A friend called me recently with some concerns about spirituality. Knowing that although I have a somewhat unorthodox view and life that I am still a very spiritual person and a Christian, he approached me about God: how could he develop a relationship with God and with Christ? What church is best for him? In order to be a Christian, what does he have to do? While my answer to that question is usually another question and a statement (“What does your heart tell you that you need to do? Because your heart is where God speaks the loudest and the clearest.”) I sensed that this time that would not be a helpful response. He wanted to know how to know God.
His entire understanding of “Christianity” and “God” were, as is all too often the case, clouded by myths, fear, and what I like to refer to as Biblical misunderstandings. His main concern about approaching God was that God was a harsh lawgiver waiting to hand down a sentence for any and every wrong move and sentence him to a life chained to a literal understanding of Scripture as opposed to something liberating and freeing that could help to lift the clouds and burdens life had been dealing him and assist him in making his life better. I needed to say something that would testify to the peace I had found.
I tried the best I could to explain to him, God isn’t like that. But then he asked me the one million dollar question: “What is God, then?”
I could not think of a definite response other than, “I can tell you what I think God is like, and what God is to me. But it will really be up to you to discover the answer to that question. And you may not be able to find a definitive, solid ëanswerë; if you want to schedule a literal face-to-face ëmeeting’ with God, thatës something you only see in the movies. A lot of it is being able to take what you know of God in life and then let your heart guide you the rest of the way. And that’s where faith comes into play.”
Then came the other question I often get: “How do you know God exists?” And I answered that with the only answer I have ever given to that: “I just do.” Sight unseen, I just look at life and I know that God IS. I know it’s clichÈ and it is not a very “solid” answer, and some might label that an indication that my faith is not solid. But the reality is, it is more solid now than it ever was when I was attempting to accept the Bible as inerrant, literal and infallible “truth” about God as opposed to a compass for finding God. And part of that came from accepting that we cannot truly know God in any other way but from the heart.
Sometimes, being a believer isn’t easy. Some might argue that it is not easy for those Christians who are of very orthodox and traditional beliefs. While I can understand that, it can be especially difficult when your personal beliefs about God and Christianity are not the “expected” and do not fit a mainstream, generally accepted “cookie-cutter” belief system. Still, I would not trade my faith in lieu of something more “convenient” or more conducive to ease of conversation or explanation.
I think that often the most difficult part of having a deep faith is that all too often we are called to explain exactly what our faith is in terms where others can understand it on a personal level. And at other times, we feel an imperative to make those types of explanations to ourselves. Human nature tends to in many cases require “absolutes” in a need for security. The result is all too often humanity recreating God in their image; sometimes the image of God Created represents the most beautiful aspects of the human heart and soul but at other it can represent some of the less pleasant. In any event, in my experience, many people who are seeking to know God are often not satisfied with answers that are not cast in shades of solid and definitive, black and white absolutes. I find that all I can do is relate my experiences and what I do know from personal experiences, be there to listen if they want to talk about it, and offer what theological knowledge and life knowledge I do have.
While theologies are as vast and diverse as personalities and one size does not fit all, I do not attempt to try and settle on any absolute ones when it comes to ideas about what God is and is not, beyond that which I see Jesus pointing to in my understanding of His life and teachings. I am often reminded of something the minister of my church once said when questioned about which idea of God was the “correct” one, the God portrayed by orthodoxy or the one portrayed in more liberal patterns of theological thought and his reply I thought was very wise; “It’s not somewhere in the middle, but at both ends.” All of the theologies to me represent not clear and solid, definite and absolute portrayals of God or the complete truth about God, but rather an aspect of our seeking to know God.
For many conservative Christians today, God is no longer defined as a mysterious yet loving source of all life, but is confined and constrained to the Bible as they understand it in a literal context. While this black and white reasoning may provide a temporary source of security, all too often it is representative of a faith standing of very shaky, if seemingly hallowed and unchanging ground and symbolic of a deep seated fear and insecurity that unless one’s faith is taken to the utmost extreme, it will cease to exist or have any substance or tangibility. They say that the Bible has not changed, that God has not changed while conveniently sweeping under the collective rug the fact that not only has life, culture and understanding of the world as we know it has changed, and the majesty, glory, and infinite Love and Creative Wisdom of God can no longer be imprisoned within the pages of the Bible. In the process, many have seemed to be content from transforming the Bible, the book itself into God and worshipping inanimate pages rather than the Source of all life, the sanctity of life, and the collective love.
When it was not spelled out in black and white, belief for me came easier. Literalism nearly destroyed my faith in God, and in Jesus. Reduced to a literalistic, legalistic rulebook or fairy tale, the wonder of the Bible to me loses meaning. Seen as a book full of stories which offer a record of human attempts for interaction with God the Creator and the Source of All, of people seeking to understand the nature of what God is, and seeking to know the wonder of God, it becomes to me a wealth of spiritual inspiration and keys to spiritual knowledge and understanding. It offers a fascinating timeline of and a remarkable indicator of human spiritual evolution, growth and understanding. It is a valuable tool rich in metaphor and spiritual symbolism that can help one develop a sense of wonder seeking the Divine.
However, the Bible in and of itself is far too small to fully contain the majesty of God. Though I do not feel that it was ever meant to be taken literally at face value, the Bible is ripe with possibilities and riddled with clues as to the nature of God and I feel that the teachings of Jesus hold the keys to the mystery of God, as I feel Jesus gave the greatest clues to unlocking the mystery of God when He spoke of love for one another, forgiveness, tolerance, the power of faith to accomplish what might seem impossible, peace over conflict, compassion over apathy, Heaven being within, and gentleness over anger. This is all of the supporting evidence I need accompanied by what God has used life and others to teach me.
Unfortunately, there are many people who need “proof.” Creating proof in a circular way while denying obvious realities proven by science is in my opinion, only setting up a faith akin to a house of cards, one easily unraveled under duress or under the face of pressure. Such as “proof” of the Shroud Of Turin, pieces of Noah’s Ark, or statues weeping. “Proof” that while it alleges to be based on Biblical prophecy coming true seems more as if it is based on a supermarket tabloid spouting propaganda of conspiracy theories; practicing selective association to make the pieces fit in the right way and perpetuate the fear. “Proof” that is offered by making the Bible, or more often one group’s interpretation of the Bible that is abridged to include their own personal prejudices as “sanctioned” into God. These are all methods many use to “prove” that God is Real. When these beliefs are challenged as having possible flaws, many become angry in a defensive way and insist that their personal beliefs are a universal “Truth” that others must accept at face value. While this approach may provide a temporary sense of security on a personal and occasionally a collective level, I do not feel that if offers a foundation for faith, nor solid evidence or concrete proof.
I think to myself, how does this type of viewpoint develop and become accepted as reality? Is one’s faith that shaky, that small that one must limit the Presence that Created all life in such narrow parameters of thinking? Then I recall that at one time I was desperately clinging to that very unquestioning belief system. And it nearly destroyed my faith in God altogether.
Faith, real and solid faith, for me came from realizing that it was not literally true and that the fear laden myths that I was clinging to were doing more harm to my developing a true sense of spirituality, Communion and relationship with God than good; in fact, they were harshly detrimental to my inner peace, spiritual growth and contributions to others in need, and the purpose God had planned for my life.
I got into conservative fundamentalist Christianity, the kind that asserts “the Bible said it, I believe it and that settles it, even when it flies directly in the face of logic, religious history, accepted theology, basic human kindness and runs contradictory to the very teachings of Jesus Himself,” for a time during a very low point in my life. I had no desire to do the work of soul searching, of actual Bible study as opposed to reading selective passages (often out of context in order to support whatever sociopolitical view) and blindly believing whatever the pastor told me, or to go through the harsh realization that to some questions, there are no solid and set, black and white, absolute answers. All I had to hear is “believe this without question and all your problems will go away” and it seemed so appealing to me in that state that I did.
But soon, reality began to set in. If I was supposed to feel so loved and so free, why was I so afraid all the time? Why did I have to be in terror that if I did not believe exactly as I was told, I would be harshly punished? And most importantly, why did the people who I was listening to feel it was so imperative to utterly isolate me from any other point of view, even if that point of view made me feel closer to a sense of a Loving God and a truly compassionate Christ than what they taught?
I repressed my bisexuality totally, tricking myself into thinking that macho heterosexual monogamy was the only way a Christian male could be. I gave up every aspect of my true personality and began to become piously intolerant of anyone who was not of my belief system. I began to accept things that I did not feel right in my heart or my head about to be “truth.” Any bad things were blamed on “the devil” who seemed to be cunning and in equal (if not greater, the way they spoke of it with all of the “warnings”) in power to God. Yep, I was a “true believer” they said.
But underneath it all, I felt horribly, terribly insecure and unsure of myself, even among the many who were saying that what I was attempting to swallow was the utter and inarguable “truth.” I as many others in that circle often lashed out in anger at anyone who would dare to question what it was we were forcing on them. And one night, it hit me that I was not really worshipping “God” at all, but rather someone’s definition of God that was not my own and based entirely on their own feelings, fears and shortcomings. I felt terribly alone and spiritually void.
In my heart, I did not need to hear a news report that a sliver of Noah’s Ark was found somewhere to know that all of Creation and life as we know it did not just “happen” with no forethought or design. I did not need someone’s tale of how they heard from a cousin of a friend in their neighbor’s church that someone’s brother became possessed by demons from watching a Marilyn Manson video on MTV but that quoting Bible verses saved their soul in order for me to know that there is wisdom to be gleaned from reading and thinking on the Bible introspectively and prayerfully. And I did not feel that I was getting any closer to God by condemning those of other faiths, of other creeds, and of other sexual orientations-in fact, I felt the opposite to be true. I felt that God was far above any prejudices anyone might have.
There were questions that began in my head, questions that utterly terrified this group, and could not be answered. Such as, “How can one square what is known scientific knowledge with some of the knowledge in the Bible?” and “If God is loving, and all powerful, why would God even create a devil and why the need to play a game with humanity to see who is damned or saved?” and the big ones, the ones that concerned sexuality and gender such as, “Why is it still considered an abomination for two men to lie with one another but we totally disregard the rules in the same book about shellfish and pork?” and “Why was it okay for a man to have many wives but a woman only one husband lest she be put to death?” And, “Why was it okay for Lot to offer his daughters to the mob in Sodom?” The same answer, every time: “The Bible is the inerrant Word of God. The devil is making you ask these questions. Pray for forgiveness for your doubt.” These did an efficient job of silencing the questions without requiring an answer.
Their answers only led to more questions. It seemed to me that in their eyes, being a loving, giving and compassionate person was not how one got closer to God, it was allegiance to the Bible, to literalism. While I could understand the desire to hold on to this type of belief system as it so conveniently dodged many of the really tough questions, my heart was telling me that God was so much bigger than that. At the time I was torn between feeling terrified into enslavement to a version of God that seemed all too contrived by human beings but which I was horrified of running from, and my faith shattering altogether as I could not bring myself to believe some of the things I was “required” to. My mind was telling me that belief in God in and of itself was a folly, while my heart and soul were screaming at me to give things a chance and perhaps approach faith, God, and spirituality from a different perspective and interpretation, based in love and not fear. I felt I had scratched the surface just by acknowledging belief in a God, but that I needed to dig deeper. My heart said that just as life was not always black and white, either/or, neither was God.
Shortly thereafter, I learned to listen to my heart.
Three events happened that led to my freedom from what I felt was a sense of spiritual slavery to beliefs that so limited my ability to know of God on a personal level. The first was that I began to study the Bible for myself, without anyone specifically telling me what it meant but rather reading it with an open heart and mind and allowing it to speak to me, and listening. In tandem, I also began to read and study the teachings of other spiritual paths and points of view and that was when I made a rather startling discovery: the basic or “core” tenets of all major spiritual paths and disciplines were although somewhat different, remarkably similar, one core belief being one which echoed the Great Commandment of Jesus, to Love thy neighbor as thyself.
To me, to see so many diverse belief systems but so many common threads reassured me that although one black and white way of thinking may not represent the Universal Truth, there was enough evidence for me to be assured that there was a Presence above and beyond everything, although I did not feel at that point there was any clear and solid “definition” beyond some defining characteristics: God could be found within as well as in around us; God was pleased when we as people treated one another with equality, love and respect and what we sow is that which we ultimately reap; and the path to God was better reached through kindness, gentleness, forgiveness, a reverence for life, and a sense of childlike wonder tempered with a quest for knowledge, a sense of responsibility and accountability, as well as faith that went beyond a need for tangible “proof.”
A second point came through further educating myself as well. I had been unable to pay my cable bill and as a result, had no more television. At the same time, I had joined one of those book clubs which offered a wide selection of books covering many aspects of life; not only religion and spirituality but also science and history, culture, and psychology and sexuality. I began reading these as well and contrasting knowledge and study of life and all of its diverse and colorful facets with my newfound study of spirituality. One might surmise that all of this logical information might turn me towards totally intellectual rather than spiritual thinking, but it had the opposite effect; all I was learning about life made it more and more evident to me that life and all that is in it could not have just randomly “happened.” I learned just how much we have progressed in clarity and understanding since the times in which the Bible was written. There was also a growing awareness of the fact that I was not “sick” or “abnormal” or even “sinful” for being a bisexual and desiring intimacy with both a female and a male partner and that this was the way I was made rather than merely a whim of my own. I began to realize that the anti-LGBT prejudices made by many Christians were in reality contrary to the teachings of Love that Jesus had died to give us all.
But for all of this knowledge, it was a matter of the heart that really brought the point home that the faith I had been so desperately clinging to myths, absolutes, and fear to maintain was not truly of God. It came from both an honest assessment of my situation, a lot of introspection, prayer and soul searching, and a verse I often quote, Matthew 7:20: “Thus you will know them by their fruits.” I began to think about what type of harvest my faith in its current state was reaping. It did not offer any sense of inner peace or self-esteem; it did not make me a more kind and compassionate person; in fact, it was tearing apart my real faith in God, which was one not based on concrete answers or absolutism or literalism but rather an ethic of love balanced with a sense of wonder.
I feared my real beliefs and who I truly was were blasphemous, and I recall something within me saying that the true blasphemy was trying to be something I was not, embracing a belief system out of fear, and not being true to all of the things my heart was telling me. God had a plan for my life, but rather than listen to God that was very real to me when seen defined obscurely rather than a set definition I had pledged allegiance to someone else’s idea of God, rather than God. It was when I suddenly realized that the “proof” I felt I had needed from others to convince me that there was a God had been there all along, and in searching and seeking and clinging I had just gotten further away from that. It was from that point that I began on a new spiritual path that led to my fully understanding that although the very human idea of God I had once needed was dead, there was a new and very real sense of knowing God Is and Loves me unconditionally as I am waiting. With that came a sense of peace that I knew at once was closer to the real thing than I had ever been. My faith was no longer predicated by a need for a document that spelled out every little detail; everything I needed was already there in reality.
To me the need for a precise and narrow definition of God seems so unnecessary in order to keep faith in God alive, especially since I see God every day, and I have proof and assurance within my heart that God is alive and well, always has been and always will be. You want to know where I see evidence that God is real and Loves us all unconditionally? Everywhere I look, and in all of life.
I see God in all of nature, both nature itself, and the best sides of human nature. I see the best in humans brought out when they consider the fact that we are made in God’s Image. And if we want an image of God to recreate ourselves in, better the incarnation we read about in Jesus than the bloodthirsty imagery of the Old Testament. I see God in human wisdom and nurturing, in creative endeavors and in simple laughter. I see God in simple acts of human kindness, compassion and love when we allow ourselves to be angels, vessels of Godës Love, the answers to silent prayers of those in need. I see God in the eyes of a new Mother and Father or the love between people and their pets. I see God in the smile offered to someone who rarely smiles which is one day returned. I see God in the moments when someone decides that they would rather abandon prejudices rather than a person who is different from themselves. I see God present in all forms of consensual, adult human sexuality (that which is based on sharing, love and joy, not that which is one sided, exploitative or self serving), both heterosexual and LGBT. And I feel that God is present in my own sexuality and in my very special relationship with a bisexual woman and another bisexual man.
I don’t see God as male or female, but beyond our human constructs of gender; I see God as encompassing both and all conceivable points in between. To define God strictly as wise Father or nurturing Mother, when in not only the Bible but in other religious teachings we can see the apparent qualities of both evident once again seems very limiting. I think that perhaps the answer would be somewhere in the middle as well as all points between the two.
Does God speak to me? Yes. All the time. Not from a booming voice in the clouds but in my life. God speaks through the love of others, family and friends and others who offer acceptance, encouragement and support. God speaks through the kind, supportive or comforting words of a stranger. Through the teachings of Jesus, which offer clues to the nature of God and how we as people can best illustrate our gratitude to God through love and respect for one another despite what differences we may allow ourselves to have.
While I affirm the validity of other spiritual paths and religions, I do believe they point to the same God, the same “Source” that Jesus alluded to in all His teachings; His assertion and teaching that “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to God except through me.” (John 14:6) means to me that regardless of what spiritual understanding one has of God (or, to some people, Goddess, although God is far too big for a human construct as gender) that unless one embraces His teachings about being able to find God within our hearts and souls, about the Greatest Glory being shown to God in the way we treat our fellow human beings with compassion, kindness, love, respect and dignity, and about the Kingdom of Heaven being within, then we may never quite “get it.”
A Bible verse that to me seems to be Jesus alluding to the fact that there are many paths to the same God can be found in John 14:2: “In the house of my Father, there are many mansions”. Are these people I know, who view God as Goddess or in Nature loving the same God I am? My answer would be yes, but the true test of that would be in the manner in which they show, what truly pours forth from their hearts; by their fruits is how I know them. I know quite a few atheists, in fact, I have friends who are atheists and a few display a sense of what I would feel to be truly Christian behavior in a more exemplary way than some self-professed followers of Christ in definition. Even though they feel that my faith in God is not grounded in reality, I can see God and the Christ within them, even when they cannot see God within themselves. I see them as children of God, not by their belief system.
One need not shun things such as science, nature, biology, psychology, and the study of metaphysics that may run contrary to Biblical literalism. To abandon the Bible as literal does not draw one away from God, but as long as one carries with them the Spirit of Christ into studies of other sciences and ideas, it can draw them even closer. At least, it certainly did for me. Nor does one need to throw out and disregard the Bible completely, as there is a wealth of wisdom within that is truly timeless and sacred and can be applied no matter how much we learn as human beings, or spiritual beings having a human experience. It may not offer the literal truth but it offers a glimpse. Yet the Bible is not the only place.
I am reminded of the adage of “seeing through a glass darkly,” yet for me it is more than that. It is seeing God in the tiny details of life and through as many perspectives as possible. Seeing God with these eyes may not be a clear and intensely focused and defined view at first but over time I have discovered it is far more eye opening towards discovering the nature of God, at least for me. No, I do not have all of the “black and white” answers and that is fine with me. What I am left with instead is a God of childlike wonder as well as personal accountability and responsibility AND infinite possibilities. Not a God of do everything for me, no problems in life or difficulties, or a God of black and white rules and punishments. A God that cannot be absolutely defined but Who can be best illustrated in a human form in the life of Jesus Christ. God is neither black and white nor a hazy, obscure gray to me, but rather a rainbow of infinite diversity and creativity and the threads that make up the entire fabric of Creation and beyond that which our minds can comprehend. I feel that one indicator of the reality of God is our inherent need as people to know God, to come a little closer to unlocking the mystery, and part of the fulfillment is that journey itself.
When reduced to a few pages written by human beings in the primitive beginnings of humanity as we know it today seeking to understand God, the magnificence of the Almighty Creator, Infinite in Wisdom beyond our own can seem so small. I can only relate my story, that as I actually took the time to read the Bible-free of allowing others to interpret its meaning for me, I started to see something I had never seen before; I had caught fleeting glimpses with my heart previously, but this was a new awareness. Contrasting the teachings of Jesus with the primitive understandings of the Old Testament I could clearly see an evolution of human understanding of God, facilitated by Jesus. Contrasted with life, and other religions, what seemed made up stories suddenly began to seem very real to me in the form of allegories and life lessons all humanity could benefit from taught in the form of parables. Literalism, the “letter of the Law” kills the Spirit. And we continue in our evolution, as new chapters are written, and humanity begins to completely surrender the last of the fear to God to be transformed into love one step at a time. The journey itself, rather than the final destination, may very well be the point.
One thing remains forever apparent, and rather than be distressed of it, I am glad of and forever grateful for it. The God I am ever aware and love with all of my heart of is far too big to be trapped in a box of narrow thinking, within the pages of a book, or in one particular theology. There is joy in discovery and feeling a bit closer with each and every day, not just in what knowledge I glean from books and others, but from what life teaches me. Jesus to me presents a vision of God indicative of not just mystery and that which cannot be only seen with ones but ones soul but also one of infinite love, creativity and wonder. The evidence for God to me is not to be found in solid, concrete terms but rather in the proof I see around me by looking at life itself and everything about it; the miracles we have created as a people have been indicative to me that God is working through us all and continues to with each new day; perhaps this is what is meant by the idea that we are Created in Godës Image, that we too are given the power to create, to love, to share God’s Blessings with one another. One might say this is humanism, but I disagree; were it not for God, we would not be able to accomplish that which we do or come as far as we have and continue to evolve through time. Knowledge need not obscure ones view of God, knowledge comes from God as a gift to us all.
God is both the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, and everything in between, and with that in mind, there is so much room for possibility. I choose to embrace that which I have known to be true through experience and allow faith to carry me through the rest. Perhaps I do not always have all the answers, and that is fine. I know that God is with me through it all, and that is all I need, in that mindset, every day can be a miracle.
John Campbell is a native of Alabama.