I have noticed something in trying to follow God more closely. I had a lot of prejudice about who and what God is that distracted me. Even though I was a liberal who was sure that the Bible was wrong about creation, and science was right, when I started to take God seriously, I had the God of the Bible in mind, even though intellectually I was sure the Bible was wrong about many things.
People do this. They have this idea on one hand and another idea on the other hand. It can be very difficult to see something in between the two or something that is a synthesis of the two, maybe a synthesis that is heavily this in one aspect, but heavily that in another aspect. I’ve been called a fundamentalist a few times by people who either don’t know what that word means or assume that if someone has one belief that a fundamentalist would have, he or she must be a fundamentalist. I suppose the most conservative belief I have is that I believe I have every right to say, “God says so”. Intellectually I know the asterisk that goes with that, but it doesn’t keep me from having a strong faith. If the asterisk that says I could be wrong turns out to be right, then I’m totally wrong, then nothing matters, then everything is a fraud, and I’d just as soon live the way I do anyway.
I didn’t ask to have a road-to-Damascus experience. I had been praying for a little help, with the Prayer of St. Francis, because helping people was one thing I was sure was valuable. God agreed. Here is that simple certainty again that makes many people uncomfortable, not just liberals, but God did agree. That’s why this happened. He has told me so in words in recent years. I look in the Bible, and it’s no different from the way some speak there. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I don’t feel the least bit uncomfortable with the way Paul wrote with such certainty. I disagree with the content at times. I know context they didn’t know sometimes. But that style, such as when Paul says that what he is saying is a revelation from Jesus Christ, the resurrected Jesus Christ, who now lives in him, I know what he meant. It’s like saying I have ten fingers. It just is. It’s that kind of compelling experience, as is the world of our senses right in front of us.
Yet at the same time, if I go on an atheist website, one where they go through the entire Bible, with every objection they could compile about the verses, I probably agree with atheists 90% of the time. And if I mention certain beliefs from that, someone might think I am an atheist or agnostic, like conservatives do who think anyone who believes that evolution is a fact as I do can’t be a Christian or that someone who has serious doubts about a substitutionary atonement as I do can’t be a Christian.
So lots of people have a patchwork of beliefs, but I wouldn’t be that way if I never had had spiritual experiences. I would be a typical rationally minded liberal, maybe Christian if you really stretch the definition, like many of my fellow scientists. Instead adversity got me looking for God, and all of sudden there was God that was not a thinking man’s God at all. Not only that, but I was ready to have that God be the God of the Bible, with every magical ability possible. That was still in me, despite my being solidly and rationally liberal.
I’ve had to lose that, because that’s not who God is. God says so. One way to illustrate that is my experience with occasionally buying lottery tickets in the nineties. I’m not sure how that started. I suppose the jackpot was a big one as I shopped at the supermarket one day, so I bought a ticket. By that point I wasn’t worried it might be a sin. Right after my first visit from God, I had had a lot of legalistic concerns, but that quieted down as I read the Bible regularly and found that I was a liberal Christian, as I would have been before if I had had a strong belief in God. My ticket didn’t win.
I doubt that I prayed about that first ticket, but there were other times when the jackpot was huge, and I wanted to know what God wanted regarding this. Some say God protects people from winning more money than they know what to do with, but I have some management experience. I’d certainly give a lot for charity. It would free me up to pay more attention to God. I would think that God would want me to win the lottery as much as I do. I look at who does win, and they don’t seem to be God’s type that often. So, “Father, would you please help me win the lottery. Amen.” Then I’d lose.
So I’d get the impression that God doesn’t care about whether I win or lose. I’d still like to win, and I know how much better the odds are when the jackpot has built up than the first time after a payout. Who can turn down a bargain, even if the odds are still millions to one? I’d wonder how many tickets to buy. It might be that God has changed His mind or was just waiting until the right time for me to win. I really feel like just buying one ticket. If God wants me to win, that’s enough. If not, it’s too much of a long shot for me to buy more. Maybe I’d pray again. Maybe I wouldn’t. Either way I’d lose.
This idea of how many tickets to buy kept coming up. $5 would give me a better chance. If this is all natural, I think I would like to invest a little more, an amount that doesn’t mean anything to me, but increases my chances 5 times. That’s a lot. Then I’d wonder if I was overdoing it. If I didn’t win even the smallest payout with that inflated investment I’d made, 5 times what I might have made, I’d even feel a little guilt. Maybe God doesn’t want me to do this, not because of the money, but because it’s not right, not because gambling is a sin, but because this particular form of gambling is dirty. It takes money from people who are just out shopping as I was. Some goes to the schools, but the rest goes to people who just aren’t going to use the money for good.
Hmmm, sounds like I should pray about this. So I did, praying to know God’s will on this point, praying to be led to follow God’s will, even if I couldn’t know it. I don’t remember a response for a while, as I decided for myself which was which. Some days the jackpot was very high. I’d buy a $1 ticket just in case. Other times, I just didn’t feel like it.
Then finally I heard something in words. God said He didn’t care how many tickets I bought. I took this to mean anywhere between 0 and 5, or more if I wanted. So He wasn’t planning on making me rich. So I wasn’t going to miss the week God had decided I could win, only to go to heaven and have everyone laugh at me because I’m the dummy who forgot to buy a ticket when my number came up. OK, that clarifies things. I can do what I want.
Only if there’s no chance God will cheat for me, I feel much less enthusiasm for buying a ticket. It still hadn’t occurred to me that God might have nothing to do with the lottery at all. It amazes me to think how long I went with this idea that God might not get involved with the lottery, but surely there’s a chance He might influence it. How can anyone know that He can’t? It would still be a while before God could tell me He can’t.
I wanted God to be able to help me, just as I wanted Him to help me by praying before I ever had a spiritual experience. Only then I didn’t know what He might do. Maybe there would be some job offer out of the blue. Can’t God do anything? And that was when I was a rationally minded liberal, with no belief at all in the afterlife, no belief in any miracles and certainty that Genesis was wrong. I wasn’t praying for miracles. I was praying for a little help then, from this source that maybe existed and maybe would help me, even though I might not be asking well. I’ve heard of it happening. So what comes is a road-to-Damascus experience. A millions-to-one payout, is it?
So why can’t I win the lottery? Well I can but the odds are 18 million to one as they are with anyone else. Yet during the nineties I was on the lookout for ways that God might communicate beyond the occasional word I would hear then. If the e-mail I am composing is suddenly lost, is that a sign not to send it? If the clock has a certain time on it, like 1:23 or maybe numbers that would mean a Bible verse I know, did God place that clock there for me? Does God have control over radio station DJ’s to play certain songs at a certain time?
Well, I doubt those first two, but that last one! After all God could do that without a physical miracle, just quietly getting into some DJ’s mind or maybe just into the listener’s mind. After all, if God wants to talk about love, there are some stations where just about every song is love, even if it is rock and roll. My goodness there sure are a lot of love songs that can be sung between God and a person just as well as hearing it only as love between humans. How does that happen? Well evolution is about procreation and evolution in humans has given us this dual purpose for sex, part of which is pregnancy and part of which is bonding, less than perfect bonding but bonding nevertheless, possible because humans can have sex all the time, while most animals wait for a specific time and change in their body. And sex has taught many people real love, selfless, committed love, even unconditional. It takes some time to get from one to another, more than several lifetimes, requiring a culture to provide continuity for the learning that is beyond anyone to learn in one life. Or maybe it’s all magic. Maybe it’s in between where God needs to kickstart the process here and there.
Some liberals scoff at such things, but other liberals would really like to keep something of the traditional God who can do such things. I was in the former group before God showed up for me. I was in the latter group after He did. I know I’m not alone in that as comments prove when a discussion about miracles comes up among liberals. Many of us would at least like to hold onto the possibility. I saw Miracle on 34th Street more than once. I can do what Natalie Wood did in that movie, “I believe, I believe, I believe, I believe, …” Then she gets a house! I’m sure my mind is full of that, and I’m sure that whatever part of my mind held on to that idea wanted to win the lottery and believed that God could help, not a maybe like on my more intellectual side, but definitely, like in the movies.
Yet what an uncertain process it is. GOD, WHY DON’T YOU JUST TELL ME WHAT TO DO? TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT. He would if He could. People argue about this, some drawing up schemes from traditional theology or a mystic tradition saying that what we experience is just what God wants, the suffering, every bit of it, the uncertainty, so many starts and stops, so many dead ends, as if this is the best way to learn. Man, it wasn’t the best way for me to learn science. I’d hate to try to reinvent the wheel with that. And I’ve seen how easily people are misled by pseudoscience and how hard it is to get that junk out of their heads once it’s in there. It’s good that people die and are replaced by new minds, but that can’t be the most efficient way.
Our culture has only found its current best way to think recently, with the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution. People can scoff at those, but they are so powerful (I might have just mentioned the scientific revolution, but I’m trying to be broad-minded). Something is happening to our culture, viewed over centuries, as traumatic as being turned inside out, slowly. I don’t know how it will look in the end, but it certainly confuses a lot of people now.
Many are fiercely trying to hang on to the past, saying traditions thousands of years old are exactly right, even though the people who came up with them didn’t even know that moonlight was reflected sunlight. Some reject tradition entirely. Some try to find some middle way, though as I said in the beginning there are so many different ways to find a middle way.
I thought I was a liberated 20th-century man, completely following the new, improved way of life, yet looking for God has taught me how much of that character Natalie Wood played was in me even at my most adult and competent state. She wants a house, and she only knows magic to get it. She didn’t even know that until some funny guy woke something up in her. In the movies she gets her house. In real life there are many, many disappointments before one is paid off looking for God.
I talk about the payoff a lot, but it’s just been about three years that I could converse with God as easily as some do in the Bible. Before that it was bits and pieces for a long time, learning to follow God by every religious and secular method available, and having to let go of fantasy. I know how strange that last word sounds from someone who has conversations with God, but those conversations are not magic. They are a phenomenon, to grow and nurture, from both sides of the conversation. God is not what tradition says He is. I don’t expect anyone to take my word for that. I don’t know how many liberals this applied to, but it applied to me, even liberals want God to do magic. I had to learn He only does things certain ways, maybe because it’s not magic, but spiritual.
There are certain beliefs we need to give up. People can quibble about exactly what, but there are certain beliefs we need to give up. That’s one reason I’m glad to be liberal.