At Christmas dinner several years ago, in the course of conversation, I mentioned that I was no longer a Christian. The room went silent. All of the buzzing of different conversations stopped dead. There was a collective shutdown of communication, as no one seemed to know where to go with that thought. You might think that such a nugget might stir up a provocative discussion about some fascinating existential issues, such as religion, God, or the very nature of humankind’s place in the universe. NOPE! Crickets. No one asked what I believe in, why I had left the religion, or if I had found a new one.
WHY ARE WE LIKE THIS? Why do we have such difficulty communicating about an issue that speaks to not only our very essence as a species but also to the core beliefs that define our perspectives as individuals? Let’s face it: what you believe about God and religion colors your entire worldview. It is indisputably important. Even if you don’t care much for the topic, it is affecting you as the lens through which you see the world. So, why can’t we talk to each other about it? Why can’t we tell each other who God is to us?
I suppose the pat answer is that God and religion are in the same category as politics: there is just too much emotion tied up in them, that it only creates trouble to attempt a conversation on the topic. I can understand that. Because these feelings run so deep, it is only too easy to cross someone’s line, causing either the walls to go up or the fireworks to go off. Even though I appreciate a good, challenging conversation, I understand the hesitation to the idea of bringing God up at your holiday gathering in anything other than a prayer. However, I think one of the negative side effects in always taking a pass on this is that, over decades and generations, these issues are never raised at all. We learn what we learn from our religion or school or culture, but we also come to see by example that there is no room to converse and investigate the topic. We are receptacles only. Don’t think. Don’t question. Don’t explore. Accept blindly and silently.
It seems a shame to me, though, to miss out on some deep-diving conversation. It is such a rich, grand topic, after all. So, I will make a deal with you: I will give you a pass on attempting this conversation with your friends or family members today IF you take it to your journal. Yes, your journal: the safest, most accepting and affirming place to be your beautiful self. My journal is where I have processed my spiritual journey, from religious upheaval to deep, lasting Peace.
I grew up in a sometimes-churchgoing Catholic family. It was all of the traditional Christian representations of a Father God who had one son named Jesus, and the only way to return to God in Heaven was through Jesus. My Mom was more into it than my Dad was, and we went to church often enough to know the drill. I never liked it as a kid. Too much ritual, too much standing, too long, too boring. I respectfully challenged just about everything my Confirmation teacher said regarding the rules of getting to Heaven, because it just didn’t ring true to me.
From that introduction, you might think that I bolted from the church the moment I left home, but the opposite is true. When I went to college, I started going to Mass regularly. It was less formal, and I usually enjoyed the message of the sermon—which kept me going back—but never could quite get attached to all of the ritual and dogma. Even as I moved around the country in my wandering days in Minneapolis, Chicago, DC, New York, and Los Angeles, I always found a Catholic church to attend. I really just wanted to hear the sermon; I wanted to be moved and inspired by a good speech. I stomached the rest for the sake of the speech. And the Church was all I knew.
Until it wasn’t. When I was about 24 and living in California—and going to church weekly—I started finding wonderful books about other people’s experiences of God and spirituality. A seismic shift began inside of me. I was, at long last, connecting with stories of the Divine that rang true to me and my experiences. I was seeing in words for the first time the God I had always known. My soul began to bloom, and I was on fire with this new connection I was making to my God, the one I had always felt but never had the words or the support for. It was a God who permeated everything and didn’t have the jealous, vindictive streak from the stories I had learned growing up. And because God permeated everything completely, it meant that we were all one—connected, just like Quantum Physics tells us—and that we were all (not just Jesus) fully God. I liked this God. I liked him because I knew him. Somehow reading these books caused me to remember what I had somehow forgotten.
As you might have already guessed, my days as a Christian were over in a hurry with this new revelation. I was still fascinated and totally inspired by Jesus of Nazareth, but I was just as clear that he was not the one and only son of God and that I didn’t need to go directly through him to access God. (It was an amicable break-up; we’re still friends.) In the months and years that followed my awakening—nearly 20 years of uninterrupted Happiness, I believe it worth noting–I have been an avid student of God and religions. I have studied Philosophy of Religion both in and out of university. I have read the Bible from cover to cover, the Koran, Bhagavad Gita, and other traditional holy books. I enjoy them very much. I see pieces of each traditional religion that are appealing. I quite like certain aspects of Buddhism, particularly. Still, I have come to prefer books like Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversations With God series or Deepak Chopra’s How to Know God. I like to learn about Quantum Physics, because it tells me in scientific terms what the other spirituality books on my favorite shelf tell me: that we are all One, inextricably intertwined with All That Is. I actually feel as though I understand well, though, where atheists and agnostics are coming from, and I sympathize with their positions. The traditional ways that scientists have determined “proof” don’t tally well when it comes to verifying the existence of any God. We are left with philosophical arguments, leaps of faith, or trusting our guts, hoping to find, as I did, something that feels like Truth.
So, what do I call myself if someone asks? If I don’t see the conversation going very deep, I might just say, “I am spiritual but don’t subscribe to a particular religion” or “I believe in God but am not religious.” More specifically, I believe that God is pure Love and that God is All. That is, that there is nothing that is not fully God. A logical extension of this is that I am God, in the same way that Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, or Krishna (or Jim Jones or David Choresh) is God. (Humorous side note: My four-year-old confirms his understanding of this concept by saying, “God’s in my ear, right, Dad? God’s in my butt, too, right?” Yes, son, God is in your butt.). In any dictionary, there is a term called pantheism. I like the way Alasdair MacIntyre explains it: “Pantheism essentially involves two assertions: that everything that exists constitutes a unity, and that this all-inclusive unity is divine.” To be even more specific about my belief, I actually prefer the term panentheism, which is found in only a few dictionaries. Essentially, it means that God is the universe in its entirety, but God is also more. God transcends the universe. “He” is both the universe and also the intelligence behind it. That works for me. All of this points me to two conclusions that I like to remind myself of regularly: 1)We are All One, and 2) The end is not in doubt. I travel happily through the world with those assurances.
How about you? Who is God to you? Open up your journal and your soul, and merge the two. How do you visualize your God? Is it an old man with a long white beard who lives in a cloud-like Heaven? Is it an invisible spirit? Does it have human-like characteristics, such as anger and judgment? Is your God found in Nature? What do you call your God (I use God, the Universe, the Divine, the All, the One, All That Is, and Life interchangeably)? How do you reach your God? Do you have to go to a house of worship? Is God found only when you bow and make a formal prayer, or do you see God in the most mundane of circumstances? Do you pray regularly? Are your prayers typically requests for things you want, or prayers of gratitude? Do you feel heard? Do you think God answers specific prayers? If so, how do you think God decides? How tolerant are you about other people’s idea of God? Do you find yourself more put-off by someone from a different religion or by an atheist? Do you think there is any way to prove God’s existence? Is the order in the universe enough to explain it, or the complexity of the human body, or perhaps “miracles”? If it is so difficult to prove, why do atheists get such a bad rap, and why is there so much killing and animosity in the name of God? How sure are you of your God? Sure enough to try to convert others to your belief? This is a delicate topic for conversation—I can attest to that—which makes it the perfect topic for a journal entry. Dive deep and find your Truth, uncertainties and all. I would love to know what you find. Leave me a reply and tell me: Who is God to you?