I am working on a new book and have been sending a proposal to academic publishers. Most have not yet responded but a few have responded that it, in the current language of rejection, “doesn’t fit our list.” An editor from one of the most distinguished wrote: “This is a wonderful project, and I enjoyed reading and thinking with your proposal.” Abigail has sometimes received even more striking praise in letters of rejection, one saying, “I hope God doesn’t strike me dead for turning this down.” I have wondered since then if she should have written back, threatening divine retribution, but I suppose calling down infestations and plagues on people has gone out of style
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If God were made-to-order, like something you can buy on the Internet, what kind of God would we pick?
In our modern society, everything is available at our fingertips, so we would probably want a God that makes everything comfortable for us — a convenient God, one who gets us a better job, helps us find a parking place and, when we hurt ourselves, kisses it and makes it better.
A convenient God is a wish-fulfillment God.
That sounds nice, but is that the kind of God we encounter in our lives? Unfortunately, no. While we live in a convenient world, the God who shares our journey is an inconvenient God. We are thrown into rough situations, and our God makes demands on us, such as the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule. And the correct response is an inconvenient prayer: “Thy will,” not my will, “be done.”
Therefore, instead of creating a fantasy vision of what a perfect world would be, suppose we start with the real world and ask, in light of its rocky paths, what kind of God is present here? And what divine purpose is served by throwing us into such a world?
Real life is filled with drama.
It has ups and downs, loves and losses, triumphs and failures, days we rise to our best and times we fall to our worst. Our lives are like obstacle courses or quests where pits must be avoided and dragons slain.
What could possibly be the purpose of such lives? Any good parent knows. Any good coach knows. Readers of quest tales know. We do not grow from luxury. A convenient God would, like an overprotective parent, save us from learning life’s lessons.
The purpose of our lives is not just ease or pure pleasure or wish fulfillment. As I was told in prayer, “The purpose of life is not to sit in the lap of luxury.” Why not? Wouldn’t that be a great life, one a loving God would want to give us?
Well, ask yourself, would you want your child, at a young age, to win a billion-dollar lottery, to be able to buy whatever and whomever the darling desires, to live in a protective bubble that would keep disease and hurt out? Would that even be a life?
I was told, “Immersion in the world — with its causal networks, its guilty resistance — is necessary for growth. One needs a hard reality to work against. Otherwise, nothing would be serious.”
We grow from adversity, from challenges. Sometimes we learn more from failing than from succeeding. My colleague, the economist Kenneth Boulding, used to say, “Nothing succeeds like failure.” It is failure, he would say, that tells us where the edge of the cliff is.
As a drama, life has a meaning, shaped by how we cope with the ups and downs, how we deal with our own mistakes and the cruelties inflicted on us, and yet remain open to love and hope.
When my wife and I got married, we included the 23rd Psalm in the ceremony. While it is usually reserved for funerals, we knew that all of life is a Valley of the Shadow of Death. But throughout it all, God stands with us — whatever we face.
Why is there suffering? I was told in prayer, “Suffering is the law of growth.” We grow only through suffering. Even to love is to suffer.
We talk about a perfect God and expect him to be writing the perfect script, as if everything were programmed from the beginning. My sense is that God doesn’t lay out the story in advance, and have us walk through it like automatons.
We write our own script with God as co-author.
We create our own dramas, with God as partner — when we are paying attention. In prayer, I was told that the world is like an improvisational theater in which God is the director of players who aren’t listening.
A “perfect” world may not even be desirable. Imagine a world without suffering, where no matter what we did, everything turned up roses. It would be a world in which actions had no consequences. It would not be a real world at all, but a hologram world, and we would be hologram people.
Real life is lived in an inconvenient world in partnership with an inconvenient God. It is a tough life in which God is not overprotective, but is always on our side. When we are in harmony with the divine and enjoying life’s bounty, God rejoices. When we are errant or in pain, God suffers.
Maybe the real world — inhabited by the flawed people that we are — is not convenient for God either. God is part of our drama and we are part of God’s. We are in this together.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this piece
that was first published by Tulsa World in 2016.
The historian Paul Johnson writes in his spiritual memoir about having once called the prime minister’s office and, instead of getting the secretary’s secretary, the prime minister herself answered. “It happened to me once with a prime minister,” Johnson writes. “But with God it happens all the time.”
I don’t know if Johnson’s experience is like mine, but from that day on, when I prayed, I almost always received a verbal response, often with quite specific guidance. At first, it just seemed an oddity that went too much against my agnostic worldview to be taken seriously. Once my son had classical music playing in his ear all the time. It turned out to be an ear infection, causing buzzing signals that his brain skillfully translated into Mozart. Maybe my prayers were like that.
I would tell Abigail about these odd experiences. While I always disdained paranormal reports, near death experiences, and the like, she did not. I assumed she put the voice in that category. I didn’t really know because, usually, she just took in what I told her and didn’t say much. She explained to me later that she thought I was engaged in a sensitive communication and did not want to create static.
Then, one day, she did speak up. “Are you going to take the voice seriously, or is this just entertainment?”
She had put her finger on the contradiction I was living. The voice was too real and benign and authoritative to ignore. Yet I could not imagine acting on it. Well, actually I could and did act on it, but without taking it seriously. I would be told to do this or that. Sometimes the guidance was about some matter facing me that day, and following the guidance usually worked out pretty well. Other times I received arbitrary directives which, since harmless, I followed. For example, one morning, Abigail and I had just sat down to breakfast when I was told,
So I just sat there for maybe fifteen or twenty minutes.
You can eat now.
I always did as I was told, but it was still more like a game of Captain-may-I than a life imperative. I was not ready to answer Abigail’s question.
On a visit to Boulder, where I used to teach, I told a former colleague about my experiences. I was afraid he would think, “poor Jerry, he has gone daft.” But he listened with interest, and recommended that I read American philosopher William James’s classic essay, “The Will to Believe.” An influential British scientist had declared, as a principle of the ethics of belief, “It is wrong, always, everywhere, and for every one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” The scientist had religion in his crosshairs.
James responded that there are some beliefs that, if you accept them, will shape your whole life. And shape it in a different way if you do not. You cannot remain neutral; yet evidence is inconclusive either way. You just have to decide which belief you would rather live with.
My situation seemed to be exactly what James was describing. Facing a similar choice between belief and unbelief, the seventeenth-century philosopher Blaise Pascal, had seen it as a wager. If I believe in God and am wrong, well, I’m dead anyway, so I haven’t lost much. But if I don’t believe in God, and there is one … well, you might say, there’s hell to pay.
I faced my own wager. Either I follow the voice or I don’t. If I follow the voice and it is not divine, what is the worst that can happen? Well, I would be a fool, maybe a laughingstock, and would say goodbye to an excellent career. But, if I decide not to follow the voice and it is divine, then I would have missed my purpose in this life. What if Moses had done that? Or George Fox, the founder of the Quakers? The Old Testament is full of people called by God, who at first demur and only reluctantly heed the call. Even Moses worries (“suppose they do not believe me”) and feels inadequate to the task (“I have never been eloquent … I am slow of speech and slow of tongue”).
I am not comparing myself to these great religious leaders, but all of us in our lives face moments when we have to decide whether to respond to a certain call—be it the call of duty or service or simply, as Joseph Campbell puts it, to “follow your bliss”—rather than continue a more conventional or comfortable course. If I had to live with one worst-case scenario or the other, I could live with being a fool, if that’s what it came to, but I could not live with having refused God’s call.
Making a decision to believe is not quite the same as accepting that belief in your bones. It is more like the first step toward believing. My philosophy still had no place for God—especially for a God who talks to me. Outside the Bible, who talks to God?
Another notable book by William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, helped answer this question. The founder of pragmatism, the only distinctively American school of philosophy, James also taught physiology and psychology. He was a man of science but, for him, empiricism did not mean restricting our understanding to what science registers. He looked without prejudice at all kinds of human experience. He talks about famous people such as George Fox as well as ordinary people who have received answers to prayer or psychic intuitions or visitations from recently-departed family members.
Many people have had moments of divine or non-natural awareness, probably more than feel comfortable talking about them publicly. Duke English professor Reynolds Price writes about his own battle with cancer. During the course of his treatment, he had an encounter with Jesus in a vision or, as it seemed to him, in another dimension. After he published his story, he received letters from many people with similar experiences—experiences that they had never told anyone. My experience was not as out-of-line as I had thought.
I decided to follow the voice and see where it would lead me.
God’s autobiography is mainly the story of divine interaction with people and with messages given over time to different cultures. Toward the end of God: An Autobiography, I am told that we stand on the “threshold of a new spiritual era, a new axial age, in which spiritually attuned individuals will draw their understanding of spiritual reality, not just from the scriptures of their own religious tradition, but from the plentitude of My communications with men and women.” Each religion got part of the story. It was now time to put the parts together.
I was told to start a new project, called Theology Without Walls. So I started attending the American Academy of Religion, and in 2014 held the first panel for the new TWW project. I did not mention to my new colleagues what I had been told in prayer. I presented the project on its own merits. The argument for it can be stated in a simple syllogism. If the aim of theology is to know all we can about the divine or ultimate reality, and if insights into that reality are found in more than one religion, then theology needs to take in all the evidence and not be confined to our own tradition. It should be Theology Without Walls. The project attracted considerable interest, including from leading theologians, and the result is a volume of twenty-one essays by outstanding thinkers that has just been published: Theology Without Walls: The Transreligious Imperative (Routledge, 2019). Since I am a philosopher, not a theologian, and since I did not even know any theologians or as a life-long agnostic, much about religion, it seems little short of miraculous that Theology Without Walls has succeeded to so sublime a degree. All I had to do was whatever God told me. That was all.
One day I learned more about God’s story when I asked simply, “Where should I begin today, Lord?”
Ask yourself what I am looking for.
Well, yes, but what is that love?
“Interaction, communication, understanding?”
Yes! I long to be recognized, to be understood, and then to be taken in.
I wondered why a great being like God would need to be loved by mere mortals. “Why does that matter to You, Lord? You’ve got it all, just being God.”
That is silly. This is what I am. I am like a function looking for a variable. I am only half the equation.
I looked for a humbler analogy. “Like cement looking for bricks to hold together?”
“Is that connection only what You need or is it also what the world needs?”
Both, obviously. In your analogy, the world is like the bricks that need to be held together.
“But, Lord, I sense that Your yearning is not just a factual incompleteness, like needing a pair of gloves.”
Yes, it is a deep internal dynamic that drives Me forward to do the things I do. I unfurl the world and call forth life and send signals to people. Listen, and feel.
“The feeling that comes to me is Your desire to call into being a corresponding being. It seems a lot like the dialectic of self and other in Hegel. Subjectivity desires to objectify itself, as it does in artifacts, and to subjectivize the surrounding world, as it does in interpretation, and, even higher, to encounter another subjectivity.”
I am a Person, searching for …
“That’s what I wonder, Lord. I can’t quite imagine what You are searching for. Just interaction? That seems too limited and, in a sense, too easy.”
It is not just looking for company. Perhaps speaking of loneliness is misleading. Why does a human being look for love? It is not just for company. That is companionship, not love. You want to pour yourself, your concern, your destiny into another person. And you want them to respond in kind, to understand and recognize and sympathize with and care about you, (and) to share your life story, so that I becomes we. And the result is not just good feelings or good times; it is ontological, it is virtually molecular. You know that, because you have experienced it. Imagine how puny your love is (not to belittle it, but just for comparison) compared to Mine. What is barely ontological or molecular in your case is fully so in Mine. The constitution of the universe is altered by My love and My being loved. You can’t just say “God so loved the world …” Love is a two-way street. Anything unilateral is merely an effort at love, not its fulfillment, not its achievement.
You could tell My story, one version of it at least, through the history of love. What has love meant and been over time? From Abraham’s love for his wife and his son and his God, through the Ramayana and the compassionate Buddha and Jesus and Plato’s philosophy as eros toward wisdom, to Christian chivalry and Buber’s I-Thou—these are stages that reflect My development and My interaction with human beings.
Author Jerry L. Martin, whose prayers God often answers in words, explains how he prays and gives tips to newcomers to prayer.