The Light Within: Then And Now - Review

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The Light Within: Then And Now
by Rex Ambler
reviewed by Jay Thatcher

Rex Ambler is a British theologian, teacher, and writer. In several previous small volumes, he has made major contributions to Friends’ theology (for example, The End of Words) and spirituality (Light To Live By). The Light Within: Then and Now (Pendle Hill Pamphlet 425, 2013) extends that precedent.

“The Inner Light” describes the fundamental experience of Friends. In John Nickalls’s edition of George Fox’s Journal, the word “Light” appears 124 times; the phrase “That of God” occurs five. Ambler sets out to clarify our understanding of the meanings of “Light” as it used by early Friends. He begins by describing the context in which this term was used in Friends’ first few decades. The mid-1600s began as a period of radicality and persecution for Quakers, and then moved into a period of greater conventionality. Ambler points out a “negative effect” of Robert Barclay’s Apology (1676): “It established the idea that Quakerism was not only compatible with reason and the Bible, which had been Barclay’s intention, but also that it was based upon them.” This move towards Christian orthodoxy stands in contrast to Fox’s original radical message, “telling people that they had the light of God within them and that, if they could open themselves to it, it would show them all they needed to know. On the questions that most deeply concerned them in life, nothing else was essentially required.”

Ambler describes the earliest Friends’ experience of the Light with three sentences:

  • “The Light was a capacity for awareness in every human being.
  • “The Light was revealed first as self-awareness.
  • “The Light revealed the source of life and unity.”

An experience of the Light is not one of intellectual or personal capacity. Early Friends saw that “reason and conscience are not adequate to the task of enabling us really to see ourselves.” Fox’s pivotal opening of the Light came just as he gave up hope of finding Truth in the world’s knowledge and the preachers who professed it. Ambler’s understanding is that the Light is what allowed Friends to get beyond the self-righteous ego to a clearer self-awareness. “When they let go of the self, and all the ideas and people and objects they had clung to in support of the self, early Friends discerned a deeper reality within, which felt like their real selves. . . It was objective and clear, but also – as they accepted what was shown them of their failures and weaknesses – it was accepting and compassionate.”

The Light also called Friends into unity – with each other and with other people. Ambler recounts that much of the lives of early Friends “were devoted to exposing the pretense, pulling down the barriers, and helping people to recognize their essential oneness.”

The pamphlet concludes with a reflection on the meaning of the Light within modern society. Ambler acknowledges changes in language and thought since the seventeenth century, especially concerning science and psychology. He explains that early Friends’ experiences of the Light can help us make sense of the practices we’ve inherited from them, and point the way to a deeper practice and a deeper understanding of our real message to the world. Ambler makes these points in terms that conform to the expectations of contemporary liberal Friends, which might help non-theistic and doubting Friends to head in some of the directions Ambler points.

Ambler challenges Friends with the implications of going in that direction: “We would have to sit lightly by our treasured beliefs and values and put them to the test in experience. That would not be easy for us liberal Quakers, since we have generally accepted the idea that all of us have the right to develop our own beliefs, and that we can do this by thinking them through.” Whatever experiences of the Light we have had, The Light Within encourages us to follow it outside of our egos and individual thoughts, and into a deeper and more active faith. ~~~

Jay Thatcher is a member of Corvallis Friends Meeting (NPYM). Over the years, he has also participated in Eugene, Marin, and Santa Fe Meetings.  On odd occasions, he blogs at: Flexible Forms.