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 how the meaning of this phrase has changed, and what I think it means by way of theologian Jürgen Moltmann and the idea of God’s ‘Shekinah’.

‘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)

Even though these words come from the 17th century, they didn’t become a well-known Quaker phrase until they were popularised by Quaker author Rufus Jones at the beginning of the 20th century.[1] ‘That of God in every one’ is now an established part of Quaker vocabulary, and today I see Friends use it 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’. Because 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

Early Friends held a different understanding of the ‘Inner Light’. They 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’.[2] 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.’[3] Early Friends believed that our ability to follow the leadings of the Light is impaired (though not totally incapacitated) because of original sin. So ‘that of God in every one’ referred to our innate ability to respond to God (something denied by the Calvinist Puritan culture of 17th century England) which we could attend to or ignore.

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 wanted to reclaim 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.’[4] The ‘inward Light’ became the ‘inner Light’, moving the Light from that which shines from elsewhere to 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.’[5]

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 believe that, being part of God’s good creation, all of us is good!

I think the various ways that ‘that of God in everyone’ has been understood 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 too much. 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.

God’s Spirit and His Shekinah

So 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. A helpful place to start is with the Quaker mystic Thomas Kelly, as he offers his own poetic understanding of ‘that of God within’:

Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return. Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself… 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 upon the face of men. 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.[6]

Sometimes a helpful way to explain one metaphor is to use a collection of metaphors! I’d like to explore one particular metaphor, the ‘Shekinah’, with the help of theologian Jürgen Moltmann.

So what is the Shekinah? It’s a word that isn’t found in the Old Testament, but was developed in later Rabbinic writings. In short, the Shekinah is the presence of God at a particular time and place,[7] and the best way to approach it is through the story that is told about God in the Hebrew Scriptures.

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.[8] 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.

The Ark Of The Covenant
by Michael Reeve, 2006

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 its wanderings, and will return home.’[9]

In the Shekinah, God once more wanders in the wilderness with God’s people, sharing in their suffering. Importantly, the Shekinah is not a piece of God. It is 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.[10] 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.[11] 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.’[12] 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.[13]

So we could say that ‘that of God in everyone’ could be thought of as the indwelling of God in all creation. We are called to become sensitive to, and to answer it in ourselves and in others.

[1] Claus Bernet, Rufus Jones (1863-1948): Life and Bibliography of an American Scholar, Writer, and Social Activist (Frankfurt am Main ; New York: Peter Lang, 2009), 13.

[2] Pink Dandelion, An Introduction to Quakerism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 132.

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

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

[5] Dandelion, 132.

[6] Thomas Raymond Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, Reprint edition (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1941), 3.

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

[8] Moltmann, 47.

[9] Moltmann, 48.

[10] Moltmann, 48.

[11] Moltmann, 49.

[12] Moltmann, 50.

[13] Moltmann, 50–51.

5 thoughts on “What is ‘that-of-God in everyone’?”

  1. Fr what it is worth, I interpret “that of God in everyone” as implying that the image of God in which we were created is still present, albeit in a form distorted (but not totally destroyed) by original sin. It is through what remains of this image that we have a sense of God, albeit a vague one until the Holy Spirit enables us to open to the Light.

  2. Just a few more thoughts on this topic.
    Although I do not claim to have read everything that George Fox wrote, I can only recall seeing the phrase “inward light” once. “Inner light” was not used by Fox, but he often spoke of the Light which (unless I have seriously misunderstood him) came from outside the human spirit (although perceived inwardly). Ultimately, the Light is Christ himself. Another word used by Fox was “seed” which some modern commentators equate with “inner light”. I can’t accept this if it is supposed to mean a “spark of God” intrinsic to the human spirit. Rather, I take it to mean the remnant in each of us of the Image of God in which humanity was originally created. This seed is within all of us but if we turn to the Light (i.e. open our inner lives to the Lord Jesus Christ who is the Light) the seed within us is flooded in Light and sprouts, growing into the Image in which we were created.

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