(Recently I came across your web page which I found very interesting. However, I found that I had a different attitude and experience to most of your contributors as to the reason why I am no longer a religious person. I did once, many years ago, adhere to and practice the Christian religion. My experience took me not away from God but into a deeper awareness of God. I wish merely to offer this different perspective to your readers.)
Image by Bruno, o admirador secreto via FlickrIn the early 1960s Carl Gustav Jung gave his last interview to the BBC. The last question that was asked of Jung was whether he believed in God. He paused for a moment, then answered in this form "I do not believe in God -- I know God".
Many years ago, I did once practice, or perhaps it might be better to say, adhere to the form of Christianity. I began as an evangelical holding a very literal view of the Bible, though I was not brought up religious nor was my family religious. Through various circumstances I began to practice the Christian religion though I never was consistent in my commitment to the faith. Slowly, I began to change in my thinking, though I was not ready at that young age to fully grasp and understand the significance of what was happening within me. I will merely try to convey a few of the experiences that have shaped my reflections about God.
For most people their understanding of belief is what they are taught as children. The simple notions of God that they were given, and the understanding or the ideas that they retain into adulthood, more often or not, fail to help them through deep crises or traumatic events. They see the problem in terms that make them question the notion or ideas of God's existence, rather than look at the way in which they were taught to think and relate to the concept of god. Their god as they understand it does not live up to their idea or expectation, when the truth may be that what they have been taught has been wholly false and immature. It is quite right to walk away from a system of belief or teaching that does not open the mind and heart of a human being, but which the seeks to control or enslave that person. Tragically many people though see the problem as being that of God.
Having not grown up in a religious family was perhaps a very great blessing for me, for I did not have the structure of an authority above me that required obedience and conformity. Most of my life has thus been free of that influence and burden.
The first significant change in my life was about the age of 19 when when I had read some books about evolution. This was the first real conflict between belief (my fundamentalist belief) and any contradictory notion about creation. It was an intellectual struggle in the main, which finally resulted in my acceptance of evolution as the more credible understanding of life. In the years since, particularly in the last 20 years, evolution has been a formative part of my thinking about the Bible and its own development, and man's evolving awareness of God. I wish to relate a few experiences of my life, and try to give some understanding of how my thinking has evolved.
Though not very profound as an experience, there is one small event that has had a great impact even though it was many years before I comprehended it's true significance for myself. On one occasion I took an elderly friend to visit a common friend who had gone to live in the country. On the journey back home as we were talking she asked if she might put a question to me, which I agreed to. She told of her daughter who was a good Christian, regularly went to church, and prayed to God every day. Her husband was an alcoholic, but he was not abusive or in any way unkind to her. She prayed that God would stop his drinking. The question she asked was why had not God answered her daughter's prayer. I can tell you that I was horrified that she expected me to be able to give some answer to this question, and I was for a little while silent before some thoughts came to my mind. The way in which I answered her was not something I had ever considered, previously, as a way of thinking. I answered her by saying that perhaps God had answered her daughter's prayer. She was somewhat naturally surprised, but I continued by by asking her if her daughter still loved her husband, to which she replied yes. I tried to explain by saying that God had given her daughter the strength to learn to care for her husband in spite of this problem. It is all too easy for us to want God to change things to suit ourselves, rather than to learn to love the world as it is.
Over the years since this event much of my own own personal life has been about learning to love without any regard to any benefit for myself. (I cannot say that I have been all that successful.) Over the last 10 years this has evolved more particularly into asking the question what does it mean to say that God loves.
The significance of this event, as I came to realise many years later, is that God not only had perhaps given an answer to this lady but was using this occasion to teach me something of that which I had to learn myself. Over the years I have come to realise that everything in our life can speak to us of God if we are willing to learn to listen and to see in a way different from that which we have been taught.
If you pay attention to the prayer structure in evangelical services the main concern of prayer is to tell God what is desired, and to seek God's willing agreement to bring about that desire. Even though the the words " thy will be done" are spoken, there is the distinct feeling that the prayer is really about getting God to do what we wish for. We are taught, even as children, that if we have been good then God will answer our prayers. Yet the experience so often is that this is not what happens, yet we fail to learn that we use God as our problem solver. If things do not work as we would have them we generally question the credibility of our faith or we begin to question God, when what we should question is how we have been taught to think. None of this is wrong, it is simply that we have nothing else to turn to, or enable us to move forward in a more creative, beneficial way. Unless something happens that enables us to see outside the structure by which we have learned and been taught, it is very difficult to imagine a means of understanding and comprehending the world we live in.
There are too many who claim to have great insight into God, but who are purely on about themselves. No person has the truth, we simply have a truth that is right for our own understanding in seeking God. A subsequent event that occurred some years later opened up a different perspective about prayer. It simply was that for a number of years I had been trying to pray following various methods and routines. It was dry and barren - indeed dead. I finally came to the point where I gave up trying to pray. I simply said to God that if God knew what I needed then I would accept that God should provide it. I considered that my responsibility was to learn to listen for what was given, that is, what I needed. I have never made any attempt to prayer since. For what I found, over the years following, is that prayer is about listening not about telling God anything. This attitude has opened up a much greater awareness of how I may seek and know God in life.
If you think about this you'll realise that you do this in your life quite a bit. If you are in a relationship then it is of a necessity to put aside your own feelings and desires, on occasion, to listen and understand the feelings and concerns of the person with whom you are in relationship. The important thing is stepping outside yourself and seeing the situation from the viewpoint the other person, this really is just what it means to be open. In many ways this is what it means to pray. Buddha spoke of mindfulness, which is the attention to everything that is happening within and about you. It is the practice of meditation. The more we learn to listen, to see things from outside ourselves and not be governed by our own personal desires, fears, needs or anxieties the more we are able to take into ourselves the humanity of others.
There is also the aspect of trust. Trust is not about guarantees. Jesus said, 'Birds have nests, foxes have holes in the ground, but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.' The issue of this statement is about security. In particular trust in God is not a guarantee, in any respect, that God will act to protect us. And yet so often the teaching of many evangelical people is the belief that God will always protect us if our faith is true. I have found that the only true security is insecurity. This changes greatly how I perceive and think of God.
Another story that I wish to recount is something that happened one Good Friday when I was home watching a television programme. It was a TV show about a medieval passion play. As I was watching this programme I began to think about that two phrases that were used throughout this program. One phrase is " the suffering of our Lord Jesus Christ" and the other " the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ". I had never really bothered to think about these two phrases, but now I realised that they had the same meaning. Looking at the dictionary I found that the word for passion in Greek - " pathos" - had the fundamental meaning of suffering. A common way of understanding passion is about the tension of sexual love. Yet here passion is about an act of suffering. This set me to thinking about the notion of passion and how it should be tied to the issue of suffering.
Let's start with the notion of sexual passion. The deep love that someone feels for someone else has many different expressions. There can be joy, exaltation, lust, anguish, even anger or pain - pain which comes as an expression of missing and wanting a person - and there can be suffering. Sometimes you suffer because the other person does not seem to understand or reciprocate the strong feelings that you have. Sometimes you really suffer because the other person is not there, and you want them so much. Another aspect of passion is the experience of completeness , wholeness or oneness, be it in feeling, thought or the physical presence when together.
I once read of someone's experience when the act of love, on a few occasions, was so intense that the person lost all sense or awareness of herself and the other person, and the only awareness she had was of the love itself - not the act of love, just love itself. That is completeness, oneness. Oneness is not a unity as some speak of it, it is simply being. This being if you wish can be called God, Oneness, Life or 'I am that I am' - the name given to Moses. You can call it Nirvanna as Buddha did. You can call it the kingdom of heaven. But I stress that 'being' is not the person, for no one owns life, we merely possess life for a time. Can anyone actually say what life is?
A significant part of love is the act of surrender, the capacity to relinquish control of oneself and be in that moment of love. Together with this there is also trust and the capacity to suffer. When you suffer as love it opens you outwardly to others, you have to let their humanity in. The more this happens then the more you embrace life. You change, your thoughts about life change, your 'God' changes.
Take this understanding of suffering as the passion and think of a person who is so open and aware of the humanity of other people, and sees the poverty of God within people, and feels a pain that relates to the emptiness that is not purely emotion or sensitivity of love - that person would have to know something deeper about his own life. So strong within is this love that it is a passion, a suffering, which expends itself for the sake of others. To be able to do this one must have seen the capabilities and potentials of one's own humanity, for good or evil. This brings compassion. But more than this there must be love.
Although I cannot convey to you personally the many different things that have happened, you might perceive in what I have written so far the most important aspect is my gradual change of perspective and understanding of God. It is necessary to lose one's belief in God for most of our belief is a statement of limitation, of the teaching or a control that hinders and restricts our ability to reach beyond ourselves and to love as God loves. You may not realise at the time that it is happening, but any loss of belief is essential to real growth. The direction it may take is dependent on many factors personal to yourself; even atheism is a movement to a deeper and stronger awareness. To the Romans the early Christians were considered atheists, simply because their god was unknown.
Fundamentalism is an insecurity that needs controls and mechanisms to protect oneself against any real or genuine growth. Yet, the deep inner need of many people is so strong, that quite unconsciously, those people slowly and steadfastly struggle toward a freedom away from that system of belief.
Love is not something that requires conformity; does not require compliance and obedience; rather it seeks to encourage the growth and the capacity of a person to live life in the fullest possible way.
Another occasion in my life has was one of a young friend wishing to speak to me about a problem. She had fallen in love with someone, who happened to be a married man. Obviously the difficulty was the fact that he was asking for a sexual relationship. The issue for her, this being her first experience of falling in love, was the problem of adultery. We talked the problem over for several hours, but at the end of that time nothing had been resolved, even though I knew what would be the direction she would take. It was several months before I was able to contact her and seek to know her how she was getting on.
I went around to where she lived, knocked on the door which she opened.The impact of seeing her after several months was profound. She looked beautiful. Her poise, her hair, her sense of style and speech, all highlighted the significant change in her. Previously, one would have spoken of a young woman maturing. But this was more. This was a woman that had come forth, and was beautiful to behold.
(Something I understood much later, years later, was this change was not brought about by any experience of sex. It was wrought by the fact that she had given herself in love; surrendered to the truth within her, which was that she loved someone.)
We went inside and began to talk. After a short time I said something that shocked her, and indeed, did surprise me. Up until that time I had grown up with a very strong black and white sense of morality. I said to her that she had done the right thing. Although I did not realise it the words that have just come from me were to change my life forever. Over a long period of time my attitude to sin would so dramatically alter, it is hard to imagine how such a simple statement would begin a long journey with unimaginable consequences. I will not go into all the details for it would take too long, I will simply set forth the basic results of this journey.
Now I would begin to look at people and their personal problems without a concern for the issue of morality. As I explained to my friend, that I was neither condoning nor approving of the situation that betrayed the trust of another person in a marital situation, but that as long as my friend accepted the responsibility and accountability for the situation she was in, then my concern was for the growth that was occurring within her. I said that perhaps one could wish for there to be better circumstances by which such change could occur, but again, the growth she had gained was the important thing. Each situation, each person must be seen and dealt with as a separate experience, and not apply a standard of values or morality to the person, but find the truth within the person.
Sin was now no more a concept of acts or deeds. I would now look at things in terms of the attitude of a person, of the forces and needs that often drive people. I began to see that there is a difference between an act and a habit, and how they affect and determine the person. There was no more the simple black and white issue. With time I have come to the point of seeing that on some occasions it may be necessary for a person to sin. Most often we sin because we are ignorant and unaware of ourselves as human beings, we do not fully comprehend the forces within ourselves and the power they have. (I am not thinking of those people that choose willfully and determinedly to follow actions that can be destructive and harmful.)
How then did this change my perception of God? Over time I no longer viewed or thought of God as some moral force or authority. For me God was more concerned with growth, with life than with the strictures of a moral system. More personally I saw that my own humanity was involved in all other humanity. To judge another, to condemn or in any other way separate myself from another human being because of their actions was a denial of my own humanity. Whatever sin one person has is also my own sin. This is not a matter of the deed committed but of the ability and potential which we share as human beings. Finally, I have come to the understanding that one cannot sin against God, but we can sin against our fellow man. It is from each other that we need forgiveness, but not from God.
If I were to say that God forgives then I would have to speak of that forgiveness as being God's gift of life. We are taught that forgiveness is something given when some wrong has been committed. But I learned from the Bible the forgiveness in God is more truly prospective rather than retrospective. The difficult part of forgiveness is forgiving oneself, for that means taking the risk of being hurt again, of saying yes to life. In this respect forgiveness is not backward looking but forward in nature. Speaking metaphorically then God's forgiveness is the bestowing of life. Life is the act of forgiveness. This is what I hear in the name of god - 'I am that I am'. (This is what evolution signifies to me.)
I shall try, even though it is many years since I have read the Bible, to give some of my understanding of this book.
If you look at the book, particularly from the perspective of historical development, then there is a different understanding to be gained, appreciated and valued. Take the commandment 'Thou shall not have no other gods beside me'. If monotheism is the true practice of of the Israelites then why the need of such a commandment, why not merely say all other gods are false, do not exist. Indeed, God goes to war against the gods of other lands, God struggles continually with the people because of their preference for other gods. Polytheism is that true practice of the Israelites. There is a gradual journey toward the development of monotheism. The journey requires changes in how people understand and conceive the image of God. God goes from being a tribal deity, to the God of a small community, then of a small nation and then finally toward a universal being.
The biggest change is pronounced through the book of Isaiah. Constantly throughout the book of Isaiah God is referred to as the holy One of Israel, the only God. Written at the time of the Exile in Babylon this book shows the gradual emergence of a monotheistic belief. Also through this book God is spoken of in very different terms. God is spoken of in very personal terms, and even as a fatherly figure. There is a new type of relationship occurring between Israel and its God. Again whatever change occurs requires the loss or shall we say the death of notions about God. From this time is the beginning of Judaism.
The God of the Old Testament may seem harsh and cruel, even vicious, but when life was so vicarious and survival the most pressing matter each and every day of a community's life, then it will reflect in the perception of the God that is worshipped. There can be no doubt that God is often a reflection of the struggles of the people to survive, they need a god who can fight on their behalf, defeat their foes. As their god grows in character and stature their god takes on many of the attributes and qualities of the other gods. The greatest struggle is that between the God of Israel and Baal. Many of the characteristics of Baal are subsumed into the character of Yahweh. Also many of the Canaanite gods have their characteristics blended into that of Yahweh.
The story of the Bible is that of the journey of its people and its God. The collection of different writings show the bias of the writers, which makes it such a great piece of storytelling. Stories are told, reworked, and retold as the course of history changes the understanding of the people of that time. It is not history as we have come to know it, for there is no record keeping, only a collection of writings over a period of time which is worked upon by people who wish to speak about their God. Things are remembered according to the interests of the writer. Napoleon is seen quite differently by the French compared to the English. Fundamentalists have the same attitude in their reading of the Bible, they read through the rose colored glasses of their belief. It is all very human.
But what is amazing is the gradual and steady development of a god. Whatever is attributed to the god of this people there are moments within in which there is something more happening, a perception that is quite significant and profound. Three passages I will mention. The first is the giving of the name of God to Moses; the second, is the passage in which God says 'be still and "know" that I am God'. The last is the story of Job. These occasions reflect something deeper occurring within the lives of certain individuals. God is met or known in a different way to the general flow of the culture existing at that time.
This is nothing unique for it is happening all the time, reflecting the slow and gradual evolution of humanity.
Some of you might like to search out sites about the religion of Canaan. You will find articles about the gods of that time, and many of the names of those gods have some similarities to the names attributed to the God of the Old Testament. You might also be interested to learn of the association between the goddess Asherah and the god Yahweh. Asherah was originally the consort of the Canaanite god El. Stanford University has some of the best articles.
There is a book published in 1995 titled 'God. A biography' by Jack Miles. It is published by Simon and Schuster. It is a very interesting and thoughtful study of the development of God through the Old Testament. It is not heavy reading and is well worth a read.
The important thing to remember is that the Bible is the development of hundreds of years and does not reflect an accurate account of the history of Israel. The truth of the factual history of events will never really be known, what is more significant is the gradual change and understanding of people because of the circumstances and events that make them reflect on their relationship with God. The tragedy today is that this process does not occur as in the past, and this should tell us something about ourselves.
Lastly, what I have written is my own understanding and this is right for myself. Every person has to seek God in their own way. There should be undertaken with great care for we are not free to please ourselves in how we should understand or think about God. There are too many who claim to have great insight into God, but who are purely on about themselves. No person has the truth, we simply have a truth that is right for our own understanding in seeking God.
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