Gnosticism’s Divine Spark and The Inner Light

 

A week ago I started to roll out a mini-experiment with the hopes that others would join in.  While details can be found here, the basic gist of it is that I would love to hear from folks about how it is their scholarship feeds a contemporary living faith. My inspiration in this comes from Diana Butler Bass who suggests that with some work we can find moments in history (and theology I might add) that, upon contemporary reflection, pave the way towards a more hopeful, vital, and hospitable future. 

My big wish is that other folks out in the world of the internet will join me in explicitly commenting on how it is that their scholarship feeds a vital contemporary faith.  That tired "well scholarship is important because without it we wouldn't know what has happened before," line won't cut it.  Why exactly do certain and particular events or thinkers inspire you, or give you hope? In attemping to show a few ways that folks might attempt this, I made a short (and ridiculous) film about Origen and Allegory, I did an audio recording about Maximus the Confessor and Theosis, and now I'm closing out the trio with a good ole' fashioned blog post about the Gnostics and the Divine Spark.  

If you are reading this and are a seminarian or arm chair theologian who hasn't yet considered making their work publicly available, please, please, consider doing so. I think that those of us who are blessed to be able to persue scholarship (formally or not) miss out on a great opportunity to share when we keep our work to ourselves. It doesn't have to be perfect for it to serve as useful to another.  Exhibit A? This page.  We're all just trying to figure things out, and I hope you join the conversation. If you have any questions or comments, say hello in the comments below, or via direct contact with me. And now, without further adieu…. 

 

The Gnostics and the Divine Spark

 

The process by which I decided to wrestle with this topic went a little something like this:

 

Me1: So I want to think about history and what in it might bear some hope for the future.

Me2: Thinking about history, eh?

Me1:Yeah, you have a problem with that?

Me2: No, its just that… well, history is pretty big.

Me1:Good point.

Me2: How about you think about what issues you struggle with in the present and see if anything in the past might shed some light on them.

Me1: That's a great idea, I think I'll use that as my topic!

Me2: Glad I could be of… wait. What? 

Me1: Light.

Me2: …?

Me1: What?

Me2: You are going to search for hope in the history of light?

Me1: Yup.

Me2: Do tell.

Me1: Well, in the Religious Society of Friends we talk a lot about the "Inner Light" and the theology around that seems to be pretty sloppy.

Me2: Ok… and that is historical because…

Me1: Because it seems quite similar to the Gnostic idea of "Divine Spark."

Me2: Wait… how did… where did that come from?

Me1: Not sure actually. Think I read it online somewhere once.

 

As you can see, my thought process was incredibly thorough and well-thought out. 

 

My premise was essentially that since I was having this hang-up around what exactly is meant by the idea of “Inner Light,” it might be of some use to see what thoughts have been had about another group of folks that had the idea of some illuminating mark of God being present within.

So what's at stake here?  Well, the basic issue is that a number of Friends I know (generally tending to be on the Liberal, Universalist, and Progressive end of a spectrum) often make use of the phrase “Inner Light,” as if somehow some portion (or a miniaturized replica) of God resided inside each of us.  That kind of thing sounds something like, “Well, we can each believe whatever we want because we each have access to the Inner Light.” It functions something like a get of jail free card for theological discussion.  Now I'm all for pluralism of a sort, but this kind of argument isn't the way I would want to get there.

I think it is telling that the Early generations of Friends tended to use the phrase “Inward Light,” which suggests that the Light is indeed coming from somewhere, namely, God through Christ in the Holy Spirit. As articulated in the second generation of the Religious Society by the Apologist Robert Barclay:

"By this Seed, Grace and Word of God, and Light wherewith everyone is enlightened, we understand a spiritual, heavenly, and invisible Principle, in which God as Father, Son, and Spirit dwells: a measure of which Divine and glorious life is in all men as a Seed, which of its own nature draws, invites and inclines us to God; and this some call vehiculum Dei, or the spiritual body of Christ, the flesh and blood of Christ, which came down from heaven, of which all the saints do feed, and are thereby nourished unto eternal life."

Apology, Proposition 6.8

 

Ok, so where do the Gnostics fit in, and what is the argument that the Gnostics have anything to do with Friends? Well, the Gnostics had this idea they called the “Divine Spark,” and for obvious reasons relating to the nature of any metaphor about internal lighting, there is some overlap.

While there are certainly good places (like here, here, or here) that folks can read about Gnosticism, for this little foray into Divine Sparkiness, suffice it to say that Gnosticism seems to be a form of dualism wherein the manifested physical aspects of the present world were considered evil and a pure spiritual nature, from which we descended, was desirable (mighty Greek if you ask me).  As Stephan A. Hoeller writes:

“A human being consists of physical and psychic components, which are perishable, as well as a spiritual component, which is a fragment of the divine essence, somethings called the divine spark.” 

Stephan A. Hoeller's Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowingpg. 18

 

Now dualism aside, this idea seems to be in some resonance with the Early Quaker ideas about the Inward Light.  

 

Variously referred to in Quaker Founder George Fox's journal as   “Christ Within,” “Inner Light,” “That of God in every man,” and “The Seed of God,” the belief was that there was some essential aspect of humanity that was directly responsive to the Holy Spirit, without need for mediation by a priestly class.  Each could, by virtue of this “Inward Light,” hear and respond to the Divine.  [Side Note: This all being true, Friends have nonetheless noted for hundreds of years now that discerning God's Will is most fully possible in community, not as individual interpretation.]

Important to this principle is that this Light was accessible to all people.  As Fox wrote:

[The Light is] nigh unto all men and women in the whole world, and in them, if their soul and breath be in his hand. Here you may see the eternal, infinite hand of the incomparable God, in whose hand is ‘the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind' in the whole world; for ‘God breathed into man the breath of life, and he became a living soul.’ God, who is immortal, has the breath of all (and all immortal souls) in his hand, and none can fall out of his eternal hand.

 

Marcus T.C. Gould's The Works of George Fox, Vol. VI pg. 333

 

So like the Gnostics, there is this eternal essence associated with some higher calling.  Seems compatible so far.  Until we learn about who responded to this higher calling and by what means:

[In Gnostic thought,]revelation is possible only because within the Gnostic there somehow pre-exists a disposition, a capacity, a potential fitted for testing and getting to know that particular reality. Only like can, in fact, know like. Only spiritual beings can perceive, receive and understand the spiritual. 

Giovanni Filoramo's A History of Gnosticism. pg. 40

 

Uh oh…  An elitist spirituality in which only certain people can perceive the true nature of this particular reality (knowing of course that a truer reality exists in which the evils of the material world have been abandoned)? Yup.  

"People are generally ignorant of the divine spark, [which] is stirred by the call of the ultimate Divine by way of divine men, or messenger of Light. [These messengers] descend from the highest spiritual realms to call souls back; they come to restore the human spirit to its original consciousness and lead it back to the Divine.” 

 Stephan A. Hoeller's Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowingpg. 18

 

So the metaphysical dualistic split between materiality and spirituality is reflected in practice: some people are “asleep” in the material world and unaware of the Divine Spark within them, requiring other people (sent from the highest spiritual realms) to wake them up.

I entered into this little hunt thinking that I'd find something there that might be of use and, backwardsly, I have: it isn't that in Gnostic thought itself I find some resolution directly, but it does point me towards some clarity on why the same issue bugs me in my own context hundreds of years later.  If there is something residing within all, but not everyone is accessing that which is within them, well, why is that?

I feel like there is a distinct, though perhaps subtle, difference between the positions where: 

A) Everyone possesses their own (to use the Gnostic phrase)  “fragment of the Divine” which can be woken up by special “pneumatic” humans who are “awake” and have access to the special Gnosis knowledge that resides within the fragment/spark.

and

B) We each have been made in God's Image and every one of us, being partly of the breath of God, can discern aspects of God's will, acknowledging that this discernment is  best done in community 

 

Even as I wrote that I realized how fuzzy this stuff can be.  Bottom line? I think the idea that there is special interior knowledge that only some elect humans can access is a dangerous one. Is it my experience that some people are more faithful and seem to live more righteous lives? Yes indeed, but I do not think that is due to some special essential difference between them and other people, rather, it is because of choices made that bring themselves into right relationship with God.  Againg, George Fox:

…the spirit of man [sic], is the candle of the Lord, and the candlestick is every man's [sic] body, mind, soul, and conscience, that with this spirit their candle being lighted, and set up in its candlestick, they may see all that is in the house; and with this light they may see Christ that died for them, and is risen for them: so come by this light, which is life in the word, to be grafted into Christ the word, which was in the beginning, which lives and abides, and endures for ever. 

Marcus T.C. Gould's The Works of George Fox, Vol. V pg. 356

 

Without the presence of some common knowledge that we can all work together to live into, the life of faith becomes secretive and individualistic, or worse, cabalistic. And that pretty much clarifies the issue I think: if our theology is somehow hidden or secret — regardless of whether that is because we believe in special pneumatic humans who have access to special knowledge or because we are afraid to talk to one another about about it for fear of offending or being cast out — well, then the opportunity to grapple with discernment together in community is pretty much shot.  The hope then, I suppose, is that we recognize that without frank, open discussion and connection to one another we miss out on any truly egalitarian exploration of faith.

7 Responses

  1. Thank you, Callid, for this call to theological reflection! I appreciate this post, especially your attempt to tease out the difference between Gnosticism and Quaker Christianity.

    The only point I wasn’t sure about was where you say:

    “Variously referred to in Quaker Founder George Fox’s journal as “Christ Within,” “Inner Light,” “That of God in every man,” and “The Seed of God,” the belief was that there was some essential aspect of humanity that was directly responsive to the Holy Spirit, without need for mediation by a priestly class. Each could, by virtue of this “Inward Light,” hear and respond to the Divine.”

    I may be mis-reading you here, but it sounds like you are identifying “that of God” with some innate part of human beings. I don’t believe this was early Friends’ understanding. Barclay explained that the human conscience is, as you say, “directly responsive to the Holy Spirit.” But the Inward Light (that of God) was ultimately understood of being of divine – not human – origin.

    Once again, I may just be mis-reading you here, but I think it’s important to emphasize that Fox’s discovery was not that each person had the Inward Light as a part of their human nature, but that each person could have an immediate (direct) relationship with God, mediated by nothing more (or less) than the living presence of Jesus Christ.

  2. Dear Callid:
     
    I'm uncomfortable equating Quaker understandings of the 'inner light' with Gnosticism.  I don't really think there is much in common between the two traditions.  Christian Gnosticism was elitist, something the early Quakers argued against.  I mean that Christian Gnosticism was for the initiated few.  See, for example, the opening logoi of the Gospel of Thomas.  Gnosticism was also consistently anti-Jewish; that is why the Gnostic rewrites of the Gospels consistently downplay the Jewish heritage of Jesus.  Sometimes this was explicit, as in Marcion's complete rejection of the Old Testament and his editing out any and all references to the Jewish roots of the teachings of Jesus, leaving a highly truncated New Testament.  But it is a theme which permeates Gnosticism in all its forms.  Finally, I think the Gnostics were anti-female; see the closing logoi of the Gospel of Thomas.
    None of this maps well onto Quaker spirituality or Quaker history.  The Quaker tradition was anti-elitist and averse to esotericism, it was not anti-Jewish, nor was it anti-female.
    My own opinion is that the Quaker understanding of that of God in all people is best comprehended when placed in the contemporary debates about the nature of grace.  Barclay refers to Calvin a number of times, and, if I recall correctly, Arminius as well, though fewer times.  The light within all people, the light of God, is there due to God's grace.  In terms of the contemporary debate among reformation theologians, I think the question is where does the Quaker tradition fit in with such questions as whether or not grace is resistible.  In other words, I think the contemporary debates centered on grace are sufficient to frame why early Quakers spoke the way they did.
    Thanks,
    Jim

  3. I worship with and take part in a liberal group of Quakers.  I have a Christian approach and am much less inclined to identify the best parts of ourselves with anything divine. It's clear to me, though, that Christ's word to us is immanent–very direct and personal. 
    I don't feel much need to discriminate between inward (shining from outside) and inherent (resident in the self) Light, or much of any other intellectual construct about God.  I'd rather worship Him and be taught by Christ than discuss theories about Him.
    The link you found in Gnosticism between an inherent spark and an elitist spirituality alarms me.  I'm eager to avoid elitism. 
    Is that link necessary in logic or experience?  Can I recognize the Light as inherent, but available to all?  Or does the attribution of the Light to individuals imply that only some folks recognize and allow It expression? 
    Yes, it's pretty fuzzy. 

  4.  

    First off, thanks for dropping by! 

    Second off:

    @Jim I too am uncomfortable with that equation, and while I do not hear it spoken aloud as such, I do unfortunately find traces of what I perceive to be its individualism at work. This is not to say at all that this is how it should be, or even that there is any direct historical connection, merely that there are some theological similarities. This book is of interest in this regard. Put another way, sandpaper and shark skin are both scratchy, but that doesn't mean sandpaper comes from sharks. It does mean that they share a quality of scratchy-ness. In the very narrow look I've taken at Gnostic thought, the quality I see in common with our Religious Society of Friends is the metaphor of Divine internal illumination.

    @Jay Without saying as much, I think you point us to remember that traditionally the Light was understood to illuminate that which carried the seeds of war and deceit, burning out those parts. A question I have is whether we are capable of just “being taught by Christ [rather] than discuss theories about Him.” Or, perhaps better, are we discerning God's path as fully as we can if we are not doing it in community? This wouldn't need to be theory per se, but when I think I am being called to something significant, I do want to make sure I am testing that Leading in a worshipping body, not just keeping it between myself and God. I want our experiences to be shared so we all might come to know better how it is that God it working in the world.

    Re: the elitism link, I do not believe that there is any part of the original intention of our Religious Society of Friends that this be an essential component, however there are things to be grappled with in relation to this quesiton. For example, while it might not be “elitism” exactly, the early “hedging” practices of formal Plain Speech, denying hat honor, and a refusal to swear oaths were not just testimonies of faith: they served to mark a distinctive difference between those Friends and others who were still practicing hollow forms of religion. This “heterotopia” (I'm thinking of Gay Pilgrim's term referenced in Pink Dandelion's An Introduction to Quakerism, pages 146-153 in particular) is very much something I think we would refer to as “elitism” today, and I am just not sure how to settle my understanding of it all. Perhaps others have sorted it out better than me.

  5. Callid
    Thanks for setting my comments straight and reminding me that community participation includes discussion and interchange.  The more relevant it is to our experience, instead of some intellectual construct or interpretation of others' writings, the closer it comes to where I want to be. 
     

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