8 Qawl 165 B.E. (Baha’i calendar)
Soundtrack in my head: Bob Dylan, “With God On Our Side”
I must admit that I was a bit nervous about posting that I felt the presence of God while in the Baha’i Temple yesterday. There’s the notion of believing in God, but it feels like I’m walking a razor-thin line when I say that I’ve experienced God. That kind of stuff can get you in trouble. As such, I feel like I need to expound more on this subject.
On one hand, there are people who don’t believe in God at all, so for them, if I tell them that I’ve felt the presence of God, I’m automatically being delusional. Then there’s the very real and very legitimate concern that some people, throughout history, have claimed to have spoken with God and used that claim to justify questionable and sometimes even heinous things. Certainly there have been no shortage of people during wartime who have been convinced that God has been on their side. There are also many people who believe in God, but don’t think that God communicates directly with people.
I can say that I’ve experienced the presence of God to a number of differing degrees. I feel that I’ve directly felt God’s presence maybe four or five times in my life. During these times, I’ve been awed or overwhelmed by the feeling of a loving presence. Three of those times have been inside the Baha’i Temple. A fourth time was in November 1989 when I was taking one of my evening walks along Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles. At that time, I was considering becoming a Baha’i, and that was probably where I felt the strongest feeling of love, and encouragement.
I feel one has to be careful when someone says that God has spoken to them. I do think that there is a real risk of fanciful thinking, or “hearing what one wants to hear.” There have been a couple of times I’ve had the feeling that God has spoken to me, and once, it was something I didn’t really want to hear. In that particular case, the full meaning of God’s expectation didn’t become fully clear to me until many years later. Part of the reason is that I wasn’t ready to accept what I was hearing, but I think part of it was also judiciousness and care in not over-interpreting what was happening.
I also believe that there are no coincidences. In fact when I see a lot of coincidences surrounding one particular thing that is happening in my life, I fully believe that God is guiding or giving arrangements. For example, the bright rainbow that broke through the dark rolling clouds as I walked to the spot along Lake Monona where I would offer my first Baha’i obligatory prayer–that was unmistakeable. Many people would say that coincidences are coincidences and not too much should be read into them beyond that, but I’ve had too many instances where multiple coincidences occurred surrounding an indvidual situation. To me, that’s like winning the lottery jackpot twice in one week–at that point, I think it’s logical to deduce that something else is at play.
But even in these cases, coincidences can be easy to misinterpret, and too much can be read into them. I look at my journals circa 1997 and I see a lot of instances where I wrote “Oh, I think God must be telling me this or that.” Sometimes I cringe when I look at those journal entries. Worse is when other people try to tell the person who had the experience what it is they experienced and why. It’s even worse when a member of the clergy does it–that is, frankly, an abuse of one’s station and privilege. Suggestions as to how to interpret the experience are perfectly okay–sometimes a third person has a perspective that is helpful, but it’s really up to the person who had the experience to interpret it.
I’m not quite sure what the Baha’i Writings have to say about this subject. I do know that among our core practices is daily prayer and communion with God. We also believe in the independent investigation of truth. I do feel like I’ve been guided a lot in my life, and it’s still not entirely clear exactly where God is taking me on this journey. I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be–at least in this stage of my spiritual development.