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Meditation 1365
Life Beyond God-Speak

by: Vern Loomis

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You're wide awake and reading this; you're not in a dream state. When you're wide awake and alert like this, does God visibly appear in some form and hold conversation with you? Beyond perhaps a mystical feeling of "presence", does God materialize and share actual words, ideas, or instructions with you? Have you ever in your lifetime had such an explicit conversation with God? How about when you were in one of those dream states; did God then communicate with you, imparting clear and essential information meant for subsequent distribution? Quite likely, the answer is "No", but it's not a universal response. There have been (and continue to be) those for whom the answer is "Yes", and along with it, the professed conveyance of God's intent for all of humanity.

Listen Up: A Message From Above

Through the centuries of mankind's existence, hundreds of notable humans have brought apparent messages from God (scores have also claimed to be God). It sounds like a large number, but is minimal compared to over 107 billion lives that have come and gone in that time frame. It's then a relatively rare assertion, but when made, the ramifications have had profound significance. Avowed links to divine communication have shaped cultures and nation states through all of recorded history. The assertions are far reaching and have significance beyond concerns of spiritual awareness. While often of moralistic content, they sometimes carry the social/political gravitas of determining life or death – and not just for individuals. The centuries are replete with aggressive acts of intolerance, persecution, and war graced with godly banners. It's more than of historical interest. Nearly 6 billion of the worlds current 7.2 billion inhabitants identify with religious entities that attest to intimate knowledge of God(s) and are guided by implications derived of claims to divine instruction.

The monotheistic Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) dominate in size with about 4 billion followers. They also dominate in voice, loudly declaring God's will and nature. The three cultures share spiritual history with a mutually recognized god, but differ in message reception; their prophets contradict or supplant one another. For the longest time there was Abraham, Moses, and numerous other Old Testament prophets who purportedly conversed with, and imparted God's will to the Children of Israel. All was spiritually stable for several thousand years, but then along came Jesus who took but little umbrage with being identified as the Messiah (God's son). The young upstart's presumption didn't sit well with the established clergy; they refused to accept his divinity, proclaiming Jesus to be a false prophet. Others did accept his message and enthusiastically affirmed the deity of Christ, creating a lasting schism between Jewish and Christian spiritual communities. A few hundred years later, a threat to both camps came along in the person of Muhammad, who founded Islam - the third leg of the Abrahamic triumvirate. He accepted Jesus as prophet, but not as the Messiah. That stance was unacceptable to both Judaic and Christian establishments; he offended feelings further by adroitly presenting himself as the final prophet (closing the front door to all subsequent claims). Final declarations aside, more prophets have followed in all three branches (Judaic, Christian, and Islamic), creating more subdivisions than can easily be counted. So today, the world has 4 billion people who ostensibly worship the same god, but adhere to different and often conflicting messages (along with 2 billion others who recognize different gods altogether).

That there are prophets of one particular god contradicting one another, and testament to other gods entirely, it must be recognized, even by adherents, that at least some claims to divine communication are delusive, erroneously disseminated or consciously fabricated. If it's evident that some humans are prone to delivering (or accepting) messages that may be unreliable or falsely attributed to God, it's then incumbent to look closely at all human assertions of divine import. Where do they come from? Why are they made?

Diligence Due

When one asserts a direct message from God, three considerations present themselves: the speaker had a directive from God, the speaker thought he had a directive from God, or the speaker pretended to have a directive from God.  Seeing the lanes open to making them, to accept or cite any such message in the absence of clear corroboration is problematic. Of course second or even third party human corroboration is subject to the same uncertainties given the original assertion, so short of a universally experienced communication, verification is impossible. Acceptance is thus a matter of faith, rendering all claims of divine communication to be of equal veracity...and peril.

God, of the Abrahamic religions, is deemed omnipotent and omniscient. With full knowledge of human weakness and fallibility, and capable of even miraculous means, how would he most effectively communicate with mankind? Or conversely, what choice of communication would be most prone to misinterpretation or counterfeit claim? Significantly, the divine intervention modes commonly cited are those which appear most susceptible to human manipulation: historical accounts,exclusive visitations, and transcendent visions.

Historical (Scriptural) Accounts

The Torah, the Bible, and the Quran are historical accounts of man's relationship to God of the three Abrahamic religions. The accepted prophets and scribes within each are acknowledged as being divinely inspired; to their followers, the words of Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, etc. are accepted as God's message. While Moses is revered as prophet to all three groups, Jesus is recognized as the Messiah only in the Christian Bible. The Quran accepts Muhammad as the Final Prophet, but is unrecognized in both Torah and Bible. It's one and the same god that's addressed in all three sacred books, but trusting followers are exposed to different and conflicting prophets. Through divergence, at least two of the three transcriptions are therefore incomplete, misconstrued, or counterfeit. All claim divine import; how then are the devoted to determine validity? To what purpose would an all-knowing, all-powerful god present such a quandary to fallible human minds? The Heaven or Hell vividly chronicled in all three scriptures would await an acceptance constrained by cultural bias and uncertain human competence. How then could a merciful god abandon mankind to such a predicament? The contradicting historical accounts of divine input, so readily prone to human defect and manipulation may emanate from a common source. The source though, is hardly reflective of an omnipotent god. It appears fallible - like the mind of man.

A Visitation or Vision

Modern day prophets, along with those cited in historical accounts, lay claim to godly visitations and/or visions. Visitation accounts are usually of an exclusive nature: a chosen individual is visited by God or an angel of God. When the visit is said to be from God, it's usually in the way of a disembodied voice; when from an angel, it's more likely to be in human form. The visits, however manifested, are seemingly bestowed upon a recipient who consequently becomes revered as a prophet; he is God's messenger. Visions are similar, but without claim to worldly presence; in a dream like state of awareness, one has a psychic dialogue with God, and/or receives mental imagery, often of implied future events. When composed of imagery, visions are often allegorical and require interpretation.

A divine visit or vision alleged from God is subject to the same ambiguities that plague historical accounts: they can easily be misconstrued or counterfeited. The visions and prophecies of King David receive conflicting analysis by Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faithful. Christ is accordingly unrecognized as the prophesied Messiah by Jews and Muslims. The allegoric visions of the Apostle John (Revelations) are routinely subjected to creative interpretation (imminent End of World predictions occur regularly and have even been instrumental in the propagation of war). Though his assertion is of the same form posed by earlier prophets, Muhammad's account of a visitation by the Angel Gabriel is rejected by Christians and Jews. Skipping far ahead, all three (Jews, Muslims, and established Christians) ignore Joseph Smith's claim to visitations from both God and the Angel Moroni.

So a divine visitation or a vision from God begs the previous question: Why would an omnipotent and omniscient god reveal his will in such an exclusive or subjective (dream state) manner; one that's so easily misread, doubted, or fabricated? To what purpose would a merciful god impart symbolic visions that are easily misinterpreted by fallible human minds? The god alluded to would have ubiquitous and irrefutable means of communication to draw upon. There would be no need to imperil human lives and souls with subjective dreams, allegoric riddles, or the privileged visitations that have generated the appearance of contradicting prophets. As with historical accounts, claims to exclusive visitations or divinely imparted visions are prone to manipulation and misinterpretation, again suggesting a fallible source: the human mind.

Why Bother?

If not really from God, claims of divine input are then either innocently misguided or purposefully fabricated. While willful fabrication is always a possibility, conjecture of holy guidance can sometimes be presumed without intentional aim to deceive. Two clear paths to innocently assuming one speaks for God stand out: hallucinatory or delusional disorders and reverent reiterations derived from previously accepted prophets.

There are numerous neurological aberrations leading to the perception of voices or visions not heard or seen by others. While such perceptions are generally considered pathological, there are some who hold otherwise. Rather than hallucinatory or delusional, some contend that certain individuals with acute sensitivity are open to communications from a parallel reality, a spirit world, or perhaps from God. Even if assuming that such occurrences indicate receptivity to another reality, the assertion to their being of a divine nature would again solicit the question: Why would an omnipotent and omniscient god reveal himself in such an exclusive manner; one that's so easily misconstrued or fabricated? A god with such qualities would have no need to slip a widely intended message through transcendental cracks accessible to but a few. Whether through hallucination, through delusion or through chinks in an alternate reality, such visions and voices need not be considered as emanating from an all-knowing and powerful God.

Without duplicitous intent, one can also assert to be speaking for God simply by citing another who’s recognized as speaking for God. Through unconditional acceptance (faith), the divine claims of another can be endlessly repeated or creatively interpreted. It's a secondhand kind of conveyance, but cultural heritage provides sanctification; today's speaker is linked to God through yesterday's prophet. Maintenance of an indirect link can even be advantageous. Tradition and hierarchy are maintained, while the conveyor's proximity to God is still recognized. Additionally, the faithful citing of God through ancient prophets is pre-approved, pretty much precluding the motive to ask: Why would an infallible living god choose to communicate in such a recycled and uncertain manner?

Finally, there is that other possibility: pretense. In a world steeped in religious tradition, the God card is wild. Appearance of holding it can enhance status and power, thus presenting a tempting and powerful tool. It can be wielded in multiple ways: for self aggrandizement, for benign utilitarianism, or for callous manipulation.

Fringe Benefits

An infallible means to differentiate between displays of true faith or pretense may not exist, but it's certainly possible to suspect the latter when the rewards of "faith" become ostentatious. It's difficult to hear the word "televangelist" and not visualize the lifestyle extravaganza made famous by the likes of Jim Baker and Ken Copeland. Likewise, it's near impossible to say "Catholic" without picturing glorious cathedrals and layer upon layer of honorific title and robe. Putting aside thought of materialistic accouterments, even an austere display of godly intimacy provides a personal kind of validation. With or without an air of humility, one escapes the confines of ordinary human existence to become something special: an emissary of God. Respect and recognition are summarily conferred. When material comforts and psychological validation are built into claims of divine intimacy, it's likely not all for the glory of God, and one can suspect more is in play than mere faith.

But pretense, while duplicitous, needn't always be with selfish intent; conceivably, one could falsely invoke God's will for the supposed betterment of mankind. It's a perilous path, though. Aside from being disingenuous in a venue that shouldn't be, "betterment" is an arguable supposition and leaves an open door to biased manipulation. Religious leaders themselves have warned against such misrepresentation committed with benign intent: "it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it - in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general" Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae).  Presumably then, posing man's word as God's word would be considered "evil", even if deemed for good cause. Official Church position should also hold it unworthy to selectively cite or creatively interpret scripture (God's word) in any manner that would obscure the essence and totality of its message. Knowledgeable clerics (or laymen) who simplistically cherry-pick prophetic expression to "clarify" God's will should then properly be recognized as dissemblers - those willing to promote human opinion (their own) as God's design.

Endless Opportunity

Dissemblers have a treasure trove to choose from. Whether with benign or malevolent intent, existing scripture provides a wide avenue for posing one's ambition as God's will. Through numerous scribes over eons of time, God's supposed will has been documented so expansively as to be nebulous; it can be cited and interpreted to license nearly any human endeavor. A loving and merciful god is cited throughout the Torah, the Bible, and the Quran ("How precious is your unfailing love, O God!" - Psalm 36:7 or “And He is the forgiving, the most loving” - Quran 85:14). Reading elsewhere, the same sacred books reveal a vengeful and rather unmerciful god ("Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey." - 1 Samuel 15:3 or “Those who reject Allah follow vanities, while those who believe follow the truth from their lord. Thus does Allah set forth from men their lessons by similitude. Therefore when you meet in battle those who disbelieve, then smite the necks until when you have overcome them, then make (them) prisoners.” - Quran 47:3-4). Contradictions abound: love and hate, tolerance and intolerance, tranquility and violence, etc.

So God's will can seemingly be advanced to address social injustice and charitable needs, but just as easily cited to foment war or to excuse vile acts of human behavior. We needn't go back 8,000 years to see it used as such. It's been cited to justify slavery in America and elsewhere (ex. "Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward." - Peter 2:18). Biblical absolution allowed for a free conscience in the eradication of Native Americans (ex. "By little and little I will drive them out from before thee, until thou be increased, and inherit the land." - Exodus 23:30). "God's will" is still called upon to wage war and glorify martyrdom (ex. "So let those fight in the cause of Allah who sell the life of this world for the Hereafter. And he who fights in the cause of Allah and is killed or achieves victory - we will bestow upon him a great reward.” - Quran 4:74). A "fight in the cause of Allah" was provided for - to oppose another's citing of sacred text from the same all-knowing God: In 2003, according to French President Jacques Chirac, U.S. President George W. Bush went so far as to cite Biblical prophecy ("Son of man, set thy face against Gog, the land of Magog..." - Ezekiel 38) to gain allied (Christian) support for the invasion of Islamic Iraq.

From each prophet, from each politician, from each manipulator; the citing of God's will is meant to make one's cause irrefutable; there's no higher authority. The ancient prophets and their chroniclers cited God's word accordingly and to specific purpose: unification and control. God's will is still used to that end today, but usually cited through the words of prior prophets rather than as a direct discourse with God. Modern prophets may lack the appearance of direct interface, but are granted expedience: prophet and message can be selectively cited to nearly any purpose and if still found wanting, can be reinterpreted and expanded upon for desired clarification. In 1968, Pope Paul VI did so with the issuance of "Humanae Vitae" to address scriptural ambiguity with regards to sexual morality. In the 1970's, Jerry Falwell magnified his voice under the Evangelical tent by "clarifying" Biblical vagueness concerning birth control into an explicit condemnation of contraception. With political resemblance, God's word was judiciously chosen and construed to convey the speaker's appearance of moral authority and spiritual leadership. It wasn't without guile. Pope and Reverend were Biblical scholars; scriptural integrity was knowingly sacrificed to attain or maintain position and power.

There's still further recourse for citing "God's will" when quotable prophet and message are missing or unsuitable for manipulative intent: Natural Law. A concept adopted by Thomas Aquinas centuries ago, Natural Law provides a means of asserting God's will when scripture appears lacking. It's a God-speaker's adjustable wrench; God's will can be fitted to desired purpose. Without claiming divine visitation and without citing previous prophets, Catholic hierarchy is simply able to adduce God's intent in matters overlooked by scripture. Natural Law is deemed conspicuous and obvious to all - but is most obvious to those who write it. The convenience of Natural Law has also become attractive to groups other than Catholic; Evangelicals now find it useful for Pro-Life argument.

So many prophets, so many messages, and so many contradictions; perhaps the Greeks were prescient when creating gods with acceptable human foibles. The Abrahamic God is alleged to have none, but displays many. The all-knowing Abrahamic God should rise above the pettiness and frailty of human vanity and emotion, but doesn't. The all-powerful Abrahamic God's communications should be clear and irrefutable, but aren't. So something is amiss with what the speakers for God have portrayed: a perfect god communicating through the minds and mouths of a select few.

It made sense 8,000 years ago to aim high; in a tribal world with competing deities, the leverage gained in speaking for a vulnerable god was limited. The introduction of a single, omnipotent, and omniscient god procured a manipulative advantage over proponents of numerous lesser gods. So it was a bold and pragmatic move - but with problematic and unending overreach. To speak for an all-knowing and all-powerful god offered unparalleled position and prestige, but paradoxically was self-nullifying. Such a god had no need to rely on an indirect communication system subject to error and abuse. In conjuring an all-powerful god, and then proclaiming to speak for him, God-speakers exposed a fabricated divinity and revealed their human ambition - not as true prophets, but as aspiring men enhancing their words with the persona of God. The contradictions then emanating were of understandable human origin: a loving god, a vengeful god, a peaceful god, a violent god, a heaven of eternal salvation and bliss, a hell of eternal damnation and pain; evidence not of a perfect and all-knowing god, but of the human and fallible mind of man.

The More Things Change...

It's not all ancient history. They do still arrive, but new claims of directly speaking for God draw more suspicion than in prior times. The world is more sophisticated; more skeptical than in ages past, and besides, the old prophets are still with us, occupying available space. When new speakers do appear, they usually find small audience and fade from view (or disappear tragically). It's the failed and tragic prophets that most often garner media attention and public awareness (ex. Jim Jones, David Koresh, Marshall Applewhite). For those that do acquire lasting foothold, it’s not so much the size of an early audience that determines a prophet's viability, or even the message's plausibility. Of most importance is simply the ability to persevere through multiple generations. A foothold in the second generation is crucial, and each subsequent pass from one generation to the next adds strength and continuity to prophet and message. Eventually, both are fully enculturated; thereafter, critical reflection becomes troublesome or even heretical. A fairly recent and successful example of such assimilation is seen in the arrival of Mormonism (Latter Day Saints), founded by Joseph Smith in the early 19th century. His claims to angelic visitations, temporary access to a divine message engraved on golden tablets, the translation of its sacred text through use of a mysterious deciphering stone; all that and more would likely find little traction in today's America, but in the 1820's revivalist atmosphere of Western New York, it found a receptive audience and took hold. The movement journeyed west, eventually settled in Utah and now claims about 15 million followers around the world. As with earlier Abrahamic prophets, Joseph Smith passed the generation test; he and his message are now as credible as that provided by Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad.

It's the path of least resistance. We're usually born into it; our inherited religion is normal, rational, and familiar from the start. Our parents, our grandparents, and our communities illuminate the pathway; the acceptable direction. We were already moving forward along that path, well before the possibility of initiating critical thought. If the light beam of critical thought is later turned on, it's likely to be aimed at the spiritual footprints of others, and not towards our own pre-illuminated course. Should it happen that skepticism is turned inward, our lighted path is still the one easiest to follow. To veer off is hazardous and endangers more than the personal comfort of belief; also at risk is cohesion to family and community (some would even face violence). It's easier, less disruptive to follow in step, even as the mind treads elsewhere. Superficial observation of ritual might then ensue; void of real passion, but displayed as necessary to maintain position (as affectation, perhaps even prone to exaggeration).

Behind The Curtain

Four billion people on this planet are moving along a spiritual path, giving credence to those who speak for the Abrahamic God.  Speaking for such a God bestows social status and provides a powerful manipulative tool.  The manipulative aspect is conspicuous in our histories, but the special status acquired through God-speak deserves more recognition. Its pursuit reveals a personality in need of amplified validation. Positioning oneself as uniquely close to God achieves it (somewhat like John Hinkley's groping quest for validation through a professed connection to Jodie Foster). It's not a one-off exercise; validation requires repeated assurance and protective maintenance. So disregard or renunciation of a God-speaker's claim threatens more than just power and control - it endangers a delicate psyche in need of affirmation. The need though, is inadmissible. By transposing the perceived affront into a disavowal of God, the threat is deflected and the speaker's visceral (and often violent) response is projected as a necessary and honorific tribute to God. This disguised ego-protective reaction to dissent has been common since the dawn of God-speak (ex. The Inquisition) and is still notable in the world of today. It's vividly expressed in Islamic theocracies of the Middle East where even humor or satire can be deemed sacrilege and punishable by death (ex. Salman Rushdie and Charlie Hebdo). Brutality thus displayed is testimonial to holy men obsessed with power and afflicted with a special need. Violence in the name of God addresses that need: maintenance of fragile psyches. Its presence shouldn't be lost amidst the noise. Ego-enhancement is an ever-present undertone to the message delivered by those who speak for God.

Stepping Away?

Are we beginning to step away; letting go of the idea that God speaks to us through special emissaries? It's certainly possible to at least imagine a world that's moved on. Some say it's happening now: the world is becoming more secular and less susceptible to god-speak manipulation. National Geographic Magazine made that case, with supporting statistics. Their 2016 article (The World's Newest Major Religion: No Religion) chronicles a world, going in that direction - but not without a caveat. While charting the global spread of secularism, the author (Gabe Bullard) notes its largest demographic host is white, male, and affluent. He points out that the most fecund portion of the world's population growth lies beyond those confines and is host to a rapid growth of religious influence. So, much like the observed world-wide spread of democracy, but with its noted contradictions, there's no certainty of lasting trend.

By definition, "secularism" simply refers to the separation of church and state; government is independent of religious mandate. It doesn't preclude the idea (or existence) of God, but to be truly meaningful, secularism requires the end of pervasive "God-speak". If it's widely believed that God speaks (or has spoken) through select human beings, democratic governance will reflect it. In the United States, though founded on the principle of secularism, many of our politicians (especially presidents) are deemed electable through visible observance of "God's word". There's also powerful but less visible lobbying forces exerting religious influence (ex: The Fellowship Foundation and The Christian Coalition of America). Much of our nation's history - from early western expansion, to more recent forays in the Middle East - has accordingly been initiated or justified through inference of God's will. Such incursions are still common; current legislative encroachments on previously observed birth control rights are largely a reflection of Christian based Biblical interpretation. So, in a democratic nation such as our own, where God-speak is still prevalent, secularism may exist as an ideal, but not so much as a reality.

Beyond God-Speak

"Why is there something, rather than nothing?" was effectively posed by Leibniz 300 years ago in philosophic support of his Christian faith. It wasn't really a novel query. It's an ancient and fundamental question that predicates existential conjecture - in one form or another it's there at the birth of all religious ideology. A semblance of it was asked eons ago to begin the Abrahamic journey; Leibniz did a revisit centuries later to substantiate (circuitously) its arrival. "Why is there something, rather than nothing?" addresses the mystery of existence. Conjecture then overlays it - but that's all. Through the millennia, God-speakers in every corner of the world have overlaid it with explicable veneers - an estimated 4,200 religions have done so. It's only cover; when the layers of god-naming are peeled away, mystery still remains. It's there and always will be - mystery predates conjecture and lies beyond its furthest reach.

Accepting mystery over conjecture means not what is often portrayed. Repudiating (or ignoring) God-speak is usually seen as a repudiation of God. Those who speak for God (and those who listen), encourage the misconception. It needn't be a repudiation of God at all; it's simply a refutation of those who claim to speak for God. But the implications are far ranging - and deep. It means stepping away from 8,000 years of prophet inculcated culture and 4,200 layers of god-naming mandate. Accepting mystery is recognition that no one speaks for God; no one ever has; no one ever will. Allowing mystery is a refusal to endorse the conscription of God; a conscription that serves human vanity and ambition. It's a refusal to veil mystery with human conjecture; a refusal to accept conjecture as word from God. The acceptance of mystery is what lies beyond God-speak. Mystery is God before the naming began.

VDL (2020) 

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