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The word God has become a nebulous term in our culture. For example, if I say the word dog, one person will think of a poodle while another person thinks about a German Shepherd. Our unique experience with or relationship to a particular type of dog dramatically influences our grasp of the term. Yet despite the diversity of the breeds, if we discuss the dog experience as a whole, we find the common ground between us.
It is similar with the God experience.
God is not a feeling, but can be felt deeply and intensely. God is not knowledge but God can be known on one level, yet completely unknowable at another level. The New Testament and the Hebrew scriptures have several hundred names for God, the Quran has over ninety, Hinduism has several hundred names. Not unlike the breeds of dogs, the names of God bring to the forefront unique attributes or aspects of God. One aspect of God is known by science as energy, some call it the universe or something else.
If we were to list off the names of God along with the attributes of those names (Ex: Elohim: Strength, power or Yireh: Provider, the one who sees) we would essentially be stitching together a Theology. A theological construct is simply the framework by which a person tries to understand God. Some theologies are very complex and integrated, requiring years of seminary training to unpack. Some theologies are very simple and organic. It is important to know that every person who has ever lived has a theology of some sort. Countless divisions exist because people disagree about theology. This says more about us than it does about God.
The key is that a theology is NOT God. It is humanity’s conceptual framework to try and understand the God experience. I believe it was Ray Anderson who said: “The acts of God are the hermeneutical horizon for the being of God.” In other words, until you experience God’s kindness, you don’t really know if God is kind. You could read about it, you could intellectualize it, you could even feel warm and cozy about the sentiment of kindness, but without the experience, you don’t really grasp God’s kindness. This is the same for all attributes of God. Thus we can see why there are so many theologies, because there are so many experiences of God.
This means that religions are essentially campaign managers for a particular God experience.
Whenever a person has a God experience, they usually make sacred the means to that experience.
- If you had the experience during a worship service, then worship becomes sacred.
- If you had the experience during the reading of sacred text, then study becomes sacred.
- If you had the experience during poverty, pain or suffering, then suffering becomes sacred.
- If you had the experience during meditation, then meditation becomes sacred.
Of course the more people who have the same experience via the same means will all gather together to participate in those practices. This can be good so long as we know the difference between the means to the experience and the actual experience. Sadly, far to many religious services are all about the means and there is little if any experience.
Since we are talking about God, religion and experience, let me say a word about atheism.
It is not uncommon in our culture to see competitive religions diminishing the God’s of other religions. You would never see a Christian pastor begin a sermon on mercy by saying: “Allah the most merciful, the especially merciful,” yet that is how nearly every chapter in the Quran begins. The Mosque or Synagog will not be kneeling to a crucified Jesus. This is because each holds one experience of God above another. We all do this. We play favorites. This is another way of saying that if they believe Jesus is God then they usually do not believe that Allah is God. They are atheistic toward Allah. The Muslim and Jew are atheistic toward Jesus in that they do not see him as God, but only a prophet.
The atheist then is the person who simply goes one God concept further than everyone else. They are atheistic toward Jesus, Allah, Yahweh, Buddha and any other experience. Yet they believe deeply in randomness, time, physics and chance. Thus we are all atheistic in that there are certain aspects of God (God concepts) that we don’t believe or won’t believe. For example: one believes in divine healing, another is atheistic toward that God experience. Thus all people are only partial believers as well as partial atheists.
This is the landscape into which we ultimately begin our God conversation. It’s actually a level playing field, but we perceive it as unequal.
The common solution is to relegate the God conversation to the sphere of personal preference. It doesn’t really work to do that. It’s not as simple as saying you like green, I like blue, you like Buddha, I like Jesus. The atheist is not off the hook here either, because while they may not subscribe to a particular God campaign, they most certainly have a God experience, although they will call it something different. It is only an alternate faith commitment, but it is still a faith commitment.
Exodus 3:14 (a story to which all religions subscribe) tells the story of God telling moses that His/Her name is “I am that I am.” In other words, God is the ground of all being.
- Being is NOT knowing, but contains knowledge.
- Being is NOT feeling, but contains emotion.
- Being is NOT a theology, but contains ideas.
- Being is NOT a sacred text, but shows up in them.
- Being is NOT the past, or future, but an experience with the present.
You see, when we ask “Who is God?” we are essentially asking “Where is God?” This is the human cry for experience. It is a cry for help or contact in this moment. For example; we hear God is good, then we ask where is God in all the suffering today? We hear God is merciful, then where is God in the oppression that we feel? We hear God is love, then where is God in this world?
These are real questions. They are forming a God concept; a theology. If the God experience does not show up, the concept will be unbelief or confusion. Simple as that. If the experience appears, the concept will follow in order to try and make sense of the experience. Simple as that.
So the underlying question in our world is that of experience, not concept. How can we experience God?
There was a time in my life when I would answer this question by giving you all kinds of things to do. I won’t do that anymore. Most religions approach it by giving you concepts until you believe and invalidate any experience but their own. So you have to be careful in your search. I’d hate for anyone to search for God and end up with a religion. That is the worts possible exchange.
The best I can offer now is to start with being. If you don’t yet know God’s being, then start with yours. Be open to receive and be ready to do some soul work and go deeper. Be honest about the crud you find within yourself. Celebrate the wonder that is there too. Find a way to live authentically and fully present within each moment, and ask that if there is a God that He/She will be revealed. This will be the beginning of the experience. You’ll begin to see the Thing beyond everything. Once you have the experience, then you can learn about the various means to go deeper, and that is where religious systems can offer you some real help. The richness of the traditions, the community and the teachings will greatly supplement and empower the experience, but they are not the experience. So long as you never confuse the two, you will be ok whether you are a part of a system or not. If you mistake them, you’ll either be a part of a system for the wrong reasons, or you’ll be angry, proud or alone.
Each name for God is a different experience of God. Find a name that resonates with your experience, then be open to other names.
By learning the experience first, the concept of God will become more clear. This is how we can move beyond conversion and competition, and into completion.
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