Derived from an experience of revelation, many believe in God, even amidst biblical distortions over centuries.
Many still believe in something eternal that is beyond our world.
How God Became GOD (TarcherPerigee, 2016), by Richard Smoley, longtime editor of a spiritual journal. Smoley searches for a deeper meaning in the Bible, hidden beneath the literal interpretations. It brings into the open what many religious scholars have known for decades — that a fresh understanding of God is possible to anyone willing to examine the evidence. This excerpt is from chapter one, “Groundwater: The Problem of God.”
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Does God exist? Often when this subject comes up, people start talking about science or reason or revelation as authorities.
Science is not much help. Because, in the end, science is a method and not a body of doctrine. It is a very narrow and specialized way of investigating physical reality. Any and all of its findings are subject to refutation at any point, and that is the way it should be.
Here’s an example. Over the last generation or two, the educated world has come to believe in the Big Bang as the origin of the universe, much as our ancestors believed in Genesis. There have even been efforts (though not very inspiring ones) to turn the story of the universe, starting with this Big Bang, into a new myth for our time.
In September 2014 a news item announced that a physics professor at the University of North Carolina, Laura Mersini-Houghton, has proved mathematically that “singularities” don’t exist. Since the Big Bang would have been a singularity, there was no Big Bang. So we will have to rethink our theories about the origins of the universe.
Will Mersini-Houghton’s work stand up to scrutiny? I have no idea. But I do know that if science decides there was no Big Bang, many people’s views of the history of the universe will come crashing down. Science is entitled to — obliged to — change its mind when the facts so dictate. It is not a reliable source of timeless truths.
Then there is reason. Briefly, during the French Revolution, reason was worshipped as a goddess. With the God of Christianity supposedly overthrown, it must have looked like a worthy substitute. It doesn’t look so appealing today. Why? Because it’s all too clear that reason can be used to prove almost anything. Ordinary language even has a word pointing to this fact: rationalization. When you rationalize, you are making up a reasonable excuse for something, wrong or right, that you had already decided to do to begin with. Your reason is not the master; it is the servant of your wishes. It is easily led.
I taught philosophy at a community college for several years, and among the subjects I covered were the philosophical proofs of the existence of God. They have been widely discussed, and I won’t go into them here. The upshot, however, is that you will find them persuasive to the exact degree that you wanted to believe them in the first place.
Finally, there is revelation. The summit of Roman Catholic theology, the Scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas, says that revelation (along with reason) is the great foundation for our belief in God.
Is this so? It depends on what you mean. If you have a direct experience of revelation, there is nothing to debate. If the Lord himself appears to you out of a fiery bush, you are not going to doubt. You will be on your knees before you have even thought about whether to doubt or not.
Most of us aren’t in this position. We haven’t been struck down by visions on the road to Damascus. Instead we’re expected to believe in the revelations of the past, revelations that occurred to somebody else, thousands of years ago, offered to us in fine calfskin Bibles. We are expected to put faith in them.
But as the kid says in the joke, “Faith is believin’ what you know ain’t so.”
Nevertheless, there may be a bit more to this revelation business than it seems.
A good place to begin would be with this quote from Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town: “Everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”
Here, in this stale old play, rarely performed outside of high-school auditoriums, is the central truth of our existence, stated plainly and nakedly. There is no need to elaborate on it.
But is it true? I strongly suspect that you know it’s true. For one thing, you are reading this book. Whether you have bought it, are browsing through it in a store, or had it forced on you unwillingly, you would not have opened it if you did not sense this truth, however differently you might state it and whether or not you end up agreeing with what this book says.
I could come in here, as if on cue, with rhetoric about sensing God in magnificent sunsets, the starry sky above, and so on. But I will approach the subject of the eternal from another angle that, if nothing else, may seem a little fresher.
When I think about — or, rather, try to sense — this “something eternal,” one image that comes to me is that of a water table. Somewhere under me is a table of water that sits beneath the ground. Most places on earth, as far as I know, have this water below.
I would say that this something eternal is like a water table underlying everything that we call reality. It is a living, vibrant, moving presence, and it is there whether we know it or not. The world of the five senses — everything from your coffee cup to the submolecular particles and remote galaxies proffered to us by science — is simply a crust that floats on this eternal presence. And it is this eternal presence that gives life to this crust that we call reality, and this reality would not exist without it.
What name shall we give this underlying presence? Some people, possibly thinking of an image like the one above, have called it the Ground of Being. Another common term is Spirit. (We have not gotten to the point where we can talk about God yet.)
I could take my water table metaphor a little further. There are areas where it does not rain or hardly rains at all. If people live there, they have to rely on the water table for their water supply.
Let’s say that our physical reality is like a region of this kind. It has no life, no energy of its own. All the life it has is drawn from this Ground of Being, this Spirit.
What, you may ask, about the forms of energy described by science? They are not what we are talking about here. Those energies are the operations and reactions of things on the crust — no matter how small and subtle, or how large, they may be.
To live, in any true sense, is to have a connection with this Spirit. The Spirit must “water” the surface crust of physical reality. We can imagine this process as involving wells, or springs, that connect the two levels of being.
Given this much, we can say that there are points in this crust of reality where the water of the Spirit breaks through, or where the crust is thinner and it is easier to dig down and draw up this water.
These “wells,” shall we say, are moments of encounter with the sacred. They are described in many places. If you want to turn to books, you can read The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, or Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill, or The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley. These are all classic studies with many firsthand descriptions of such encounters. But it would probably be better if you looked back on your own experience to see if you find anything that resembles what I’m talking about.
Sometimes the word revelation is used to describe these encounters. As I said before, if you have such an experience, all the doubts will go out of your head. You will not be bothered about creationism versus evolution or why God isn’t always a nice guy. You will believe. Or rather, you will not believe. You will know.
Encounters with the sacred have many features in common, but they also vary wildly. I have known people who have had these experiences while walking down the street on an ordinary day. One of the most famous of these revelations came to a shoemaker who happened once to glance at a glint of light coming off a pewter dish. Entranced, he stared at it for some time. It seemed to him, he said later, that he could see into the heart of things.
This happened in the year 1600. The man was a German named Jacob Boehme. He had a similar experience ten years later, about which he said, “The gate was opened to me that in one quarter of an hour I saw and knew more than if I had been many years together at a university.... For I saw and knew the being of all beings.”
Boehme wrote down his insights in books that still echo today. He is considered one of the great mystics of the West.
To take the groundwater analogy a step further, let’s say that there are places where it seems to arise more often. People are attracted to these places. They come repeatedly, and the place starts to become famous. More people come. Hotels and other accommodations are built for them. Someone notices that this water seems to surface more often at one time of the year than others, so the place attracts even more people then. These become regular occurrences, and, like everything else in human activity, they become somewhat formalized.
This groundwater does not belong to anybody. It cannot be owned. It comes and goes as it will, sometimes in a more or less predictable pattern, often unexpectedly. But the land around the spots where the water comes up can be owned; it is real estate just like anything else. The property is bought up, by the devout and by the shrewd, and they start to limit people’s access to the water. These owners set themselves on high. They say the water rises because of certain things that they themselves do. They will let others take part — if these others will do exactly what they say and pay them a price for the privilege.
This is a capsule summary of the history of religion.
One thing you may have noticed about my description so far is that this Spirit, this Ground of Being, does not sound very personal. In fact I feel more comfortable speaking of it in the neuter gender, rather than as he or she. Many sacred traditions do the same thing. The American Indians speak of the Great Spirit (Wakan Tanka in the language of the Lakota Sioux), the Chinese of the Tao (or “Way”), the Hindus of Brahman. These are not gods; they are ways of speaking of this Ground of Being.
Maybe we can see this Ground of Being from a wider angle still. Let’s look at one of the most famous mystical journeys of recent times: the near- death experience recounted by Eben Alexander in his best-selling book Proof of Heaven. In 2008 Alexander, a neurosurgeon, came down with a violent case of bacterial meningitis that put him in a coma for seven days. During this time (when, according to standard neurology, he should have been experiencing nothing at all), he had an elaborate and beautiful vision of worlds above our own. This is how he describes his experience of the deepest level:
“I continued forward and found myself entering an immense void, completely dark, infinite in size, yet also infinitely comforting.... The “voice” of this Being was warm and — odd as I know this may sound — personal. It understood humans, and it possessed the qualities we possess, only in infinitely greater measure. It knew me deeply and overflowed with qualities that all my life I’ve associated with human beings, and human beings alone: warmth, compassion, pathos... even irony and humor.”
I’ve interviewed Alexander myself, and I have no doubt of his sincerity and integrity. His vision has resonated so deeply with the American public partly because of its deep and intuitive truth. Alexander’s experience points to a Ground of Being that is both personal and impersonal.
Of course it is impersonal. How could it be otherwise? Do you really believe that God has an ego like ours to be vexed or coddled?
But I believe, precisely because this Spirit is infinite and has, for reasons of its own, generated beings like us who are persons, it can also understand and address us personally.
All of this may help us understand how our idea of a personal God comes out of a profound, universal, and true intuition.
Some will balk at using the word God, having all kinds of unpleasant associations with it. This is understandable, given what religion has become. They may call it Spirit, as I have above, or Mind, or Nature, or something completely different. It comes to much the same thing.
Clearly, then, some people do experience a transcendent reality that they equate with God. Boehme and Eben Alexander are two examples. In fact, I think religious experience is far more common than people generally believe. Sometimes it passes through so quickly that the mind does not grasp it. Sometimes it is so baffling, and so contrary to everything else we believe, that the mind forgets it. In other instances, the mind, unstable to begin with, distorts the experience and is distorted by it. Hence people may believe that they are God themselves. These cases, pathetic or grotesque, are common enough to give spiritual experience a bad name.
At any rate, for most of us these tastes of revelation are very fleeting, and we simply don’t know what to do with them. They are not enough to give us a coherent and meaningful worldview. In fact they’re just as likely to disturb the mind as to enlighten it. But still people need concepts and images that will enable them to conceive of this transcendent reality and integrate it into their daily lives. And here is where revelation as commonly understood comes in.
To go back to my earlier metaphor, let’s say that this groundwater of the Spirit erupts in an especially powerful way at a particular place in time. These are the revelations known to world history. Those who experience them have not only seen — and seen in a very powerful way — but they often believe that they are inspired to guide humanity in the right path.
Usually one individual encounters this eruption most directly and powerfully. He becomes the founder, the lawgiver. We could cite Moses on the mount, the coming of Christ, and the Prophet Muhammad’s encounters with the angel Gabriel, who gave him the Qur’an, as familiar examples. The lawgiver gives commandments about how to pray and how to live with your fellow humans in a decent and responsible way.
This eruption of the groundwater of the Spirit revives and nourishes the land around it for many years. Life becomes possible there. And the water continues to bubble up from time to time in varying quantities — sometimes enough for an individual only, sometimes for a group. But it bubbles up less and less over the centuries. Soon the land is all but dry again. Only the tiniest trickles of water appear from time to time, faint and perfunctory. But people still live on the land, remembering a time when the water was abundant. Some even eat dirt and tell themselves they are drinking water.
This could be said of all world civilizations, because all of them have been inspired by a religious impulse of one kind or another. The impulse comes with great force, then over the centuries it weakens. Its truths are diluted, its ideas are subtly changed, until it has only the faintest resemblance to what it originally was.
The spiritual teacher G. I. Gurdjieff, speaking to some students in Russia during World War I, put the matter this way:
“Imagine that we are sitting here talking of religions and that the maid Masha hears our conversation. She, of course, understands it in her own way and she repeats what she has understood to the porter Ivan. The porter Ivan again understands it in his own way and he repeats what he has understood to the coachman Peter next door. The coachman Peter goes to the country and recounts in the village what the gentry talk about in town. Do you think that what he recounts will at all resemble what we said? This is precisely the relation between existing religions and that which was their basis. You get teachings, traditions, prayers, rites, not at fifth but at twenty-fifth hand, and, of course, almost everything has been distorted beyond recognition and everything essential forgotten long ago.”
That this has happened to Christianity is beyond question. Much of contemporary scholarship is devoted to discussing these distortions over the centuries. The basic outlines are clear enough. But eventually we are led back to the question of what Christianity originally was and was meant to be. Unfortunately, here the details are very vague and the documentation very thin. The scholars then create an “original” or “primitive” Christianity that is based on their own preconceptions of what Christianity should be. The liberals paint a politically correct and socially conscious Jesus. The conservatives create a Jesus who upholds a moral order like that of the United States in, say, the mid-twentieth century. Few of these pictures can be taken seriously.
So we are very far from revelation, even though believers are told that what they are getting is pure revelation, faithful to the original, and that they dismiss it only with grave peril to their souls.
Such is the message; such are the advertisements. But people today are gorged on advertisements, so they stop believing and drop away. The only ones left are bigots and fanatics. This, too, tells us a great deal about the present state of religion.
In 1922 T. S. Eliot published his great poem The Waste Land. Most obviously it is about the spiritual and moral desolation of Europe after the catastrophe of World War I. But in its own way it is also about the desolation of Christianity. It too uses the metaphors of water and dryness to talk about this spiritual emptiness: “I will show you fear / In a handful of dust.”
The Waste Land was written almost a hundred years ago, but the situation today is the same. The desolation that Eliot speaks of is still here. It is part of the thrownness both of Christianity and of us.
To see where it might be possible to go from here, many starting points can be chosen. But one of the most useful may be to look at the central religious artifact of Christianity in the United States today: the Bible.
Reprinted from How God Became God: What Scholars are Really Saying About God and the Bible, by Richard Smoley, by arrangement with TarcherPerigee, a member of the Penguin Publishing Group, a Penguin Random House Company, Copyright © 2016, by Richard Smoley.