This essay was originally published in Universalist Friends, Spring 1997, v.26, p.10, and was republished in Universalism and Religions: Quaker Universalist Reader Number 2, 2007, pp.75-77.
The core belief of Quakerism as preached by George Fox is that God is not found in scriptures or sermons or churches but in the silence of the individual human heart. The divine Spirit exists in all of us, and if we look inward with enough earnestness and humility and persistence It will find us.
This belief places Quakers squarely in the mystical tradition that is common to all of the world’s religions, and this “perennial philosophy”—as Aldous Huxley called it—is, in my definition, universalism. Quite simply, there can be nothing more universal than the individual. If this seems paradoxical, then I would answer that all spiritual truth rests on paradox.
So, if in the end Quakerism is universal, isn’t the term Quaker universalism a redundancy? I would answer yes. Its meaning and usage have come from the fact that over the generations there have been many who would deny Quakerism its essential universality. Because it originated within the Christian tradition and within a society where biblical language and images were the common (and the only allowed) currency of religious discussion, Evangelical and some so-called “Christocentric” Friends would confine the ineffable, inexpressibly real experience of that which is outside the bounds of both time and space within the fence of Christian doctrine and metaphor.
If the direct experience of the divine is fundamental to Quakerism, then is not that manifestation just as well called the “Buddha nature” as the “Living Christ” or the “Inner Light”? That which distinguishes different religions is their language, their cultural setting, their structure, symbols, rituals, and history. All of these things are powerful, and they have helped humankind in various degrees and ways to reach toward that ultimate personal experience of the divine—to awaken people, that is, to their own true nature and the sacredness of all created things. Only if these religious and cultural distinctions impede our understanding is there a need to discard them. (In my own case, for example, the personalization of the All as a deity with male or female attributes is such a barrier.)
Personally, I wish we could find another term than “Quaker universalism” and stop defending our right to exist within the Society of Friends. We are Quakerism. The question of whether Quakerism is to be walled within the historical boundaries of the Christian tradition will be decided in the end by the vitality and true spirituality of those on both sides—that is to say, it will be decide by the Spirit itself.
Therefore, let’s turn instead to the desperate needs of our suffering planet and our own floundering, terrified species, seeking guidance toward God in fellowship, in compassion for all life, and in whatever inner practices we feel drawn to.