What is ‘that-of-God in everyone’?

I suspect you only need to spend a short time with British Quakers before you hear the phrase ‘that of God in every one’. It may take a much longer time before someone tells you what they think it means. In this post I’ll explore the various meanings of this phrase, and how theologian Jürgen Moltmann and the idea of God’s ‘Shekinah’ has helped me in my understanding of it.

‘That of God in every one’ comes from a letter from George Fox to Quaker ministers, written down by Ann Downer whilst Fox was imprisoned in Cornwall in 1656:

…And this is the word of the Lord God to you all, and a charge to you all in the presence of the living God: be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one. (Qf&p 19.32)

Today, I see Friends use ‘that of God in every one’ as a basis for the Quaker understanding of equality, and as a springboard for work on diversity and inclusion. We are all of equal worth because we all have ‘that of God’ in us. It’s also used to emphasise the Universalist character of Quakerism. Everyone’s spiritual experience is worth learning from because we all have our own experience of ‘that of God’. In that it’s something we all have and confers equal worth on us all, it’s used interchangeably with the idea of the ‘Inner Light’.

Changing meanings

For early Friends, their understanding was a bit different. ‘That of God in every one’ referred to our innate ability to respond to God, which we could attend to or ignore. (Bear in mind that the Calvinist Puritan culture of 17th century England didn’t believe we had any ability to respond to God at all, humanity being totally depraved.) Earlier generations of Quakers spoke of the ‘inward Light’, and it wasn’t something that was naturally a part of us. It came from outside, from elsewhere ‘as if through a keyhole’.[1] This Light was not the same as our conscience, ‘for conscience, being that in man which ariseth from the natural faculties of man’s soul, may be defiled and corrupted.’[2] Early Friends believed that our ability to follow the leadings of the Light is impaired (though not totally incapacitated) because of original sin.

At the turn of the 20th century, Quakerism in Britain shifted from a broadly Evangelical community to a Liberal one. Although these early Liberal Friends saw themselves as reclaiming the early Quaker vision, the meanings of particular Quaker phrases were altered. So Liberal Quakers blurred the distinction between the Light and the conscience, rejecting the idea of original sin in favour of ‘a kind of original blessing or an innate Godliness.’[3] The ‘inward Light’ became the ‘inner Light’, moving the Light from that which shines from elsewhere to something within the individual. Similarly ‘that of God in every one’ morphed from our capacity to turn to the inward Light of Christ to ‘a sense that a piece of the Divine resides in everybody.’[4]

Where does God end and I begin?

I think the various ways that ‘that of God in everyone’ has been understand are important, but I do have difficulty with ‘the Light’ or ‘that of God’ being seen as something identical with my own self. I’m wary of anything that blurs the distinction between creation and God. I’m not God and God isn’t me. I also don’t like thinking of us each having a ‘piece’ of God. I don’t think God can be broken up into pieces. If we are to be united by ‘that of God in everyone’ then God needs to remain whole.

Occasionally I’ve heard Quakers use the phrase ‘that of Good in everyone’, presumably to include those with a non-theistic outlook. In one sense I have no difficulty with this – if God is the greatest Good from whom all good things flow, then ‘that of God’ and ‘that of Good’ could mean the same thing. In another sense, I wonder if ‘that of Good’ suggests that there is only a part of us that is good. I think that, as part of God’s good creation, all of us is good! I also think ‘that of Good’ blurs the distinction between God and creation. I want to affirm the ability of everyone to respond to God, and the equality of worth of all people, but I don’t want to sacrifice the distinction between God and humanity, or the unity of God. I don’t want to split God up or merge God and people. I recently came across an idea that helps me to do this, in Jürgen Moltmann’s description of God’s ‘Shekinah’.

God’s Shekinah

So what is the Shekinah? In short, the Shekinah is the presence of God at a particular time and place,[5] and the best way to understand it is through the story that is told about God in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The Ark Of The Covenant
by Michael Reeve, 2006

After the Israelites escape from enslavement in Egypt, they find themselves wandering in the wilderness. God wanders with them, dwelling among them in a portable box called the Ark, which in turn lived in a big tent called the Tabernacle. Later, once the Israelites had settled in one place, they built a house for God, the Temple in Jerusalem, and God dwelt and rested there, specifically in the central room called the Holy of Holies.[6] Then came disaster – the Temple was destroyed by the invading Babylonians, and many Jews where taken into exile in Babylon. With God’s house destroyed, and God’s people exiled, where was God to be found? This is where the idea of the Shekinah comes into play. After the Exile

there came to be a notion that God has his dwelling among his people in the Shekinah, and through the Shekinah accompanies the people into exile… It is more especially Israel’s divine “companion in suffering”… When God delivers his people and brings them home again, his Shekinah, which has travelled with them, will also be delivered from its wanderings, and will return home.’[7]

In the Shekinah, God once more wanders in the wilderness with God’s people, sharing in their pain. Importantly, the Shekinah is not a piece of God. It’s God’s full presence. But at the same time, it is not God’s omnipresence; it is God present at a particular time and place.[8] This is where it gets really mysterious! The Shekinah is fully God and yet distinct from God.

Moltmann calls this God’s ‘self-distinction’ – God is both identified with God’s-self, and with God’s people.[9] Through this self-distinction, God is present with us when we alienate ourselves from God. In the Shekinah, God is alienated from God: ‘This Shekinah does not leave us. Even in our most frightful errors, it accompanies us with its great yearning for God, its homesickness to be one with God.’[10] It’s a difficult, paradoxical concept, but one that, to me at least, makes poetic sense.

It is in this search for homecoming, for wholeness, that we can see the parallels between the Shekinah and ‘that of God in everyone’. It is worth quoting Moltmann here at length:

If we live entirely in the prayer “Thy will be done”, the Shekinah in us is united with God himself… It need not happen once and for all. It can also happen briefly, for a time… If we become one with ourselves, the Shekinah comes to rest… We become sensitive to the Shekinah in us, and equally sensitive to the Shekinah in other people and in all other creatures. We expect the mystical union of the Shekinah with God in every true encounter… We encounter every other created being in the expectation of meeting God. For we have discovered that in these other people and these other creatures God waits for our love, and for the homecoming of his Shekinah.[11]

Answering the Shekinah in everyone

So ‘that of God in everyone’ could be thought of as the indwelling of God in all creation. We are called to become sensitive to it in ourselves, and to answer it in others. You can see how the Shekinah maintains the unity of God and the distinction between God and creation, whilst at the same time affirming the intimate presence of God in all God’s creatures.

What I particularly like is the forward thrust of the Shekinah – it points towards a future when the whole of creation will be reconciled to itself and to God, and acknowledges that we are still longing and aching for that to occur. That is why we need to be patterns and examples, to let our lives preach, respecting the presence of God in ourselves and in all other creatures. Until all things have returned to their home in God, the Shekinah has not come to its full rest.

[1] Pink Dandelion, An Introduction to Quakerism (Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 132.

[2] Robert Barclay, Apology for the True Christian Divinity (Farmington, ME: Quaker Heritage Press, 2002) Prop V-VI §XVI.

[3] Dandelion, An Introduction to Quakerism, 132.

[4] Dandelion, 132.

[5] Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation (London: SCM Press, 1992), 47.

[6] Moltmann, 47.

[7] Moltmann, 48.

[8] Moltmann, 48.

[9] Moltmann, 49.

[10] Moltmann, 50.

[11] Moltmann, 50–51.

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