Fingerprints of God

Go get a snack and a beverage to sustain you; this is a long post.

I’m reading Fingerprints of God by Barbara Bradley Hagerty.  It’s about scientific study and theory regarding spirituality and the experience of God.  It’s a topic that can either really fascinate me or totally make me roll my eyes.  This one is resonating, and like Columbine, the last book I wrote about, it helped that she connected to my own experience immediately by calling God exactly that: an “experience” rather than a “person” or even “deity.”

She talks a lot about a single, defining, transformative experience that a person has in a state of brokenness or seeking.  But she also talks about people for whom spirituality has always been a part of them.  I would say that I fall into this latter category, and after reading her accounts of so many other people’s experiences, I thought I’d write about my own.

As I’ve mentioned numerous times, I was raised Unitarian Universalist.  In the 1970’s, it meant coming up in a church where people fell somewhere along the spectrum between agnostic and atheist (tight spectrum).  The church has become open to more spiritual views since then, but I can still get a little grin at the shock on church-members’ faces if I tell them I’m a teacher because that’s what God called me to be.  It’s true, though, I was called; I don’t just say it for shock value, even if it is kind of fun.

Still, even when I was very young, I was drawn to faith.  In elementary school, the comparative religion classes offered at my church fascinated me and inspired me to check out books from the library, or my mom would pick one up at the bookstore for me if it caught her eye.  Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism—it felt like a feast, and none of them seemed ridiculous or untrue at their cores.  I went through a Christian phase in third grade, led by a Catholic friend.  The prayers that came most naturally to me were ones of gratitude.  Part of this phase included bowing my head and silently saying grace, which my parents respected but didn’t encourage.  In my head, I recited a Robert Louis Stevenson poem I still know by heart:

It’s very nice to think

The world is full of meat and drink

With little children saying grace

In every Christian kind of place

But I wasn’t a literalist even then.  To me, the last two lines united me with every child in the world who was grateful to have a family to eat dinner with.  There was another Stevenson poem, “Foreign Children,” and though I wasn’t old enough to know the word “irony” when I first read A Child’s Garden of Verses, I knew the poem was ironic.  Of course the little girl (I always imagined all Stevenson’s poetic speakers were girls) thought other children wished they didn’t have such “odd” customs and foods and could have her “normal” ones.  What she didn’t know (but I did) was that other kids felt the same way about her.  I figured religion was like that, too.  It didn’t matter what you ate with your family or how you prayed your thanks.  What mattered was thankfulness. That was the same, no matter what else was different.

When I was ten, my very good friend died of cancer.  I was sad for her, and I’m sure she was sad, but she wasn’t afraid, so I wasn’t afraid for her.  I have always said that Tracee’s lack of fear is why I have never feared death, but I really have never feared death, so how can I know that was the cause?  Tracee had such a calm way about her.  She was classically old beyond her years.  Maybe we both felt that sense that the universe works as it should, but circumstances made her develop it faster and more intensely.

My first God experience occurred the day after Tracee died, and it wasn’t the hugely dramatic and transformative event Hagerty describes over and over in her book.  It was subtle, but powerful, nonetheless.  I went to my friend Patty’s house.  Patty didn’t know Tracee, so she wasn’t affected by Tracee’s death, and she was doing her best to cheer me up.  She lived in horse country, around houses with tons of property.  I was at the top of the slide in her backyard and suddenly realized that Tracee was dead and I was having fun.  I stopped and looked around from what felt like a higher place than a child’s slide, and the grass was so green and the horse a ways off was so beautiful, and Patty was there, and it was all OK.  Sad, but OK, and in the wisdom of a ten-year-old, that wasn’t a paradox.

I’ve wondered about death, certainly.  In junior high, I toyed with the idea of reincarnation in the classic Hindu sense, moving up or down a ladder depending upon your actions here, in this life.  When a friend asked what happened after that, I said, “I don’t know.  Maybe you become a star or a planet.”  My friend laughed at me, but we were sitting in a Taco Bell down the street from our school, and a woman came over.  She said, “That’s nothing to laugh at.  That was a fascinating discussion.  Thank you.”  I was thirteen-year-old enough to think she was the odd one, talking that way to a kid she didn’t know.

I still don’t worry a lot about death.  I have an intrinsic sense that this is not it; there’s more.  I’m also well-educated enough to know that humans are fairly egocentric, and the idea that we will one day cease to exist doesn’t flatter our sense of cosmic significance.  That is to say, of course, I may simply rather believe there’s more.  For that reason, I fully accept that I may “die and die dead,” as I put it to a friend, who remembered the phrase for decades after we parted ways and brought it up again when we had lunch a few months ago.  I don’t mind dying—just dying—and letting my immortality exist only in the endless ripples created by my existence, ever weakening, but the effects never fully erased.  That’s cool, too.

Now, you don’t hit the teen years as a Unitarian without a big dose of religious skepticism and an encyclopedic knowledge of the impossibilities and contradictions in the Bible.  I still use those as arguments that the Bible is not the infallible word of an omnipotent, omniscient deity, but I’ve always felt that was beside the point.  The human invention behind God as a bearded man who grants grace to believers without regard to genuine goodness or condemns nonbelievers with the same disregard strikes me as obvious, like the cheap plastic “gems” in my daughter’s Pretty, Pretty Princess game when she was small.

But the existence of plastic gems does not negate the existence of diamonds.  This is the roadblock I encounter in discussions with atheists.  They insist on letting cheap, plastic theology define the concept of God and then take pot shots at the easy target.  Like fundamentalists, they insist that God must be Biblical or literal to some other established religion.  It must intercede in the inevitable and create preposterous miracles or it cannot exist at all.  Atheists can have the shallowest understanding of prayer, and when I say that I pray, they say, “You really believe that God is going to listen and give you what you want?”  It makes me sad for them that they think that’s what prayer is.  It makes me even sadder for religious people who think that’s what prayer is.  How can they be anything but hurt by the seeming indifference of God when the miracle they prayed for doesn’t happen?  Besides, when you’re looking for the miracle you wanted, you risk missing the real miracles.

Prayer is connection and understanding.  When prayer is a supplication, the answer may be a solution or merely acceptance.  When I pray for others, I pray they find a solution or acceptance.  What else can I pray for on their behalf?  Why do I pray for others?  Well, maybe I’m part of the solution, or maybe I can help them with acceptance.  Knowing that others are going deep on your behalf can go a long way toward helping you accept the things you are powerless against.  You just have to open yourself up to the love.  To this day, my favorite type of prayer is gratitude.  The answer is mindfulness, awareness of all that is good, and there is much.  Miracles are similarly misunderstood.  They aren’t manifestations of the impossible.  They are manifestations of the awesome.  Like Einstein said, you can live your life one of two ways, as if nothing were a miracle or as if everything were.  I’m in the latter camp.  The universe is an awesome, mysterious place, and the fact that I can witness it and appreciate it is awesome, too.

Hagerty describes the God experience as a sense of peace and wellbeing, a strong connection to everything and everyone, a perception of reality somehow more real than the everyday world.  There is a sense of entity, but not personality.  The vehicle of the entity—vision or whatever—is often influenced by the religion of the experiencer’s upbringing, but the feelings are pretty universal.  Many interpret that entity as a collective existence, and that rings absolutely true for me.  After this experience, life is infused with meaning.  Nothing seems senseless anymore.

The next profound God experience is one I’ve blogged about before, the call from God to become a teacher.  It was the day I stood in front of a classroom for the first time, when I was taking education classes just as a backup to acting.  I felt that electric hum through my whole body, and on the walk home, my senses were so sharp.  Color, sound, everything was more real than anything I could remember.  It has been echoed a thousand times through the years.  I still draw on the sense of connection I felt to the students the day of that call to help myself bond to kids who are difficult.  It’s what makes it possible for me to love completely kids who drive me nuts.  They are a big part of my life’s purpose.

I really think that when you make a living instantly loving children you have yet to come to know, you become capable of loving all kinds of strangers.  I don’t judge people for superficial things like weight or clothes or looks because I love them and the package is not the person.  I do judge things about people—actions that are mean or that do more harm than good—but it doesn’t change the fact that I love the people who commit these acts.  I love them, but they frustrate me.  I believe the spark of the divine is in everyone, and I am bitterly disappointed when people don’t even try to serve God’s purpose for us all—to grow and make the world better.  How do I know this is God’s purpose for us all?  Because I know that’s its purpose for me, and I know that I am not special.

I also experienced an echo of the day at Patty’s.  Ever since I became a teacher, I have felt very close to God.  I feel God in my job, my marriage, and my children, every aspect of my life.  It disappeared after the shootings.  I tried to force it, fake it, but it was gone, and I was so lost and depressed.  I had never felt so utterly without a compass.  On the one-year anniversary of the shootings we had a balloon release.  The whole school gathered outside, in the same place I was the day we teachers herded panicked kids over the chain-link fence to safety.  This time, I held the hand of a student I hadn’t known the year before but who had become special to me.  We watched the balloons, and I thought about all the kids I’d lost, and the new ones I’d come to love, and the kids I hadn’t met yet but would love.  I looked at the mountains, which came super-sharply into focus, and realized that our loss was nothing to those hills.  The event had been crushingly momentous and yet utterly insignificant.  As I had at Patty’s, I found tremendous comfort in those contradictions.  I understood they were no contradiction at all.  I didn’t fully connect right back up to God, but it was like a spark in cold, empty blackness—a small, fleeting assurance that somewhere light and warmth continued to exist.  I just had to hang in there, keep going, resist the thoughts of self-destruction dragging me down.  God had revealed itself to me a number of times.  It would again.  I had faith.

Writing is what connected me back to God.  It is pure creativity, and I love the way words pour out on the keyboard.  I give birth to one person after another.  I kill some because that’s the way the story has to go.  It really isn’t all within my conscious power.  Maybe none of it is.  When I “get” a story (from where?) I know what is right and wrong about it.  I don’t decide what is right or wrong.  I know.  If that’s not a God experience, what is?

Lately, I’ve been fascinated by all the things neurologists are learning about our brains and how brain-function affects things like religion and morality.  (I started researching all that for the book I recently finished but my agent nixed).  Anyway, I’m aware of the fact that all the things we attribute to spirituality or the soul are really just various chemical and electrical impulses in the brain.  To that, I say, “No duh.”  Every single solitary experience we have is perceived through a series of chemical and electrical impulses.  One sees a wall because of how our optical nerves react to light.  One feels it because of the neurotransmitters in the skin and throughout the nervous system.  In that sense, the perception of a wall is only our reactions to it.  If, however, you were comatose, unable to use any of your senses—no wait, if you were dead—if your neurological impulses weren’t working at all—and I picked your body up and threw it against a wall, your body would still hit it.  The wall exists outside of your perception.

If you put a piece of chocolate in your mouth and chew, the chemicals in the candy will react with the chemicals in your saliva.  Your taste buds will react to those chemicals and send electronic signals to your brain.  It’s all a neurological reaction.  That doesn’t change the fact that there is something transcendent about Godiva.

I believe in the transcendent because I have experienced it.  I call it God.  You can call it anything you want, but the fact that I only experienced it because of reactions in my brain doesn’t alter its reality.  Others may not have experienced it.  None of us has experienced everything.  That doesn’t alter the fact that the things we’ve never experienced exist and have been experienced by others.  The concept of God is not at all at odds with science.  The literalness of any set of scriptures is another story.  Myth and scripture can form a vehicle to God surely, and do for thousands of people.  They can also form a vehicle away from it.  I just think it’s such a shame when we get bogged down in attacking or defending a single collection of them.  It’s like being so focused on your car you miss your journey.

Are you still there?  Well, God love you.  Feel free to chime in.

About admin

Paula is an author of historical fiction as well as a wife, mom, and teacher.
This entry was posted in Columbine, Education, Family, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Writing and Being a Writer and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Fingerprints of God

  1. Paul Hamann says:

    Wow, Paula. Thank you for this:

    “[T]he existence of plastic gems does not negate the existence of diamonds. This is the roadblock I encounter in discussions with atheists. They insist on letting cheap, plastic theology define the concept of God and then take pot shots at the easy target. Like fundamentalists, they insist that God must be Biblical or literal to some other established religion.”

    Yes, yes, yes! The number of atheists who come at me with “Well, you must believe…” followed by some stereotype based on idiot fundamentalism…it’s incredible. And the woman who said point-blank that if I were more intelligent, I’d be an atheist…well, I’m still yelling at her in my mind all these years later. I wish I’d had your sentences back then.

    • admin says:

      It drives me nuts when people put words in my mouth, especially about things as important as faith. I might have been inclined to tell the woman you spoke to that if she were more creative, she’d understand what a silly statement that was.

  2. Sue P. says:

    The idea of having many paths to “truth” is so difficult for people to accept. Feeling enriched by reading, hearing, knowing the experiences of others as they pursue their spiritual paths as you describe walking along with your Catholic friend for a bit, exploring Hinduism and reincarnation, reading about world religions is as it should be. We really should all have our own view about God, “truth” and religion because we can’t possibly have the same experience. Our senses, neurotransmitters, perceptions… whatever.. will process those experiences differently and we will all be unique in our belief. Maybe fear of being wrong is what drives folks to get defensive and dish out arguments full of generalizations.
    Thank you for sharing. I’ll look forward to following/posting.

    • admin says:

      The interesting thing about this book, Sue, is that it talks about how incredibly similar the “god experience” is regardless of the path. She’s not talking about overall spirituality, but single, defining, life-altering experiences that can be marked on a calendar. As I said, my experiences have been more subtle than the ones she studied. The stories she tells are about flashes of blinding light where the boundary between individual and universe completely dissolve–the kind of thing great mystics describe. Whether the person was Hindu, Catholic, Muslim, or even nothing in particular, the moments had far more in common than not. Right now I’m to the part where she describes the fact that the effect can be duplicated or nearly duplicated with psychedelic drugs and studied with brain imaging technology.

  3. Libertine says:

    I pretty much classify myself as an agnostic. I don’t have the arrogance to go all the way to atheism, as I can’t honestly say that there is no deity beyond the shadow of a doubt.

    I sense that there is some sort higher power, a force, an infinite being, if you will, but I also know that it’s nothing like what the fundamentalists tell us God is, nor is whatever it is something that can be contained and limited by a tangible object namely, the Bible.

    I suppose the 18th century Deists come closest to what I believe, in their idea of “Nature’s God” with the evidence of a higher power being seen in the natural world around us.

    I like to think that there is some sort of afterlife where we will be reunited with loved ones who have gone before, but there’s no way for me to know until my time comes. I figure it is either this, or simply oblivion, as I don’t believe in hell. If there’s hell, then it’s right here on Earth.

    Interesting post

    • admin says:

      I know what you mean, W. That’s why I appreciate the author’s avoidance of the idea of “deity,” though she speculates on “creator or designer” without drawing any conclusions. She’s just done research into all kinds of scientific inquiry about the transcendental and reports it. She relates it to her own experiences growing up Christian Scientist then leaving the faith of her childhood, then finding evidence that supports some of what she was raised with, but she doesn’t presume to draw any definitive conclusions, which I think is an honest approach.

  4. JohnSherck says:

    I am, characteristically, pulled seven different ways whenever you talk about God, Paula. One the one hand, I’m a confirmed atheist–though I try not to be a jerk about it. In part, that’s because I’m also an agnostic: I think the experience is too big and our ability to perceive it too small to ever conclusively know, but functionally speaking I’m an atheist. I spent the first 18-20 years of life as a Christian, and a pretty serious one at that, and maybe that’s why “God” seems to me to mean a spectrum of things that you, too, are uncomfortable with the word meaning, and I have a hard time getting past that.

    I’m reminded in this context by something Neil Postman wrote, to the effect that the hardest words in the English language are not the 13-syllable words that most of us can’t pronounce and have a hard time spelling. Those words are easy because they have one clear definition. Words like “love” or “justice” or “truth” or “democracy”–or “God” are the difficult ones because people use them in radically different ways from one another, all the while often assuming that we’re using them more or less the same way! Postman proposed that a high school curriculum (and I think he was thinking of us English teachers) could be very beneficial if it taught students to really understand the multiple meanings of some of these common words, and that students raised with such an education would be much harder for politicians, advertisers, preachers, and teachers to take advantage of or lead blindly down paths that probably aren’t in their best interest. I think I’ve mentioned this to you before, and also that I was playing around with something you wrote before about “God” and comparing it to other understandings of the word, though now I can’t think whether I ever used it in class.

    I’m also recalling things I read in a book by Cordelia Fine called A Mind of It’s Own: How the Brain Deceives and Distorts. One of the things I’m thinking of is the way that our feelings influence decisions, even when we think we’re just being logical. There have been studies done on people who have had the emotional centers of their brains damaged so that they basically don’t have emotions. The result is that they have a hard time making decisions at all and when they do, they’re usually very poor decisions. What this suggests to me is that we make a lot of decisions and come to a lot of understandings “intuitively,” which could seem an awful lot like “hearing God speak,” whether unsolicited or in answer to prayer. Likewise, there’s a commonality to people’s experiences of God because we’re all hardwired the same, and so the experiences that we’ve been taught by whatever religious tradition have distinct similarities. In both cases, it just seems to me like a misattribution, albeit a natural one because for so long so many people have used the word “God” to describe such things.

    When it comes down to it, for me, a few things push me toward atheism rather than the sort of transcendentalist redefinition of God that you’ve chosen. On the one hand, it’s a numbers game: it seems that, by a wide margin, most people who do or have lived and believed in “God” meant something a lot closer to a being than an experience, which we both seem to find untenable. On the other hand, I’m at least intrigued–if not wholly convinced–by the argument that Sam Harris makes that “liberal” religions give “cover” for the more extreme or “fundamentalist” versions of religion: any by extension, your more “experiential” use of the word “God” has (well, “might have”) something of the same effect vis a vis literalist/being-ist(?) uses of the word. That is to say, it’s one thing to discuss with you your nuanced and counter-cultural use of the word, but most people will use the word very differently and with far less consideration of the multiple meanings. But then, that’s part of the point, isn’t it? That your usage fights for that ground rather than ceding it to the other side?

    Okay, fine: I’m conflicted. I see value in your approach both for the sake of the discussion and for the sake of describing your own experience and understanding. But it doesn’t, finally, work for me. “Truth” is another of those tricky words. On the one hand, what we refer to as “objective reality” has a truth to it–of course, many religions find this truth to be superficial!–but there’s something banal about this usage of truth. Capital-T Truth is really more about our interpretations and perceptions, which we hope are validated by “objective reality” but about which we should probably all be more than a little agnostic.

    Maybe what both atheists and more conventional believers object to is that you’re muddying the waters–when a fundamentalist says “I believe in God” and I say “There almost certainly is no God,” we are pretty clearly talking about something for which there is a clear truth value: one of us is almost certainly right and the other is almost certainly wrong, with no real middle ground beyond the fact the agnostics point out: it’s really tough to know. Then you come in with your transcendetalist redefinitions and where did our clear argument go? Because now it’s not about the existence or non-existence of a personal deity, it’s a semantic argument about how we describe our experience of reality.

    Of course, I like semantic arguments. 🙂 And, obviously, I also like rambling on at length, but I need to get something else done this morning. Thank you, as usual, for a thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

  5. admin says:

    Great response, John! Here’s the reason I think it’s worth hashing out the semantic implications of the word “God.” Over the ages, mystics and prophets have tried to convey their God experiences. They, themselves, were profoundly moved, and the perspective they gained through their experiences elevated them to roles of spiritual leadership. Hagerty talks a lot about the experiences of prophets and saints. They usually discussed the experience in terms of God, and many had a clear sense of “other” in the experience.

    The problem is, things get lost in translation. In her studies, Hagerty says people who have deeply mystical experiences generally let go of their investment in one faith or cosmic view. They use the language of their familiar faith because that’s what they have available to describe something for which there are no precise words. People who long for the God experience but never have that deeply mystical moment only hear the limited language.

    So it all comes down to this: I think the transcendental interpretation of God is the most accurate. It is an undeniable experience, and it’s an important one. It is impossible to eliminate it from our psyche, and it is so important that people have taken and saved lives in its name. Think how the world might change if we could give the word God the broader connotation that it deserves. It is simply too powerful as a concept to cede to the narrow-minded and fearful.

    As for the role of liberal religions, I think we should pull the covers off of fundamentalism. The problem is that we, ourselves, get tangled up in our own values of tolerance and acceptance. We don’t want to appear intolerant of people who choose a more fundamental worldview. The solution is for those of us who see the value in faith and reason and who have found ways to marry the two to model it. People need to see that you can keep the beauty of the transcendental, the compass of morality, and the plain good-sense of reason. None of these is mutually exclusive, as many fundamentalists (atheists and religious) would have us believe.

  6. Neal says:

    Thank you, Paula, for sharing a part of your journey. Your words serve to illuminate a path for many a person’s travels through this life of ours. It is fitting that you are called to teaching, enabling our children to find their way.

    “Why do I pray for others? Well, maybe I’m part of the solution, or maybe I can help them with acceptance. Knowing that others are going deep on your behalf can go a long way toward helping you accept the things you are powerless against. You just have to open yourself up to the love. To this day, my favorite type of prayer is gratitude.”

    I’ve often thought about the idea of praying for others, and what that means. In the last few years, I’ve come a long way toward accepting and feeling grateful when people offer that. I’ve done that a few times myself; it is a loving action that does help, somehow.

  7. admin says:

    There’s something to be said for having a way to express your deepest care when there is no practical, material thing you can do. We UU’s pride ourselves on being open-minded, but it’s funny the things that can be really hard for us to open up to.

  8. Uncovered your web site via live search the other day and absolutely adore it. Carry on the excellent work.

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