When it comes to God, almost all of us, believers and non-believers alike, suffer from a kind of nearsightedness. We see — and hence believe — only what's right in front of us. The faithful see God as a benign parental figure bestowing grace and justice as he judges our actions here down below.
The rest of us think God is far more distant, impersonal and uninvolved. Yet God may be closer and more involved than that, closer than breathing, in fact.
At any given moment, someone in the world is amazed to find that the God experience is real. Wonder and certainty still dawn. I keep at hand a passage from Thoreau's Walden about this, where he speaks of, "the solitary hired man on a farm in the outskirts of Concord, who has had his second birth."
Like us, Thoreau wonders if someone's testimony about having a "peculiar religious experience" is valid. In answer, he looks across the span of centuries: Zoroaster (aka Zarathustra), thousands of years ago, travelled the same road and had the same experience, but he, being wise, knew it to be universal.
If you find yourself suddenly infused with an experience you cannot explain, Thoreau says, just be aware that you are not alone. Your awakening is woven into the great tradition. Humbly commune with Zoroaster then, and through the liberalizing influence of all the worthies, with Jesus Christ himself, let "our church" go by the board.
In contemporary language, Thoreau is advising us to trust our deepest belief that spiritual experience is real. Skeptics turn this advice on its head. The fact that God has been experienced over the ages, only goes to show that religion is a primitive holdover — a mental relic that we should train our brains to reject.
To a skeptic, God persisted in the past because priests had the power to enforce faith, allowing no deviations among their followers. But all attempts to clarify matters — to say, once and for all, that God is absolutely real or absolutely unreal — continue to fail.
Let's move from the abstract to the personal. When you look at yourself and ask where you stand on the God issue, you are almost certainly in one of the following situations:
Unbelief: You don't accept that God is real, and you express your unbelief by living as if God makes no difference.
Faith: You hope that God is real, and you express your hope as faith.
Knowledge: You have no doubt that God is real, and therefore you live as if God is always present.
When someone becomes a spiritual seeker, they want to move from unbelief to knowledge. The path is by no means clear, however.
When you get out of bed in the morning, what is the spiritual thing to do? Should you try to live in the present moment, for example, which is considered very spiritual? Peace resides in the present moment, if it resides anywhere.
In all of us there are seeds of unbelief, because we were born in a secular age that questions everything mystical. Better to be free and skeptical than bound by myths, superstition and dogma. When you touch the skeptic inside you, unbelief is a reasonable state to be in.
But for most people it's also an unhappy state. They feel unfulfilled in a totally secular world where the deepest worship, arguably, goes to sports heroes, comic books and having a perfect body. Science gives us no assurance that life has meaning when it describes the universe as a cold void ruled by random chance.
And so faith persists. We want the universe to be our home. We want to feel connected to creation. So whether you call it clinging to faith or abiding by the traditions of our forefathers, religious belief exists everywhere. For billions of human beings there is no livable alternative.
But what about the third stage, after unbelief and faith — certain knowledge of God — which is the rarest and most elusive? To be truly certain, a person may have to undergo a transformative experience, or miraculously retain the innocent soul of a young child. Neither is all that realistic in most lives.
People who return from near-death experiences, which are extremely rare to begin with, have no hard evidence about "going into the light" that would convince a skeptic. What has changed for them is private, internal and subjective. As for the innocence of children, we have good reason for abandoning it. Childhood joy is a naïve, unformed state, and as happy as it was, we yearn to experience a wider world of achievement. The creative heights of human history are reached by adults, not overgrown infants.
Let's say that you recognize yourself in one of these three states: unbelief, faith, and knowledge. It's quite all right if you've had passing moments of each. Most of us cluster under the middle hump of a bell-shaped curve, part of the vast majority that believes in God. At the tail end of the curve are a tiny minority: to the left, the confirmed atheists; to the right, the deeply religious who pursue God as their vocation.
But it's fair to say that most people who respond that they believe in God aren't experiencing either wonder or certainty. Typically, we devote our days to everything but God: raising a family, looking for love, striving for success, or reaching for more material goods on the endless conveyor belt of consumerism.
The current muddle is doing no one any good. Unbelief is haunted by inner suffering and a dread that life has no purpose. Throughout history it has led to rigidity, fanaticism and desperate violence in the name of God. And the state of true knowledge? It seems to be the province of saints, who are exceedingly rare.
Yet God is hidden somewhere, as a shadow presence, in all three situations, whether as a negative (the deity you are fleeing when you walk away from organized religion) or as a positive (a higher reality that you aspire to). Being faintly present isn't the same as being truly important, much less the most important thing in existence. If it is possible to make God real again, I think everyone would agree to try.
This book proposes that you can move from unbelief to faith and then to true knowledge. Each is an evolutionary stage, and by exploring the first, you find that the next one opens. There is complete freedom of choice. Once you know unbelief in every detail, you can remain there or move on to faith. Once you explore faith, you can do the same, accepting it as your spiritual home or looking beyond.
At the end of the journey lies knowledge of God, which is just as viable — and much more real — than the first two stages. To know God isn't mystical, any more than knowing that the Earth moves around the Sun.
In both cases, a fact is established, and all previous doubts and errant beliefs naturally fall away.
Here are 10 ideas that give God a future: