Quakers and Jesus: Christ as Center

Georgefox at the breadline

*Note this series begins with “Quakers and Jesus: First Things

I will conclude this series with the last, especially unique Quaker conception of Jesus, that of Christ as the Center. Thomas Kelly, a 20th century Quaker mystic and philosopher, was perhaps best known for his writings later entitled A Testament of Devotion after his death. As Quakerism’s most famous leaders of that time, such as Rufus Jones, Douglas Steere, Thomas Kelly, and D. Elton Trueblood pursued philosophy rather than theology, a subtle shift in language about Jesus began to emerge, most noticeably the now ubiquitous terminology of Christ as the Center. Quaker sacramentology began a slow shift[1] toward one of a “Pan sacramental sense of holiness of every life; relationship is intimately connected to an inward sense of communion.”[2] Thomas Kelly began to build in new ways upon a theology of Christ as the Inner Light.[3] In the first chapter of A Testament of Devotion he writes:

“Deep within us all there is an inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice to which we may continually return. Eternity is at our hearts pressing upon our time-worn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home into Itself. Yielding to these persuasions, gladly committing ourselves in body and soul, utterly and completely, to the Light Within, is the beginning of true life.

It is a dynamic center, a creative Life that presses to birth within us. It is a Light Within which illumines the face of God and casts new shadows and new glories on the face of humans. It is a seed stirring to life, if we do not choke it. It is the Shekinah of the soul, the Presence in the midst. Here is the slumbering Christ, stirring to be awakened to become the soul we clothe in earthly form and action, and He is within us all.”

Kelly links his conception of the Center to that of the Inner Light. While “Center” may at first be seen as a related term to “within,” Kelly seems to give it much more nuanced and philosophical significance. He writes of this Light as the flaming center of religion,[4] and the Center of Creation.[5] Kelly echoes Barclay and others in speaking of an unceasing orientation of the depths of our being toward the Light, Christ at the Center;[6] where life is to be lived from the Center of our being.[7] For Kelly, living this kind of life stemmed from what he called “Holy Obedience,” which he understood as a continual submission of the will to the work of God in a person. Kelly saw this continual submission through a kind of Christian existentialism, with some similarities to what Jean Pierre De Caussade referred to as the sacrament of the present moment. Kelly referred to the present moment as the Eternal Now, a conception in which the finiteness of humanity encountered the infiniteness of God placed in the human heart. The submission Kelly speaks of is a form of self-oblation, as the Light illumines within it is both filled with glory and wonder, yet also pain. He speaks of this as the “X-ray light of eternity,” a guidance of the Light that he describes as “critical, acid, sharper than a two edged sword.”[8]

Conclusion

Quakers are not especially known for their Christology, yet their Christological assumptions, experiences, and orientation have, and continue, to greatly influence Christian spiritual formation. Their Christology attempted to navigate their experiences and the misunderstandings and arguments of their critics, forged a unique answer to the paradox of divine sovereignty and human freedom as it pertains to soteriology, and continues to make an impact far beyond the small size of Quakerism’s many adherents. Yet one could argue that all of this was a byproduct of their discovery of a mystical, Logos Christology, one that emphasized the immediacy of God not only in a personal relationship, but a corporate one as well. Quakerism has sought to follow Jesus more than explain him, to let him be the head of the church in ways that lead to practical action, dynamic and rich contemplative reflections, and humble and honest self-examination. Rooted in Christian orthodoxy and mystical experience, they aim at a Christology that is more than a doctrine, it is an invitation to “a life filled with God.”[9]

Query: There is a real danger in our Society to view faith more as intellectual assent than dynamic connection with Christ. How do we—as Friends of Jesus—make room at the center of our lives for a Jesus who is more than a doctrine, but an inward reality bursting outward that ripples through every corner of our lives?

Other Posts in this series:

Quakers and Jesus: First Things

Quakers and Jesus: Toward a Quaker Christology

Quakers and Jesus: Christ as Present Teacher and Lord

Quakers and Jesus: Christ as Seed and Inner Light 

Quakers and Jesus: Christ as Center

References

[1] Elton, Trueblood, The People Called Quakers. New York: Harper & Row, 1966, 128.

[2] Douglas V. Steere, Quaker Spirituality, 18.

[3] Richard J. Foster and James Bryan Smith, eds, Devotional Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals and Groups., rev. and expanded. ed. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005, 175.

[4] Thomas R. Kelly, The Eternal Promise, 60.

[5] Thomas R. Kelly, A Testament of Devotion (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 4.

[6] Ibid, 5.

[7] Ibid, 92.

[8] Ibid. 22.

[9] Thomas R. Kelly, The Eternal Promise, 73.

 

 

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About jtower11

Hi there! I am James Tower: A husband, father, dreamer, visionary, thinker, poet, mystic, metal-worker, and scholar. A former atheist trying to find my way as a Quaker minister. A former drop-out trying to find my way through an M. Div program at George Fox. A former addict who, over twelve years ago had a life changing encounter with Jesus that has altered the course of my life forever. I am a creative person called to pastoral ministry, spiritual direction and discipleship. I love "conversations of consequence" with people who are willing to wrestle through the deeper truths and messiness of life. I have found God in my brokenness, and He has shown me how to use that personal knowledge to work toward healing and reconciliation with others. I love the outdoors, camping and recreation, an eclectic blend of music and arts, and creativity in general. I am passionate about expressing my faith in Jesus, and allowing God to transform every area of my life and every decision I make. Together with my wife Liz and daughters Sophie and Greta, we are on a journey to figure out where, when, and how to live out the call God has placed in our hearts. For more about me check out the "about" or "my story" pages. View all posts by jtower11

14 responses to “Quakers and Jesus: Christ as Center

  • Howard Brod

    What a wonderful post, James, that speaks so deeply to all stripes of Quakers: Pastoral, Evangelical, Conservative, and liberal. You have touched on the essence of the experience of Light that is our theology inheritance from the time of the very earliest Friends.

    Thank you.

  • Paul Ricketts

    I shared with Friends Fox was not a systematic theologian. In other words, his theology is experiential and not a carefully thought out and logically consistent system. He sometimes means different things when he uses the same words. And he is constantly exploring, unpacking, repacking, testing, trying out new understandings, and pushing language to the limits.

    Sometimes when he use “Light” Fox means the work of the presence of God within, gently nudging us toward restoration and healing, towards experiential knowledge of God. Sometimes by “Christ” he mean that the power of God that shines like a searchlight into our hearts to expose all that is out of order, corrupt, vain, self-centered, self-satisfied, lazy, greedy, perverse, spiteful,judgmental, etc.

    My nana was a baptist. Jesus was a member of the household and she talked to him about anything and everything. He was a friend and constant companion. Whatever language works for you and has integrity is good, I think. The way you or I speak of our faith (or anyone for that matter) is deeply personal and may well change over time.Good news God is working in you (and in me) in ways that we do not yet understand. As we continue to listen, worship, pray, love and serve, it will gradually become clearer to us. I believe the same is true for me and for any person of faith. Words are just that. What is more important is the reality behind the words.

    • jtower11

      Greetings Paul. I did write a lot about what you describe in the first two posts of this series. I do however think words are important precisely because they are pointing to experiences with a shared reality. In the first post I examine the mystical roots of Quaker experience, in the second I examine the orthodoxy or heterodoxy of these early friends voices. I hope you will look into it, it is carefully researched and I suppose if you find inaccuracies in it I would love to talk about them as well as the information sources behind your disputes. I look forward to hearing back from you. Agape,
      James

  • Jim Schultz

    Check my post on Quaker Quaker “Love is like a river” for confirmation on timing.

  • jtower11

    Oh, I forgot that link to the first post. Here you go http://wp.me/p2La5Z-aA

  • Paul J Ricketts

    Just finish reading the former links. Thank you….What delights me is that you are wrestling with the tradition in a productive way, are engaging both the biblical and Quaker stories, and are open to the God’s movement in your life. You said “I do however think words are important precisely because they are pointing to experiences with a shared reality”

    Raised in Lutheran Church I had to memorize both the Apostle and Nicene creeds.Plus Luther’s Small Catechism. Orthodoxy clothed in words. What I’ve learned from life experiences, God is ultimately beyond our grasp. Orthodoxy (depending on whose “orthodoxy” we are talking about) does not necessarily cumber me, but orthodoxy for orthodoxy’s sake is a trap I assiduously avoid. I am not nearly as orthodox as my language. I use orthodox words and concepts, but I use them with wiggle room and openness to wonder and ambiguity.

    The Christian tradition has for many, many centuries spoken of our sharing in the life of God.”In God we live, move, and exist” Acts 17:28 Iranaeus One of the church fathers, I believe, said that God became man so that man might become God. This is not to say that we are God or are equal to the divinity, but that through faith and in grace we become who we fully are people made in the image of God.

    Describing the spiritual experience or ultimate reality, language is but a poor tool. We don’t have adequate words for what we know inside, and often, when we think we have found words for our experience, they fail us as soon as we speak them. The experience of God is either too heavy or too light for the words, and many times either the words break or the experience drifts away from the words and the moment of communication is lost. But sometimes, the mere attempt to carry the weight of experience from one person to another is enough, and then heart understands heart.

    Whatever language works for you and has integrity is good, I think. As I shared in my previous post the way you or I speak of our faith (or anyone for that matter) is deeply personal and may well change over time. I suppose that if the words never change at all, then there is a good chance we are stagnant.

    • jtower11

      While attempting to describe the ineffable is as you put it to use “poor tools” some aspire to this task and I think it is worth it to chase the mystery a bit for myself. Thomas Kelly’s writing have meant a great deal to me precisely because he seems to put into words a great deal of my experience, some like him and other mystics, have a real gift at this. Orthodoxy need not be a dead thing “clothed in words” it can alive and interacting with the world. I find orthodoxy more freeing than constricting, but recognize not all Friends feel the same. I hope you engage with a living orthodoxy that finds its way to orthopraxy. I feel that I have. Thank you for your encouraging words and feedback Paul!

  • Paul J Ricketts

    ” Orthodoxy need not be a dead thing “clothed in words” it can alive and interacting with the world”

    jtower I think you have articulated a central reality of living orthodoxy.I myself would use the term “phenomena”- the work of the holy spirit.To paraphrase you: The holy spirit need not be a dead thing “clothed in words” it can alive and interacting with the world.

    Resurrected Jesus “enfleshed” placed in each human heart gently nudging us toward restoration and healing, towards experiential knowledge of himself cuts to the core of who I am.I have been shaped by its love and grace in profound ways I cannot step out of, nor do I want to.

    As I have shared with friends before Fox relationship with the holy spirit he was not a systematic theologian. In other words, his theology is experiential and not a carefully thought out and logically consistent system. He sometimes means different things when he uses the same words. And he is constantly exploring, unpacking, repacking, testing, trying out new understandings, and pushing language to the limits. Sometimes he seems to use language sloppily, and the inconsistencies annoy and frustrates me at times. Sometimes he seems to be intentionally ambiguous in his use of terms, and I am impressed.Sometimes I see myself in Fox.I’ probably don’t fit neatly wrapped and packed in the evangelical camp As i have shared before(sorry for repeating myself) the holy spirit is working in you (and in me) in ways that we do not yet understand. As you continue to listen, worship, pray, love and serve, it will gradually become clearer to us. I believe the same is true for me and for any person of faith. Words are just that. What is more important is the reality behind the words.

  • Lee Anne

    Thank you for your writings especially the one on ‘Christ as the Center’. For myself that is the whole point of my faith, of my reason for being etc. I am not Quaker/Amish/Mennonite although when people see me one of those may be their assumption. I am not a part of any group or denomination. I feel just as free attending a worship service in a Catholic church as attending a church of Christ, Southen Baptist, Assembly of God or Mennonite gathering. I can worship with any brother or sister who Names God as Father, Jesus & the Holy spirit as our triune soverign King of Kings & Lord of Lords. However, there will always be differences on points and areas where I disagree.
    For me, I am just a plain Christian.
    I feel there is a danger in identifying to closely with any titled denomination ie. Quakerism (or any other) becoming the focus of our faith, identifying us instead of identifying with Christ himself and He being our main focus.
    I have found no group which exactly matches what I believe as I see laid out in the word of God..
    I do live a plain lifestyle, live in the world but not a part of it and I endeavor to follow the scriptures as the guidelines for my life.
    In the end when we stand before God that is all we will have…how we lived either with Christ as our center & living a life obedient to his word or not.
    Denominations, groups, churches, titles…none will be of any consequence in deciding the outcome of what is to be our eternity.
    It is all…CHRIST.
    Thanks again!

    • jtower11

      I find a lot to agree with in your response Lee Ann. Denominations do as much to separate as unite in my experience, but there is much I have found to appreciate in the Quaker way of following Jesus. I feel as though the Quakers chose me as much as I chose them. Thank you for your wonderful feedback!
      Agape,
      James

  • James Tower on Quakers and Jesus: Christ as center (Links)

    […] James Tower on Quakers and Jesus: Christ as center. […]

  • Rose Kendall

    Praise the Lord, I just found you! I am 72 y-o and have been a Bible teacher and mentor for many years. I have long loved the “mystics” writings, and found Thomas Kelly to be a favorite. I have read both of his books once a year for four years now, along with Brother Lawrence’s book. I also love A.W. Tozer. I believe the accountability of being a church member is a place of safety, not one of “containment”. Churches are mentioned in the Bible because they are important to God for structure, identity, guardians of doctrine, etc. Thank you so much for your scholarly work. It is appreciated. Love you, Rose Kendall

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