Hannah and Papa J

Hannah and Papa J

Sunday, May 24, 2015

How to fake the presence of God

Dear Hannah,

I should probably preface this letter by admitting I'm not one of those people who says that all religions are saying the same thing.  I'm also not one of those people who says that all religions have nothing in common.  To say that Judaism and Christianity and Islam and Buddhism all teach similar messages is fair; almost as fair as saying that their messages are just different enough to cause serious problems between them.  A Catholic might say the Devil isn't only in the details, but that he's purposely muddled them.  A Calvinist might say God willed the Devil to muddle them.  A Muslim might feel theologically comfortable agreeing with the Calvinist (which is why he says things like en'shallah); culturally, many of them might feel more comfortable blaming a Jew (which is why Jews don't want Arabs to get nukes).


I'm not talking strictly about differences in metaphysics.  Whether Jesus is part of the triune God or a prophet or Satan's brother is certainly consequential; although I think most liberal humanists agree (whether rightly or wrongly) that it isn't as consequential as one religion saying you can have one wife or a million, or that you can beat a million wives.  On the other hand, a practical rule about marriage is also not nearly as consequential as a metaphysical doctrine about predestination.  But if we really consider the matter seriously, the way we really know religions say different things is because they have different names.

This judgment might seem superficial at first; there are many different ways of saying many different things in many different languages, and that doesn't make the objects themselves different.  For instance, pelo and hair both mean hair.  But when it comes to someone naming any particular thing, we can only name because we're setting something apart.  For instance, Christians originally called themselves The Way, because they were claiming all the other ways were leading to the wrong place.  This is why they were killed by the pagans, who believed that there were many ways -- so long as you made a little sacrifice and professed your loyalty to God, who they claimed was the Emperor.  It turns out that religions are very exclusive things, even when they are claiming to be inclusive.  This is why they have different names.

Now, these differences may be very trivial, or they may be wide as the ocean; but they are always differences, and they always have consequences.  But some of the common characteristics are so similar as to cause a serious believer serious doubts -- such as the tendency, across all religions, to claim to experience the presence of God.  The strangest thing about this is that all religious people claim to experience God in all kinds of settings, whether while singing or praying or at weddings or funerals; but the one that people agree about the most deeply is the experience of God in difficult circumstances.  I heard a sermon the other day by a very gifted speaker about how God was always meeting the Israelites in the wild places -- in deserts, in wildernesses, on the lam and in prison -- everywhere but somewhere comfortable.  And I believe this speaks to us because it's very true.  At least, it is most true on an emotional level.  Whether God is actually speaking or not is the question.  That everyone is claiming an experience with God in horrible places is irrefutable.

And I say this because I've heard many pastors saying the same thing about many difficult circumstances: I heard a Baptist fundie named Paul Washer rant about it for years, before I heard a fairly liberal pastor like Richard Dahlstrom rant about it last week.  St Francis of Assisi said it while he was starving himself and freezing in the open, and CS Lewis wrote a book about it when he was having trouble understanding the value of pain itself.  And I heard myself say it when I thought I was going to lose you -- when I thought you were going to die before you were born.  But most strangely of all, I heard it from a man in a collapsing city during a war in the middle of a desert wasteland.  I heard him say, on camera, that God wasn't to be found with his family or in the comfort of his home or with his local church.  He found God's presence on the front lines, when he was surrounded by death and choking with fear -- just like King David said in Psalm 23.  And this man wasn't a Christian.  He was fighting for ISIS, of all things.

I have no way of really knowing what this man felt, or of measuring his sentiments against mine; but I believe him when he said what he said.  There really is something going on inside us when we're fighting for a cause in "God's" name -- even if it is a horrible cause.  I know the feeling because I've been there: I've fought for stupid ideas and stupid movements under the banner of "real" and "orthodox" theonomic Christianity; which is a lot like saying that I was fighting for a ridiculous version of Mosaic Judaism.  And it felt good at the time, before I started realizing that lots of things I was supporting were factually, politically, and morally backward.  You lose your friends, you live in fear that by speaking up you could lose your job; you feel like a prophet, preaching repentance and having people hate your guts just like they hated Jeremiah.  And then you use that obnoxious quote that everyone on every side of the Christian spectrum uses, whether saint or devil, orthodox or heretic: blessed are you when they blaspheme and persecute you, for you are obviously speaking for God Himself, and not out of your own ignorance.  And at the bottom of it all is this unusual feeling, this abandonment of everything your body wants, and an embracing of an ideal, the infinite, the casting of yourself into eternity.  A holding on to something you can't even hold with hands, but you see with your heart; a hope inexplicable and spiritual beyond anything materialism has to offer.  It's the thing that made me sell my tv and give money to lost and backward causes like Answers in Genesis.  And the Muslim felt it too.  We wanted to be a part of something bigger, and we had no idea that on the other side of the globe, someone else was chasing it in the exact opposite way, and still feeling like he was on top of the world.  And both of us were being jerks about it (although it could be objectively argued that his behavior was worse).

When a man has an ideal and chases it, this is when he really breaks from the animal kingdom and proves his humanity -- even if it makes him a bad man.  When his life is all comfort and happiness in material things, he can never be free, and he knows it; he can never be spiritually fulfilled, never really be himself.  Not without a desperate fight for something worth dying for; not without a Holy Land or a Caliphate or a Heavenly Kingdom or a Holy Scripture or a prophet, and certainly not without that archetypical Goddish-Man -- the one who knows everything and does everything right, the leader we always wanted to worship and never met.  And then someone comes along who promises us suffering and difficulty and fighting -- that man can be more than a monkey -- that he can agree with God, and God can approve of him.  That if everything is thrown away in this life, everything which will eventually be lost anyway, he'll have something better in the next.

This throwing away of ourselves for the Elusive Invisible is what it means to have a religious experience, and what it means to meet God in the dark places.  The dark places place us face-to-face with our spiritual dreams.  This is why failure as a religious person, whether personal or political, oftentimes feels like success.  It's because if the world is dying, the dream comes alive -- so alive that everything else can melt away, and we still feel like we could gain back the more.  The fact that the world is darkening means the spiritual ideal is brighter -- a lot like the stars only appear brightest on the darkest nights in the middle of nowhere.

What irreligious men such as myself have always had trouble admitting is that, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, the life of a man never really was about going from pleasure to pleasure; it was always about going from hope to hope.  And this is why all the learning and science and reason in the world will never get rid of religion -- and especially not religious fundamentalism.  Because secular humanism, for all its beauty and wisdom, was never especially good at giving men what they really want.  And this is to have something other than a finite, broken, dying earth to dream about.

Your father,
-J


5 comments:

  1. So, after reading through this several times - because I needed to make sure I understood it fully, I believe my thoughts are thus. "Experiencing God," is something we all are attempting to do, primary due to our believing 1) 3rd party experiences we read about, or 2) 2nd-hand testimonies from trusted sources.

    These are perceived truths we embrace based on faith, as we ourselves have never experienced them directly, and thus cannot prove their validity. We then attempt to recreate them in our own lives, day upon day, year after year, until something we experience matches up.

    Consider the following:

    My wife and I just had our 4th daughter. From my own testimony, it was a very religious experience, just like the birth of our 3rd daughter.

    Why do I say this? Because of 1) an experience at the hospital with our twins that confirmed my belief ( embracing of 3rd party testimonies ) in the failure of modern medicine, 2) because I decided to place faith in the experiences of others who claimed to have invested in natural child births with midwives and out-of-hospital birth experiences, and 3) because of that faith, we re-created the circumstances which they claimed would showcase the result we desired.

    Steps 1, 2, and 3 resulted in a birthing experience that showed me via a 1st hand experience that the entirety of our modern birthing culture is not only wrong, but fear-based and money-driven. Stripped of all modern technology, it showed me the foundation for birth was best at its most natural, raw state - with experts who embrace that as well ( professional midwives ).

    Because of my previously defined faith in a Creator, this lifted up a more fully supported the idea of God's nature and raw creation being better than man's attempts to refashion it in his own image. So, in a very REAL sense of the term -- "drawing closer to God's presence" -- I myself, experienced a perceived revelation concerning the nature of creation and of that creation's God.

    And, per your list of examples, that is what they experience as well. We are ultimately the culmination of our 1st hand experiences and nothing more, and "the Presence God" many find is nothing more than the solidifying of our beliefs based on 1st-hand-experiences.

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  2. But, seeing as the "presence of God" is more a unique, supernatural 1st hand experience, we should remember that thought some believe their experiences are supernatural, but no application of the scientific method will unveil anything less coincidence. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, etc, all believe God can meet with them, and ( without diminishing their beliefs ) the 1st-hand experiences they have are no more than their own perceptions based on belief systems they have embraced. Some have received answered prayer, witnessed unexplained healing, some have experienced creepy magical feets, possessions, people being raised from the dead, etc, but for the rest of us -- those are no more than 3rd-party testimonies that must be believed on faith or rejected.

    Thus "Faking The Presence of God" isn't necessarily faking anything, because none of us have ever truly experienced the Source of All ( that which existed before the advent of energy ), or been able to accurately link that Source's existence between our own existence outside our individual perceptions -- and this is assuming we are referring to the Source of All in the 1st place ( not all Monotheistic religions believe in a God that created everything, and most polytheistic religions believe in gods that are a part of the creation itself). Other experiences would focus around "Faking the Presence of the Unseen," whether it be spirits, departed souls, or transcended beings.

    And while the secular world scoffs at it, the overwhelming reality is this -- mankind was built ( yes, built ) to embrace 1st-hand-experience over any other method of knowledge acquisition. Even if we are shown how the trick was performed, we will still desire to believe our perceptions over truth. Thus, with all our ability to rationalize and embrace logic, we have a stronger attraction to faith and belief that assist in defining the world around us in a way that accurately reflects the 1st-hand experiences we have been apart of.

    For after all, aside from our 1st-hand-experiences, there is no other real way to define our existences, and with so many truly unanswerable questions ( meaning science and modern humanism may have origin propositions, but they are not accessible to us via 1st-hand-experience ) we find ourselves searching for the meanings behind the 1st-hand-experiences we individually have.

    Always searching, never truly knowing. Such ideological searchings actually perpetuates themselves, and to the rational mind may seem like circular reasoning, yet we cannot escape it.

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  3. >>Because secular humanism, for all its beauty and wisdom

    Now that's a great joke.

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  4. I am almost certain, but not quite, that you and I both feel sorry for each other's children.

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    Replies
    1. And you would probably be mistaken -- especially if you believe I'd feel sorry because your children will grow up religious. My household was never happier than when I was a staunch Christian, of the Calvinist persuasion. Your kids will turn out just fine.

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