In the last blog post, I spoke about the existence of gods (small-g plural), ghosts, and spirits. I concluded based on my own experiences and those of millions around the world that these phenomena are, in fact, real. I also concluded that they aren’t to be messed with in this realm. But what about God, a Supreme Spiritual Being, a Divine Presence or a deity that has the attributes of what we might attribute to God?
Encounter with a Divine Presence
Many people—myself included, have felt the presence of who or what we might call God. I can testify that it is very different than the presence of a lower spirit or deity. This encounter happened to me at the age of 22 when I lived in Los Angeles. I was walking along Mulholland Drive in the early evening on the top of the mountain-hill that separated the San Fernando Valley from the rest of L.A. It was a mostly empty stretch of two-lane road with switchbacks, with few buildings visible, and the lights of the Valley below me. It was while I was walking that I suddenly *felt* this presence. Felt it in a way that was similar to how I might feel the presence of a person near me before I turn around and actually see them. Except this presence was much larger than me and floating above the switchback I was walking around. This was completely unexpected. For me, the presence I felt was powerful, deeply loving, and brought tears to my eyes. This Divine Presence told me that they loved me, and had wonderful plans for me. I was also told other things too personal to reveal here. This encounter occurred two months before I was scheduled to embark on a nine month cross-country journey, one which would change my perspective on things forever.
Did I feel the presence of the Supreme Spiritual Being? Would I call this presence God? I don’t know whether it would be more insulting to God to say that the presence I encountered was certainly God, or if it would be selling God short to say that I don’t know if it was actually God I was encountering. I do feel confident that the source of this presence was aligned with the greatest force for good in the Universe, and as such, was of the Supreme Spiritual Being. At the same time, I honestly couldn’t say for sure if I felt the presence of God themselves or simply a messenger and/or angel representing God.
Honestly I’m not sure to what extent it matters. I would argue that what was more important in this case was the feeling I had from my encounter with what I believed to be God. If I came away feeling loved and unconditionally loving everyone, and with an overwhelming desire to help humanity in any way I could, then I would consider that to be an encounter with a loving deity. And as such, it really doesn’t matter if my encounter was with an angel, a god of this Earth, a Sun God, or the God of the Universe, nor does it matter if they are separate deities or one and the same. It was, without any doubt whatsoever in my mind, a Divine Presence.
How do we know what is Divine?
The Bible has wisdom about this shared by Jesus in Matthew 7:15-20. “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.”
This is sage advice. This quote is referenced in the Baha’i Faith, as well as a Japanese New Religion I used to be involved with. Ironically, I ended up leaving both religions because I concluded that the fruits they were producing were not free from corruption.
But are we indeed qualified to make such judgments? It probably depends on our character. However, I have observed that if we are being led down the wrong way, we can be corrected if we are open to being corrected. I have observed this in my life many times.
I have felt guided for much of my life. I have been guided when I’ve felt most receptive to being guided. I believe that God/The Universe has guided me in and out of spiritual paths so that I could learn from all of them. I have made decisions that on the surface appeared irrational yet ended up being the best decisions that I have made. And I’ve made blunders—that is where my course can be corrected, and it has been corrected many times. And I believe that anyone is capable of being guided if they have an open enough heart.
What does this then say about the nature a Supreme Spiritual Being?
My personal experiences incline me to rule out atheism, pantheism or pandeism, since these deny the current existence of spirit. My experiences also incline me to rule out polytheism—polytheism might be real, but the worship of lower gods could lead us astray depending on who we worship. That leaves monotheism, monism, panentheism, and animism.
Let’s start with monism. The idea that everything in the Universe comes from a singular origin might be true, especially since such a singularity is postulated in the Big Bang Theory. However, the notion that the entire Universe grew out of a singularity has not been observed, but simply hypothesized by extending the observations we’ve made about the growth of the Universe to a logical beginning point. There is so much about the Universe we don’t know, and much of the prevailing theory about its development depends on the existence of dark matter and dark energy that we’ve only postulated about, but have not yet actually discovered. We can’t rule out that some other process might come into play that could take the early history of the Universe in a different direction. Notably, some Hindu teachings speak of a cycle of universes beginning and ending. Some scientists dispute the notion of a singularity and postulate a cycled birth and death of universes. As such, we can only say that we don’t know whether Monism is true or not.
It can be argued that monotheism has a decidedly mixed history on this Earth. Few would view Jesus as a deceiver of any kind or being anything but good, but many would argue that the Christian religions have evolved in ways Jesus never intended, and they certainly have a bloody history that would be inconsistent with Jesus’s teachings. But is this a fault of monotheism, or the way that it developed with modern religions? It should be noted that Hindus, as members of a religion that could be regarded as monotheistic, polytheistic, or fit into other categories, are not immune to sectarian violence.
Some would argue that the logic of monotheism combined with a rigid good vs. evil dualism ends up creating an artificial distinction between right and wrong. This dualism results in people and practices being labeled good or evil, and the feeling that “evil” in this case must be eradicated. Certainly the Old Testament provides many examples of cruel, dehumanizing treatment of people conquered by the Israelites and it actually implies the belief that these atrocities were somehow righteous in God’s eyes. In writing about this, I wonder if the ultimate purpose of this passage of the Old Testament is intended to glorify such cruelty, warn us about the overwhelming desire for “good” going horribly wrong, or if it’s there to actually test people on their perception of good and evil.
As for the encounter I had in Los Angeles, I truly do not know if my encounter was with a monotheistic God, but I had little doubt this Divine Presence was connected with infinite goodness. Maybe that’s what is more important, the infinite goodness rather than than the question of monotheism. Therefore, I will put the question of monotheism on the shelf for now.
There is also the theory of panentheism, the belief that the Divine is within and part of everything in the Universe. Related to this is the belief in animism, the belief that all things in the Universe possess their own distinct spiritual essence. These beliefs wouldn’t necessarily be inconsistent with each other–could something be a part of or the creation of the Divine and at the same time be distinct? Nor would they necessarily contradict monotheism—it could instead a way looking at the Divine from a different angle.
Logically, wouldn’t the Universe be a better place if we were to treat everything as of Divine Origin, from a panentheistic or animistic origin? This is no small question. In fact, this is the question of our times. Our disregard for the Earth these days may have much to do with how divine we think the Earth is.
Animism has been treated by many scholars as a sort of “primitive proto-religion.” Yet modern human beings may very well be the primitive ones. Many so-called “primitive” cultures believe that all living things have a soul. For the, the question becomes how to interact appropriately with animals, plants, and other resources that the earth gives us. Many cultures have a belief that since these have a spiritual essence, they must be interacted with respectfully. Some cultures will communicate with the spirit of the plant they are about to harvest, the meat animal they are about to slaughter, or the tree or branch they are about to cut down, and offer an explanation and/or thanks and gratitude. I know that I have sometimes felt this way about things that occur in the natural world, and even with objects made by humans.
While to modern human beings this might seem quite silly, compare and contrast this with the way we treat our planet. Think about the way a coal mining company thinks about a mountain when they think about mountain top removal mining. They don’t see the mountain for its beauty and spiritual essence, they see it only for the minerals that they can mine, and will destroy entire forests and streams in the process. Furthermore, we human beings have started what many scientists call Earth’s sixth mass extinction caused entirely by human activity. This extinction even extends to insects, many of whom are responsible for pollinating our plants and thus providing us with the food we need.
As such, from the standpoint of pure logic, it makes sense that we regard everything that we take from the Earth as sacred, and that we take only for necessary reasons. The wanton destruction of habitat and ecosystems must stop if we have a fighting chance to survive as a species.
Another noteworthy way that we can look at the question of animism is to ask ourselves if it is just living things (as we know them) that need to be treated with such regard. Astronomers are looking at other planets in our solar and wondering about their ability to harbor life. They are seeing some strong possibilities in Mars’s past and perhaps even the present.
Scientists do not yet know how life evolved out of these organic materials on Earth, but the evolution of the first life on Earth happened very early in its history. What if there was little difference spiritually between the first appearance of life on Earth and the organic material that harbored it? A speculative question, most certainly, but it could underline a notion that the difference between life and non-life is smaller than we might think, and that the level of “spirit” in what we consider non-living things may only differ from that of living things in degree and complexity.
And what about a mountain? Mountains are often highly regarded by indigenous cultures and even religions.The Earth is far from being the only celestial body in our Solar System to harbor mountains. Almost all of the tallest mountains are on other planets, and a recent flyby of Pluto has also revealed mountains, as well as other awe-inspiring features.
Indeed, couldn’t every star in the sky and every planet orbiting them be amazing spiritual phenomena? Our Sun, which formed from the gravitational collapse of matter into a sphere so hot and dense that it initiated nuclear fusion at its core, operating at millions of degrees, has been burning for 4.6 billion years, while a tiny percentage of its mass—less than half of 1%–formed all of the planets and minor planets, moons, asteroid belt, Kuiper Belt, and the Oort Cloud. Many peoples have worshiped the Sun throughout history, and why not?—life would not be possible on Earth without it. Even the Moon has inspired worship throughout the ages.
All of the celestial objects in our solar system and other star systems have a story about how they coalesced into planets, moons, and other objects. How they spun off into their own form when their star formed., What elements they are composed of, what atmospheres they may have if any, and how they came to evolve that way. And the awe-inspiring vistas to be be found on their surfaces. The photos we’ve been able to take on and of other planets have been nothing short of spectacular and awe inspiring.
So at this point, I have an image of the divine that I would consider to be pretty much panentheistic and animistic.
I am convinced there is a Divine Presence everywhere in the Universe. And everything in the Universe has spirit and is sacred. I believe this is important that we realize this with the challenging times we face before us.