What Does God Sound Like?

 

 

 

When philosopher Jerry L. Martin heard God speaking to Him, people said – Really? A real Voice?

What did it sound like?

 

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God: An Autobiography, As Told to a Philosopher -  is the true story of a philosopher’s conversations with God. Dr. Jerry L. Martin was a lifelong agnostic. But one day he had occasion to pray. To his vast surprise, God answered - in words. Being a philosopher, he had a lot of questions. And God had a lot to tell him. Dr. Martin served as head of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the University of Colorado philosophy department.

 

“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.

“Everything God has spoken, we will do.”

One day, after breakfast at a little café in Alexandria, I was told,

Don’t go to w

It seemed to be a training in obedience.

ork.

“Lord, do you know we have to get that grant proposal in today?”

Of course.

My organization lived on grant money. But the voice said not to go in. What to do? Well, the sky is not going to fall if the proposal goes in the following day. I would go back to my apartment.

As I turned on the ignition, the voice spoke again.

You can go to work now.

I remember that incident because something was at stake, but usually I was told do something trivial, such as to listen to a different radio station or sit in a different chair. As these arbitrary commands continued—mounted as it seemed—Abigail expressed concern.

This sounded more like Boot Camp than spiritual guidance.

Maybe I shouldn’t do everything I was told. Maybe I should, as she put it, “use your intelligence.” I was puzzled. Was I supposed to second-guess God?

The next day I stopped at Border’s bookstore near Pentagon City. On the way out, I felt guided to move in a particular direction, like a dowser following his stick: first straight ahead, next to the right, then straight ahead, now stop. I was at the religion section. I felt guided down to the third shelf on the right, and finally to a particular book.

It was a book I never would have chosen on my own: John Calvin’s commentary on the Gospel of John.

I know that Calvin is one of the great theologians of the modern era, but I had an impression of him as stern and rigid. I picked up the book and it opened to John 8:28, where Jesus says, “I do nothing on my own.”

Calvin explains that “Christ wants to prove that he does nothing without the Father’s command … he depends entirely on his will and serves him sincerely … he does not just partially obey God, but is entirely and without exception devoted to his obedience.” It was a lesson in obedience.

Near the register, there was a display with another book I never would have bought on my own: The Ten Commandments, by Dr. Laura Schlesinger and Rabbi Stewart Vogel. Many people like Doctor Laura but the few times I had heard her on the radio, she seemed harsh rather than loving. I believe in tough love, but she just sounded tough. However, I opened it and my eyes fell on a line bold-faced in the text. It is where the people of Israel accept the covenant: “Everything that God has spoken we will do!” Another example of total obedience.

I had been led to one other passage in Calvin’s commentary. John 9:4 says, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.” Calvin comments, “as soon as God enlightens us by calling us, we must not delay, in case the opportunity is lost.”

The note of urgency reminded me of the story a village chief in eastern Brazilia told of his own encounter with a divine being.

He had encountered the being while out hunting, but was too scared to speak and the being left.

“At night while I was asleep he [the divine being] reappeared to me. … He led me some distance behind the house and there showed me a spot on the ground where, he said, something was lying in storage for me. Then he vanished. The next morning I immediately went there and touched the ground with the tip of my foot, perceiving something hard buried there. But others came to call me to go hunting. I was ashamed to stay behind and joined them. When we returned, I at once went back to the site he had shown me, but did not find anything any more.”

He had missed his moment. I did not want to miss mine.

“The mind is a little reflection or mirror of God.”

Early man was a whole new phenomenon, not entirely expected.

“How can that be, Lord?  Weren’t human beings part of Your plan from the beginning?”

Remember that I am following a plan, not inventing it.  I don’t know the whole plan Myself.

“So the emergence of human beings was a surprise?”

Yes.  Even though I saw the unfolding of life and understood its trajectory, there is a discontinuity between animal life and human life that’s surprising.  People are not just smarter animals.  It is not just that they have souls—animals have a kind of soul too—it is that they are creative, free, self-reflective, open-ended, have a yearning to go beyond themselves.  They are in fact like little gods, though I do not like the usual use of this notion.  But people are much more of the same substance and kind as God.  That is why I can communicate with them so effectively.  The mind is a little reflection or mirror of God.

“Ego is destructive, separatist, defiant”

An ego rush always broke my connection with God.

So I tried to keep a cold watch on this ego of mine.

When I was still in Washington, D.C., a matter came up about which I needed the assistance of an eminent intellectual with whom I had a limited acquaintance. He was completely forthcoming, and I felt flattered by his response.

“Lord, how should I take this? Is it wrong for me to feel flattered?”

No, it is not. This is joy, the joy of being yourself, which is proper to (appropriate for) human beings. I want you to be happy, to feel the fullness of your own being, its bounty. I blessed you with certain gifts. Of course, you recognize them as gifts, as benefits, as talents. That is okay. It is not the same as ego.

Ego is destructive, separatist, defiant of My will, self-satisfied and self-lustful. A proper appreciation of yourself opens your heart, binds you to Me, to those you love. Remember that I love you—I love all human beings—without reservation. Ideally, you would love yourself as I love you, as I loved Jesus. But that is not normally possible for human beings, because there are many obstacles.

“But it is possible for a few?”

For some, yes. I have blessed them with the ability to transcend those limitations. They can love themselves fully, and this permits them to love others.

One week I testified before a U.S. Senate committee. It did not go well and my ego limped out of the hearing room.

Get your ego out of it. Stand back and look (at it) at a distance.

“A ‘God’s-eye’ view?”

No, just objectively, as if it were someone else.

That helped. If it were someone else, I would know that, even on a good day, a Senate hearing is unpredictable. But there was still an ego wound.

“Lord, what can I do about that?”

Look, you are encased in a body and a personality, and it requires ego strength and self-respect. When I say, “Get the ego out,” I mean the second-order attachment to ego. The ego, like desires, is a fact, a necessary fact. Like the body, it gets bruised. You just nurture it and let it heal. Don’t deny it but don’t dwell on it either. Accept it and don’t attach it to blame. That your ego has been embarrassed is not the same as “doing something wrong.” Don’t blame yourself. That is an example of the wrong kind of attachment.

“Then I should just say, ‘I wish it had gone better,’ and leave it at that?”

Correct.

“Do you think I could come to the ancient Jews in the same way I came to the seventh century Chinese? to Americans today?”

I had been told that culture is a factor in divine revelations.

“Lord, why is culture so important?”

That’s like saying, why language?  If I am going to communicate with people, they need a language.  For the same reason, they need a culture.

“They need a culture, but why such a variety of cultures?”

There are many ways of realizing (actualizing) the human story.  Culture enables lives of different (types of) significance (meaning).

“But why, in terms of Your story?”

I need to come to people in all their particularity, not to mankind-as-such.  The Chinese is one way of being.  The primitive is one way of being.  I come to each in its own terms.  Each enables Me to show a different side of Myself.

Do you think I could come to the ancient Jews in the same way I came to the seventh century Chinese? to Americans today? to you?