Thursday 31 December 2015

The Faces of God

"There is a fine old story about a student who came to a rabbi and said, 'In the olden days there were men who saw the face of God. Why don’t they any more?' The rabbi replied, 'Because nowadays no one can stoop so low.'” 

(Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 1963)

For many Friends today, it is difficult to know how to make sense of Quaker worship, given the radical differences in religious understanding within Britain Yearly Meeting.

When we do not share our spiritual experience and beliefs with each other, differences are easily ignored. So long as we abide by the 'behavioural creed' of the Quaker meeting for worship (ie sitting still, and speaking without any suggestion of certainty) we all appear to be doing the same thing. But this only works if Friends are careful in their vocal ministry to avoid words or topics that they suspect may generate strong reactions from others. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why spoken ministry tends towards the anodyne in many meetings. We are semi-consciously steering away from sentiments that may expose the hidden reefs of disagreement that lie just under the smooth surface of our meetings for worship.

Needless to say, this is not a recipe for spiritual vitality or prophetic ministry. So perhaps it is a hopeful sign that there seems to be a growing level of open disagreement in some of our meetings, as more Friends are finding the courage to discuss their beliefs with each other. This can be an uncomfortable process, and it may be tempting to try to suppress conflict by returning to a culture of inhibition. But conflict can signal the potential for renewal, if we can deal with our disagreements in a constructive way, with a sincere desire for the flourishing of our Friends and growing mutual understanding.

The chapter on 'approaches to God' in Quaker faith & practice includes a wide range of perspectives on the meaning of worship; from adoration of a divine Being, to simple awareness of present experience. It is not always clear that these understandings of worship are mutually compatible, and some of them may feel very alien to some readers. Perhaps one helpful way to approach an understanding of such very different perspectives is through the image of the differing ‘faces’ which spiritual reality can present to us.

The mystical traditions of many religions testify that the mystery of spiritual reality is greater than any of our concepts of it. This suggests that understandings which appear to be very different, and even incompatible, may reflect fragments of a greater whole seen from the perspectives of people with different temperaments and experiences. One of the most obvious differences is between personal and impersonal understandings of spiritual reality (or ‘God’, used as a symbol for the totality of spiritual reality beyond our limited categories).

The Christian mystic Simone Weil once wrote that God has both 'personal and impersonal aspects'. Contrary to the way that this is often caricatured, a personal understanding of God does not mean believing in 'an old man on a cloud'. Instead, spiritual reality is known as an active, intentional, loving, guiding and protecting presence. This understanding reflects an extraordinarily common experience among people from very different religious traditions. It is reflected in the writings of virtually all Friends until very recent times, expressed in diverse images including 'Guide', ‘Creator’, ‘Lord’, ‘Inward Christ’ and many others.

Another common way of experiencing God is as an impersonal energy, principle or universal interconnectedness. This perspective is particularly emphasised in religions such as Zen Buddhism and Taoism. It also runs through the Christian tradition from very early times, especially in mystical writings such as Meister Eckhart and The Cloud of Unknowing, as well as modern theologians such as Paul Tillich. The language of early Quakers is also full of images that reflect the 'impersonal face of God', including 'Seed' 'Inward Light', ‘Principle of Life’ and ‘Universal Righteousness’ among others. The use of these impersonal symbols reflects a concrete experience of God as a source of energy, illumination and connection to ultimate reality.

Of course, this distinction between the personal and impersonal faces of God highlights only one dimension of the diversity of religious experience. It is also possible to experience and understand the divine in a multitude of other ways, including an agnosticism which is attached to no definite views or concepts, but is simply open to the possibility of encounter with that which one does not yet know.

All of these ways of experiencing and relating to 'God' can be brought into the practice of Quaker worship. 'Our response to an awareness of God' does not rely on any particular belief about which aspect of God we are responding to - whether personal, impersonal or otherwise. Quaker worship is not limited to those who use the same concepts and images, or who experience God in exactly the same way, since these all vary according to our particular life history, temperament and cultural background.

It is profoundly unhelpful to turn our different experiences and images into a game of identity politics; saying in effect 'I am a nontheist and I need to stand up for nontheists against theists’ (or vice versa). This kind of thinking is premised on mutual suspicion and only tends to escalate it. We would do far better to refuse to play this game, and instead practice listening to each others' experience in order to enrich our own understanding of the inexhaustible breadth of spiritual reality.

Rather than defending my images and opposing yours, we could accept the necessity of multiple images for appreciating the many-sided nature of God. This requires me to acknowledge the validity of other people’s experience of spiritual reality, even where it differs from mine. This presupposes, of course, that I do not already ‘know’ that everyone who claims to have any kind of experience of God is deluded, and that there is ‘really’ no such thing as any spiritual reality at all.

It is not coincidental that it is the small number of Friends who reject even the possibility of spiritual experience who have been most active in promoting the identity politics game of ‘theists and nontheists’. In fact, the most significant distinction for the practice of Quaker worship is not between those who adopt personal or impersonal images of spiritual reality, but between those Friends who are open to the possibility of spiritual experience in any form, and those are not.

Anyone who is open to the possibility of encounter with some kind of reality beyond our own thoughts and opinions can enter into Quaker worship expecting to be changed, challenged and illuminated by a reality that is outside our control. Such an encounter may expand our understanding of reality, so that new words and images become meaningful to us. We don't need to confine ourselves to narrow identity categories that exclude the possibility of change and growth. We simply need to be willing to meet whatever face of God is presented to us, to welcome and respond to it, and to listen and learn from the very different experiences of others.

How do personal or impersonal images of God speak to you? Has the practice of Quaker worship changed your experience and understanding of spiritual reality?

This post is a response to the 'Reading Quaker faith & practice' project of the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group, which aims to encourage a national conversation about how Quaker faith & practice speaks to us and how it serves us as a Yearly Meeting. The full calendar of readings for use by local meetings, writers and individual Friends is available here.


  1. I was reading a slightly silly newspaper piece today which was nonetheless relevant. It was about long-term relationships,and in paraphrase it said: The need to 'argue it out' shows a commitment to a relationship. Arguing is intimate, a way of getting closer. The alternative is separation in self-protective silos. So thank you for highlighting just that - exposing the reefs need not lead to separation, quite the opposite.

    1. Hi Susie,
      'Arguing is intimate' - that's very true and helpful, thanks.

    2. I agree but it's like going from Primary School Arithmatic to A Level Maths!

  2. ‘In fact, the most significant distinction for the practice of Quaker worship is [...] between those Friends who are open to the possibility of spiritual experience in any form, and those are not.’ Bang on, Craig. Setting the background to the Experiment with Light, Rex Ambler writes of the difficulty of making out from the early writings exactly what it was that Quakers were doing in their meetings, because all that the writings contain are instructions for accessing an experience – they can’t provide the experience itself, because an experience can’t be accessed by description, it has by definition to be lived. That was why he started the Experiment: because the only way to try to understand what the writings were talking about was to see what happened when you tried to follow the instructions. The lived experience was the characteristic thing about Quaker worship in its earliest days, and to (most of!) us is still what draws us to it today.

    As to personal and impersonal images of God: I think both are where the truth lies, and I use both, though by ‘personal’ I don’t mean ‘with a human face’. But that’s another long story which I’d like to come back to another time; I need to stop now. Thanks for your post.

    1. Hi Norn, I have also found Rex Ambler's writings very useful in making sense of what the Quaker way is all about (especially his most recent book - 'The Quaker Way: a rediscovery'). It seems to me a very fruitful approach to focus on the Quaker way of practice, rather than seeing it primarily as about beliefs or values.
      I look forward to hearing more about your images of God some time too.

  3. Thank you Craig for an interesting article. Like many Quakers I value both the « active, intentional, loving, guiding and protecting presence » and the «  impersonal energy » and «  universal interconnectedness ». I would suggest that those who find a problem here can work on two fronts :
    1. Valuing openness. Our egos have defensive tendencies which judge the use of words by others and close our minds.
    2. Bring our whole selves into our sharing. Quakers are beginning to remember to bring their bodies to worship as well as their feelings and thinking.. In the last two days I have attended two Quaker meetings which began with being in the body, feeling our feet on the ground and just sensing our being physically, yesterday an Experiment with Light on skype and today my Local Meeting Healing Group. It helps us on the way to wholeness.

    1. Thanks Richard,
      The place of the body in worship is a fascinating subject, and I am interested to hear of your experience in meetings which are paying attention to this. I have wondered about whether online experiences of worship or EwL feed into a disembodied sense of spiritual practice, and whether there isn't something crucial about our physical presence that is lost in virtual forms. It would be good to hear more about Friends' experience of this.

  4. Traslated into Russian

  5. Thank you very much for this post, Craig. What is particularly useful is that you've put an essential point (about the personal and impersonal paths towards God) across in a few succinct and clear sentences. And, you are quite right, the 'identity politics' is such a wsste of time and energy. I use both paths at different times and find them entirely complementary. Thanks again...


"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)