We Quakers like to talk about “that of God in the other person,” a phrase from George Fox whose use among Friends became broadened beyond its original context largely through the influential writings of Rufus M. Jones (1863-1948), so that today one hears Friends speak as though “that of God” were part of the mortal individual, and “answering that of God” in that individual were something that another mortal individual could do as a sort of pious courtesy, like bowing and saying “Namaste.” North American Friend Lewis Benson (1906–1986) worked tirelessly to expose this misconception, but it persists nonetheless.
This may be largely because we don’t want to have that of God answered in us. It will upset us. It will penetrate our defenses and touch parts of ourselves that we’ve locked into a closet to silence their screaming: places of terror, rage, deep shame, overwhelming grief. These parts of ourselves frighten us, so we’ve set up standards of politeness and other cultural patterns to protect ourselves, and one another, from having to face them, although the brainwasher, the waterboarder and the deprogrammer may find ways to pick the lock anyway. Fortunately, there is One who loves us who also knows how to pick the lock: God. And God’s touch heals whatever it exposes. But we may not know that until it’s happened to us. (That’s why repentant slave-trader John Newton called it “Amazing Grace:” it is amazing.)
This might explain why there are so many low-voltage Quaker meetings where the hour of worship is filled with messages that don’t come from the Holy Spirit, but from the interesting thoughts of the mortal individual, and the hearers, predictably, aren’t deeply affected. A psychotherapist might call this phenomenon “collective resistance;” an engineer might call it a homeostasis mechanism.
To “answer that of God in another person” is to speak to that of God in them, in words or meanings that That-of-God-in-them wants conveyed to them. Got that? Let’s say you’re an unhealed mentally ill person, an unrecovered addict, a troubled conscience, some sort of broken person who’s patched yourself together with duct tape in order to keep going on with life, but you’re really not OK. There is that of God in you, but you’ve silenced It, duct-taped your inner ear closed. But God still wants to save and heal you. So God, who can do everything, raises up a prophet to speak to you – to speak God’s words to you from outside, since you resist hearing them from the inside.
The “prophet” may have no idea that he or she is functioning as God’s prophet. The words that smite your conscience may have been written weeks ago by a journalist, or centuries ago by a dramatist. They may be said to you through sobs by your partner or child, or icily by the boss who’s firing you. God, who created everybody, can use anybody. But the words hit home. Which is to say, they answer that of God in you.
But “answering that of God” in another person is not something we can do in our own will. We like to hope we can, by praying hard enough, or lobbying the other person sweetly enough, or threateningly enough, or with enough allies on our side, or persistently enough. My mom desperately wished she could get my dad to stop drinking. But she had to die before he hit bottom and, by the amazing grace of his Higher Power, sobered up. This is why I resist saying “we Quakers answer that of God in other people” like “we speak truth to power” or “we live in that power that takes away the occasion for all wars.” It’s wishful thinking. We answer that of God in other people if and when God wills. When it does happen, it’s really more truthful to say that God answered that of God in the other person, and then to give thanks for the miracle that God worked.