New light on the Inner Light: an assessment of how Rufus Jones attempted to synthesize Quakerism and modern thought in Social Law in the Spiritual World
Concerned by the threat that psychology seemed to pose to Christian belief, Rufus Jones wrote Social Law in the Spiritual World in 1904 to show how this new science would actually lead to a deeper understanding of God. In particular, Jones, an American Quaker, discussed the relationship between humans and God in terms of the Quaker concept of the Inner Light. He argued that the traditional dualistic formulation, which saw the Inner Light as distinct from human nature, was psychologically flawed and that instead it should be understood as describing an inherent relationship between God and humans. Jones returned to the ideas in Social Law throughout his life, invariably generating controversy. Liberal Quakers endorsed his use of psychology, and his novel formulation of the Inner Light became axiomatic. Many Evangelical Quakers, however, worried that he was promoting humanism and marginalizing the need for Christ. He has thus been feted for revitalizing Quakerism on the one hand while being accused of making this Quakerism Christless on the other. In spite of his enduring legacy, however, his key ideas have received little critical attention. This thesis identifies the multiple strands of thought that are apparent in Social Law, assesses Jones’ attempts to synthesize them, and explains why his ideas have met with such varied reactions. I conclude that Jones’ new formulation of the Inner Light draws on the idealism of Josiah Royce, the psychology of William James and the social imperative of the Social Gospel movement. Furthermore, I propose five reasons why Jones’ synthesis provoked criticism. First, although Jones self-identified as a Christian, his theism draws on the ‘Absolute’ of Royce and the ‘more’ of James so is actually multivalent. Second, he used psychology to argue that humans and God were related through the subconscious, a strategy that carried with it an implicit universalism. Third, Jones had an experiential approach to Christian doctrine, which meant that his formulation of the Inner Light explained his own experience of God, but not that of someone who had no sense of God’s presence. Fourth, his deliberate avoidance of theological concepts meant that he did not have the theological tools to address the points at which he diverged from traditional Christian doctrine, for example concerning how the Creator and creation could be distinct. Finally, his informal prose meant that he was particularly vulnerable to being quoted out of context and therefore of being misinterpreted. My thesis starts with Jones’ accounts of his childhood experiences of God and a brief overview of the relevant aspects of the thought of James and Royce. I then analyse how he wove this thought together with Christian ideas about God, Christ and human nature, and with Quaker ideas about the Inner Light and mysticism. Finally, I assess the wide range of reactions to his ideas that are apparent both in unpublished archival letters and in the secondary literature. It is hoped that this critical evaluation of an important Quaker thinker, who is little known outside Quakerism, will be of use both to those interested in the historical interaction between Christianity and psychology and to those seeking to understand the origins of today’s ‘post-Christian’ Quakerism.