dough – 'the Kingdom of God is among you' (Luke 17:21). This Kingdom of God will be fulfilled through the lives of ordinary and disregarded people, as they are transformed by the Spirit of Christ within; turning away from the seductions of power, wealth and status, to embrace a life based on sharing and reconciliation.
"Children who are properly fed, who have adequate clothing and shoes, good water to drink, and who are learning skills for a constructive adult part in a working human ecology - that's what I think the gospel looks like."(Alice Yaxley, What does the gospel look like?)
The distorted version of Christianity often taught by mainstream church institutions has usually ignored or tried to interpret away the challenging 'good news' of Jesus' vision of a new society based on renewed people. Instead, church institutions have often concentrated on inventing and squabbling over metaphysical doctrines and outward ceremonies, combined with an obsessive attention to sexual behaviour. Some churches insist on the necessity of taking part in outward ceremonies such as baptism and the eucharist, others on literal belief in the highly symbolic narratives of the Bible, or intellectual adherence to abstract theological concepts. Very few mainstream churches have recognised the necessity of being guided by the same Spirit that was in Jesus, and allowing it to lead us into a transformed life and a renewed society.
Many contemporary Christian Friends have come to Quakerism from mainstream churches, and their understanding of Christianity is often recognisably Anglican, Methodist or Catholic rather than Quaker. Similarly, Friends who are hostile to Christianity are often reacting against their experience of Protestant or Catholic teachings and institutions, rather than the Quaker understanding of what it means to be a Christian – a follower of the inward spirit of Christ that is continually speaking within every person. “You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles saith this, but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?” (George Fox, reported by Margaret Fell in 1694)