“Grandfather, look at our brokenness.
We know that in all creation
Only the human family
Has strayed from the Sacred Way.
We know that we are the ones who are divided,
And we are the ones who must come back together
To walk the Sacred Way.
“Grandfather, Sacred One,
Teach us love, compassion and honor
So we may heal the earth
And heal each other.”
It was September 21st, 2018, the 13th anniversary of my dear mom’s death after close to a decade of decline due to Alzheimer’s. I was doing one of my early-morning, long-distance bike rides, in the dark at about 5:45 in the morning. I had just finished pedaling up a longish hill and turned onto a long, straight road.
As is usual on my rides, my main mental focus was on the street in front of me and for the lights or sound of cars or trucks coming up behind me. Nothing of note had yet come into my brain, as always eventually happens on one of my hour and a half or longer rides.
For me, these rides are my form of meditation
I remember the thought coming into my mind that this was the day my mom had died 13 years ago. I had been thinking about her all week. Then, from out of nowhere, came the words to and melody of the song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”:
When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark
At the end of a storm
There’s a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark
Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown
Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk alone.
-Rodgers and Hammerstein, 1945
I don’t know how long it had been since I had heard or thought of this song. I know it’s at least six and a half years because that’s how long I’d been long-distance biking as of the time of this ride, and I can’t remember ever remembering it over that time. It could easily be 10, 20 or more years. But on this day, this special day for me and my two sisters and others who loved my mom, following several days of remembering her, this song arrived as a gift, as if my mom’s spirit was holding me close.
I was stupefied as I realized what was happening. My mouth dropped and I struggled to understand. My first thought was to wonder if this really was a spiritual revelation, an actual visit by my mom from the world beyond the physical world, “the great mystery” as some call it. My initial thoughts were along the lines of, “how could it be anything but this?” How could a song that had been essentially one of many tens of thousands that I’ve heard somewhere in my past but which has never been one which I’ve sung, called up from my memory or even hummed to myself—how could that song, so appropriate for this day, so strengthening, so profound, come to me in this way?
As I continued my ride, as I kept thinking about what was happening, my thoughts went deeper.
It’s true that “You’ll Never Walk Alone” wasn’t a song of any special personal significance. But I had been thinking about my mom all week. I guess I was feeling somewhat “alone,” missing her. It’s also true that it is when I’m on my bike that I often have my most insightful and creative thoughts. The combination of physical activity, being with myself only, inspiration from the things I see and a general openness to whatever comes from within as I ride—all of these make this the time when something very special might happen.
Further, I know from personal stories I have heard from people I trust and from things that I have read that my connecting-with-mom experience is not unique. I know that there is a transcendent, spiritual dimension to human existence that some, probably many, have experienced at some point in their lives but which is certainly not the daily reality for the vast majority of us. The daily struggle to survive, to work, to raise children, to keep a family together, to process everything which comes at us or which we hear about in our troubled world, to keep going in the face of widespread evil and injustice—these consume the spirits and emotions of most people. They tend to swallow up transcendent experiences we have, like when we are out in the natural world and experience a deep sense of connection to other forms of life and beauty. They prevent us from being able to open up to the things in the universe that seem to be “out there,” but which I’ve come to believe are really “in here.”
In virtually all religions a higher power, higher love, is seen as being something to be found not outside of our selves but within us. Jesus of Nazareth preached that what he called the “kingdom of God,” heaven, is something to be found by prayer, meditation, right conduct and action for and with others. “The kingdom of heaven is within you.”
Other religions say similar things:
“What the undeveloped man seeks is outside; what the advanced man seeks is within himself. Confucianism
“If you think the Law is outside yourself, you are embracing not the absolute Law but some inferior teaching. Buddhism
“God bides hidden in the hearts of all. Hinduism”
-from ONENESS: Great Principles Shared By All Religions
However, I know for a fact that there are people who do not believe in God who agree that there is something very significant within us that we can tap into that gives us wisdom, strength, understanding and compassion, which to me is pretty much what those who call themselves believers should embody. And I know for a fact that there are people who consider themselves atheists who live more “God-like” lives, are more considerate and caring, more willing to speak out against injustice, than many who consider themselves deeply religious believers of some kind.
Since this bike-ride spiritual experience, I’ve thought further about an alternative explanation to the “visit from mom” one.
As human beings have evolved, as we’ve learned more about the functioning of the brain, the concept of the unconscious has been theorized and examined. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the unconscious in this way: “the part of mental life that does not ordinarily enter the individual’s awareness yet may influence behavior and perception or be revealed (as in slips of the tongue or in dreams).”
Could it be that this song, this song so appropriate to how I was feeling, or wanting to feel, emerged into consciousness on this particular day because the conditions were ripe for it: me thinking about my mom all week—thinking in the moment about this being her birth day–on my bike alone in the early am when hardly anyone else was outside—physical activity which often stimulates my mind? Could this have been not a religious experience but an amazing example of the way in which we as human beings are wired, how we can experience life on a deeper level if the conditions are right?
Or is that deeper life experience what many people consider to be connecting with “God”?
These are the kind of questions this essay will dig into.
The Question of Death
Would human societies, tens of thousands of years ago, have developed the concept of a Higher Power or Powers, if not for the fact that we are mortal; we all die? Possibly, given the wonders of the natural world, the miracles of creation, and the awe and reverence that they bring forth in many of us, but there’s little question, based on historical and anthropological research, that death also had much to do with the development of spiritual and mystical beliefs.
If a way were found to conquer death, it is likely that attendance at regular religious services would drop considerably. One of the major functions of organized religion, as well as spirituality in general, is to help people come to grips with, to rationalize and move on from, the suffering and death of loved ones.
Christianity, for example, the organized religion I am most knowledgeable about from personal experience and study, provides a definitive answer to the death question: there is spiritual life after death. Part of Christianity’s appeal is that at the heart of its teachings is the overcoming of death as represented by the death and resurrection of Jewish prophet, teacher, humanitarian and rebel Jesus of Nazareth. In this theology, Jesus has overcome death and given human beings hope that even after their earthly existence has ended, there is a higher form of existence, eternal life, that is so much better than what people experience here on earth. And this “heaven” is available to all who lives good and decent lives, all who “love their neighbor as themselves.”
In the words of prominent liberation theology writer, Leonardo Boff, “He (Jesus) was taken for insane, subversive, possessed, a heretic, an atheist. He was rejected in the name of the God that religious culture had constructed and in the name of the humanism that non-humanism had erected. The manner in which Jesus accepted this conflict, assimilated this crisis, bore his cross, and underwent death shows once more his profound humanity. He does not flee, he does not turn his back, he does not concede. . . To die thus is a worthy thing. It liberates the human person from the dominion exercised by death over life. Death no longer has the last word. There are values for which it is worthy to give one’s life. Death is embraced in a project that reaches beyond this life; thus, it is overcome and integrated. Because Jesus submitted to everyone, he conquered everyone. He became Lord. But he became Lord not by imposing his power, divine or human, on another. He became Lord through service and through love without limit.” – Boff, Leonardo, “Faith on the Edge,” p. 150
Other religions do not have the same theology, but they do address this question and provide answers of some kind. Buddhism, for example, postulated that “one could escape the terror of aging, sickness and death by withdrawing one’s concerns for or anxieties about them – no long desiring youth, health or even life itself. By withdrawing in this manner, one gave karma nothing to which to cling, for desire was the means by which karma kept the personality on the wheel of dying and rebirth. Removing desire therefore took away karma’s hold.” – Carmody, Denise L. and John T., “Ways to the Center: An Introduction to World Religions,” p. 140
Archaeological research has shown that mystical beliefs about gods and goddesses go back tens of thousands of years and were widespread among human beings. Burial sites have been found containing things of value such as beads and shells, with one interpretation being that this was done to be of benefit to whatever spirits the deceased might encounter after death. “About 47,000 years ago, Homo sapiens, who had always looked like us, now began to behave like us as well. After that time their sites are flush with carvings, figurines, and other art. They performed elaborate burials. They decorated their bodies and clothes with shells, beads, and the teeth of animals.” The Cave Painters, Gregory Curtis, p. 29
In the seminal book, The Chalice and the Blade, by Riane Eisler, published in 1988, Eisler explains it this way:
“Preserved in a cave sanctuary for over twenty thousand years, a female figure speaks to us about the minds of our early Western ancestors. She is small and carved out of stone: one of the so-called Venus figures found all over prehistoric Europe. . . Along with their wall paintings, cave sanctuaries, and burial sites, the female figures of the peoples of the Paleolithic are important psychic records. They attest to our forebears’ awe at both the mystery of life and the mystery of death. They indicate that very early in human history the human will to live found expression and reassurance through a variety of rituals and myths that seem to have been associated with the still widely held belief that the dead can return to life through rebirth.” (pps. 1-2)
Eisler goes on: “[This] all seems to have been related to a belief that the same sources from which human life springs is also the source of all vegetable and animal life—the great Mother Goddess or Giver of All we still find in later periods of Western civilization. They also suggest that our early ancestors recognized that we and our natural environment are integrally linked parts of the great mystery of life and death and that all nature must therefore be treated with respect. . . Central to that lost heritage is the apparent awe and wonder at the great miracle of our human condition: the miracle of birth incarnated in woman’s body. Judging from these early psychic records, this was a central theme of prehistoric Western systems of belief.” (p. 3)
Prominent religious historian and scholar Karen Armstrong, in her excellent book, A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, published in 1993, writes along similar lines: “The numinous power was sensed by human beings in different ways – sometimes it inspired wild, bacchanalian excitement; sometimes a deep calm; sometimes people felt dread, awe and humility in the presence of the mysterious force inherent in every aspect of life. The symbolic stories, cave paintings and carvings were an attempt to express their wonder and to link this pervasive mystery with their own lives; indeed, poets, artists and musicians are often impelled by a similar desire today. In the Paleolithic period, for example, when agriculture was developing, the cult of the Mother Goddess expressed a sense that the fertility which was transforming human life was actually sacred.” (p. 5)
Such beliefs and cultural practices have not completely disappeared. Among Indigenous people throughout the world, these beliefs, in general terms and not always fully realized, have continued within those cultures, particularly the importance of spiritual connection to the natural world, respect for all life forms and an approach of partnership between men and women as far as who provides societal leadership. And these spiritual/cultural beliefs and practices have been consciously taken up by non-Indigenous people in growing numbers as the dominant economic, political, cultural and religious institutions are failing a large percentage of the world’s peoples and our severely stressed natural environment, our land, air, water and climate, upon whose health all life forms are dependent.
The Origins of “God”
According to Karen Armstrong in “A History of God,” “the idea of our God gradually emerged about 14,000 years ago” (p. 4), but it wasn’t until the successful uprising of the Hebrew people in Egypt, she says, 4,000 years ago, that conditions developed for the kind of “God” which humanity has been both worshiping and contending with ever since, sometimes in extremely negative and destructive ways. Here is how she summarizes what took place over many millennia in what we call the Middle East:
“In more primitive [Paleolithic] societies, women were sometimes held in higher esteem than men. The prestige of the great goddesses in traditional religion reflects the veneration of the female. The rise of the cities, however, meant that the more masculine qualities of martial, physical strength were exalted over female characteristics. Henceforth women were marginalized and became second-class citizens in the new civilizations. . . After [the Israelite patriarchal God] Yahweh had successfully vanquished the other gods and goddesses of Canaan and the Middle East and become the only God, his religion would be managed almost entirely by men. The cult of the goddess would be superseded, and this would be a symptom of a cultural change that was characteristic of the newly civilized world.” (p. 50)
Armstrong connects the spread of this patriarchal, warlike God 3,000 years ago with changing social and economic conditions: “The period 800-200 BC has been termed the Axial Age. In all the main regions of the civilized world, people created new ideologies that have continued to be crucial and formative. The new religious systems reflected the changed economic and social conditions. For reasons that we do not entirely understand, all the chief civilizations developed along parallel lines, even when there was no commercial contact (as between China and the European area). There was a new prosperity that led to the rise of a merchant class. Power was shifting from king and priest, temple and palace, to the marketplace. . . Inequality and exploitation became more apparent as the pace of change accelerated in the cities and people began to realize that their own behavior could affect the fate of future generations. Each region developed a distinctive ideology to address these problems and concerns: Taoism and Confucianism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India and philosophical rationalism in Europe. The Middle East did not produce a uniform solution, but in Iran and Israel, Zoroaster and the Hebrew prophets respectively evolved different versions of monotheism. Strange as it may seem, the idea of ‘God,’ like the other great religious insights of the period, developed in a market economy in a spirit of aggressive capitalism.” (p. 27)
The contradiction between the historically-grounded, religious ideas of connection and respect for nature and a sharing among both men and women of the responsibility for protecting and strengthening human societies, on the one hand, and the inequality and exploitation emerging as the reality of economic and social life did not go unnoticed. Among the Hebrew people, for example and in particular, prophets emerged to criticize and call to account the oppressive leaders and the people who were following them.
Beginning when I was very young, I was exposed to the Hebrew prophets. My parents were regular church-goers. Every Sunday from a very early age which I don’t remember, I was taken to a local Church of the Brethren. This continued until we moved when I was 16 to a part of the country where there wasn’t such a church. When I went off to college a year later, and then for 16 more years, the times when I went to church on Sunday were very minimal.
My general recollection of those days in relation to what I thought of the prophets is that I appreciated their moral outrage toward injustice. But it wasn’t until a few years ago, when I finally read, at the age of 66, for the first time ever, the Bible from beginning to end that I read about not just the prophets but everything else in the Bible.
I had tried to do so in the past. Once I was in solitary confinement in prison for anti-war draft resistance during the Vietnam War, and the only book in my cell was the Bible. I tried to read it then but couldn’t; the first books of the Bible, the Old Testament books, were boring and irrelevant to my life.
However, after my father died in 2015, and after I found his personal Bible full of underlinings and hand-written comments all throughout it, I decided to make another effort, and this time I succeeded.
The Bible which I was able to read from beginning to end, over 2,000 pages, was “The New Oxford Annotated Bible, with the Acoprypha, New Revised Standard Version.” Again, I didn’t choose this particular version of the Bible, I read it because it was my father’s.
What were the main takeaways from this reading?
Not Blown Away
I remember feeling in the days immediately after I had finished it not particularly moved by the experience. I was especially turned off by much of what was in the Old Testament. A primary aspect of the story told there is that the Hebrew people, after their escape from slavery in Egypt, had successfully annihilated numerous non-Hebrew peoples in wars of conquest and had taken over their land. Their God was portrayed very definitively as a God who wanted them to kill not just enemy soldiers but women and children, often wiping out in apparently genocidal ways the peoples they defeated.
Sometimes it wasn’t just other peoples. In Exodus 32, verses 25-29, Moses is portrayed as a murderous tyrant: “When Moses saw that the people were running wild (for Aaron had let them run wild, to the derision of their enemies), then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, ‘Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me!’ And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. He said to them, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend and your neighbor.’ The sons of Levi did as Moses commanded, and about three thousand of the people fell on that day. Moses said, ‘Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of a son or a brother, and so have brought a blessing on yourselves this day.’”
There was also, of course, sexism throughout, sometimes very blatantly as in the book of Sirach, one of the fifteen books, or portions of books, found in the Apocrypha. These books did not make the cut for the version of the Bible found in much of Christianity west of Rome, though they are found in the Greek version of the Old Testament.
I was impressed with much of the clearly stated wisdom about how to live a good, Godly life in Sirach, but was also struck by occasional verses like this one from chapter 25, verse 24: “From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die.”
Some of the many positive aphorisms and life wisdom found in Sirach:
3: 17-18: Perform your tasks with humility, then you will be loved by those who God accepts. The greater you are, the more you must humble yourself.
4: 1-4: Do not cheat the poor of their living, and do not keep needy eyes waiting. Do not grieve the hungry, or anger one in need. Do not add to the troubles of the desperate, or delay giving to the needy. Do not reject a supplicant in distress, or turn your face away from the poor.
4: 23-24: Do not refrain from speaking at the proper moment, and do not hide your wisdom. For wisdom becomes known through speech, and education through the words of the tongue.
6: 14-16: Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter: whoever finds one has found a treasure. Faithful friends are beyond price; no amount can balance their worth. Faithful friends are life-giving medicine; and those who fear the Lord will find them.
25:1: I take pleasure in three things, and they are beautiful in the sight of God and of mortals: agreement among brothers and sisters, friendship among neighbors, and a wife and a husband who live in harmony.
31: 5-6: One who loves gold will not be justified; one who pursues money will be led astray by it. Many have come to ruin because of gold, and their destruction has met them face to face.
37: 16-18: Discussion is the beginning of every work, and counsel precedes every undertaking. The mind is the root of all conduct; it sprouts four branches, good and evil, life and death; and it is the tongue that continually rules them.
The entire chapter 43 is one of the most poetic Bible descriptions of the power and the glory of Nature. A few examples:
Verse 2: The sun, when it appears, proclaims as it rises what a marvelous instrument it is, the work of the Most High.
Verse 9: The glory of the stars is the beauty of heaven, a glittering array in the heights of the Lord.
Verse 11: Look at the rainbow, and praise him who made it; it is exceedingly beautiful in its brightness.
Verses 17-18: He scatters the snow like birds flying down, and its descent is like locusts alighting. The eye is dazzled by the beauty of its whiteness, and the mind is amazed as it falls.
The two other parts of the Old Testament that I was most impressed by were the books of the prophets, particularly Isaiah, but also Jeremiah, Amos and Micah, and the book of Job.
Micah contains my favorite Bible verse, chapter 6: 8: “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” I first heard and took note of this at a funeral service in the 1980’s for one of my uncles, Don Glick, for whom this was his favorite verse, and I’ve treasured it and tried to live by it ever since.
Micah is also the book of the Bible which contains the famous words in chapter 4: 3-4: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; but they shall sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.”
I know that my father had a special affinity for the book of Job, and I can understand why. In the words of the intro to it, it “probes the depths of faith in the midst of suffering,” and my dad was fully aware of and took seriously the extent of evil and injustice in the world.
Job experiences one calamity after the other, and he struggles with his belief in God. The book ends with God speaking to Job. God reveals that “he is fully aware of evil. At the same time the Lord cares for Job so much that he reveals himself personally and shares with him the vision of cosmic responsibilities. A God who confesses his burdens to a human being is a God who is profoundly involved in human destiny. He is also a God who respects human independence, who wishes to have the free gift of human service, and towards that end there is the testing of human beings.” (introduction to book of Job, p. 625)
I recently watched a dvd movie, An Interview with God. One of the issues dealt with in the movie is the question of why bad things happen to good people, what kind of a God would allow that to happen. I thought about how I would answer that question as I rode my bike the next morning.
The book of Job doesn’t really give a good answer to it. I believe that is so because of the concept of “God” all throughout the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, as an entity that personally knows about, directs and guides individual human behavior.
My answer to the question would be this: that the creation of the universe out of which human beings on earth have evolved over many millions of years has been both a creative and a destructive process, and as it continues to evolve that continues to be true. Human beings may or may not be of significance to this mysterious process. Hopefully we are, but we don’t know that. What we do know is that as part of this destructive/creative process, we have become creatures with a conscience, with an inclination and an ability to love and care about others, not just others of our species but all life forms. Indeed, despite all of the evil and suffering and injustice in the world, I believe the human race as a whole is trying to move toward more just, more love-based and more egalitarian societies in touch with Nature.
Even bad things like Trump as President are likely part of this process, in ways that we are seeing through the massive resistance to him and his destructive policies, resistance which could well lead to the kind of social change that will move us to a higher societal level.
Our role as human beings on earth is not to let bad things paralyze us, or good things swell our heads, but to “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly” with The Great, Unknown, Creative Force Which Rules the Universe.
The First Coming
When I read my father’s Bible, I didn’t just read the Old Testament. I also read the New Testament. There wasn’t much new or of special note, however, to me. I had read or had heard others reading it many times going back to my childhood.
The one exception is language in the book of Acts describing how the early Christians lived as small-c communists. I knew about this being a fact from other reading I had done, but to see what I had read elsewhere confirmed in the original source book was good to see. Here are the two quotations:
Acts 2: 44-45: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
Acts 4: 32-35: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”
As someone whose personal politics is of the socialist variety, these Bible verses and the reality of early Christianity for many decades functioning in this way is personally strengthening and an important thing.
I had an unforgettable experience as a young man of about 20 with my paternal grandfather along these lines. Granddaddy Glick was a very special person to me and many others who knew him. I was visiting him and my grandmother with my parents and, as usual, was talking with him about what I was doing with my life and what I believed. He always wanted to know those things when we visited.
I said something along the lines of how I was working for a more just society where society’s resources were shared more equally. Granddaddy nodded and said, referencing the Virginia Shenandoah Valley farm community where he lived for just about all of his life, “Yes, I’ve often thought about how wrong it is for one family to have a big house and much land and other families are poor and struggling, that this should be changed.” I excitedly told my mom afterwards, giving my interpretation of what he had said, that “granddaddy is a socialist,” which he definitely was not in any conscious way.
What do I believe as far as Jesus and the resurrection, the fundamental theological principle of organized Christianity? What I believe was very influenced by a book written by Thomas Sheehan, a former professor of philosophy at Loyola University in Chicago, and published in 1986: The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity.
Sheehan analyzes the Gospel texts and other original source material about Jesus’ life, words and teachings, and those of his apostles who were responsible for carrying on his work. Of particular note to me as I have studied The First Coming is his analysis of the resurrection stories.
I don’t think I have ever believed that Jesus bodily rose from earth into heaven, much less that he is “up there” sitting at the right hand of “God” for all time. I definitely don’t believe that now.
What I have believed, and still do, is that a person can “live on” in the hearts and minds of others long after they have died if they have lived a memorable and worthwhile life. I have relatives and friends who believe in reincarnation, very intelligent people with their feet on the ground, but so far, I haven’t joined their ranks. And at this point in my life I’m agnostic on the question of if there is spiritual life after death [see Proof of Heaven discussion below].
Sheehan scientifically makes the case that though there were “appearances” (spiritual) to Jesus’ apostles after his physical death, there was no bodily resurrection. On page 160 he writes, “As late as 70 AD, when Mark wrote his Gospel [the first written story about Jesus] an ‘appearance’ still meant a ‘revelation from God’s eschaton,’ and it did not necessarily have to have physical or visual connotations. As far as we can tell, no written descriptions of apparitions of Jesus were available at that time, only simple formulae such as ‘Jesus appeared.’”
But Sheehan’s book is about much more than the deconstruction of the resurrection story. For Sheehan, “Jesus unleashed within Judaism a radically personal eschatology that was fulfilled in a new interpersonal ethic. . .
“The heart of Jesus’ message is summarized in the strikingly simple name with which he addressed the divine: ‘Abba,’ the Aramaic world for ‘papa’ (Mark 14:36). This familial usage, which underlies all Jesus’ references to ‘the Father,’ was a shock to the then current idea of God. Second Temple Judaism tended to see Yahweh as a distant and almost impersonal Sovereign whose presence to mankind required the mediation of angels, the Law, and the complexities of religious ritual.” (p. 59)
Sheehan goes on: “The radicalness of Jesus’ message consisted in its implied proclamation of the end of religion, taken as the bond between two separate and incommensurate entities called ‘God’ and ‘man.’ Henceforth, according to the prophet from Galilee, the Father was not to be found in a distant heaven but was entirely identified with the cause of men and women. He had poured himself out, had disappeared into mankind and could be found nowhere else but there.” (p, 61)
“The vocation of Jesus and his followers was to live God’s dawning presence – not up above in heaven or up ahead in an apocalyptic future, but there in their midst, at the edge of things where security unravels into risk, at the center of things where common sense is challenged by the wager that henceforth God is found only among men and women. . . Jesus [brought] to light in a fresh way what had always been the case but what had been forgotten or obscured by religion. His role was simply to end religion – that temporary governess who had turned into a tyrant – and restore the sense of the immediacy of God (p. 68). . . not God as a nationalistic deity who intervened in history on Israel’s behalf, nor as the somewhat legal-minded divinity of the Pharisees, nor as some apocalyptic avenger who would soon destroy the world. Jesus preached God as a loving Father who was already reigning among his people. It was an eschatological message with a minimum of apocalyptic baggage.” (p. 161)
This is the Jesus and the God with which I have felt a connection for a long time, since the miraculous birth and growth of my son Daniel in 1983. At the same time, I have continued to have my doubts about the concept of Heaven, as taught by mainstream Christianity and propagated by other religions.
Proof of Heaven
In the fall of 2012, to much public fanfare, a book was published which put a dent into my “heaven skepticism.” It was called Proof of Heaven, it was written by a prominent neurosurgeon, Eben Alexander, and it was on the New York Times bestseller list for 97 straight weeks, many of them in the #1 position.
I was intrigued as I heard about his story, and I was impacted by reading the book.
Eben Alexander was an MD since 1980 and a practicing neurosurgeon on the faculty of Harvard Medical School for 15 years. He also “authored or coauthored more than 150 chapters and papers for peer-reviewed medical journals and presented my findings at more than two hundred medical conferences around the world. In short, I devoted myself to science.” (p. 8) Elsewhere he explains that “my decades in the rigorous scientific world of academic neurosurgery had profoundly called into question how [God and Heaven and an afterlife] could exist. (p. 34). . . This approach left very little room for the soul and the spirit, for the continuing existence of a personality after the brain that supported it stopped functioning. It left even less room for those words I’d heard in church again and again: ‘life everlasting.’” (p. 36)
Alexander tells about his being stricken with a very severe case of spinal meningitis in 2008 from which he made a miraculous recovery after being in a coma for a week. He reports that he was so far gone that he was only days away from being unplugged from everything keeping him alive when, all of a sudden, he opened his eyes and began to speak.
The real miracle, however, as he tells it, is what he experienced while in a coma during which, “my brain wasn’t working improperly—it wasn’t working at all. . . I was encountering the reality of a world of consciousness that existed completely free of the limitations of my physical brain. (page 9, emphasis is Alexander’s)
Alexander goes on to summarize the importance of what happened to him: “My experience showed me that the death of the body and the brain are not the end of consciousness, that human experience continues beyond the grave. More important, it continues under the gaze of a God who loves and cares about each one of us and about where the universe itself and all the beings within it are ultimately going.” (p. 9)
During his coma, Alexander reports that he first experienced something like “darkness, but a visible darkness—like being submerged in mud yet also being able to see it.” (p 29) Eventually, he began to hear music, “a pure white light descended” and “I began to move up. There was a whooshing sound, and in a flash I went through [an] opening and found myself in a completely new world. The strangest, most beautiful world I’d ever seen.” (p 38)
He explains this heavenly world, and then he explains a connection to a God-like being that somehow let him know that “love lay at the center of [all the universe(s)]. Evil was present but only in the tiniest trace amounts. Evil was necessary because without it free will was impossible, and without free will there could be no growth—no forward movement, no chance for us to become what God longed for us to be. Horrible and all-powerful as evil sometimes seemed to be in a world like ours, in the larger picture love was overwhelmingly dominant, and it would ultimately be triumphant.” (p. 48)
His description of heaven and the things he learned were hard to believe but also something I sure hoped was true. Those hopes only grew stronger as he explained more of his thinking about life and death and the afterlife and how he had changed after his Near Death Experience (NDE).
“For all of the successes of Western civilization, the world has paid a dear price in terms of the most crucial component of existence—our human spirit. The shadow side of high technology—modern warfare and thoughtless homicide and suicide, urban blight, ecological mayhem, cataclysmic climate change, polarization of economic resources—is bad enough. Much worse, our focus on exponential progress in science and technology has left many of us relatively bereft in the realm of meaning and joy, and of knowing how our lives fit into the grand scheme of existence for all eternity. . . (p. 152)
“Each of us are intricately, irremovably connected to the larger universe. It is our true home, and thinking that the physical world is all that matters is like shutting oneself up in a small closet and imagining that there is nothing else out beyond it. . . This other, vastly grander universe isn’t ‘far away.’ It’s right here, right now, but we’re unaware of it because we are for the most part closed to those frequencies on which it manifests. . . I came [to understand] just how blind to the full nature of the spiritual universe we are on earth—especially people like I had been, who had believed that matter was the core reality, and that all else—thought, consciousness, ideas, emotions, spirit—were simply productions of it. . . At the end of the day, we each have to go deep into our own consciousness, through prayer or meditation, to access these truths.” (pps. 155-158)
For a few years after reading Proof of Heaven, and after reading more about the phenomenon of Near Death Experiences, I found myself sometimes feeling more hopeful about my personal future. I felt that, no matter what trials and tribulations I have to go through in the years remaining for me, the odds look much better that, indeed, my death will end up being a great adventure, something to actually look forward to.
I also found myself feeling more hopeful about the prospects for us here on earth. As Alexander himself reflected on, it is hard to see what happened to him as a coincidence: “If what I’d undergone had happened to someone—anyone—else, it would have been remarkable enough. But that it had happened to me [a prominent, religiously skeptical brain surgeon]. . . When I added up the sheer unlikelihood of all the details—and especially when I considered how precisely perfect a disease E. coli meningitis was for taking my cortex down, and my rapid and complete recovery from almost certain destruction—I simply had to take seriously the possibility that it really and truly had happened for a reason.” (p. 144)
The fact that Proof of Heaven was on the New York Times bestseller list for almost two years was very hopeful, an indication that, perhaps, Alexander’s ideas are “ideas whose time has come.”
Today, in 2019, I’m frankly more skeptical of Alexander’s heaven story. I agree with what he wrote about the importance of prayer and meditation and about the need for openness to, if not actual pursuit of, spiritual, cosmic truths and insights. But not having experienced an NDE or anything remotely close to what Alexander describes as happening during his coma, I just don’t have a basis to believe it. If I knew him or others who had experienced something similar, I might see it differently, but I don’t.
And that’s OK. Believing in a heavenly place would certainly be reassuring, but it’s not an essential requirement for us to do the right, love-grounded things here on earth that we can and must do, as a species, if life on earth is going to continue and thrive.
Einstein’s Cosmic Religion
There is a much more famous scientist than neurosurgeon Alexander who had important ideas of his own about the relationship between science and religion/spirituality: Albert Einstein.
Here is one of his most well-known statements about religion:
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle.
“It was the experience of mystery—even if mixed with fear—that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms—it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.” (p. 11, Einstein’s God: A Way of Being Spiritual Without the Supernatural, by Todd Macalister)
Einstein had an historical understanding of religion as going through three stages over the millennia of time for human beings. The first stage, he believed, came about for “primitive man” because of “fear that evokes religious notions, fear of hunger, wild beasts, sickness, and death.” Homo sapiens, or earlier homo species, created “imaginary beings” to which to pray and offer sacrifices in the hope and belief that this would improve their chances to stay healthy, to stay alive. Einstein calls this first stage of the development of religion “the religion of fear.” (Einstein and Religion, by Max Jammer, p. 76)
The second stage in the development of religion is, according to Einstein, ‘”found in the social feelings. Fathers and mothers, as well as leaders of great human communities, are fallible and mortal. The longing for guidance, for love and succor, provides the stimulus for the growth of a social or moral conception of God. This is the God of Providence, who protects, decides, rewards and punishes. This is the God who, according to man’s widening horizon, loves and provides for the life of the race, or of mankind, or who even loves life itself. He is the comforter in unhappiness and in unsatisfied longing, the protector of the souls of the dead. This is the social or moral idea of God.” (Einstein: On Cosmic Religion and Other Opinions & Aphorisms, Dover Publications, pps. 45-46)
“An important advance in the life of a people is the transformation of the religion of fear into the moral religion. All are mixed forms, though the moral element predominates in the higher levels of social life.” (ibid, p. 47)
Einstein saw the Old and New Testaments as prominent examples of stage one, the religion of fear, evolving into stage two, the religion of morality, both of which see their conception of God as having human attributes.
“Only exceptionally gifted individuals or especially noble communities rise essentially above this level; in these there is found a third level of religious experience, even if it is seldom found in a pure form. I will call it the cosmic religious sense. The individual feels the vanity of human desires and aims, and the nobility and marvelous order which are revealed in nature and in the world of thought. He feels the individual destiny as an imprisonment and seeks to experience the totality of existence as a unity full of significance. Indications of this cosmic religious sense can be found even on earlier levels of development—for example, in the Psalms of David and in the Prophets. The cosmic element is much stronger in Buddhism.” (ibid, p. 48)
How did Einstein with his belief in what he called “cosmic religion” see the relationship between science and religion? I was surprised by some of what he wrote about this huge issue.
Einstein believed that serious scientists inevitably must come to believe in a mysterious, unknown, higher power in the universe. He wrote, “every one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe – a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.” (Jammer, p. 144)
This is not how the late, prominent scientist Steven Hawking saw the issue. As reported in the Washington Post on March 14, 2018, he said during an interview with El Mundo in 2014: “Before we understand science, it is natural to believe that God created the universe. But now science offers a more convincing explanation. What I meant by ‘we would know the mind of God’ is, we would know everything that God would know, if there were a God, which there isn’t. I’m an atheist.”
Einstein was not an atheist. He saw a direct connection between knowledge of nature and belief in a higher power: “Einstein agreed with Spinoza that he who knows Nature knows God, but not because Nature is God but because the pursuit of science in studying Nature leads to religion. In the terminology of theology, Einstein’s religion may therefore be called a naturalistic theology according to which knowledge of God can be obtained by observing the visible processes of nature, but with the proviso that the manifestation of the divine in the universe is only partially comprehensible to the human intellect.” (Jammer, pps. 148-149)
These beliefs probably played a role in Einstein’s apparent appreciation of Indigenous cultures. In 1948 he wrote an essay, “Religion and Science: Irreconcilable?,” in the context of which he was very critical of the hypocrisy of organized religion “prescribing brotherly love” but, instead, “everywhere, in economic as well as in political life, the guiding principle is one of ruthless striving for success at the expense of one’s fellow men. . .’
“To show that this deplorable situation is not a necessity of nature Einstein referred to certain so-called primitive cultures, like that of the Pueblo Indians of Arizona or New Mexico, who lived under the hardest living conditions and still, ‘accomplished the difficult task of delivering its people from the scourge of competitive spirit and of fostering in it a temperate, cooperative conduct of life, free of external pressure and without any curtailment of happiness.’” (Jammer, pps. 116-117)
Einstein, the most famous scientist of the 20th century, did not see science as able to do what religion tries to do, teach an ethical and moral approach to daily life. In a 1930 interview in Berlin, he said, “’You cannot speak of the scientific foundations of morality.’ For science, Einstein continued, cannot teach men to be moral and ‘every attempt to reduce ethics to scientific formulae must fail.’” (Jammer, p. 69)
“According to Einstein, even science at an advanced stage, cannot define, let alone commend, ethical values. For science is confined to what is and ethics to what should be, and no path leads from the knowledge of what is to the knowledge of what should be.” (Jammer, p. 52)
In 1951, he wrote, “A positive aspiration and effort for an ethical-moral configuration of our common life is of overriding importance. Here no science can save us. I believe, indeed, that over-emphasis on the purely intellectual attitude, often directed solely to the practical and factual, had led directly to the impairment of ethical value. . . What we call science has the sole purpose of determining what is. The determining of what ought to be is unrelated to it and cannot be accomplished methodically. The determination of ethical aims is beyond its scope.” (Jammer, p. 119-120)
For Einstein, religion at its best is about those things, “concerned with man’s attitude toward nature at large, with the establishing of ideals for the individual and communal life, and with mutual human relationship.” (Jammer, p. 115)
However, Einstein did not believe in what he called a “personal God.” One of his clearest statements to this effect was in an interview in 1954 by William Hermanns: “I cannot prove to you that there is no personal God, but if I were to speak of him, I would be a liar. I do not believe in the God of theology who rewards good and punishes evil. My God created laws that take care of that. His universe is not ruled by wishful thinking, but by immutable laws.” (Jammer, p. 123) Elsewhere he wrote that he does not admit a “God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation and whose purposes are modeled after our own.” (p. 47)
One of his most stark statements on this issue was what he said in a letter to a Leo Szilard in the late 1920’s: “As long as you pray to God and ask him for some benefit, you are not a religious man.” Given some of his later, less harsh statements, and looking at his overall views on the general subjects of God and morality, it is hard not to see this as an overstatement.
I am personally intrigued by, even drawn toward, Einstein’s cosmic religion perspective. For a very long time, going back several decades, I have described what I think of as God in this way: The Great, Unknown, Creative Force That Rules the Universe.
However, that belief doesn’t obviate the importance of personal connection with that creative, unknown, universal force. I can identify with Jesus’ teaching that “the Kingdom of God is within you,” meaning, for me, that through prayer and/or meditation, we can and, indeed, need to connect with our conscience, with the best within us, with the higher values and ethics without which we as individuals and human society cannot progress.
I wasn’t much of a “pray-er” growing up in the church and into my early 20s. However, in 1972, when I joined with others in what ended up being a 40 day hunger strike/fast for an end to the Vietnam War, I began to understand what Mohandus Gandhi meant when he said that “fasting is the sincerest form of prayer.” Fasting then, and my fasts since, have always become spiritual journeys, no matter the reason for doing them. As I have weakened physically day after day, I have felt a connection to all of those who suffer from hunger because of poverty, racism and/or oppression. I have identified with them and with suffering humanity in general in a much more profound way than when I am eating normally and feeling strong.
In many ways, to me, “spiritual” means connection, to others, to nature, to those who have come before and passed on, to those coming after me to whom I have a responsibility to live my life in a way which will be of value to those who know me or come to learn about me.
Howard Thurman, an African American minister and writer who was part of the civil rights/Black Freedom movement and whose writings were special to Martin Luther King, Jr., has written movingly about the importance of each of us having an “inward center:”
“[Jesus] recognized fully that out of the heart are the issues of life and that no external force, however great and overwhelming, can at long last destroy a people if it does not first win the victory of the spirit against them. Jesus saw this with almighty clarity. Again and again he came back to the inner life of the individual. With increasing insight and startling accuracy he placed his finger on the ‘inward center’ as the crucial arena where the issues would determine the destiny of his people.” (Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 11)
In a sermon preached on September 2, 1951, Thurman spoke about this process in a decidedly non-religious way:
“The restlessness of our age, the churning tumult of our times, the quiet frustrations and the riotous frustrations in the midst of which we live, all these surround us in the quietness, and yet we recognize the privilege of unhurried contemplation, of laying ourselves bare to the searching processes of singleness of mind, the privilege of becoming aware of needs of which we are scarcely conscious in our fevered rush, the privilege of hearing voices that need not speak above a whisper in our hearts, pointing us to the way that we should take in the midst of our own problems and responsibilities, our own hopes, and our own fears. The time of regaining of quiet. The time of searching of heart. The time of regaining of perspective. The time of lifting of hopes about ourselves and the world. The time of insight. The time of the renewal of courage.” (Sermons on the Parables, p. 5)
For Thurman, this “time of regaining of quiet” is the way to connect with God: “It is at this level, it seems to me, that man has his primary and most basic encounter with God. And so many things of which we are not aware when we are living at a more superficial level, we become aware of in the stillness, when all the noises, the interior noises, are quieted.” (ibid, p. 120)
I have found through personal interactions and through reading over the years that the cultures of Native, Indigenous peoples and their belief in what they call a Great Spirit is much in tune with my beliefs. They believe in prayer. I once found a quote about this that I’ve never forgotten: “Every step was a prayer of thanksgiving.” That is a deeply spiritual life.
One of my favorite poems is this one from a Chief Yellow Lark, published in God Makes the Rivers to Flow: Sacred literature of the world, edited by Eknath Easwaran:
Let Me Walk in Beauty
O Great Spirit,
whose voice I hear in the winds
and whose breath gives life to all the world,
I am small and weak.
I need your strength and wisdom.
Let me walk in beauty
and let my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset.
Make my hands respect the things you have made
and my ears grow sharp to hear your voice.
Make me wise so that I may understand the things
you have taught my people.
Let me learn the lessons you have hidden
in every leaf and rock.
I seek strength not to be greater than my brother or sister
but to fight my greatest enemy, myself.
Make me always ready
to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes
So when life fades as the fading sunset
my spirit may come to you without shame.
Does God Exist, and Does It Matter?
So, how do I answer those two questions?
As far as God’s existence, I believe there is a spiritual force in the universe, but it is not something that I or anyone else can prove scientifically. What can be said, however, is that the human race has tens of thousands of years of experience with belief in God, whether voluntarily or through societal or other kinds of compulsion, and this fact cannot be discounted. It is in that sociological sense that I would say that for much of humankind there is an entity which goes by the name of “God” that is part of our history and which continues to evolve in concept as human society progresses.
A recent study backs up this point of view. Released in April of 2018, it reported that: “A new Pew Research Center survey of more than 4,700 U.S. adults finds that one-third of Americans say they do not believe in the God of the Bible, but that they do believe there is some other higher power or spiritual force in the universe. A slim majority of Americans (56%) say they believe in God ‘as described in the Bible.’ And one-in-ten do not believe in any higher power or spiritual force.”
So my short answer about God’s existence is: “No one knows, but belief in God definitely exists big-time.”
The much more important question is whether belief in God or a higher spiritual force matters.
When I began writing this essay, I expected that what I would say in answer to that question would be something like this: “No, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that individuals take seriously the living of an ethical, humane, conscious life that does justice, loves kindness and is humble.” There are definitely atheists, people who do not believe in God, who live such lives and are much better people than many who consider themselves God-believers. I am personally very close to such people.
Now, at the end of this essay, after months of reading, thinking and writing, I would answer it like this: “It does not matter on an individual level whether one professes belief in God or a higher spiritual power. But human history, especially the history of the 20th century and the failure of sincere efforts in Russia and China to create more just and egalitarian societies, failures in part because of official government atheism, indicates that scientific and technological processes alone just will not work.”
Short answer: it matters very much whether human societies have organized entities whose primary purpose is to strengthen an ethical and humane consciousness and develop people striving to live by the principle, do unto others as you would have done unto you.
In Einstein’s words from 1951, quoted above: “A positive aspiration and effort for an ethical-moral configuration of our common life is of overriding importance. Here no science can save us.”