In this Video Jerry L. Martin, author of God: An Autobiography, as told to a Philosopher, asks “God, are You listening?”.
Abigail had been going through what John Bunyan called the Slough of Despond, beset by forces beyond her and our control, and of course I have been going through it with her. We needed a mini-vacation and Abigail had heard about a good movie at the local theatre. At leaving time, we gathered at the front door, there to find a sprightly Christmas card bearing a gift – a movie pass for this very theatre – left by my wonderful assistant, Laura Buck.
The movie, “Green Book,” is worth a dozen gift cards. It tells the story of a “Negro” concert pianist who is about to perform at a number of locations in the 1950s South. No fool, he gets, not just a driver, but a street-smart guy from the Bronx, a bouncer for the Copa Cabana nightclub. It is a superb contrast – the urbane, cultured pianist and the rough Italian, which makes for sharp comedy. But, in spite of the many laughs, this is not a comedy. At one point, the tough guy is shocked that the pianist does not know the music of Little Richard or Aretha Franklin. “I’m blacker than you are,” he says. Later, the pianist, who turns out to be gay, laments, “I am not white enough, I am not black enough, I am not man enough. Who am I?” The white guy, on the other hand, who talks crudely, eats crudely, drives crudely, does everthing crudely, is completely comfortable with his identity. When he says, “If they don’t like the way I talk, screw them,” he expresses his whole philosophy of life. It is a movie of the abrasive edges of life and the almost-too-smooth compensations of culture, where sometimes toughness is called for and sometimes rising above it in high dignity wins the day, it is a story overall of despair and redemption.
Abigail and I had dinner afterwards and talked about the movie. We also discussed her Slough of Despond with a little more perspective than before. It was the perfect mini-vacation.
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It is not only we who suffer. I sensed that God does too.
“Can You tell me about Your pain, Lord?”
It was as if I heard a deep moan of anguish, loneliness, despair, misery, hopelessness.
“Are those things you feel, Lord?”
“Are they caused by humankind?”
“Is it difficult to love us if we cause you such pain?”
No, not for Me. Even when human beings most disappoint, they are infinitely love-worthy.
Step through the door love has opened? The woman I loved was both very spiritual and very Jewish. Does it mean that I should convert to Judaism—something I had zero interest in doing? I asked, warily, “Lord, should I become Jewish?”
You already are Jewish.
Already Jewish? I am not at all Jewish. The little Texas town where I was born didn’t have any Jews.
“Lord, what do You mean?”
Think about it.
Even more warily, I asked, “Does it mean I have to be circumcised?”
“Does it mean that my religious orientation is more Jewish than Christian or any other faith?” Certainly the God who spoke to me seemed a lot like the God of the Old Testament.
“Does it mean that I understand, using a phrase of Abigail’s, the Jewish essence?”
It means you are open to the Jewish spirit. It lives in you, and you sometimes listen to it. It is a source of great guidance, inspiration to you. The center of your being is grounded in it. It pleases me greatly that you honor the Hebrew scriptures. They are My word—and they contain the record of many of My dealings with men (people). Continue to study the Torah.
The Torah, the first five books of the Bible, is also called the Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses.
It will guide you to righteousness. Do not falter or be deterred or distracted. My word is with you. Make the most of it.
“I will try, Lord.”
I had read Martin Buber’s I and Thou when I was a college freshman and had not looked at it since then. But, when I fell in love and realized that she loved me back, the opening words of Part Three came back to me: “The extended lines of relations meet in the Eternal Thou.” Love between human beings has a trajectory toward the divine.
That recollection rekindled my interest in Buber. Returning from New York, where Abigail still taught, I started reading Maurice Friedman’s highly-praised biography. Buber’s philosophical awakening occurred during adolescence, prompted by “the fourteen-year-old’s terror before the infinity of the universe.” Buber wrote, “A necessity I could not understand swept over me: I had to try again and again to imagine the edge of space, or its edgelessness, time with a beginning and an end or a time without beginning or end, and both were equally impossible, equally hopeless … Under an irresistible compulsion I reeled from one to the other, at times so closely threatened with the danger of madness that I seriously thought of avoiding it by suicide.”
I stopped reading for a moment and, as the train rumbled on, I pondered the “edge of infinity.” I was taken over by a powerful image, visual and visceral. I felt and saw space at its edges, rushing, expanding outward, unfurling itself with vast force and at almost instantaneous speed, without stop, neither a completed infinity nor merely finite. The vision had a tremendous feeling of life-force, of Being unfurled, bursting forth at reckless speed.
Buber was saved from the brink of suicide by reading Immanuel Kant. Unsolvable questions arise, Kant argues, from trying to reason about space and time as if they were characteristics of reality in itself. They are really just forms of our experience, he says, or, as a Kantian might put it today, features of our scientific paradigms or theoretical frames. This reassuring view gave Buber “philosophical peace.”
There now came to Buber “an intuition of eternity,” not as endless time, but as “Being as such.” I moved deeply into myself to get some sense of what this might mean. I felt a great rushing, gushing, like a geyser, welling up inside me and rising up through all tiers of reality, an energy or life-force, creative and growing, but more basic and undifferentiated than these terms suggest, as if it were the very Being of these forces, running through the whole of reality. It rushed, expanded, created, grew not just outwardly but in a vertical dimension as well, from the primordial base up to the creative spiritual edge. It was, in some sense, erotic energy from bottom to top, with no level, not even the most elemental, ever eclipsed. The vision ended. I slumped back, breathing hard.
I wondered what it could mean for Being as such to be a Person, a Thou, as surely, from my own experience, God is. Then it struck me that this rushing Stuff, this force of Being, is also the being of me. And I am a person. So why shouldn’t the rushing Stuff, the Being of—of what?—the World, of Being itself, be a Person writ large? I don’t mean the World merely in a physical sense, since my own being is not merely that of my body. Similarly, the Being that animates everything could be a Person.
Looking out the window at the passing trees, it struck me that their very leaves are full of Being as such, the Being that is also a Person, and that it made sense for them to be a Thou for me. And, more remarkably, for me to be a Thou for them. I felt that Being facing Being, not necessarily speaking but simply facing, is what personhood is.
I slumped back again and put the book aside. Later, I read on for several pages. I was struck by how many thoughts that I had received had also occurred to Buber. He entered a Nietzschean phase with an emphasis on “dynamism” and “a creative flow of life force.” Later Buber thought eternity “sends forth time out of itself” and “sets us in that relationship to it that we call existence.” To achieve wholeness as a person, he said, it is necessary to direct the creative force of the Evil Urge, the erotic energy that I had felt to be at the center of Being itself.
I reached Washington and returned to my apartment in Alexandria, then resumed reading. I had left off with Buber speaking of the quality of “fervor with direction, all the awesome power of the ‘evil urge’ taken up into the service of God, [seventeenth-century visionary theologian Jakob] Boehme’s ‘ternary of fire’ [symbolizing desire] spiraling upward into the ‘ternary of light’ [symbolizing love] without losing any of its power thereby.” This was “one of the truly decisive moments in Buber’s life”: “overpowered in an instant, I experienced the Hasidic soul,” he writes. “At the same time I became aware of the summons to proclaim it to the world.” I knew how he felt.
It all seemed intolerably bizarre. I thought I should talk it over with the wisest people I knew. One, a distinguished medical ethicist, responded, “First of all, this is not weird.” Nothing he could have said would have been a greater relief to me! Another, a well-known author, said, first, “That’s great—now you know there is a God,” and then added, “You have had a Kierkegaard moment,” recalling that philosopher’s question, “If you encountered Jesus on the streets of Copenhagen, would you follow him?” A prominent lay theologian said he was “touched” by my story and suggested some reading while I waited for my “big” assignment.
While there were also cautionary responses, no one seemed to think I was crazy or a fool to take the voice seriously.
Still, I was not prepared for the next experience.
I want you to enter My heart.
“Enter God’s heart? This is weird, Lord, and scary, like out-of-body travel.”
I will protect you.
For moral support I asked, “Lord, first give me Your love.”
Let Abigail love you. You will feel My love through her.
“Then strengthen me, be with me, for this.”
He took my hand, as it were, and led me into the “heart of God.” I had expected it to be an overpowering, perhaps terrifying experience. But it was more like the eye of a hurricane. I was at the center of something vast and powerful, but here it was quiet, calm, and peaceful. I surveyed the things I feared—the end of my career, loss of reputation, financial insecurity, and a book that went nowhere. In that calm that is God, each concern disappeared.
I had been told that God comes different ways to different cultures.
“So any single conception of God will grasp only one of Your aspects?”
Yes, you see the problem. My nature is quite variegated. People see one aspect and not another.
“Lord, are there multiple levels of Being or something along those lines?”
Yes, but don’t interrupt. The story is much more complex. God is not mind or matter, or even mind and matter. God is, in some sense, all. And all is very multiplex indeed. Even physics has not been able to produce a universe of “atoms in the void.” There are forces, elements, patterns – you need to know more to go on – that go beyond them. Then add the kind of stuff the morphic fields’ guy talks about …
Rupert Sheldrake, author of Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, performs scientifically controlled experiments to test different explanations of the uncanny ability of some animals to know what is happening far away. He found, for example, that even if the owner came home at randomized times, the dog was always waiting expectantly about a half hour in advance. He found that the dog responded as soon as the owner formed the intention to return home.
Sheldrake compares the results of these experiments to studies of how birds and other animals can find their way home. Since standard explanations fail, he advances the idea that these communications travel by way of morphic fields, using an analogy with gravitational and magnetic fields to explain the “action at a distance” that is a feature of these situations.
… and those who talk about organized information and the like – primitive though they may be – and you begin to get an inkling.
I found that organized information and complexity are increasingly important concepts, particularly in biology, but also in cosmology and the social sciences. Traditional science is reductionist, always trying to explain the whole from the action of the parts. It is also deterministic, seeing one state of affairs as fully predictable from the previous state. It was widely assumed that this model, which has been particularly successful in chemistry and mechanics, could be used to explain all natural phenomena.
The new theories of organization, information, and complexity challenge this assumption. The whole—whether a cell, an organism, an ecology, or a universe—has some qualities that the parts do not have and cannot explain. New phenomena, such as life and consciousness, are emergent properties that cannot be understood in terms of inorganic elements. In some cases, such as why the organs of the body have the size and location that they have, the whole can explain the parts better than the other way around. The self-organization of complex systems, their creative responses to their environment, and their emergent qualities are neither fully predictable nor fully explainable by their constituent elements or prior states. I had been told that God is all, and that all is very multiplex indeed. These concepts could provide the basis for understanding this multiplexity.
“Lord, are You infinite?”
I am boundless.
“Are You omniscient?”
I know everything that is important.
“Are You omnipotent?”
I can do everything I want (care) to do.
God had just contradicted every key attribute in the traditional definition of God. He is not exactly infinite, not exactly omniscient, and not exactly omnipotent. All this was so new, I just didn’t know what to think, but I was beginning to sense that one reason God spoke to me was to clear up some misunderstandings.