“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.

Illuminations

 

 

 

 

Ask yourself what I am looking for.

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.

“Love?”

Well, yes, but what is that love?

“Interaction, communication, understanding?”

YesI 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?”

Okay.

“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. 

“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.

“Tell My story as I tell it to you”

 

“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.

“The story of your interactions with various peoples?”

That but not only that. Tell it from My point of view, not the history of people’s experience of God.

“Lord, the total story of Your interaction with people would be too vast.”

No, all history is selective. Use a different word—like episodes—if you like. But it is history in the sense of being chronological, developmental, and dramatic in some sense. There is a subjective point of view (Myself), intentions and concerns for the future, regrets about the past, and so forth.

“What are the materials for this history? The great religious texts?”

Yes, of course. That is one side of the human-divine (interaction), like hearing one end of a telephone conversation. So that is one starting point. But there are others as well, and I have been leading you to them—the physical record, the geological record, the biological development, the stars and galaxies, time and creation, and so on.

And I will tell you many things Myself—that is the “new revelation” aspect. Nothing overly dramatic there—I reveal Myself all the time.

“So I should read the scriptures of the major religions?”

Yes, I want you to read the early spiritual history of mankind. I will lead you to which readings. I would like you to pray as you read them and take notes as directed.

I grew up at a time when “man” and “mankind” referred to both men and women, and God spoke to me in my own vernacular.

“Lord, You said I was to tell Your story ‘from the inside out.’ But reading the scriptures is ‘from the outside in.’”

Yes, tell My story as I tell it to you. The only purpose for reading is to give you reference points for understanding My story.

“Lord, if I am going to ‘get into Your head,’ it would be helpful to know what You are up to, what Your ultimate goal is.”

No, your job is not to “get into My head.” Remember, I am telling you what is “in My head.” You are not trying to empathize with a fictional or historical character. You have the living Person right here, and I will tell you.

“But, as I prepare for the work …”

You are making this falsely complicated because you are not trusting Me. You think you will have to do this on your own by deciphering the cultural forms and so forth. But it is exquisitely simple. You ask Me what you are to read or to study. And then You ask Me what I was up to in relation to what you are reading or studying. And you don’t need to worry about the total compass or overall story, because I will lead you item by item.

“Lord, how should I approach the ancient scriptures?”

Get into the frame of mind for reading the (particular) work. That frame of mind is reverential, quiet, respectful, open-hearted. It does not consist of analyzing metaphors and stories of gods. Just take in what comes to you.

 

“There are different pieces of the same puzzle.”

If there is one God, why are there so many religions?  Philosophers call this the Problem of the Diversity of Revelations.  But I was told,

(There is) no reason to think (the) diversity of revelations is a problem, any more than for a therapist to say different things to different clients (whose needs and situations differ).

That analogy didn’t take me very far.  The therapist, like a doctor, is giving advice depending on the needs of the client.  But God is giving different people contradictory stories about Himself, and also about how they should live.  Perhaps God’s messages had to start simple, when cultures were primitive, and became more adequate as cultures developed.

“Lord, do Your revelations progress from lower to higher?”

Yes and no.  Much of what I have to say is universal, and good for all times and places.  Some is quite specific to the individual and his or her circumstances, the actions he or she faces.  Some is developmental, on the side of the culture and also on My side.

“Why not just give everyone the whole truth?”

Your question has presuppositions—that I have given different, incompatible stories to different cultures.  This is only apparently true.  If you think them through, they are different pieces of the same puzzle.  Names shift but that is superficial.

“Even though one says ‘God’ and another (thinking of Buddhism) says ‘Nothingness’?”

No religion puts Nothingness in the place of God.  If it appears to, think again.  What is the role of each (name)?  Is one a substitute or replacement for the other?  And (think about) the meaning of each.  Are they really incompatible once you examine their properties?

“Perhaps each religion is like a single eye-witness report of some strange event such as a Martian landing.  The reports might be wildly different from one another.  The challenge would be to sort them out and put them into a single coherent account.”

Not exactly.  It’s not to blend the religions into a single synthesis or theology.  It’s to put them into one story.  (To take your analogy,) imagine a reporter who interviewed everyone who had an encounter with the Martians, starting at the first encounter, and wrote it up as a narrative.  Certain consistent themes might emerge, but this would be different from a scientist trying to adjudicate and synthesize the reports.  In your version (of the religions), there will be an additional unifying factor—Me.

I have given you some clues . . .

I had received visions of the explosive expansions of time and space, and of divine energy rushing up through all levels of reality. Were these intimations of Creation? I was told,

The work I want you to begin involves reading and writing about My nature. Start with the Creation. I have given you some clues already. Follow up on them.

One day, in quiet reflection, I was taken deep into the Self, taken back, it seemed, to the Beginning. Here is how I described it right afterwards:

“There was a sense of things shattering, like crockery breaking, or like the shell of an egg breaking. (I think of Kabbalah and its image of Creation as divine vessels breaking.) Then there is a river, or milk, flowing out from amidst the shards. The river is clouded in mist and flows a long way down canyons of shards or rocks. Until it settles in a pool below. Tranquil waters. This is when Life begins. Cool, calm but rippling waters.”

 

All this was taking place on a flight to California to visit my ninety-year-old father. Sitting beside me was a nine-year-old girl, traveling alone. She kept looking at me, wondering what I was up to. Ignoring her was unkind, so I stopped praying and chatted with her.

After that, I returned to my own meditations and received a stream of visual images, a vision: the sun cracking up, solar flares that zoomed out into the reaches of space. I then saw, through the mist, an ethereal caravan of camels and their riders, coming up a valley, their long line stretching behind, down a winding road into the distance. I followed the road back to the source. I came upon vast winds, like a monsoon, then a world exploding—and then the vision abruptly stopped. The caravan seemed to represent the long course of human history, traced backward, all the way to the beginning, and then nothing.

I had received hints about the moment of Creation. Then, one day, He told me more. This is where God’s story really begins.

“He tried to impose a spiritual vision.”

Akhenaten may have been the first monotheist.  We have his own words, carved in stone.  The young pharaoh reports having been divinely guided to the exact place the Creator had manifested himself at the beginning of the world.  It was a plain near the Nile, bounded by hills except on the east, a great amphitheatre facing the morning sun.

Akhenaten’s vision was not of many gods, but of one god—a god, with no female consort, who created himself anew each day.  He was called the Aten, or Father Aten, and symbolized by the solar disk.  “Thou didst fashion the earth according to thy desire when thou wast alone … thou appointest every man to his place and satisfiest his needs.  Everyone receives his sustenance and his days are numbered.”

The Aten is the source of life itself.  “Thou it is who causest women to conceive and makest seed into man, who gives life to the child in the womb of its mother, who comfortest him so that he cries not therein, nurse that thou art, even in the womb, who givest breath to quicken all that he hath made.”  The god created the great life-giving Nile for Egypt, but he is a universal god who has placed “a Nile in heaven,” the source of rain, as a “gift to foreigners and to beasts of their lands.”

The Aten was symbolized by a figure of the sun with rays reaching out in all directions.  At the end of each ray is an open hand reaching out in loving kindness, as if to touch with life, and to give and to receive gifts.  “Thou art remote yet thy rays are upon the earth,” writes Akhenaten.  “Thou are in the sight of men, yet thy ways are not known.”  The Aten can also be very near, at least to his spokesperson.  “Thou art in my heart.”

It was a breathtaking vision and it shook Egypt from its moorings.  The other gods, he proclaimed, were not gods but idols.  Upon his orders, their images were destroyed.  In their place was put the austere hieroglyph for the Aten, increasingly understood not as the sun or even the sun-god, but as a distant and unrecognizable divinity.

This was gross impiety to most Egyptians, an insult to the gods.  Akhenaten’s “monotheistic zeal offended their reverence for the phenomena [through which the gods made themselves present] and the tolerant wisdom with which they had done justice to the many-sidedness of reality,” explains Henri Frankfort.

The result was perhaps predictable.  Upon the pharaoh’s death, priests and people alike turned against this strange and remote monotheism.  The old statues, temples, and forms of worship were restored.  Ahkenaten’s vision was a stunning venture in spiritual understanding but, in the end, came to nothing.

“Lord, what is the meaning of Akhenaten?”

Akhenaten was an extraordinary recipient of My inspiration (and of My) presence.  He was, as all are, bound by his culture and the symbols he had available.  But he got the main message—that, in a sense, I am One, that I am not to be equated with the sun or any other natural phenomena, that other gods are lesser or “mere” manifestations of Me or, in a sense, non-existent compared to Me.  The problem he ran into is that he was alone in his receptivity.  Others were not prepared, were not open.  The most spiritual Egyptians of his era were attuned to the old religion and could not jump the traces.  It would have seemed impious to them.

“What was the difference between them and the people of Israel?”

The people of Israel were a people.  They—the mass of them—had an intuitive understanding of a Covenant.  Remember that the mass of ancient Jews were not faithful, or (they were) faithful only periodically.  But they all lived under the Covenant and understood that they so lived.  Akhenaten tried to impose a spiritual vision from above, through imperial authority and example.  Even his wife did not understand the vision; she followed it out of her great love for her husband.