Sunday, January 21, 2007

The voice of God

Recently I visited a message board where a man gave a testimonial for “A Course in Miracles”. One thing about it that struck me was how he stated Jesus wrote this, as if that’s a fact. Of course Bible-believing Christians speak or write of the Bible this way, referring to a verse or section as something God said or wrote, when surely some man held the pen, and it’s at least debatable how much that man was inspired by God, debatable how much anyone can be controlled by God in that setting. So there is a precedent for people saying God wrote a book. Still I would think that if God could dictate words, the Bible would be much more straightforward, useful, and obviously divine than it is. So would be “A Course in Miracles”. Instead what is obvious is that some disagree with that for one of these books or both, but why?

A secular way of looking at it would say that psychologist Helen Schucman wrote “A Course in Miracles”, that she wasn’t a scribe for Jesus, as she said she was. Meanwhile some Bible-believing Christians might say Satan wrote this book, using Dr. Schucman to do his bidding. Both ways are too simple, I think, as the story of where the book came from is familiar to me and deserves better, even better than an adoring fan saying Jesus wrote it. What Dr. Schucman described was hearing a voice explaining that what she was hearing was a course in miracles. She wrote this down and continued accordingly, taking several years to complete the book. Many have written from their own spiritual experience similarly. There’s no question that those writings differ a great deal.

My biggest problem with “A Course in Miracles” is that it is yet another version of the power of positive thinking, saying that love is everything, that there is no sin, only a deficiency in love, that negative emotions are the enemy. I don’t think emotions are so easily divided between positive and negative. Fear can give us prudence. Anger can give us determination. Love is not necessary devoid of anger. Love can be fiercely protective instead of just being someone who knows only serenity. Sometimes I look at my needy clients and wonder how much they’ve been hurt by those who say things are fine the way they are, that one should simply accept everything.

What emotions God has or would like us to have is a big subject, but I mention this much to point out that no one’s version of how to live is so perfect as to be obviously God’s way. I know I’ve encountered all the major prescriptions for life, many supposedly dictated by God, yet there’s always something wrong with them. Why? If there’s anything to this idea that God can communicate with us, shouldn’t someone get it right?

An atheist can answer that easily saying an experience like Dr. Schucman’s can only be psychosis or imagination, so of course it doesn’t amount to that much. Yet there are other possibilities, but if one is to believe in spiritual experiences, what is the best explanation for how much the voice of God varies?

The two things that are hardest to get across about my experience of hearing the voice of God is just what the experience is like and just how much skepticism and questions of mine have been defeated in the process. I vividly remember my road-to-Damascus experience 18 years ago. I wrote before how this wasn’t a perceptual change of the world around me. My attention was suddenly on that light because what I thought about it had changed drastically, in a startling way. An instant before it had been mere sunlight. An instant later it had become the presence of God. How? Why? Why me when I didn’t believe such a thing was possible? I don’t know exactly. Something happened to me cognitively. My nature pulls at me to describe it in terms I can understand, a brightening of the light, a burning bush, whether to make it easier for me to talk about for myself or for others. But that’s not what the experience is. It is indeed something that people can dismiss as all being in my head.

Yet what are they dismissing? I previously described the cascade of images and words with which God defeated my skepticism, the ones that followed His saying the only words He said to me then, “You’ve always believed in Me.” I like the word “cascade”. It alludes to the sense of my being overwhelmed by “my life passing before my eyes”, as if hit by a waterfall, and to the many metaphorical connections between water and Spirit. But it doesn’t do justice to the memory I have even now of how my mind was flooded with images and words of how I had indeed always believed in God, from childish believing to being confirmed to rejecting tradition for science. At the time I wouldn’t have said this was rejecting religion and embracing God, but that’s what God was telling me now in this instant. I had images and words from my college physics days talking about why God made the universe the way He did. I had images and words from when I was exploring the Unitarians earlier in the eighties. Lastly there was the prayer I had prayed and meant two days before, the Prayer of St. Francis, as I realized that helping people was something I trusted much more than other ways to live. All this happened in a few seconds, at which point there was no skepticism in my head about anything. It’s never been quite like that again, but describing what it has been in later experiences would be just as difficult.

My normal skepticism soon returned but only for things other than the existence of God. That first experience remains proof enough of God for me. It doesn’t prove God exists beyond my brain. Atheists could be right about that, even if I doubt they are right. I was skeptical enough about what I should do about God’s existence that it took a second lesser episode to convince me that whether this was something important to God or just important to me, I should explore it. There were more words the second time, confirming that God is real, that God is love, and some other things. God has become more fluent as I have become less surprised by Him. I’m sure that’s not coincidence.

God’s presence gradually built up for me in prayer, first just as the abstraction to whom my prayers were directed, then more than that. I described this before. One thing that I’m sure is hard to appreciate about that is that as much skepticism as a reader would have reading that, I had at least that much skepticism during the process, only I witnessed it, and my skepticism was dealt with over years, not by some magical sentence or concept, but by having an ongoing relationship with God. I didn’t have to rely on imperfect words to analyze spirituality. I lived it day after day, year after year.

I think of that when I think of how easily someone can dismiss God as my “imaginary friend”, as has been done by someone commenting on this blog. First of all, what exactly is imagination? Where does it come from? Many assume that’s something we do willfully, but is it? Neuroscience doesn’t know anything like that.

That’s the questioning attitude I’ve hit God with again and again. He has no problem with it. He is indeed the God for whom I rejected religion as a teenager and embraced science. He tells me what He knows, which is less than everything, and with time I’ve come to understand more than I once did. Atheists don’t do that for me. Traditionalists don’t do that for me. They just preach their dogma and ridicule anyone who says it doesn’t work. I don’t see how such proud and idolatrous people can know anything about God.

This takes me back to those who quote God in print. How many of them have questioned their understanding of what God says? There is no way the real God can put His pure thoughts in my head, if He even has thoughts, if He even uses words. You might as well believe God can make me breathe water, not in this universe. Just because the Bible portrays the spoken word as so powerful doesn’t make it so. I’ve written about this before. I hear God’s voice in my language, my concepts, with no facts included that I don’t already know, yet what I hear as God makes priorities in what I know that I had no idea were in me. God gives me the direction, strength and comfort I ask for in ways that amaze me. But He has limits, as anyone who follows God will encounter. Will they accept traditional explanations that the limits are a matter of their not having enough faith? That’s not what God tells me. He tells me He has limits, that He is not the traditional God of superlatives and perfection. If He were, this world would be heaven already.

I wrote a lot before about what it means to me to follow the God whose voice I know rather than traditions that can’t answer my questions well enough. I didn’t address the issue much then about the discrepancy between what I hear and what others hear. It still bothers me. How can I be the best listener God’s ever had? Well, I ask a lot of questions, as science taught me, and not a lot of people who hear God’s voice have been trained that way. I stand on the shoulders of many who experienced God as more than an abstraction, like Paul. I suppose many people read Romans 8:9 as something abstract or otherwise separate from reality. From everything I’ve read, Paul experienced the Spirit in an almost tangible way, the Spirit living in him, as he lived in the Spirit. There is so much of reality that Bible-believing Christians reject, either physical reality or spiritual reality, because they take the words of the Bible to mean what they say they mean, even more so the reality of God and Jesus behind the words.

Maybe even more important is I know 12 steps. They taught me to use my faith rather than trusting myself. They taught me the acronym for HOW the program works, through honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness, and experience shows that it’s enough to be willing to be honest and willing to be open. To write that Jesus wrote any book as a statement of fact is dishonest, however much one thinks the ideas of “the real Jesus” are in this book. This is what advocacy does. It twists words into rigid positions that shut people off from God.

I surrendered. God surrendered, too. How many times each of us did that, who did it first, and how the sequence went from then is beyond me. It doesn’t matter. We are where we are. I hear the voice of God, even if no one but God believes that. That voice is inspired by God in a way that my own voice is not, yet it is my language the voice uses, and my language is limited. I’m sure others hear from God as well, as they have for a very long time, but it’s such a difficult thing to talk about in words. It’s easy to make mistakes that human nature tends to make like oversimplification, overgeneralization, and failing to ask questions. So writings that quote God are full of mistakes, whether from thousands of years ago or recently. It is human nature. It is the nature of the physical world in which such writings exists. It makes me that much more sure that words are flawed, ambiguous and human, that words are never God’s words, not now, not ever, even if something behind those words comes from God.

People have thought there is virtue in not questioning sacred words. Yet there is enough experience now to know the opposite is true. There are no sacred words. Not questioning words allows mistakes to go uncorrected, keeps real-life experience from invalidating presumptuous conjecture. It is not faith not to question. It is foolishness. I am utterly devoted to God, and in that faith I want God to be portrayed accurately. So I question every voice of God, including my own. God says to me that this is the way to Him, when it is combined with a desire and willingness to hear Him despite the difficulty, for anyone who wants to know that. It’s not a way to be found in print.

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