Isaac Penington was an early Friend who wrote this in defense of Quaker faith: "That charge of thine on us, that we deny the person of Christ, and make him nothing but a light or notion, a principle in the heart of man, is very unjust and untrue; for we own that appearance of him in his body of flesh, his sufferings and death, and his sitting at the Father's right hand in glory: but then we affirm, that there is no true knowledge of him, or union with him, but in the seed or principle of his life in the heart, and that therein he appears, subdues sin, and reigns over it, in those that understand and submit to the teaching and government of his Spirit."
This statement offers a good starting place for any discussion of Quaker spirituality. It nicely illustrates a distinction Friends have made between the outward forms of religion (e.g. creeds, rituals, traditions) and the inward work of God's Spirit.
When Quakers discuss the topic of spirituality, we often begin with this observation: a person can say all the right words, maintain all the proper traditions and still lack any spiritual depth. Jesus and Paul offer similar observations (see, for example, John 5:39,40 and Philippians 3:4-8).
What we do on the outside of our lives can leave our hearts untouched. If we speak and act for the sake of religious conformity, we might find the praise of others, but we are unlikely to find deep intimacy with God.
Vital spirituality comes from within, beneath the skin of religious language and tradition. Quaker spirituality emphasizes an inward dialogue with God.
Please understand, Quakers don't distinguish between "inward" and "outward" in order to reject what is outward. As Friend Isaac makes clear, we do value the historic teachings about Jesus. We value our own traditions of simplicity, quiet worship and peacemaking. It would be shortsighted of us to reject the outward of expression of faith. To paraphrase James, "Faith without outward expression is dead" (James 2:17).
In fact, Quakers aspire to have every detail of our lives reflect the work of Christ in our hearts. We Quakers can see spiritual significance in seemingly mundane outward matters -- like whether or not we eat sugar or in the amount of water it takes to flush our toilets. Opposed to slavery, some Friends refused to eat sugar or wear cotton (the products of slave labor). Friends today might order their lives to reflect a passion for Creation or for peace.
We want all of our behavior to flow from the work of Christ in our hearts. Clearly, we are not the sort of people who dismiss the outward expressions of our faith! We can't simply equate inward with "good" or outward with "meaningless." The distinction we hope to make is more subtle than that!
When Quakers distinguish between outward and inward matters of faith, it is to clarify the source of our spiritual development: the wellspring of our faith is within. For it is within the deep places in our hearts that the Spirit of God lays open our lives, transforms us and sends us back into the world to live in a different way.
The process must begin within.
Trying to look spiritual is like airbrushing raw meat to make it appear cooked. It's a bouquet of plastic flowers. It's a whiff of perfume in a latrine. Trying to look spiritual is a sham.
In fact, the pressure to look spiritual can actually stifle authentic spiritual growth. If the emphasis is on religious conformity, people may learn that pretending is more important than truly opening themselves where they are. In other words, if people learn to feel most comfortable behind their masks, they may refuse to take them off -- even in the presence of God's own Spirit.
As a final note on Quaker spirituality, I'd like to point out the importance of other people in listening for God's guidance. The voice of God within my deepest heart is also speaking to your heart and to the hearts of those around us. This means that we can listen to God together.
Listening together means that we don't have to face the spiritual journey as isolated individuals. We can (and must!) offer one another clarity and caution from the source that guides us all.
Quaker spirituality is a process. It arises from the presence of Christ within. It proceeds with the added clarity of a community. And it leads to outward expression in all aspects of our life.
Here are some questions to consider:
1. Which is easier for you: listening for the voice of Christ within or giving outward expression to your faith? Why might one aspect of faith be easier than another?
2. How does the gathered community help you hear and follow God?
3. Does the absence of a required outward practice make it less likely that you will follow any outward practice?