When my grandchildren were young my daughter bought them a series of children’s books called Where’s Waldo. It originated in England, actually, where it was called Where’s Wally. But Waldo fit better in the U.S.A. – I presume it’s because friends of Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to him affectionately as Waldo.
The books consisted of double-page book drawings by Martin Handford, a book illustrator, and the children’s challenge was to find Waldo, who wore a distinctive red-and-white striped shirt, a bobble hat and glasses. Handford often included red-and-white striped objects which would lead the children astray.
If you look for God in the Bible you may be led astray, looking for an old man with a long, gray beard who creates and destroys – the God images created by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; the most famous fresco is The Creation of Adam, illustrating the story in the book of Genesis in which God breathes life into the first man, Adam. The image of the hand of God reaching toward Adam, almost touching, can be interpreted in many ways.
For me it suggests humanity’s sense of the closeness of God, while at the same time it acknowledges our limits – illustrating that we can’t quite touch the divine, as close as we might feel it. Any name we give to God, including the word God, is inadequate. Completely. It falls so far short it may be better to refrain from using the word at all.
That being said, where might we look in the Bible to find hints of what we call God?
Since God won’t be wearing a red-and-white striped shirt, or a long, flowing beard, you have to use your own imagination, colored with your poetic sensitivities.
The first book, Genesis, depicts God as the intentional creator of the universe – the earth and all that dwells on it. The story says he labored for six days ‘and on the seventh day he rested.’ Sort of like Michelangelo working on his frescos in the famous chapel where Cardinals elect Popes.
In his poem titled Self-Reliance, Emerson says:
“Henceforth, please God, forever I forego
The yoke of men’s opinions. I will be
Light-hearted as a bird, and live with God.
I find him in the bottom of my heart,
I hear continually his voice therein.
The little needle always knows the North,
The little bird remembereth his note,
And this wise Seer within me never errs.
I never taught it what it teaches me;
I only follow, when I act aright.”
Early in my young adult life I felt ‘the yoke of man’s religious opinions.’ If you say you believe in the Biblical portrait of God, you are accepted, or acceptable. If you don’t believe in it, you are marginalized – at least you were marginalized in the era and culture in which I was raised.
Though I didn’t have a way to describe it easily or succinctly, I felt ‘spiritual but not religious.’ To be religious was to believe in the creedal statements and the belief statements; to be spiritual was to feel swept up in the power of creation, as if God was still working on you, forming the clay and blowing into it the breath of life, and you realize that you are ‘a living soul.’ It’s rather overwhelming to feel the power of creation moving in and working in you.
In the second chapter of Genesis the Bible says: “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”
First we’re introduced to God the Creator, than, in the same book of Genesis we’re introduced to the punishing God who evicted Adam and Eve from the Garden for the sin of disobedience.
Later this punishing God destroyed the entire human population except for Noah and his family…indeed, He destroyed all plants and animals living on the earth, except for those Noah loaded onto his ark.
Then God promised not to send such destruction again, and as a reminder to himself not to do that again he painted a nice bright rainbow in the sky, which was reassuring to his children.
God is depicted in a variety of ways in the 39 books of what we call the Old Testament, and in the 27 books of the New Testament — my favorite is the book of Genesis. It is filled with stories – good stories – mythology, that speaks to us, transcending time, place or culture.
One of those stories is in chapter 32 – the story of Jacob who had been in hiding from his brother Esau for 21 years, having tricked their father, Isaac, into giving the blessing to Jacob, who disguised himself as Esau. So after 21 years of living with their uncle Laban, and having a family that included twelve sons – who would forever be known as ‘the twelve tribes of Israel’ – Jacob was determined to set things right with his brother…but he was afraid of what might happen. The passage says:
“Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel,] because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.”
The second of the two stories I want to mention that reference God is the story of Moses and the burning bush. It’s found in the third chapter of the book of Exodus, the timeless freedom story that refers to each of us individually and all of us, collectively. It says:
“Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”
When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
And Moses said, “Here I am.”
“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” 6Then he said, “I am the God of your father,[a] the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.
The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”
But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you[b] will worship God on this mountain.”
Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM” .[c] This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’
“This is my name forever,
the name you shall call me
from generation to generation.”
The burning-bush God turns out to be a verb, not a noun. I’m told that the Hebrew is better translated: “I am becoming.”
Like Jacob of old, I have wrestled with God, and the God I’ve been able to embrace is a verb – some call it ‘process theology.’
When Bill Rice, minister at the Wellesley Unitarian Church where I was the youth advisor said, “Frank, you should be a minister,” my immediate disclaimer was, “But Bill, I don’t believe in God.”
His immediate response, “You’ll spend the rest of your life with that question,” has stayed with me. The God question can never be answered, once and for all, nor should we think that it ought to be answered, once and for all.
Bill might have said, “You’ll wrestle with God…like Jacob of old.” A good myth holds the questions up in front of us so we see ourselves, ‘as in a mirror, dimly.’
In my first year of seminary at Boston University I had an undergraduate course in philosophy, and my teacher, Peter Bertocci, asked the large lecture hall of students to tell him, in a brief paper, what you ‘think of God,’ I was one of the two who responded and when I wrote, “I don’t believe in God,” he wrote in the margin: “Which one?” There’s that question, again. It sparked a wonderful relationship between him and me…he said, “So, tell me about the God you don’t believe in.”
Later I would discover the Jewish theologian Maimonides who developed what he called ‘theologia negativa’ saying: ‘list all the things you don’t believe about God,’ then focus on what’s left.
If you were able to ask a fish what he believed in, he would not immediately say, “Water, of course.!” God is to us what water is to the fish.
The Bible, in the Epistle I John, says, “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us. God is love.”
Now I want to switch gears and keep a promise I made to comment on a book.
Several months ago I received a book in the mail titled Proof of Heaven, a Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, written by a neurologist, Eben Alexander, M.D. The book came with a letter from him, in which he said, in part:
“As a neurosurgeon, I did not believe in the phenomenon of near-death experiences…I understand what happens to the brain when people are near death, and I had always believed there were good scientific explanations for the heavenly out-of-body journeys described by those who narrowly escaped death…I sympathized deeply with those who wanted to believe that there was a God somewhere out there who loved us unconditionally. In fact, I envied such people the security that those beliefs no doubt provided. But as a scientist, I simply knew better than to believe them myself.
“In the fall of 2008, however, after seven days in a coma during which the human part of my brain, the neocortex, was inactivated, I experienced something so profound that it gave me a scientific reason to believe in consciousness after death.”
About his journey into what he calls ‘the afterlife,’ he says: “For most of my journey, someone else was with me. A woman. She was young, and I remember what she looked like in complete detail.” (He describes her.)
He says, “…we were riding along together on an intricately patterned surface, which after a moment I recognized as the wing of a butterfly.”
He describes the clothing she wore…the colors and texture and patterns. Her outfit, he says, was ‘like a peasant’s.”
He says that ‘the way she looked at me made my whole life up to that point worth living,’ explaining that ‘it wasn’t a romantic look…it was not a look of friendship…it was a look that was somehow beyond all these…something higher.’ Spiritual.
He summarized the message her got from his companion: “You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever…you have nothing to fear…there is nothing you can do wrong.” Like a message from God.
The woman companion said: “We will show you many things here…but eventually you will go back.”
He asked, ‘back where…who am I…why am I here?’ Ah, those questions, again!
He said, “Each time I silently put one of these questions out, the answer came instantly in an explosion of light, color, love, and beauty that blew through me like a crashing wave…they answered (my questions.)”
He said that his story sounds unbelievable…but, he said, “One of the few places I didn’t have trouble getting my story across was a place I’d seen little of before my experience: church. The first time I entered a church after my coma, I saw everything with fresh eyes.”
He talked about the stained glass windows and the sound of the organ and “…most important, a painting of Jesus breaking bread with his disciples evoked the message that lay at the very heart of my journey : that we are loved and accepted unconditionally by a God even more grand and unfathomably glorious than the one I’d learned of as a child in Sunday school.”
The Sunday school reference reminded me of the famous Bible passage, attributed to Jesus: “Unless you become as a child you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
His description is culture-bound: things he learned in Sunday School, he says, which are the things that come to us in our dream life, which is what his ‘journey’ was.
Eben Alexander’s experience is about the return of his child-like innocence, and I don’t mean that as a put-down. The life of the spirit – the part of us that discovers God ‘in the bottom of my heart,’ as Emerson put it – is a wonderful, liberating, child-like innocence. It’s not ‘childish.’ (Arguments about God’s existence are, for the most part, childish.)
When my father survived a major heart attack he told me not to allow them to defibrillate his heart again, explaining that he was ready to go and that he was almost ‘in heaven,’ having been welcomed by Jesus.
I listened and was glad he had that reassuring experience; just as I did not, and would not, take that away from him, so I would not attempt to take it away from Dr. Eben Alexander.
His book, Proof of Heaven, is # 1 on the New York Times best selling paperback this week and in the best-selling combined print and e-book list it is # 3. (# 7 is the book titled Heaven is For Real, another in the long list of near-death experiences book.
In the cover letter, addressed to me, Alexander wrote: “I enjoy telling my story to congregations…and would be thrilled to receive (your) invitation to do so.”
He wants to ‘spread the good news,’ painting a very traditional Christian picture.
His description of flying on the wing of a butterfly with a female companion and guide is a pretty piece of poetry, or a vivid recollection of a dream, and I take it as such; as poetry and as a recollection of a powerful dream – the kind Carl Jung talked about.
His title, Proof of Heaven, seems unfortunate, in that it implies argumentation, as in “I’ll prove it to you.” I’ve never found such argumentation persuasive, even if he is a neurosurgeon. His brain was not dead. It felt like ‘the afterlife’ to him, but it wasn’t – he was still very much alive, though in a state of consciousness he’d never experienced, and most of us won’t experience.
Concepts of God and heaven and hell, angels and devils, like all concepts, are formed in the mind, and the mind is a function of the brain – the mind is ‘the organized conscious and unconscious adaptive mental activity of an organism.’ His mind was active.
Simply put, all religious language and terms to describe them, are constructs of the mind that bring comfort to the believer…sometimes it’s a temporary comfort, or it may last a lifetime. Some of those constructs are meant to put fear in the heart of the believer, and those who carry them are yoked, as Emerson put it:
“Henceforth, please God, forever I forego
The yoke of men’s opinions. I will be
Light-hearted as a bird, and live with God.
I find him in the bottom of my heart,
I hear continually his voice therein.” ~ Self-Reliance
To be yoked is to be ‘in bondage.’ Eben Alexander’s experience was liberating – he broke the chains that had prevented the development of his spiritual life and he felt like he had been ‘born again,’ though as far as I know he didn’t use that metaphor.
I had my own near-death experience when I was seven years old – I was drowning, having fallen off of a little raft in a tiny little pond in the near-by Medford Woods. I have a vivid recollection of that experience, telling myself that ‘this isn’t right…this is not the time for me to die,’ and I felt what I then thought of as ‘God’s presence.’ My friend, nine-year old Bobby McCarthy, jumped into that muddy pond, held on to the raft with one hand and pulled me up with the other, saving my life. “Thank you, God.”
I guess Bobby McCarthy was the equivalent of the guide and companion who was flying on the wing of a butterfly with Eben Alexander. He brought me home…safe.
Theological statements or books that attempt to prove God or prove heaven are like Peter telling me about Paul — wherein I learn about Peter. They don’t prove God’s existence, but they underscore our wish to know God. (And here I would introduce the fish to water. God is the water in which we ‘live and move and have our being,’ as the good book says.
I’ve never felt the need to believe in a personal, man-like God, a God with human attributes. Man created God ‘in his own image.’ That kind of is what psychologists call ‘wishful thinking.’ (See Freud’s book The Future of an Illusion)
The God I believe in is beyond description and doesn’t need proof, except the proof that is ‘in the pudding,’ the God who is lived out by our little acts of kindness and by the living presence of compassion, which is what Emerson found ‘in the bottom of his heart.’
Mine is a natural religion – I leave the supernatural to those who feel they need it, but it seems like a lazy man’s religion to me. In my first sermon from this pulpit I quoted Whitman’s saying:
“Listen, I’ll be honest with you, I do not offer old, smooth prizes but rough new prizes…these are the days that must happen to you…allons, after the great companions.”
Dr. Eben Alexander had a powerful dream-like experience and I respect it, and if time permitted I would certainly invite him to share this pulpit and present his argument — his Proof of Heaven.
But my time of holding responsibility for this pulpit is running out and soon I will have to relinquish it. Like Jacob, I’ve used it as my platform to wrestle…
I don’t deny what Alexander called ‘the afterlife.’ I simply think we need to live in this time-bound, earth-bound place – what will be will be. There’s a story of Thoreau’s aunt asking him, when he was on his death bed, “Are you ready for the hereafter?” He is reported to have responded, “One life at a time, auntie.”
We are part of that which we call the eternal, but as long as we are here eternity will have to wait. Wherever, whenever and whatever it is, we’ll find out soon enough, and it will not be given as a reward, or held back from us as punishment. That’s a theology our Universalist forebears rejected, which is why they carved on their pulpits, God is Love. They reasoned, since God is Love, all souls are saved: universal salvation.
I’ll close with lines from Whitman. In this passage from Song of Myself Whitman uses the nautical term kelson, or keelson – which refers to the central fore-and-aft structural member in the bottom of a hull, extending from the stem to the stern to provide stability. Here’s the passage:
“Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the
Beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my
own…And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love…”
May love be in you…from stem to stern, now and always. Amen.