“An Inconvenient God” by Jerry L. Martin

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.

“Are you going to take the voice seriously?”

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,

Don’t eat.

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.

It will guide you to righteousness.

 

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?”

No.

“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.

No.

“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.”

 

 

 

The Edge of Infinity

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.

“I want you to enter My heart”

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.”

I will.

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.

“The whole now needs to be told.”

“Lord, what exactly is my assignment?”

The world needs to understand My story, or at least to understand it better.  I have given parts of the story to different people at different times.  The whole now needs to be told.  Your effort will be part of telling that whole story.

“Do You want people to piece the whole together out of the parts?”

What I most want is for people to listen to Me.

“And to listen to what You have told various people over the ages?”

Yes, that is part of listening to Me.

“What exactly do You want me to write?”

God: An Autobiography.  My story is the history of Me—how I came to be.

“God is, in some sense, all. And all is very multiplex indeed.”

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.

“I am boundless.”

“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.