Thursday, 24 April 2008

The nature of the "Inner Light"

Looking over the writings of early Quakers, I'm struck by the sense in which they associated the Inner Light with the boring old personal conscience. It's not a link which seems to be made explicitly much these days.

We have inherited a number of strands from early Quaker thinking. One was definitely mystical or ecstatic and associated with heightened religious experience. Another was rational and reflective and associated with the ordinary everyday consciousness and the sense of right and wrong. This blend created the enduring quality of Quaker action, which seems motivated at once by plain common sense, and at the same time by some wild and primitive irrational impulse which not even the Quakers fully understood.

The blend is clear in Quaker thinking on conscience. It's reasonable that Quakers might have objected in conscience to tithes and hat honour and so forth, but the punishing lengths to which they went in bearing their testimony suggests something beyond the strictly rational, as they themselves were aware (hence William Penn in "No Cross, No Crown"). The early Quakers assumed that the one drive could never contradict the other, because they had the same source and drew people towards the same objective. What united the rational and irrational conscience (so to speak) was the sense that the individual was acting in response to the sacred, that is, in response to an external drive, which may have manifested deep within the individual consciousness but did not originate there.

This puts classical Quaker thinking somewhat at odds with the modern liberal consensus which most British Quakers probably otherwise inhabit. In secular, liberal terms, "conscience" seems to involve a personal decision or preference (with the secular, liberal freedom to follow it as of right). Hence, those acting under conscience, on things like peace tax, are often accused of acting self-indulgently, irresponsibly, etc. - as if, in fact, they were causing trouble by doing whatever they liked in the secular, liberal sense. Rightly or wrongly, this is not the Quaker understanding of conscience, according to which, those bearing their testimonies are doing what reality compels them directly to do.

But one internal problem for present-day Quakers may be that we have lost some sense of the identity of the boring old conscience with the ecstatic Inner Light. I speak from experience. I often find it hard to achieve any sense of what the Light requires, and when I do, I'm starting to wonder if it's because I'm relying too much on the mystical, ecstatic, heightened understanding of what the Light is. I'm waiting for the blinding headrush of compulsion to go off and do something extravagant. I'd probably die of fright if I actually felt any such compulsion, but half the time I wonder if the problem isn't more prosaic - I'm neglecting the more commonsense thread in Quaker understanding, which suggests that what the Light requires is simple, practical recognition of the ingrained sense of right and wrong which is so much part of my everyday consciousness that I can effectively take it for granted, but which I often fail to respond in my actual conduct. The Quaker understanding seems to be that the blinding, ecstatic sense of the sacred, and the humdrum demands of an everyday life conscientiously lived, are the same thing. The thing they both are is the Inner Light, and if you plug fully into the one, it brings the other along with it. And if not, not. Living in the Light may sometimes mean charging up a mountain to do a lot of shouting, but it also means being in the habit of confronting everyday situations with the question, "Well, what's REALLY the right thing to do?" and then doing it.

Phew. Tough call!!


Maurice Bartley said...

Simon, I love the parallel you draw between conscience as a simple, practical recognition of right and wrong, which some may call ‘boring old conscience’ and the ‘exceptional more mystical and ecstatic conscience’, associated with heightened religious experience.

I agree that the former is the more universal experience open to all of us. This, I believe, is the generic conscience; while the exceptional experience of the few, is contained within it. It would be a great mistake for any of us to wait upon the exceptional experience, before getting on with making the myriad decisions, aided by the boring old conscience, that we need to make every day.

I believe there are other parallels to this in Quaker Life. I am thinking along similar lines with regard to vocal ministry at Meeting for Worship. I will post this as a blog entry as soon as I can get it together, and I hope that both these 'blogs' will reinforce one another.

Craig Barnett said...

Hi Simon,
An expression which was popular with early Friends was 'the light in their conscience'. They recognised that what people call their 'conscience' can also be influenced by social and cultural prejudices, and they distinguished between this and the conscience which is illuminated by the 'Inward Teacher' or Spirit of Christ.
Your conclusion that it is essential to be faithful to the simple requirements of conscience was also, of course, a very clear part of original Quaker teaching. It is often expressed as 'living up to the measure of light that you have,in order that more may be given you.'
It is not surprising perhaps, that we need to put into practice what we already know to be true before we can grow into the ability to see any further. Or as Mary Penington put it in her 17th Century journal:
'Thomas Curtis repeated this scripture: "He that will know my doctrine must do my commands." Immediately it arose in my mind, that if I would know whether that was truth they had spoken or not, I must do what I knew to be the Lord's will.'

Simon Heywood said...

Thanks both for these instructive comments. I find I'm slightly at odds with myself here - I'm taking a specifically "ecstatic" view of ministry in response to Maurice's post, but if I was being strictly consistent I should also be a bit keener on "conscientious" ministry as well. Ahem.

Anonymous said...

Based on my recent reading of biographies of early Quaker leaders, it seems that (1) they were at pains to distinguish the "inner light" from ordinary conscience, to refute attacks from the Calvinists, who argued that human conscience was corrupted by sin; and (2) when we talk about the early Quakers, we have to distinguish Commonwealth-era from post-Restoration Quakerism, as there were significant changes. Fox's early emphasis on spontaneous ecstatic experience of the inner light was very much downplayed, in favour of 'orderly walking', in the latter half of his ministry.