Quaker Universalist Conversations

Enlightenment and Discernment

Yun Choi Yeung is from Hong Kong and has been living in the United Kingdom since October 2010. Yun is promoting the exercise program of “Exercise as if we were in the Garden of Eden” in the UK and China, and has have just completed a missional evaluation of this program for the mind-body-soul well-being community.

Enlightenment and Discernment

Wherefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable unto thee, and break off they sins by righteousness, and thine iniquities by shewing mercy to the poor, if it may be a lengthening of thy tranquillity. (Daniel 4:27, KJV)

This is a universal statement, and most people will follow its advice. The Quakers are no different, except that they are talking about discernment. Maybe this makes them different from the other people that are involved in doing good deeds.

The first time I went to a Quaker meeting, one of the elders sort of casually said that everyone here is involved in a project. What he meant is clear to me now after being in Quaker worship for a while. The Spirit of Jesus will direct a person to a right action according to the will of God and not of the self.

In Quakerism, enlightenment or conversion is just the beginning of discernment. Using proper discernment, Quakers have this perfect assurance that what they are doing is right, even when they do not fully understand their own actions.

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The rational self can justify an action by the Scriptures (Old Testament), traditions, and experience. However, the question is whether that action is the will of God or not at a particular time and space.

In Acts 17:11, for example, the Bereans received the message with eagerness from Paul, but they examined the Scriptures to see if what was said was true. Their methodology recalls modern philosopher Karl Popper’s notion of falsifiability, the inherent testability of any hypothesis. The Bereans were “testing” Paul against Scripture.

This was a common use of Scriptures, for example, when seeking to establish blamelessness of animals for sacrifice or of people as holy ones. Noah was blameless in his time (Genesis 6:9), Job was blameless in his time (Job 1:1), and Daniel was found innocent in the sight of God (Daniel 6:22).

For thousands of years people have tried to find fault in the Scriptures but proving them to be true instead. There are people cannot accept the Scriptures because they have not understood, not because they have found fault. There are lots of problems with the Scriptures, but people seem to resolve them slowly over the years to validate the Scriptures.

There are more problems with the New Testament, but the advantage of the New Testament is that most of the teachings are scriptural and fulfilling the Scriptures. The divisions among denominations are mostly traditional rather than scriptural.

Quakers have a desire for unity and a history of suffering. Doctrinal concepts such original sin, sacrament, atonement, holiness, etc., are therefore not primary concerns for Quakers. Original sin, for example is a traditional church doctrine rather than a scriptural truth, even though most denominations still hold onto it. The setting aside of original sin doctrine puts Quakers in unity with those who believe in the concepts of born innocence, personal holiness, justice, compression, etc.

For believers of reincarnation, on the other hand, the concept of “born innocence” is a problem, because the process of reincarnation implies a movement from sinfulness to innocence. Most Zen Buddhists in the West seem to move away from the concepts of reincarnation. Perhaps this is why some western Buddhists see are attracted to Quakerism. Some Quakers, in turn, think that mindfulness meditation in Buddhism is useful in their own meditation. In both cases, these people may not recognize either the important differences between Buddhist meditation and Quaker silent worship, or the Quaker testimony of experience in action.

Similarly, there are some “fans” of Quakerism who embrace Quaker social action without embracing the light of Jesus, and there some Quakers who are “fans” of Buddhist and other non-Christian paths, without discerning the differences between those paths and Quakerism. The concern of Quaker discernment is to act according to the will of God and not otherwise.

Pentecost image by Miranda Hassett
When a Quaker gets a new idea, there is a duty first to make sure it is the will of God and then to act upon it with full assurance. Full assurance comes through the work of the Holy Spirit and not through the validation of the Scriptures or tradition. Quakers are willing to suffer for Spirit-led actions that come from beyond the reach of rational thought. The Scriptures have clearly stated that

Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets. (Amos 3:7, NIV)

The actions of Quakers are direct revelation of God.

The Scriptures support the notion of personal holiness, but according to Ezekiel (14:14) blameless people like Noah, Daniel, and Job can only save themselves. I think it is simply means that they are sons of men and not the sons of God, and that they are not good enough for the atonement of Adam’s disobedience. Adam was a son of God who was a direct creation of God. Maybe this is why Paul wrote of a need for a second Adam to atone for the first Adam.

Quakers claim direct relationship with God through Jesus, the second Adam. This relationship is made legitimate by justification, which is followed (in Paul’s teachings) by sanctification and glorification. Therefore, acting as the Quakers do will not by itself make practitioners into Quakers. Those practitioners need to be following the light of Jesus.

Some people have misunderstood the rationale of Quakers’ martyrdom and willingness in suffering, neglecting the importance of doing the will of God. Buddhists and Hindu have similar practices of voluntary suffering, but these are a kind of self-purification process—or even self-glorification for some.

The Quaker practice is be still and wait patiently for the Lord (Psalm 37:7), and act on the Lord’s instruction accordingly. Discernment is twofold, first, with reference to the will of God and, second, with support from other Quakers. Discernment of the will of God should withstand the test of Scriptures and Quaker testimony. Discernment with the support of others is a testimony to the unity reflected in the Quaker business meetings.

However, like other denominations, Quakers sometimes become too obsessed with their traditions and successes in social justice, so that division among Quakers is a sign of the times. The tendency now is toward a reduction in the number of traditional Quakers and an increase in the number of “fandom” members, those who are seeking some sort of Western identity with Asian practices.

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My universalist view is that basically cultures can divided into monotheistic and polytheistic, and that non-theism is a modern Western phenomenon. The nontheistic view is basically a denial of reality of the divine, and a replacing the divine with human qualities. Monotheistic cultures can divided into those with and those without the claim of divine inspiration. For example, the monotheisms of the Old and New Testament, the Qur’an, and the Book of Mormon are claimed to be divinely inspired Scriptures.

The challenge Quakers is that the work of the Holy Spirit is a very subjective experience, and that the discernment process involves ascertaining the will of God, not simply doing good deeds to please man and glorify the self, etc. The teaching of Peter (Acts 2:38) is to be baptized and then to wait for the Holy Spirit, and Quaker practice is just that

The Quaker process is a period of rationalization to the point of conversion, then baptism and waiting, then direct relation with the light of Jesus, discernment, and action. This is the same process as justification, sanctification, and glorification in the teaching of most Christian denominations.

The power of this process is why committed Quakers can stay together and discern together and worship together, because of that one Spirit of Jesus. The work of the Holy Spirit is reflected in the Scriptures, since there is no contradiction, and likewise with Quaker testimony with reference to a unique time and space. The witness of Quakers is unity, and Quaker unity does not contradict Scriptures, Quaker traditions, Quaker testimonies, or Quaker actions.

Quakers face great challenges in seeking discernment, because discernment is complicated and carrying out their call is also difficult. This is why group worship, small groups and committees, action groups, etc., are very important, since at their best they help to maintain unity and resolve contradictions. This is also why the Quaker Universalist Fellowship website has a very useful role, as its contributors give voice to and sort through their seeming contradictions.


Image Source

“Pentecost,” by Miranda Hassett.