Some people would describe themselves as “religious” – usually by ascribing to a particular set of beliefs or because of some set of experiences.
Others might call themselves “spiritual, but not religious”. Sometimes they’ll even claim a particular set of beliefs too, on the understanding that they don’t necessarily believe all of it. They’re usually this way because they feel like there’s something going on beyond that which is all around us.
There are “agnostics” and “atheists” who, as my medical student friend tells me, will still admit to praying once in a while – especially when in or near a hospital. Which means that even people who are adamant that we can’t know, or adamant that we can and do know that this. really. is. all. there. is – well, even those people sometimes behave as though there’s more.
Beliefs, and experiences.
Beliefs and experiences
I happen to have had what some would call an “Evangelical Christian” upbringing. I almost don’t want to bring that up because you’ll have a particular set of opinions now about who I am, what I believe, what I do, what I say and what I think about you and about other people.
I’ve had experiences that I would have in the past used language from my beliefs to describe as events that were “the will of God” or “the presence of God” or other similar expressions. Since my upbringing I’ve met other Christians that I would have been brought up to believe weren’t “going to heaven”, never mind agnostics, atheists, and people of other faith.
Some of those people have really opened my eyes. I remember having an in-depth conversation with someone who lived in the same halls as me at university who was a practising Jew. He spoke about God in a way that really shocked me. It shocked me because I recognised it. That’s how I spoke about God too. “How could someone who was wrong be allowed to have that experience?” I recall wondering to myself.
I’ve realised more and more recently that there’s a big difference between having an experience and having a belief. Two people can experience an event and interpret it in two very different ways because of their beliefs. Take, for example, the story of the woman who prays for a parking space and then finds one – to an atheist, it would be illogical to assume “God” had anything to do with it. To the fundamentalist, it would be “heresy” not to.
We often forget a third option, though: the possibility that “God” isn’t a choice between a) some angry/benevolent/judgemental/loving/insert-your-preferred-adjective-here old man in the sky who occasionally intervenes in his experiment or b) non existent. The third option is that God is more than an entity.
Another way of seeing things
Paul the Apostle (a Christian) talks about how “God is love”. Abraham Joshua Heschel (a Jewish Rabbi) talks about how “God’s goodness is not a cosmic force but a specific act of compassion” – that is, we only have the belief that God is good because some people have had experiences to back that up – else, we’d have stopped believing it a long time ago. One of the 99 names of Allah in the Qu’ran is “Al-Wadoud” – the all-loving.
Why do we describe God as such? Because someone, somewhere, at some point – and others since – have experienced a sense of love that appears to come from beyond, from somewhere else. Sometimes that sense is directly between us and the somewhere else. Sometimes, it’s in the act of love itself – God is love. In this case, God is describable as some sort of “event”.
There’s also the concept that God is what is know as the “ground of all being” – that is, that God is that by which all is sustained. God is the “spirit” of God (Judaism) or the Holy Spirit (Christianity) or the energy that binds everything together (according to Yoda, at least).
The point is that in every major monotheistic religion – and I’d be willing to be the same for polytheistic, pantheistic or other religions too – there exists a collection of people, and writings, trying to figure out what it means to relate to that which is beyond us, that which is divine.
I think this has three implications. The first is this: anyone who has some kind of spiritual experience cannot be dismissed on account of their beliefs. Their beliefs will simply shape the language through which they express their experience.
The second is this: we can all learn from the experiences of others, no matter their background. We’re all just trying to figure out together how to have more experiences. Because, let’s face it, we’re not really after more beliefs – they just help us open our minds up to fathom new kinds of experience or to frame existing ones.
The third is this: The author Donald Miller once said that “what I say I believe is not what I believe, what I do is what I believe”. Beliefs, experiences and actions. I used to read that statement and see it as something of a judgement: If I say X but do Y, then really, I believe Y even though I said X. I can see a deeper value in it now. We all do things because we believe in them – on some level. Our actions are shaped by our beliefs, which are shaped by our experiences.
What I’m really getting at with all this is that whilst you may not be a practising Christian, I think there is much I can learn from you, and hopefully there is much that you can learn from me. I don’t believe that experiencing the love of God (as I would call it) is something that is only brought about by praying some kind of prayer or taking part in some kind of ritual. In my experience, spiritual experiences are open to everybody.
We’ve talked about how experiences can inform beliefs, and how beliefs inform actions – but, to complete the circle, actions also inform our experiences – by determining the possible set of all experiences we can have in a given moment. Past experience tells me this is best done seeking out the “still small voice of God” (Judaism) or to meditate, or to practise “centering prayer” (Christianity) – or by being mindful (Buddhism) of my surroundings.
What do all of these have in common? an aspiration to peace, calm and simplicity.
We’re often so distracted by that which is going on in us and around us, that we don’t make time or space to consider the presence or impact of anything more.
But what if there is? It’s worth seeking it out.