The language we necessarily use shapes our experience of the everyday world as a world of “things,” objects that we view from the outside. This is the case whether the “things” are apples, worlds, ideas, relationships, plans, or even the entire universe. We view and manipulate “things” as if we face them from a separate, outside position in which we seem to live.
At the same time, we are actually “inside” a number of these “things.” For these “things” – such as existence, the universe, nature, God – no outside stance, object perception, or manipulation is possible. Thus, we have created much unnecessary alienation for ourselves, our world, and our troubled societies. Surely this “object perception” of “inside” relationships has shaped our exploitative stances toward our fellow humans and our natural environments.
Although an “inside” perspective deprives us of the ability to objectify, manipulate, or control, it also gives us new freedom. Instead of being forced to accept the fetters of language as it is applied to objects in our “outside” terms, we can claim our full human expressive range within the ongoing drama. We experience this freedom and variety when we relate to music, poetry and literature, drama, dance, sculpture, graphic art, meditations, and prayers. In responding to these different media in our own individual ways, we can convey our feelings and impressions to each other without putting bounds on those topics, without restricting anyone’s feelings and subjective views, without saying that anyone is right or wrong in their experiences.
Unfortunately, when it comes to that which we call God, Creator, Supreme Being, Divine Reality, people tend to wall themselves off with familiar terms and narratives, with “outside” views. New books are published every day that describe the nature of God, finding God, teaming up with God in the Game of Life, overcoming diseases and disabilities through prayer to God, and so on. Such treatises can neither be “right” nor “wrong” in any objective sense, because “God” is not an object. As Joseph Campbell said, God is a metaphor for all that is beyond human understanding. Our descriptions of the Divine may correspond with those of others, or they may not at all, but we have no basis for saying that one is “right” while another is “wrong” – they all refer to That Which Cannot Be Expressed.
So how can we talk about God in common discourse? I believe the legitimate language to use is the language of personal experience.
As a teenager, I took a trip with a friend’s family to their cabin near Crested Butte, an area of isolated mountain lakes and vistas in southwest Colorado. One day, I set out hiking alone. The weather was clear and pleasant. Snow-capped peaks towered all around me. The whole world seemed to be smiling down, blessing the scene and the humans in it. But I barely noticed this reality. I was trying to sort through a multitude of agonizing personal problems. What sort of future education and career did I seek? Which college would be the right choice for me? And especially, what should I do about my impending obligation to register for the draft system of the U.S. Selective Service, the government agency charged with choosing young men for the “meat grinder” of the military and likely “service” in Viet Nam? I was already insulated from that fate, being a Friend from birth, being closely associated with a Friends Meeting, and living in a region where the granting of conscientious-objector status to a person with my background would be quite a routine matter. My urgent query to myself, though, was whether the depth of my conviction was sufficient to justify my objection to war as a moral alternative under any and all circumstances.
So these questions raced persistently through my being, even in this near-perfect natural setting. Suddenly, something happened that proved to be a turning point in my life. There were no words or sounds or visions. It simply seemed that all of a sudden, Time Stopped. Everything That Is, inside and outside, became suddenly perfect – nothing out of place, nothing needing to be changed at all. There was no thundering voice from the heavens, no burning bush suddenly appearing. There was no external God, none necessary in this sudden vision of perfection. Everything became clear; every choice I faced became illuminated, a non-issue. I was no longer the separate observer, but rather an integral participant in the whole grand drama. I saw that we were all in this Dancetogether, from the tiniest spore to the greatest spirit being, each dependent on the others, yet each fully empowered to take the initiative, too. I knew clearly at that moment that I could never choose war – not in Vietnam of that time, nor in any other circumstance. It was clear in that tiny instant that choosing Life over Death was the only real choice for me, because Everything was alive for me. All my worries suddenly became trivial, easily resolved, made clear by this one basic linchpin of faith.
It is difficult to describe the unifying power of that vision – it seems so far from my present-day sense of ego-separation from the beings and things in my everyday life. But even now, more than fifty years later, I can feel the power of that moment resonating like a far-off reverberation from a giant Chinese gong. My eyes still tear up when I remember that sensation of total clarity and inclusion. I have enjoyed other moments of transcendent vision over the years, but none with as much intensity and life-changing power as that first one.
I suspect that most avowed Friends have had what they would consider “mystical” experiences. It is in talking about such experiences that we can find a common language to talk about God. By sharing descriptions of these “inside” experiences, we can get to know each other on a deeper level. Staying aware of the “inside/outside distinction” in our ways of communicating can help us accomplish our goal of deep understanding. In some Friends’ circles, Jesus or God references are commonly understood and accepted. In other groups, that same terminology can actually be an obstacle to deep sharing. There are no “right” ways to communicate among different people, but we must make wise and careful use of the “outside” words we choose when we talk about “inside” experiences.
Our own humanity is revealed to us as we join more closely with others and with the world and nature around us. Becoming aware of our own feelings during this joining, and not just the “good” feelings, can be an essential part of our spiritual expansion, our deeper contact with the “inside” aspects of reality. ~~~
Carl Thatcher is a retired physical therapist and lifelong Friend in Portland, OR. He studies A Course in Miracles, which helps him see from the “inside” without judgments of others. He enjoys traveling, particularly with different study or social justice groups. He is a member of Multnomah Monthly Meeting (NPYM).