A is for ‘Answering that of God in everyone’

This is listed first in the index of well-loved phrases in ‘Quaker Faith and Practice’; not only because it starts with ‘A’, but rightly so as it is one of the things Quakers – at least in my experience – most often say when asked about what Quakerism is about.
Indeed, in my time working for a Quaker organisation for 10 years, I had occasion to interview many dozens of young people for paid internships; the question: what about Quakerism is important to you was part of every single one of these interviews. And most of the candidates, whether practising Quakers or not, listed this as one of the most important aspects of Quakerism for them.
But what do we actually mean by this phrase?
First, of course, it is important to note that where there are 4 Quakers there will be 5 answers to this question (you can multiply this up to any number you choose); and many will answer the question with further questions: what to you mean by God? What to you mean by ‘answering’? What, in fact, do you mean by everyone?
And so it is incredibly easy to spend the few minutes you have in conversation with someone who is mildly interested in Quakers and Quakerism (or in being Quaker) in recitation of rhetorical questions and saying what Quakers aren’t, rather than actually getting somewhere in terms of answering any of them.
Now why is that so? My own perception is that because Quakers worship in a manner that is based on silence, it’s easy not to address these questions collectively and therefore it becomes more difficult to do so; because by saying what we actually think/believe in this context is risky; it’s putting your head above the parapet.
I have just written 6 paragraphs and nearly 300 words demonstrating this general failing. And of course, that is the only reason I have done so: to show what happens.
There is, thus, no further hiding from the question.
Let’s start by what I mean by God; there are some Quakers who have a concept of God, which in my perception is quite traditional and rests in the Bible; it is a personal God with whom (not the personal pronoun) one can engage in a sort of conversation (prayer?). There is the expectation of an answer. And there are some Quakers who would describe themselves as non-theist. Having looked at the website of non-theist Quakers I can’t find any good definition of the term.
I stand somewhere between these two poles, though given the fact that it’s quite difficult to ascertain where these two poles are, it’s quite difficult to be sure where ‘somewhere between them’ might be. I do believe there is something beyond humans in the universe/world that connects us (and other parts of the living world) in some way. I believe this is a force for good rather than evil. And I believe that each of us is able to connect to this in some way if we are prepared to pay attention to it.
So to me, ‘that of God in everyone’ is the capacity of everyone to connect to this something. I am quite sure that this cannot be boxed into an idea of a ‘being’ with superhuman (or more generally, very human) qualities and characteristics.
I also believe that paying attention to this and trying to see it manifested in other people is what is meant by ‘answering to’ in the quote above. It is about seeing the best in people; about encouraging the best in them, and about ensuring (insofar as is possible given the world we live in) that there is peace and justice. Only when there is peace and justice will it be possible for everyone to be attentive to this something rather than paying attention on how to get their own back or how to make more money than the next guy or how to simply survive.
This may not be an elegant definition of what I understand this phrase to mean; it may also not be an approximation of what George Fox (who is credited with coming up with the phrase) meant by it. But we are, of course, fortunate in also believing in continuing revelation; that means we don’t have to be bound by what either the Bible or George Fox says as the last word. But that’s for another post; I can’t decide whether that will come under ‘c’ or ‘r’.

5 thoughts on “A is for ‘Answering that of God in everyone’

  1. electronicbaglady

    I love that like me, you struggle with defining all these terms – we can be so woolly and then wonder why people look confused 🙂
    I think I may be somewhere in the vicinity of your position,between whatever other points there may (or may not) be! Look at me being so incisive and unequivocal!

  2. Ken Smith

    What martina has put is not Historically correct.It isnt “Answering that of God” its “answering that of God”. The reason is that when George wrote it was contained in a long sentence which also started with an “A”Quakers have for a long time lifted the phrase out of its original context which is wrong and not helpful.The full sentece as written by George Fox is “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. We can l see that GF is exhorting us to be “patterns” and “examples” and only then will we be answering that of God .
    Friends should remember that British liberal friends are in a minority in World Quakerism. The Vast majority of Quakers in the world are Evangelical Christians.

    1. Chris Skidmore

      Ken is right in that this comes from a much longer piece of writing – a letter from George Fox to Friends from Launceston Gaol in 1656 – but as usual with Fox it is not quite as simple as we would like. First of all the letter was written down from Fox’s dictation as much of his writing was – in this case a London Quaker called Ann Downer was the amanuensis. Second Fox uses the phrase twice: third the version in Quaker faith and practice 19.32 is abridged.
      The sentences that Ken gives are:
      “This is the word of the Lord God to you all, 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; whereby in them ye may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you: then to the Lord God you shall be a sweet savour, and a blessing.”
      But earlier, in the first paragraph of the letter he uses it slightly differently:
      “In the power of life and wisdom, and dread of the Lord God of life, and heaven and earth, dwell; that in the wisdom of God over all ye may be preserved, and be a terror to all the adversaries of God, and a dread, answering that of God in them all, spreading the truth abroad, awakening the witness, confounding the deceit, gathering up out of transgression into the life, the covenant of light and peace with God. Let all nations hear the sound by word or writing. Spare no place, spare no tongue, nor pen; but be obedient to the Lord God:”
      In the more well known passage is about how to spread the Quaker ‘good news’ which is by living the life. By doing this you can be a blessing to those you are speaking to and to God. However the earlier passage is more about standing in the power of God and answering that of God in others and exposing the dark in them.
      I was grateful for Martina’s reflections as understanding what we mean by these passages is really important for us. We can all agree that they need to be more than a talisman!

  3. Pingback: 2 Links to other Quaker Alphabet 2013 Blogs | Bill Chadkirk BSc BA

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