Dear Friends: We exist as finite creatures embraced by Something Infinite. Spiritual teachers throughout the ages have shown how love and joy can shine from these electrified lumps of clay that are our bodies – how love and joy can shine from this substance of darkness and pain. That is the mystery of incarnation. Our task is not to extinguish the impulses of our flesh, but to devote them to that Infinite Something all around us – to love it with all our hearts, all our souls, all our might; and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
This is no small task. Our first impulse is to the contrary. Early Friends spoke of humans as holding “two wisdoms” – “the first wisdom from beneath and the second wisdom from above,” and they spoke of each of us existing as a “first man” into whom is born a “second man.” “The first man is of the earth earthly; minds earthly things, lives in the earth, delights in the earth . . . his treasure is in the earth, and his heart is with it: for it is his portion, and his thoughts, words and wisdom are all employed about it . . . [He] is never satisfied, but is a servant to it; it is his life, his joy; . . . and he worships it.” (James Nayler, 1653) However, for those who attend to the birth of the “second man” within themselves, “as the light grows, there is a discerning of things that differ, to choose the good, and refuse the evil . . . Thou that loves holiness, it is near thee . . . thy salvation that condemns sin in thy bosom; he that reproves the wickedness is with thee; he that is pure is thy peace . . .” (Nayler, 1660)
This “wisdom from above,” which today Friends typically call “the Light,” is a power to see the truth of our reality, to distinguish good from evil. This power is different from the power of imagination. We are an “experimental” religion. We are Friends of Truth. Our Light directs us to continually reexamine the memories and experiences that comprise our sense of reality – to question whether they are demonstrable facts or merely self-serving assumptions. As Children of the Light, we are prevented from resting on our laurels. “Take heed of that nature [in you] that would know more than God is willing to reveal . . . and take heed of that which desires to appear before men to be commended . . .” Take heed to avoid the error of the first man, the earthly man, who “would have all to worship him, because of the abundance of [earthly resources] that he has gotten together . . .” (Nayler, 1653)
That said, the question of how earthly resources are to be gotten together is more than an earthly question. As the Russian Orthodox philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev put it, “The question of bread for myself is a material question, but the question of bread for my neighbor is a spiritual question.” (circa 1900) Throughout the life of our species, as social animals, we have organized ourselves in various ways to answer the question of bread. From tribes to kingdoms to nations to multinational corporations, from families to religions to global consciousness, we either limit ourselves to the first question – How much bread can I secure for myself? – or we strive to answer the second question also – How do I allow all my neighbors to obtain sufficient bread? (And we know that all species are our neighbors.)
Even though Nayler warned against the folly of our “desires to appear before men to be commended,” he also admonished Friends to get out there and love our enemies – to engage in the “Lamb’s War.” For Nayler, a person’s faithfulness to God was tested by this question, “Doth he whom you obey as your leader lead you out to war against the world and all the pride and glory, fashions and customs . . . and whatever is not of God therein; and to give up your lives unto death rather than knowingly to yield your obedience thereto?” I see no shortage of self-serving assumptions within myself and within the fashions and customs of the political economy around me. I strive to commit myself each morning to taking one day’s step toward justice and mercy. And I pray for the manna of grace that might fuel my commitment.