"There is a principle which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages hath had different names." -John Woolman
April 10, 2013
Last June I wrote a blog called Postcard from the Lip of the Void. One small element of that experience included an experience of God/Not God as a pure principle, signified by a cold and perfect mathematical equation. I’ve been thinking about that image a lot recently.Many of my friends, compassionate, warm, and loving people who are also highly intelligent, do not experience the relationship, visions, or emotional release that I experience when I pray. These friends seldom use God language, and feel a little uncomfortable with some of the ideas generated by the great religions through the ages. They accept the ethics of the Golden Rule, understand the human principle that an “eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” and experience awe in the presence of glorious art, music, and landscapes. The idea of surrender to and union with God, however, gives them the heebie-jeebies. They have never, in their own estimation, had an experience of God. And so, in order to be authentic, they call themselves “nontheists,” as opposed to “atheists” who are “against the idea of God.” They don’t hold a belief that God exists since they have never experienced God. And while they are not sure what they would do with a mystical experience if it ever came to them, some of them yearn for God events like mine, with relationship, consolations, comfort and awe. They just won’t pretend to a belief that is not based on experience.
I am ashamed to admit that I have felt a sense of superiority in the past about our experiential difference. In the same way that the math whiz might feel vanity about being able to calculate rings around the mathematically challenged, so I felt vanity about my very sensory and emotionally satisfying experiences of God. I confess this with regret.Usually, however, when hubris makes an appearance, a learning experience is given to me. So, in order to help me learn, God led me to a startling vision in which God suckled me at her breast and simultaneously appeared to me as the Principle of Perfection – cold, abstract, unapproachable, mathematical, fearful. Awe-full. This face of God was an alien one to me, frightening and inhuman. I liked my humanoid face of God – or even the formless, energetic face of God that is also part of my experience - much better than this one. I had found an aspect of God that gave me the heebie-jeebies.
I have never given the intellect – the logical mind – the credit it deserves. I have treasured my “right brain” functions: intuition, holistic thinking, imagination, openness to divergent possibilities. I have not felt so kindly toward “left brain” functions, including linear and analytical thought, logic, reasoning, and attention to detail. This type of thinking has seemed boring to me, a necessary evil, a tool for survival which we would someday outgrow.But the vision of the Pure Principle has helped me understand that God can also be found through the intellect. How could it be otherwise, since we are “made in the image of God” and we have intellect, as well as intuition? I am developing a deep respect for the aspects of the mind that can focus, capture detail, detect inconsistencies, and reflect order. I have learned that God is not only sensed and felt but mentally perceived. That God is not only Something Greater than Ourselves into Which We Can Merge, but a Pure Principle that is separate from me, and which can be perceived dimly by the mind, if not the heart. I can’t really perceive God in this way; I don’t understand God in this way. But the glimpse of a vision has helped me understand that there are those who can. And that it is a valid way of experiencing God.
I think this might be good news for my nontheist friends. Those of you who yearn for an experience of God may have been experiencing God all along, as Principle. If so, you get to redefine God according to your own experience! You do not have to yearn for a way of perceiving which is not native to you. I would love to hear what you have to say about this.And we theists, who favor the consoling warmth of a God we can sense, might do well to open our minds to the Principle which is Pure. And drop the hubris. Thank you, John Woolman.