Conservative Friend

An Outreach of Stillwater Monthly Meeting of Ohio Yearly Meeting of Friends

Reason and Conscience

Edward Grubb was a British Friend whose life spanned the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  He published a book in 1917 entitled, "What is Quakerism?" (Headley Bros., London, 244 pp) that has been largely forgotten.  Although it is true that the Religious Society of Friends has published many books and pamphlets on that topic, some of the insights that Grubb shared are still fresh and relevant today.  Even if we might not agree with all of Grubb's opinions, his thoughtful views of the Society of Friends are still useful and should make us all think about what we are today, compared to first, what we were, and second, what they hoped at that time we would become now.  The following passage is from his book.

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A few words seem to be needed here as to the relation of the “Inward Light” to human Reason and Conscience.  It is well to recognize that the word “Reason,” like many more, is used in different senses.  Sometimes it means the power in man by which he recognizes anything as true, whether in the domain of fact or in that of beauty or worth; and in this sense it may be regarded as one of the operations of the Inward Light.  For we have come to understand something that was hardly appreciated by most of the early Friends: that every true and worthy thought is a repetition of the Divine thought, that it is not man’s only but God’s: so that right Reason within us is the working of His Spirit and not merely our own.  But in another sense the word Reason stands for the purely intellectual process of reasoning--as when we infer that the tides are caused by the attraction of the moon, or that the angles of every triangle are equal to two right angles.  And this intellectual process, while it certainly, when rightly conducted, gives us truth in relation to the outward world, can never yield up to us the highest and most important truth of all.  It brings us no sense of beauty or final worth, no insight into goodness, no conviction of personal character, no inward revelation of God.  As Bergson has powerfully shown, it stands in contrast with the “intuition” whereby we may gain some first-hand acquaintance with the inner reality of the universe.  This distinction should be borne in mind when we read in Quaker writings that the Light of God within us must not be confused with human reason, or that it is not “natural” to man as man.

So again with regard to Conscience.  That is another word that has various meanings.  Sometimes it stands for the perception of the difference between right and wrong, and the conviction that it is always our duty to follow the right and avoid the wrong, wherever this may lead us.  In this sense it is another operation of the Inward Light.  But it also stands for the belief that some particular kinds of action are right and others wrong: as that we ought not to steal or kill, to hold slaves, to have more than one wife, to do business on Sunday, and so forth.  In this sense it is largely the product of our education and social surroundings; and what is thought right by some people in one country may be thought wrong by others of another race or nation.  The patriarchs in the Old Testament had little if any conscience against polygamy, or holding slaves, or killing their enemies of another nation.  And to make “conscience” in this sense the Voice of God within us is to lay ourselves open to the objection that, if it appears that God tells one set of people to do things that He forbids others to do, it is very doubtful whether He speaks to men at all.

The answer to this objection is to be found by observing the process in history whereby the human conscience has been gradually educated to a truer standard of right and wrong.  Just as there is a true standard of beauty, though a child may prefer brilliant colours and crude forms to a real work of art, so there is a true order of morals, to which the human race is gradually rising.  How did people find out, for example, that slavery is wrong?  Mainly because some one person, like John Woolman, or some few people, rose above the common standard of their day--because the Inward Light convinced them that what was commonly held to be right was not really so.  The only reason why their views prevailed was that, when once it was pointed out, others began to see it too--the Inward Light in them convinced them also that it was wrong to use other people simply as means for their own advantage: that every person, whether black or white, ought to be regarded as an end in himself and not merely as a means.  Thus the Light of God in men educated their conscience in the matter of Slavery; and we believe it will, if they faithfully follow it, do the same in regard to War, and to the manifold evils of our social and industrial conditions.

It is, I hope, quite clear from what has been said above that faith in the Inward Light did not mean that everyone must do that which was right in his own eyes, and that there was no common moral standard.  The Light was the Light of Christ, who was reproducing His own Spirit and way of life in His follwers.  “Fox,” says Herbert G. Wood, “did not stand merely or chiefly for the general principle of the Inner Light; he bore witness to the Inner Light as expressed in clear moral judgements and in a developing moral experience.”