On Temptation

Author(s): 
Department: 

Dear Friends: “We come now to examine the state and condition of man as he stands in the fall: what his capacity and power [are] and how far he is able, as of himself, to advance in relation to the things of God.” (Robert Barclay, 1678). In an era when God is Dead, when the percentage of Americans with no religious affiliation continues to rise (currently approaching 20%), Quakers continue to assert along with Barclay that “. . . whatsoever real good any man doth, it proceedeth not from his nature as he is man or the son of Adam, but from the seed of God in him, as a new visitation of life, in order to bring him out of this natural condition: so that it be in him, yet it is not of him . . .”

While many Friends are reluctant to embrace concepts like “God,” they generally value the strength they can draw from a faith community that assumes that it does matter what “real good any man doth” seek to do. When Nietzsche rejected Christianity as an absolute standard of moral values, he did not stop there; he continued to seek a deeper foundation for human morality. “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, . . . who will wipe this blood off us?” (1882) According to Nietzche, Christianity deceives us with its temptation to reject this life we live on earth, full of pain and dissatisfaction, in exchange for other-worldly promises. Nietzche’s goal was for humanity to find meaning directly in this life on earth, to draw transcendence directly from the facts of our existence. Moral nihilism was not Nietzche’s goal; nihilism was the danger he feared for humanity.

Edmund Burke is reported to have said in 1770, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Yet it is so tempting to do nothing. Just this past century, the onslaught of social evil has been overwhelming: the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the extinction of countless species, the chronic spread of economic disparity, run-away climate change, intractable racism. No wonder 51% of adults living in the U.S. drink alcohol regularly and 15% are problem drinkers. The temptation is strong to just make the world go away.

So that we can do something, rather than nothing, we seek first to nurture the seed of goodness that has been planted “in us” but “not of us.” This seed expresses itself through a set of principles that slowly grow to fill our lives if we let them. “Simplicity, sincerity, and truthfulness in conduct and speech are stamped upon the type of character these principles have produced. I am a Friend because my Christian life has been nurtured in these principles, and I love their fruits. They enlist my loyalty, because in them it seems to me, the problems of our time may find their solution . . .They unite us to a fellowship with all the good in every religion and every race of mankind.” (Joel Bean, 1894)

The essential nature of this seed is beyond our knowing. But we feel the real life of it moving through our cycles of time here on earth: “A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;” (Ecclesiastes 3). We wait together in silent worship to learn what we might do (not nothing) “to advance in relation to the things of God.”