Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A Clarification of Recent Intellectualism

I've realized that my posts on this new blog so far have come in very intellectual words, seemingly from a very intellectual place. It's funny and humbling to notice this, because I sometimes find myself very frustrated with people who approach spirituality solely intellectually (being intellectual is not the point!!). So, given that, I thought I might clarify a little.

I notice God everywhere. God is just under our nose - all the time! Over the past year I have learned to look for positive things when everything seems to be falling apart. In the same way, I have learned to look for God when God seems impossible or just utterly absent.

Often when I pause for a moment, I see God in my friends, I feel God in my ability to persevere difficult times, in my joy when times are better. I see God in the sunlight and the clouds, I feel God in my pulse, in the smiles and tears of strangers and of my family. God is my life, the lives of my friends, and all the stories of pain and of love I've ever heard. God is all the love in my life, given and received, clear-cut and confusing. There is nowhere and nothing that God is not, for God is everywhere and everything.

I can't always tap into this sense of God very easily, but I'm getting better at it. All this intellectual stuff on this blog is an attempt to articulate this sense, and to relate it to my experience of Quakerism and other people's experiences with God. I have no doubt about God.

I feel a strong urge to come up with some intellectual description of God because I am a scientist. I am a chemist in practice and at heart. At this point in my life, chemistry is a strong calling of mine. This brings me into relationships with other scientists, many of whom are very skeptical of religion and God, or have abandoned both altogether.

In February, shortly after attending the YAF retreat in Burlington, NJ where I found grounding I'd been without for quite sometime, I found myself having a very challenging conversation with a friend of mine who is atheist. As I tried to explain Quaker practice and my concept of God, I had to define every single term I used - even words such as 'grounded'! She asked me if I found that I had to "check science at the door" when I went to Meeting for Worship, and my response was "of course not!" If I had to check science at the door, I never would enter in the first place. Continuing in this conversation, I was challenged to explain my concept of God and how it did not contradict science, and that God was not just an explanation for things science cannot yet explain. To me, God and science are not two separate puzzle pieces to fit together covering different areas, but rather are utterly overlapping. I have yet to come up with a good analogy for how I see God and science together.

In any case, now, when trying to articulate God in my life and what I mean when I say God, I use that conversation as a standard. "If I used these words with my atheist friend, would she understand them as I mean them? Could I explain this to a skeptic and not get written off as a nut? As a scientist, is what I am saying possible and real?" I ask these questions not for fear of being judged, but to hold myself accountable. I will not let myself believe something because it is easier to and not confront the belief head on and test it thoroughly.

So, Friends, any fumblings I have with intellectual descriptions are not for lack of faith, nor for lack of experience. I am seeking to articulate, and I am seeking to find the right context.

Love and Light,


Liz Opp said...

This is a beautiful, articulate post, Claire.

It reminds me of conversation I've had... and it reminds me too of the phrase, "Come and see."

I find I am letting go of working so hard to describe to nontheists an inward experience I had of God and just letting them have their own experience of not-God. At least, this is where I am right now with such conversations. smile

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

QuakerK said...

Hi, Claire. I sympathize with your questions, and I am looking forward to reading what you have to say.

I wonder if I might ask you a question: can you explain what you mean when you say that you see God in your friends? It's the sort of phrase I hear a lot--I read similar phrases in one of the "God books" that I read to my kids--but I've never been able to get a good handle on it. You seem to have given this some thought, so I wonder if you could explain. Is it a form of pantheism--God is your friends? Or is that there is a "bit" of God in your friends? or that seeing your friends reminds you of God? Or that God is the relationship between you and your friends? But what does that mean?

Obviously, this question is really about all the descriptions you make of God in that paragraph, but for simplicity's sake, I just picked one such description.

I hope these questions don't come across as hostile or excesively critical. I really am curious to hear what you have to say, in hopes that it will help me sort through questions, too. All this is very intellectual on my part, too. But, I think, if one is of an intellectual bent, one's religion will be of an intellectual bent as well. There is nothing wrong with that, I think. Different people approach God in different ways. Like you (as I understand your description), I don't necessarily see intellect as the basis for religion, but religion must at least be intellectually honest and consistent. For an intellectual like me.



forrest said...

We can define abstractions, but live things define themselves...

Of course we're inclined to use our intellect in trying to know God better (We aren't supposed to leave it at home when we come to meeting) but as you know, it's like the difference between knowing the size of a whale, and meeting one face to face in the ocean. St Thomas spent a lifetime writing theology, then a day or so before his death he had a mystical vision, which left him saying that his writings hadn't even come close.

One of the best pieces I've seen on God was "Is God a Taoist" by Raymond Smullyan, a logician. Smullyan didn't try to define God--but in his dialogue, God describes himself as ~ "more like the act of seeing than anything you could see."

So getting a grip on what we mean by God really requires something like meditation--but then we intellectual types get utterly frustrated if we imagine that this must mean depriving ourselves of thinking; it's like a small child being told not to run around, or a bird being expected not to fly so much! It would be wrong for us to refuse our own gifts, the nature we've been given--but we simply can't play with all our toys at the same time, and some are more appropriate than others to this business of coming-to-know God.

How to communicate what you see "under your nose" to someone who doesn't see himself seeing it... When I had a bookstore, there was a shelf in front of my counter, where I had the store's few newage books. Whenever someone asked for that section, I would point--straight toward him--and invariably he would turn around and look behind himself. You're dealing with that kind of a difficulty, and in this context the sort of thinking we do in writing poetry has a better chance of getting through.

(& if you ever decide to join the site I mentioned, please send your email address to me ( ))

John Helding said...


I am new to the Quaker blogosphere and happened across your articulate and passionate posting and was taken by it. I too have a sense of God in everything, although find it is not my only experience, or even the most fundamental experience I have of God.

So a couple of my thoughts to add to this thread as well as a couple of resources I think might be of interest to you and others around the questions you raise up.

Personally, my current best definition of God (both for myself and what I express to others) comes operationally, out of Meeting for Worship. In my 20 years or so of Quaker practice, I have come to find that as I deeply worship in a Quakerly way, I often come away with a sense of comfort, love, connection to all, and/or instruction from beyond me (or as Marcus Borg, one of my current teachers, refers to as "the great beyond.").

And what I walk away with changes me, changes the world in positive (albeit not always easy or pleasant) ways. All of this comes from beyond me, from beyond my ego, and it is comfort and guidaince personally tailored to me, as if I am know by this great beyond. Moreover I see others reponding in similar ways to MfW and have similar operational descriptions of it.

It is a profound sense of a connecting beyond me -- of surrendering ego and a sense of being instructed and held.

To two issues that you raise. Seeing God in everything is wonderfully explored in Marcus Borg's book, "The Heart of Christianity" where he outlines this sense of God and the theological construct labeled Panentheism.

And to the powerful combination of science and faith, I refer you to an BBC interview with one of Quakerism's better known scientists (part of the team that discovered Quasars among other work), the astrophyscist, Jocelyn Burnell. I heard her at the 2000 FGC Gathering in Rochester (where I got to ask her the question, "Who lit the big bang" and her reply was along the lines of "Science will never know, you need to turn to religion/faith for that knowledge.")

Well much more in the interview on her understanding of God and how she integrates that understanding with her understanding and work as a scientist.

(not sure how to turn that into a live link on this site -- new to all this blogging stuff :))

Thanks again for your posting,

John Helding
San Francisco Monthly Meeting

John Helding said...

Trying again with The full link description to the inverview with Jocelyn Burnell

Claire said...

Liz - It's true that everyone will have their own experience with God (or not-God). One thing that springs to mind is that while I spoke of an atheist, you referred to nontheists, and I've recently learned that there is quite a distinction between atheism and nontheism - not going to get into that here, just thought I'd point it out. :)

David (quakerk): These are good questions - ones to which I have been struggling to articulate an answer! I fumbled around a little trying to explain what I mean by God in a post I wrote the other week (That God), but I'll try some more here.

When I talk about God being everywhere and everything, I am speaking of the very strong feeling I have in reaction to the miracle of.. well, everything. That we are here, that nature is made up of incredible, intricate, and complicated processes that I never could have conceived of on my own, that we love - and oh what an amazing feeling it is to love and be loved! I step back into this perspective of the world around me and am so amazed, and in all of these miracles I see God, I experience God. Life is incredible and mysterious and wonderful, and a continuous experience of God.

I don't know if these words are any more helpful than the ones in my original post - it is difficult to express such an inward experience in words that even come close to articulating it well. Figuring out how to articulate it is an on-going project for me, and it's difficult. In the previous post I mentioned I tried to explain it as intellectually as possible, but I think it lacked a good expression of my experience.

I hope this was helpful. I am definitely open to a continuing dialog about this, whether here or in some other forum.

Forrest: I like your analogy about the whale - though I'm inclined to argue that it's still easier to describe a whale than it is to describe God, but I understand the analogy anyway.
I also really like the quotation you gave from "Is God a Taoist"; "more like the act of seeing than anything you could see." I've had a couple conversations (and maybe mentioned in my first post regarding this URL) about God being a verb or adjective rather than a noun. This quotation reminds me of that.

You also speak of experiencing God in meditation, and say but then we intellectual types get utterly frustrated if we imagine that this must mean depriving ourselves of thinking - this is true! Often I find myself trying to think less to get to God and then I worry about blind faith and about not holding myself accountable. Really, though, I think in the instance of not-thinking to reach God, it's not about not-thinking because thinking would introduce doubt, but rather not-thinking because thinking is noisy and clutters or drowns out the deeper message being given. Sometimes it's harder to remember this.

Also the example you speak of about the shelf in your bookstore sounds familiar when trying to articulate my current understanding of God. God is everywhere and everything, how is it that not everyone sees it? How is it that it's not blatantly obvious to everyone? It's like trying to describe water to a fish who's never been to the surface.

Haven't yet figured out where I am with the communal blog you mentioned - I've just been back in the blog-o-sphere for barely a week and a half, so I'm working on getting my bearings, but I have not forgotten!

John - I too experience the sense of connection and of being held that you speak of, and that is also how I experience God. Goodness, God sometimes seems like so many different things when I try to describe God, but they're all descriptions of the same God to me (does this make sense?).

Thanks also for the link - I will definitely check it out!

Love and Light,

QuakerK said...


If you don't mind, I'll respond to your comments. Your answers were very helpful, actually. I think they cleared things up quite a bit. If I might repeat what I think you said to see if I understood it: when you "see" God in the world around you, what you mean is that you see a complex, amazing world, and that you have a reaction of a "sense" of God, a feeling that there is something that transcends all this that either created it, or provides order, or impetus, or meaning, or some combination of those. And to you, that sense of a transcendent Being is a necessary and inevitable follow-on to the beauty and complexity you see in the world.

Forgive the dry and clinical tone here. I don't mean to be off-putting, just to be critical in the hopes of helping us both achieve some clarity. (I actually know pretty well what you mean, as I'm sure many readers of this blog will). A couple of things strike me about that. One is that when you say you "see" God, in a sense what you actually see is the material world, and then you have an inner feeling or experience of God. From a purely naturalistic view of the world (and the classic definition of science is that it focuses on explaining the natural world), that sense of God is, I think, beyond science, in the same way that consciousness is beyond science. Neither can fully be described in objective terms, since they are in part a subjective experience. That doesn't mean that your sense of God conflicts with science; it's more like it's outside science. Of course, for those who think science can explain everything that last sentence is nonsense, but to me it's clear that science can't explain everything--not in the sense that there are miracles and mysteries that science can't explain, but some things that it cannot by definition explain.

I'm also reminded of a piece I read in the paper a few months ago, about a discussion between some scientists about science and religion. Some were believers, and some were not. And one of the believers got up and spoke, in the same way you did, about the beauty and complexity of the world, and the atheists all agreed, and then the believer said, "And when I see that, I see God" or words to that effect, and the atheists howled (metaphorically speaking). One of them said, "I agreed with you up to the end. Why do you feel a need to add in the bit about God? It's not necessary to go with the rest, the scientific bit." But of course, for the believer, it was necessary, just as for the non-believer it wasn't. So perhaps some people are inclined to believe and others aren't. Perhaps that just confirms what Liz said. But probably the atheists or nontheists sense transcendence in their way, too. They just don't attach the name "God" to it.

Of course, there are further questions, like, does that "God" whose presence you sense fit the categories of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God (e.g., has personality, is the creator of the world, etc.) But that's a whole different problem.

By the way, I also recommend finding out more about Jocelyn Burnell. She was sojourning at Princeton meeting during my time there, and she was a very thoughtful, very weighty Friend. I think she was clerk of Britain Yearly Meeting for a while.



forrest said...

It's possible to base one's description of God on one definite, unmistakable reality. It's not merely a sense of wonder or of world-appreciation.

But the words I use to describe this are not, of course, the reality they describe. And people do tend to seize on descriptions, partly because they can evoke people's real intuitions of what we're talking about, and partly because that reality is so much more elusive than any particular object.

In Smullyan's dialogue, the mortal asks why God doesn't simply reveal himself to us. God's response is that he is doing precisely that, that it's intrinsically a process that requires time, more like the growth of a tree than the sort of instantaneous magic the word "omnipotent" suggests.

So if God is taking a whole (eternal) lifetime to show us the meaning of "God," I can't expect that the best description I could give will do the job by itself.

The "meaning" of the Book of Job is not that God is unjust; but that Job's experience of injustice becomes the means for letting Job see God.

So I can't say that you aren't experiencing God; I do say that the experiences you've been talking about are not what I mean when I talk about knowing "God" as a reality. If those experiences are helping you find the reality behind them, that's good... but it doesn't make them a road map for people who haven't come that way.

David's "categories of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God" are not something that God "fits into," but they are parts of a description that can help or hinder us, depending on how critically or literally people understand them. When God breathes his own life into Adam, or says Moses should "Tell the Israelites that 'I Am' sent you," these are hints of a strong mystical understanding in the people who wrote these stories.

We can also apply Buddha's (non)description of God, his faith that meditation would eventually lead each being to see the sacred interconnection of life for ourselves. (There's a line in one of the prophets about a time when "No one [in Israel, at least] will say to his neighbor, 'Know the Lord,' for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of God.")

I'm not saying that God is not "personal" or not "the Creator of the world;" but the better I understand the actual state of affairs, the more I see God as the essence of consciousness, and "creation" as more akin to dreaming (as in _The Lathe of Heaven_) or to the writing of a novel. That "thing" which "persons" us--is already a whole world of people; can we forbid it to take on a personality of its own? I can't imagine how "the consciousness of consciousness itself" would experience the world; but I do know that creation is ordered by a mind hidden somehow within each mind. "Within"--but also transcendent, not at all confined to anyone's head or any number of heads.

Am I confused? Certainly. Have I been granted a sense of how things actually are? That too. I do hope it helps.

Claire said...

Friends - sorry that it took me so long to respond. I began my summer research job this week and it keeps me very busy.

David - It sounds like you understood very well what I was trying to convey about my experience of God. I think you're right about some things being by definition outside the realm of science, as nervous as that statement makes me when it stands by itself.

I was listening to a podcast yesterday from an APM program called Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett in which George Ellis was interviewed. George Ellis is a Quaker physicist from South Africa, and he was discussing this same concept. He said that it's not like the 'God of the gaps' concept where things that science has not yet explained (but probably will some day) are where God comes in, but that there are some things that are inherently outside of science. For instance, science cannot give an answer to the subjective question of what is right and what is wrong. Science is incapable of explaining that.

As for the piece in the paper you mentioned, that's also an issue I've struggled with. Why do I call this sense I have God? Is that what I want to believe? If that's inherently my definition of God, and someone who does not believe in it also experiences the same sense, what does that mean? Do I interpret that as them experiencing God even if they don't think so? Should I even bother stressing about what they don't call God? I think it comes down to the question of what the difference is. What is the difference?

Anywho, that was a little bit of a ramble there.

Forrest - What you describe about how you experience God also fits with my experience. When I talk about how I experience God I'm merely citing examples. Seeing God as the essence of consciousness is another sort of .. description, I guess is the best word here, of my own experience. This goes along with God being somewhat outside the realm of science, for instance.

For example, based on my experience with chemistry, reactions between molecules only occur if the conditions are favorable and the molecules are effectively reactive, at which point the react spontaneously. They don't stop and consider what's best and think about it. But then, when I move my fingers, is that a spontaneous reaction that only occurs because the right few molecules happened to run into each other in the right setting? No way, that would be random and unintentional. Sure our thoughts seem to occur when synapses fire in our brains (which is for sure a scientific process), but the order and frequency with which they do so to form our thoughts and our actions is not clearly spontaneous. (Unless of course there is no free will and every last detail is utterly set and my fingers move as they do because of such spontaneous reactions, but that is an entirely different issue.)

Sorry for that slight tangent - the issue of science and God is very much on my mind these days.

What you say about God being a mind within each mind, or the consciousness of consciousness itself also fits well for me.

Thank you both for comments. I like this continued dialog.

Love and Light,

QuakerK said...


It's funny you should bring up the issue of free will. I've seen free will mentioned, along with the existence of other minds, as the paradigm of the sort of thing that can't be proven but "must" be right anyway. For some people, God is in that category. His existence can't be proven, but it's an axiom upon which all else is built. More to the point, it might make it easier to believe in something (God) without physical proof, if there are also other things (free will, the existence of other minds) that you and lots of other people believe in even though they have no clear "proof." If we believe in free will, is it any more irrational to believe in God?

You ask, what if you have the same experience of "God" as someone who doesn't believe in God. I'm reminded of something I read on another Quaker blog (earthfreak's--can't remember her real name). A self-described Quaker atheist, she was describing her experience in worship to a theist Quaker. When she was done, he said, "That's what God is like to me." So it's possible for two people to attach different names to the same experience. The question is, does it matter if the names are different?


QuakerK said...

P.S. Good luck on the summer research job!



John Helding said...

Claire, you wrote: "Goodness, God sometimes seems like so many different things when I try to describe God, but they're all descriptions of the same God to me (does this make sense?)."

Yes, that makes perfect sense to me as I think there is/must be a beautiful and profound profoundness to God. It's not supposed to be an easy thing to capture or write down in a few paragraphs or a religious creed for that matter. I resonate with Forrest's musing of God taking a lifetime, an eternal lifetime to reveal herself to us. And the growing tree metaphor he puts forth seems a very apt one for how our understanding of God develops -- if of course and branching out the metaphor, we tend it with love and care and devotion. It is very much an experiement (and we are an experiential faith after all) of exploring and proding and testing and gathering evidence and understanding over a long period of time.

I know for me, after four decades of life here, I have a much stronger understanding of what is and isn't God. I also have many, many more questions and experiments to conduct, God willing, to learn more. I pray for the opportunity.