Quaker Universalist Conversations

Do humanism and universalism differ?

The founding of a Universalist Group, if deliberately so named in an attempt to repudiate the symbolic forms which orient this human journey —it will become as sterile as that modern form of so-called humanism which imagines a complete foundation for human living can be established by ethics and reason.

But if the forming of a Universalist group is an effort to make articulate the profound unity of mankind’s spiritual search, in the light of the past as well as of the present—and covering the whole spectrum of human insights—then that is a quite different matter. (69) [emphasis added]

—Lorna M. Marsden [ Note 1 ],
“The Interior Life and the Universal,”
Universalist, January 1984, v.11, 6
(reprinted in Universalism and Religions:
Quaker Universalist Reader Number 2
, 2007, 66-75)

In this 1984 article written for her fellow British Quakers, Lorna Marsden expresses two main concerns.

The first concern is couched in the assertion that it is not “possible to separate the experience of the interior life from the experience of the universal” (66). Universalism, for Marsden, is not merely an intellectual or ideological aspiration. It is an inward awareness, not of the mind but of the whole being. “If we possess a truth,” she writes, “we are surely suffused by it, we live it…” (67).

Marsden’s second and perhaps greater concern is expressed as a warning. She is not opposed to humanism per se, yet she mistrusts the sort of secularism which attempts to define the Real solely in terms of what can be contained by human reason. “The mind,” she writes, “works on the prior divinations of the human spirit. Out of these prior divinations the mind produces the working forms of its abstractions” (67). Human consciousness relies upon symbol, image and myth to express knowledge which cannot be framed literally in concepts and propositions.

This I know experimentally” does not refer to knowledge gained from replicable outer-world demonstration. It refers, rather, to a sure inward conviction, grounded in personal experience, which each person must become open to herself, though it can be pointed to and shared with others through the languages of art and religion.

Marsden warns us of the loss of the “dimension of meaning” when we limit what we believe we can know to the rationality of the ideologically secular.

She writes:

To reject the basic symbols of Christianity (or any other religion) because of the failures of religious institutions is an act of blindness. It is also to experience a kind of deprivation which I believe to be dangerous to the future of mankind….

Today, the lives of most western people have been extended horizontally beyond anything known to our forebears. Yet at the same time western life as a whole has lost the heights and depths of what might be called the vertical dimension.

It is in the interaction of these two planes that human life acquires meaning and purpose in terms that reach beyond the sensational or the exercise of the analytical reason…. [Here is] what the early Quakers called “the heart.” (69-70)

Lord of the Dance icon

Lord of the Dance, by Brother Robert Lentz [ Note 2 ]


In what ways does humanism embrace and uplift truths which can be expressed only through art and religion?

How does this differ from the sorts of secularism (such as the so-called “new atheism”) which deny that symbol, image and myth refer to or inform humankind about anything real?

What differing traits are there which might separate humanism at its best from Quaker universalism?

What traits might bring the two sorts of faith and practice into Fox’s “experimental” unity with each other?

Note 1. For a further example of work by Lorna M. Marsden, see “Universality of the Image,” published as an e-Publication by Quaker Universalist Group in 2006. The publisher’s note reads:

Lorna Marsden is a Quaker whose writings are not only well known by Friends but are widely read by those with theological interests in other denominations and other faiths.

The first of these two essays (The Imagery of the Interior Life) is based on a talk given at the QUG Conference in Birmingham in April 1983, and the second (George Fox and the Light Within) is based on a talk given at Leicester in September 1984. They were first published by QUG in 1988 as Pamphlet No. 9 and reprinted in 1990.

Note 2: Br. Robert Lentz, O.F.M. (born 1946), is an American Franciscan friar and religious icon painter. He is particularly known for incorporating contemporary social themes into his icon work. He belongs to the Order of Friars Minor, and is currently stationed in Holy Name Province.

“Lord of the Dance” is an example of a type of iconography by Lentz which was ultimately suppressed by his Church, because it blends both Christian and Pagan mythic imagery into a portrait of Jesus the Christ. The following is from the website of Trinity Stores, which used to sell the icon:

One of the most ancient masculine images of God in Europe is a benign antlered figure. This image predates Celtic civilization, but was embraced by the Celts for its beauty and truth. The Horned God was a protector of all animal life. He was especially linked with the masculine sexuality and spirituality. He was considered Lord of the Otherworld and guided souls to their destination after death. In Celtic art he is usually shown sitting cross-legged and wearing a torque — the Celtic symbol of authority.

Christian missionaries tried to stamp out the image of the horned god when they came to northern lands. Monastic scribes re-told ancient legends with an increasingly sinister twist. In time, the Horned God was pictured in the popular imagination as a demonic figure who rode through the night skies in search of damned souls. There are still places in England, however, where Christian men don stag antlers and dance for ancient feasts.

In Celtic mythology, individuals like Merlin sometimes assume the personality of the Horned God. In this icon, the Horned God is connected with Christ. Christ sits before us in the posture of the Horned God, totally naked, but without shame. His confident nakedness emphasizes that what God has made is good. Behind him are ancient European petroglyphs of the Horned God. He bears the wounds of his crucifixion to signify that he has risen and has taken a more cosmic character than he had during his life in Palestine. He is beating a drum and inviting us to dance; reminiscent of a medieval English carol that describes him as the “Lord of the Dance.”


I may be totally simplistic here—but it seems to me that in my Quaker mindset, that definitions more often hinder and are self-defined (as understood by the speaker) and misconstrued by he listener. The outcome—how one lives one’s life, walks the walk is the real definition of intent. Humanism works as long as it does not deny the spirit. Universalist spirit works as long as it does no harm to the physical. c’est la vie Thanks for this very thoughtful blog.
Modern thought eschews the dichotomy of the spiritual and the physical, contending that they are an integrated whole. In that sense, universalism and humanism would work best when seen as inseparable parts of the human experience and understanding. That way, we can achieve a balance in our efforts to reach spiritual heights and at the same time embrace the depths of human empathy.
Thanks, Friends, for these thoughtful replies. To Lyn: I welcome your “remedy” to avoid dualism: “Humanism works as long as it does not deny the spirit. Universalist spirit works as long as it does no harm to the physical.” To Joanne: This speaks well to the same concern: “universalism and humanism would work best when seen as inseparable parts of the human experience and understanding.” Blessings, Mike
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