|THOUGHTS ABOUT GOD
By Irwin Abrams
Friends Journal, December 2006
The psalmist asks God, "What is man that Thou art mindful of him?" My text is the reverse, asking, "What is God that we are mindful of the Divine?" The answer often heard is intellectual, one of either belief or disbelief. My own answer is simultaneously simpler and more difficult to express. As a Quaker, my soundest conception of God must be based on actual experience, not philosophical proposition, no matter how intellectually respectable.
Only by being mindful of God can we speak with any sense of conviction and certainty. At the same time, I am quite aware of my imperfect comprehension of God and the inadequacy of language to express what I do comprehend. With humility I venture to share some thoughts about God that have helped me.
As an historian, I begin with my own past. The evolution of my own religious ideas somewhat parallels that of Western history. In my Sunday School days, my religious belief was authoritarian, as in medieval times. God was a powerful person who laid down the laws of conduct that I was to follow for reward instead of punishment.
In college, my religion became rationalistic, like many intellectuals of the Age of Enlightenment. The closed materialistic and mechanistic universe of cause and effect, my textbooks led me to believe, had a place for God only as First Cause, if at all. Any mystery about the universe was only temporary; eventually science would explain everything. Morality was rationalistic: knowing what is right is enough to want to do what is right.
However, as time went on, my own experience and my study of history showed me that simply knowing what is right does not make one virtuous. There must be a will to do what is right, a dynamic. Additionally, the more I considered my mechanistic universe, the more I questioned any existence of free will. Were we just playthings of our glands, creatures of our Freudian complexes? Were our lives a succession of stimuli over which we had no control?
Yet, although I could not prove it, I knew I had free will; I felt it. Then, I caught up with more modern scientific concepts. I found that all scientists were not dogmatically proclaiming that they would eventually have all the answers. They were talking in terms of probability not of iron laws or inevitability, but of indeterminacy.
My free will was not banned from this universe. And as my closed universe opened, so did my intellectual horizons. I came to admit that intuition as well as reason could be a pathway to Truth; and when I fell in love, I learned that there was more than reason to spur my actions. I could trust my sense of free will and that which, with some difficulty, I could call God. God, who had left my world of ideas as an anthropomorphic figure, returned through experience and through a heightened awareness of universal forces. And I found in this awareness of the Divine that there was a powerful dynamic stirring me to activity such as my rationalist morality never quite possessed.
Looking back, I realize that I had to accept the intellectual possibility of such experience before I could knowingly experience it in Quaker meeting for worship. I had to face the question, “How did I know that my experience of the Divine in meeting was not subjective, not mine alone?” Quaker worship is a group experience, so I could share my own discoveries and listen to those of others. Then, in the literature of mysticism, I found that other persons in different ages and cultures had recorded experiences similar to my developing perception.
Allowing for differences in vocabulary, there seemed to be a common testimony to an overpowering sense of human unity, and with it a deep feeling of joy, love, serenity, and peace. Dante described it like this: "I felt that the leaves of all the universe were gathered together in one volume." John Woolman wrote, "I saw a mass of matter of a dull, gloomy color between the south and the east, and was informed that this mass was human beings in as great misery as they could be and live, and that I was mixed with them, and henceforth I might not consider myself as a distinct or separate being."
My own experience of human unity was in Quaker meeting for worship in California just after visiting Japanese American friends at Tanforan Racetrack, where, after Pearl Harbor, they had been take from Palo Alto, Calif., before being sent to an interment camp in Wyoming. We had to visit with our friends through barbed wire. They were staying in horse stalls. Later, in meeting, I was unbearably saddened, and felt tremendous kinship with my Japanese American friends, and a feeling of union and love with all humanity. I did not rush out to try to free them, but we kept in close touch during the war and supported what American Friends Service Committee was doing to help.
My conception of God continued to evolve. Even after joining the Religious Society of Friends in 1940, the idea of a personal God troubled me. My old Sunday School image still stood in my way. Gradually I came to recognize a difference between affirming that God is a person, and a belief that one can have a personal relationship with the Divine. If we are to understand God through our experience, and if God is within us as well as beyond, then could not one aspect of the Divine that we can comprehend be some component of personality? After all, human personality is one of the highest things we know on Earth.
I realize that I am dealing with something difficult to explain, but I will try. My personality, my self-conscious identity, and the Divine within me represent my highest potentialities for seeking fulfillment. I can sense a force within me aspiring outward and upward, seeking to unite me with all humanity in bonds of love, service, and compassion, expressing itself in my quest for Truth and my desire to appreciate and create beauty. These very qualities are unique to human beings, and separate us from the animals. This suggests that what I understand in my concept of God is within every human being.
With this concept, I find fresh meaning in my religious vocabulary. I can conceive of God the Father, not as harking back to the anthropocentric conception, but as a way of expressing that aspect of God that corresponds to the purest form of love we know, that of the parent for the child, while giving some space for a feminine component of the Divine that I have firmly come to embrace. In the same sense, I can conceive of the Divine as that Truth to which the Divine within us leads us to aspire, and that creativeness, which the Divine within us leads our imaginative and inventive powers to bring into being.
Jesus, once a moral teacher to me, represents an exceptional example of a personal revelation of divine personalities, of which there are few others. Jesus, like them, is the Divine speaking to us the Word become flesh. In a lesser way, when we are given to speak from the silence, expressing our own interpretation of the Divine is the Word. And when we are moved to compassionate action, to implement our divine inspiration, the Word becomes flesh.
The experience of the Divine is not sufficient unto itself. As William Penn wrote, "True godliness does not take men out of this world but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavors to mend it." Action confirrns the validity of experiencing the Divine in Quaker meeting for worship. The lives of those like John Woolman, who have translated their experience of the Divine into lives of rich beauty and significance, stand as evidence that the experience of the Divine is no idle illusion of their own senses.
We do not need to be saints to try this experience for ourselves. In my own case, participation in Quaker relief and reconstruction work during World War II and afterwards was both a test of my conviction in the Divine in human beings and a basis for my hope for humanity. I have seen survivors of war, undaunted by the desolation, rebuild their lives and homes amid the ruins of their cities, creating beauty once more. I have seen how those almost overwhelmed by despair and suffering respond creatively to goodwill. In the postwar international voluntary work camps, I have seen some of the deepest gulfs of misunderstanding and antagonism bridged by the spirit of brotherhood. More recently, I have studied the lives of Nobel Peace laureates, which has fortified my confidence in the divine potentialities within each of us.
This is my attempt to put a conception of the Divine into words. Writing this has not been easy, and I hope that responses from others will help me improve what I have written. Through an awareness of the highest within myself and others, I believe that I have caught a glimpse of the Most High. But I see only "through a glass, darkly." (l Cor 13:12) My knowledge of the Divine, rooted in experience, is a process for me, not a fixed thing. What I am offering here is a progress report, not a final account. Only if I am able to grow increasingly mindful of the Divine in my remaining years will I perhaps someday give a more adequate answer to the question, "What is God?"
Irwin Abrams, Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at Antioch University, is a member of Friends Meeting of Yellow Springs in Ohio. He is editor of four authoritative volumes of Nobel Peace Lectures for 1971-2000 and currently at work on a fifth volume. He is also co-editor of The Iraq War and its Consequences: Thoughts of Nobel Peace Laureates and Eminent Scholars.