This post is the third in a series of seven. To read from the beginning click here.
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I do not have very traditional beliefs about the existence, characteristics, and actions of God. They certainly do not coincide with the image of the God about whom I was taught in my early years. The things I’ve written in my previous posts about the development of my religious and spiritual life probably make that obvious. The ideas that make sense for me have come from many sources: philosophy, science, religion, valued and trusted teachers and other individuals, and ultimately my own personal experience of the world. Beliefs about God that are incompatible with those guides do not fit within my world view. I have no argument with beliefs held by other people; if those beliefs work for them in understanding and navigating through this world we share, that’s fine with me. But it’s not acceptable when others attempt to convince me of the correctness of their deeply-held beliefs.
People can believe what they choose. But it is important to recognize that there is a difference between a belief and a fact. It’s also important to recognize that there are differing views about the basis for knowing that something is a fact, but I won’t go into that discussion now. Some of the many definitions of ‘fact’ are: something known to have happened or to exist; a truth known by experience or observation; a thing known or proved to be true; a repeatable careful observation or measurement. I also found many definitions of ‘belief’ including: confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof; an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists; a feeling of certainty that something exists, is true, or is good; an idea one accepts as being true or real. To complicate things further, even within these definitions, there is the idea of Truth. The definition of ‘truth’ that I found most appropriate was this: a fact or belief that is accepted as true. The act of declaring something to be Truth also involves the act of accepting it to be true. I can accept something as true for me and you can accept something as true for you. Neither of us by our acceptance can make something true for someone else. So any beliefs I express are my beliefs, my truths.
Over twenty six years ago I delivered a message to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship here in Boone, my first such presentation since I had left the seminary more than two decade earlier. My words touched on a wide variety of ideas and experiences, but, in looking back the main theme of the message was the importance of communication. By communication I didn’t mean just talking or writing. Instead I meant direct contact with someone or something on a much deeper level. I wrote about experiencing and knowing the incredible wonder of the existence of everything in this amazing world. And then I said the following about knowing and communicating with the people and other things that make up the reality of our world:
“To know something as it is right now you must be willing to be with it fully at this moment, and then again in the next and the next. Passing attention won’t do.
“This ‘knowing’, this ‘communication’ is at the heart of life’s meaning for me. Martin Buber wrote about what he called the I-Thou experience and used the term ‘meeting’ to refer to this deep level of knowing or communicating. This experience goes beyond the expression ‘a meeting of the minds’; it is a meeting of the total being of the ones involved. These times of ‘meeting’ are the times I feel most connected with the world around me. In these times I am able to look at all that is around me and experience the wonder and the interrelatedness of myself and the universe and feel that I am indeed a part of it, one with it.
“I want that feeling all the time, not just in scattered moments. It can come in the presence of other people, in moments of intense sharing with someone in an ongoing relationship, or it might even come in a brief encounter with a stranger passing in the store or a client at work. …We meet and we speak to each other, perhaps with words, perhaps with looks, perhaps with silence.”
My message included the idea of knowing and communicating with God. However, my understanding of God was not the traditional one of an all-powerful being who created and ruled over the universe from a heaven somewhere apart from this world. So I began with the following brief statement summarizing my view of God:
“I do not frequently use the word “God”; it is so subject to misuse and to different understandings. If I use the word “God”, I use it to refer to that which underlies all of reality as I perceive it, that which is. The source of existence. Existence itself. If I see God as being the source of all that exists, then I also see God as being part of all that exists and all that exists as being part of God. God is me, God is you, I am God, you are God, all things and all people are God.”
This image of God is not that of a being controlling the day-to-day operation of the universe and intervening to make adjustments and alterations moment by moment as deemed appropriate. My understanding is not that there is a supernatural being who is intimately involved in our lives and in the existence of everything within our world. My idea is that God is the totality of existence. In other words, God is the universe, since the universe is the entirety of existence insofar as humankind has been able to determine. And the universe certainly appears to operate according to a multitude of natural forces.
Science has been able to discover many of these forces and to understand the principles of their operation. Many things are still not fully understood and possibly never will be. Much within the universe often appears random, chaotic, unpredictable, and even mysterious. Over eons of time people have sought to understand and explain the world around them. As we look back at some of those explanations, we may see them as simplistic, unbelievable, amusing. And in the distant future, if humans or other beings are still around, they may well consider our own understandings in the same way.
People always appear to be trying to make sense of the world, attempting to determine the meaning or purpose of our existence. Perhaps there is no sense to it. Perhaps it is a random world which does not have meaning or purpose within itself. Perhaps the only sense to it all is that which we impose upon it, the meaning and purpose we attach to our lives and the events within them. The process of seeking meaning and purpose in life is no doubt different for each of us depending on the experiences we bring to the task. My approach is to see the apparent randomness in the world and live with it—not good, not bad, just what is. I recognize joy and beauty where I see them, but also realize the harsh and painful and ugly are part of the whole and are to be acknowledged as a part of the reality in which we exist. I do not seek to impose an explanation for events primarily for the purpose of making myself feel better about what is happening in the world. The horrible things that happen don’t have to be explained as the result of innate evil in the world and the good things don’t have to be caused by a beneficent God. Perhaps they just are, even as we just are.
My message also included thoughts about communication with God as I understand that concept. Since my view of God is non-traditional, so is my view of prayer. The word ‘prayer’ seems to be the usual term used in our culture to indicate the act of communicating with God. Having been raised in a church-going family, I was in church several times each week from the time I was an infant. Prayers were plentiful, at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of all services and classes. Family meals were usually preceded by a prayer as were many community and school events. Most prayers included a mixture of thanks for various positive things and requests for assistance from God in achieving some desired outcome in life. That approach to prayer fit with the traditional understanding of God as the hands-on power over life.
The practice of prayer which I am now exposed to most often (primarily on Facebook) is somewhat different. Many people speaking of their own prayers or requesting the prayers of others are asking for something quite specific. Much of the time they want an intervention by God to change something undesirable that has happened in their lives or to bring about something good for themselves or for people they know. It seems odd to me that the same people who are inclined to say, “not my will but thine, Lord,” often appear to believe repeating their own prayer requests over and over and asking others to join them in praying for some particular result will somehow sway their God to grant the prayers because of the sheer numbers of requests. It’s like a contest in which the person with the most friends and the most votes is expected to win. And this doesn’t appear to even recognize or care that the granting of one person’s prayer request might necessarily negate the outcome sought by the prayer of someone else.
When I was looking at some definitions of prayer, one (saying it was the “biblical” definition of prayer) referred to conversation with God and not just meditation or contemplation of God. The writer of that definition in effect excluded contemplation and meditation from the idea of prayer, but I would not. Recalling my understanding of God as being part of all that exists and all that exists as being part of God, then God is everywhere and everything. The communication I have described above and in other things I have written, the connectedness, the meeting, are all acts of prayer. Essentially all of life can be thought of as prayer, a conversation with all of reality, an openness to that which is, a meeting with all that is other than myself. Here in my place at the end of the road I frequently find myself engaged in prayer of this sort. Walking in the woods, looking at clouds or stars in the sky, gazing out over ranges of mountains, listening to the sound of water spilling over rocks in the creek, talking with the plants and animals around me, sitting and sharing with family or friends, all these things are moments of engagement with God as I understand God. There is no need to ask for more when in prayer of this sort. There is appreciation for all that is and gratitude for each moment of being part of it all.
In the act of prayer I see an effort to communicate through all of one’s life with all of existence. If I were to verbalize my communication into the more common form of ‘a prayer’, then it would be an expression of thankfulness for all that is, belief in the oneness of all that is, and my feelings of hopefulness for all that is. With this understanding I share a verbal prayer with you. I closed my message long ago by quoting the following combination of four prayers from the book The Prayer Tree by Michael Leunig. I continue to find it very meaningful.
“We rejoice and give thanks for earthworms, bees, ladybirds, and broody hens; for humans tending their gardens, talking to animals, cleaning their homes and singing to themselves; for the rising of the sap, the fragrance of growth, the invention of the wheelbarrow and the existence of the teapot, we give thanks. We celebrate and give thanks.
“We give thanks for our friends.
Our dear friends.
We anger each other.
We fail each other.
We share this sad earth, this tender life, this precious time.
Such richness. Such wildness.
Together we are blown about.
Together we are dragged along.
All this delight.
All this suffering.
All this forgiving life. We hold it together.
“God help us
If our world should grow dark,
And there is no way of seeing or knowing.
Grant us courage and trust
To touch and be touched
To find our way onwards
“We pray for another way of being: another way of knowing. Across the difficult terrain of our existence we have attempted to build a highway and in so doing have lost our footpath. God lead us to our footpath. Lead us there where in simplicity we may move at the speed of natural creatures and feel the earth’s love beneath our feet. Lead us there where step-by-step we may feel the movement of creation in our hearts. And lead us there where side-by-side we may feel the embrace of the common soul. Nothing can be loved at speed. God lead us to the slow path; to the joyous insights of the pilgrim; another way of knowing: another way of being.”