November 23, 2009

What Is God Like?

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has actually seen!

- From The Blind Men and The Elephant, by John Godfrey Saxe

It appears to me that the vast majority of people in the world do believe in God. They just don't all have the same view of who or what God is. For most of my life I have been wondering, what is God like? This is something of a universal question, and of those who take it up seriously, we do tend to come to some conclusions at some point. Trouble is, we don't all come to the same conclusions. Where two or more are gathered in the name of God, it is likely there are two or more opinions about what God is like.

Most of us who do have a notion that there is a God also have a notion that God is a good and loving being who wants all his adherents to be good and loving and kind people. Which is why it is so ironic that we, as John G. Saxe puts it, "war" and "dispute" and "ween" and "rail on" and "prate" about how our God, or my God, whom we have never actually seen, is more accurately imagined than your God. You know, like "my god can beat up your god." It's worse than that, actually. There are some who would even kill to be "right," or anyway kill to have the last word.

It's wearying, sometimes, to listen to all the speculation about what heaven will be like when we get there, or anyway if we do. The notion that there will be a mansion for every "man" and streets paved with gold does not comport with my picture of God as a modest, easygoing guy who isn't concerned about wealth and privilege, and who prefers the mountains to the city. Gee, that sounds a lot like me! I wonder how many of us project ourselves into our notion of God.

I know a few people who have a vision of God that ought to scare the hell out of me, and would, if I'd only buy in to it. Brusque and imposing and spoiling to punish any sin and every sinner. Their God is not a fun-loving guy because when your judgment day comes, and it will, you're going to be in deep trouble if you played cards, drank beer, or looked twice at any pretty girl (the list is much longer than this). I've done all that and worse. Gulp.

I know a lot of Muslim guys. Their view of God is similarly imposing, but you get a little wiggle room. In their view, God will forgive you for the bad stuff you do, but you have to earn it. You get so many points for fasting, so many points for saying your prayers five times a day -- or more, so many points for a spiritual pilgrimage to Mecca etc. In the end, all the bad you've done is put on a scale against all the good, and that's how God judges you. I will hand it to them, they do seem to pray quite a bit more than the Christians I know.

I'm somewhat attracted to the Catholic view of God. Well, anyway, the one shared by most of the Catholic guys I know. In their view God doesn't like sin but it's o.k. to do bad stuff, because God's pretty quick to forgive. An occasional confession, a hail Mary if you can't face God directly and need a little intercession, and you're back in good stead. One Catholic client of mine used to joke that he needed to get into a little trouble each week because he needed something to confess on Sunday.

Then there's my atheist brother in law who believes that God simply doesn't exist. To him our God(s) is simply a made up crutch to emotionally bolster those of us who can't bear the thought that this life is all we have, and when it's over, it's over. Period. End of story. Alternatively, there's my agnostic brother, who doesn't admit or deny the existence of God -- he merely asserts it's impossible to know so therefore he is noncommital.

Well, it may really be impossible for us to know with certainty the totality of what God is like, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to know something of what he is like. It's less likely we'll know if we don't make any effort to know. So I am making an effort to know. And notwithstanding the tale of the blind men and the elephant, how else should we describe our view of God to each other than how we each have experienced God? So let me begin by telling you a true story of how I experienced God one time.

About 20 years ago I traveled from Fresno, California, to a small, three day conference of the Mennonite Camping Association held at a Mennonite camp near Lincoln City, Oregon. I'd gone to the conference, with my wife and a good friend of ours, John Bergey. We took two days to drive up to the conference, but decided to drive straight through on our way back.

On the way home we took turns driving, and I ended up driving the last stretch from Sacramento to Fresno -- about a three hour stretch. It was near 2 a.m. and we were about half way from Sacramento to Fresno when I suddenly started awake and realized I'd dozed off. I was driving, and both Sue and John were asleep. I started to look for a place to pull over so I could get out and get my blood flowing. Meanwhile, I was very drowsy, and I thought, in my head, "God, you have the power to make me not sleepy, and this is very dangerous, and so I am asking you to make me not sleepy." Nothing happened and I continued to look for a place to pull over, but I also continued to run that thought through my head. It was more like a whine than a real petition. About the third or fourth time I ran that thought through my head I had the sensation of a fingertip touching the top of my head and immediately I felt a current, like a low voltage of electricity run slowly down my body from the top of my head to my toes. As the current ran through me, I was energized and awake. Wide awake.

I was so excited I woke up Sue and John and told them about what had just happened. They really didn't know what to think. Most of the people I share this story with have a similar reaction. Unfortunately I have not developed a reputation in my life for complete and unadulterated veracity.

This event happened to me, though. And some of the implications of it have become clear to me over time.

1. There is a God.
2. God can hear our thoughts.
3. God, or his agents, do answer our prayers.
4. God, or his agents, do intervene in our lives.
5. God is not bound by the laws of physics and science as we know them.
6. God, or his agents, cared enough about me (and or my wife and/or our friend, John Bergey) to directly answer my prayer and performed a miracle to do it.

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