Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Defining Religious Language: God

Some words have so many meanings that they become near incomprehensible, and almost unusable. When I use the generic word “meditation”, I usually mean Zazen meditation, or sitting on a cushion and following my breath. But “meditation” means about a thousand different things, from concentration on a passage of scripture to leaving the body behind and traveling in “other realms”.

Multiply the thousand different meanings of “meditation” by a thousand, then add about twenty zeros, and you might begin to come close to the many different meanings of the word “God”. I doubt there is a word that has more individual, personalized meanings than the word God. Part of this comes from our individual and unique experiences of what is divine and holy. Part of it comes from the human tendency to want to see the divine as a manifestation of ourselves. Part of it comes from our individual projections of our deepest fears and desires. Part of it comes from the changing nature of human experiences as a whole. Yet, wherever it began, that three letter word signifies one of the most complex concepts in human existence.

We throw that particular three letter word around, signifying our personal understanding and relationship with the divine, and assume that everyone else shares that individualized understanding. We hear the word, interpret it through our own lens of its meaning, and assume that the person who used it understands it the same way we do. We become shocked and offended when we realize they don’t. This does not only occur between religions, but also between adherents of the same faith.

Each of us has a deeply personal, individual relationship with “God” … even Atheists. Deciding that you don’t believe in God requires that you have formed a personal opinion as to the meaning of that particular three letter word. In my experience, Atheists have often thought longer and deeper about the nature of God than most Theists.

All of this is a prelude to introduce to you what I mean when I use the word “God”. I will discuss the wisdom of using that particular three letter word in another essay.

Though out my life, I have experienced the occasional sense of connection with everything around me, beginning (as far as I can remember) with the experience of watching a mound of ants rebuild their home when I was a child. I had knocked over that mound with a stick, and then I sat and watched in awe as they repaired their home. As I sat, I began to wonder what it was like to be an ant. In particular, I picked one ant, and I watched him move and work, pretending I could see with his eyes. In that moment, a connection existed between myself and that ant, and I could sense that connection.

That connection was God.

I remember as a young man, studying narco-trafficking and insurgency in Latin America, how the individuals who were involved with growing or moving the drugs, or in the rebel movements in Columbia or El Salvador seemed like Klingons to me. I just could not understand their mindset, what brought them to do such things. In some ways, they were less-than human to me. Then a caring colleague took me to a bar, where I met some former guerillas and I realized they were just like me. Had my birth and life been theirs, I could well have done those same things. I felt a connection with them deep in my soul.

That connection was God.

I remember one day, while sitting Zazen meditation, the self I knew fell away, for just a moment. I felt a deep connection with all around me on a level I cannot describe in words. It was as if I was rooted to the earth, and connected through those roots to all. I was everything, and everything was me. The moment I tried to put words to the experience I was having, the connection left me, like being bounced off a trampoline. For that moment, I experienced a conscious connection with the interconnected nature of all things.

That connection was God.

I have since found reflections of this experience in many different cultures and religious traditions. I believe scientists may be trying to describe it as they explore the idea known as “String Theory”. In my Southern Baptist past, we tried to describe this experience of the Divine as “The Holy Ghost”. Some Hindu faiths might call it “Indra’s Web”. Some Buddhists might call it “Dharma”. In our Unitarian Universalist Principles, it is reflected as “the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part”.

But however we try to describe it, I have touched it… always briefly, and always lightly, but I know it is there. When I try to grasp it firmly, it bounces me away. Sometimes, the experiences of my life lead me to a moment where the self falls away naturally, and through awe, or joy, or love I reach beyond my enclosed self to touch something beyond me, beyond us, between us, all around us and in us.

The only way I have found to intentionally experience the same connection with God has been through Zazen, although I can see how others might reach the same place through ritual or ecstatic prayer, or through the “Centering Prayer” in the Catholic Trappist tradition, or through running, or through walking in nature, or through naturalistic ritual.

This connection with God is deeply personal for me. Activities that promote a concentration upon myself, upon my own desires, fears, and thoughts prevent this connection. It took me years to understand why I never felt I connected with God through petitional prayer (or asking God for things) of my youth. The reason is that such prayer reinforces the self.

I have found myself, since beginning a practice of meditation, having those unexpected moments of connection with God more often… not just on the cushion, but in life. My teacher said once that “We practice to live, not live to practice”. I have begun to see the world around me in a different way, neither separate from me nor separate from God, but all one. All the same. This is just a beginning, always a beginning, that only comes in moments that bounce me away as soon as I try to grasp it, codify it, or rationalize it.

Through the experience of these connections, I have found new and deeper truth in some of the phrases about God from my past. “God is with us always”. “Accept God into your heart”. “Prayer will transform”. I understand what it means when a prophet could not long look upon the face of God. I understand now how someone can have a personal relationship with God. I understand why the experience of God is so different for each of us. I understand that my understanding of God is no less bound by my own experiences than anyone else’s.

Understanding is of the self, and God is beyond the self. I cannot explain God, I can only touch it, lightly, meekly, and with a humility I once thought I did not posses.

Click here to read the other essays in the “Defining Religious Language” series.

Yours in Faith,


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