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How to Talk to God
A Practical Guide and an Insult to Calvinists (I apologize).
And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. — Bible, 1 Kings 19: 11 - 12
The first time I heard Calvinism articulated I reacted with visceral disgust.
I was twelve probably, maybe eleven, and I was on retreat somewhere north of Nashville with the youth group of my church. It was Sunday morning, the summer, and we sat in a large crowd listening to a pastor I’d never met give an impassioned sermon about Original Sin and Hell. Not “fire and brimstone” impassioned mind you. No. Calvinists aren’t like that.
A regular preacher, an old Southern Baptist with a dog-eared Bible, he would have had the decency to get angry. Accusatory. You know, it was you that sinned after all, and he would have respected you enough to think that your evils were at least a little bit your fault. Calvinists by contrast almost never show anger. Instead, the Calvinist will say the most horrible things imaginable to you, all with a look of pity.
They’re fatalists you see. Despite all the words games they play to try and convince you otherwise, Calvinism is a branch of Christianity that’s actually little more than an old Greek philosophy wearing a Jesus wrapper. To them, if you go to Hell, it’s not really because of anything you did. It’s because God, from before the foundation of the cosmos, decided, apropos of nothing, that he was going to make you just so he could send you there.
Oh sure, yes, in some round about way everyone goes to Hell because of their own personal sin, sure. But, also, they claim that there was never any hope that you’d have done anything else. To the Calvinist everything, every action of man or beast or inorganic object has been eternally set in stone. Predetermined. The exact minute of the day in which you will go to the store this weekend was decided before the Earth’s first sunrise. The rain which will fall this afternoon was planned in Eternity-Past. There was never any hope that you might have decided to not tell that lie you told in third grade and every murderer, ultimately, had no choice. Your sin, your evil… and, by the same token your righteousness… totally out of your hands.
Yet, somehow, by some twisted Calvinist logic… you still bear all the guilt for it.
Guilt for all that could never be changed.
Somehow they claim that this is justified. They make God into a monster and then declare he is Right to be that way.
But at the time I didn’t know any of that.
As an eleven-year-old I was under the impression that everything that called itself “Christianity” was more or less the same. My wake-up call that it wasn’t came that Sunday from the pity-full face of that Calvinist preacher. The irony of it all is that the moment that alerted me that something was wrong was not even during his bits about Hell or Sin. It was when he was talking about Creation. His theology had corrupted everything he believed and even when discussing something so sublime as the making of the first people his words stank the stench of death.
“Friends,” he said, clad in his robes, “today it is fashionable to believe that God created Man and Woman so that he might have companionship or love or so that he might have more friends. But dear ones, God, the Triune Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, has no such needs. Not of us nor of outside affections. No. God has perfect communion within himself. Perfect friendship within himself. Perfect love within himself. He has need of no other. No my friends rather I tell you that God created us only for one thing. For his Glory… and that It might be increased.”
In that moment I thought the pastor ought have been executed.
That’s extreme maybe.
And really, I suppose in one sense I ought to thank him, for that day he recontextualized for me much of the Church’s troubling past. The Spanish Inquisition suddenly made sense for example. All the torture, all the executions, the occasional putting women in bags and drowning them in a river…
In that moment it all made sense.
Right then, right there, anything and everything seemed justifiable to prevent such words from ever passing between human lips again.
“For his Glory…”
Personally I am of the opinion that God would prefer to be without our worship. Why would he need it? Why is the assumption that God is self-sufficient in everything but Praise? No, worship is a concession. An allowance. A thing that we will one day grow out of but which at present he allows as a concession. A thing he lets us do because he knows we need it but which I strongly suspect he finds rather embarrassing. I mean, can you imagine it? Jesus? Christ the carpenter? The blue collar worker who stooped to wash feet and allowed himself to be spit upon…
Can you really imagine such a God just desperately wanting to be the center of attention?
I can’t for the life of me imagine God having that much of an ego.
To be sure it is right and just that we worship God but that is because we need it not because he does. At any rate, I am certain he didn’t make you only so you could stand around for all eternity and reassure him about how great he is. That’s preposterous and I still say that to take a man who says such things and tie each of his limbs to a different pickup truck and have them all drive off in different directions is not entirely unreasonable. I mean the damage! The soul twisting that such words and such theology can do to a person! To take one of God’s foremost acts of Love, Creation itself, and turn it all into nothing but a Divine ego trip…
Now of course, most Calvinists are fine people. Good, merciful, loving people. It is a fortunate fact that the vast majority of the world is better than their stated belief systems. Cognitive dissonance, the ability to be a little incoherent about your worldview, is a great gift. It allows us to take the good parts of our belief systems without following the rest of it to its (often awful) logical conclusions. The reality is that most Calvinists simply take comfort in the idea that God’s in total control of absolutely everything and the assurance that they, “the elect” will go to Heaven. They don’t really think too much about the other stuff.
So don’t worry. I understand that. When I am dictator the being tied to pick-ups thing will only be for the most extreme cases and, even then, they’ll probably have the opportunity to recant first, I’m not an animal.
I jest of course.
I don’t actually want to saw Calvinists in half or anything, but I do believe the worldview they espouse is very damaging. Perhaps even dangerous. Ideologies are never held in total by any one person and the full logic of them never works out until they gain a critical mass of support. Communism for example. Most communists never wanted to kill anybody, they just wanted more money and to not have to work as much. Nonetheless, when enough people adopted Communism the underlying assumptions of their philosophy had to be played out and a lot of people got murdered… even if very few individuals actually ever wanted that to happen. Now I doubt that the mass adoption of Calvinism would put society in a position to re-enact Pol Pot’s killing fields but still… it wouldn’t be good.
So this post is titled “How to Talk to God” and I can’t blame you if you’re confused about how a thousand plus words nurturing torture fantasies relates to that. It all comes together, I promise. See, all these memories returned to me recently because a friend, one of an unfortunately Calvinist bent, asked me how to talk to God.
“Prayer, obviously,” he said after we’d been talking a while. “But you know Yoshi, many times I must say that my conversations with God feel very one-sided. I do all the talking. Don’t hear anything back.”
A common complaint.
I think all of us who pray have had the sensation now and again that Talking to the Sky is easy enough… it’s the receiving messages back that’s the trouble. Often that can feel damn near impossible. Sometimes prayer can feel like talking to a brick wall.
To fix this problem people have tried all sorts of things throughout history. Going to an oracle maybe, or scheduling a sit down with your local priest or with a palm reader. At least then when you’re praying there’s a second voice present. Feels like an improvement.
If you don’t trust other people to speak on God’s behalf for you though there are a plethora of other options on the table. All of them with long and rich histories and traditions. You could try casting lots for example, you know, throwing dice or drawing straws. The apostles did that one, can’t be all bad. If you don’t trust your luck in Vegas though you could try your hand with astrology maybe. That one’s popular now, at least with white women. But if you need something more immediate and closer to hand you could try geomancy, trying to divine God’s will by digging in the dirt, or do a throw-back to ancient Greece and try to discern Heaven’s answers by watching the flight patterns of birds. In my own life I have known Christians who practice Bibliomancy. Using the Bible itself as an oracle. They will close their eyes, pray, and then flip to a random page in their Bibles and point to a verse without looking, hoping God will guide their finger to the words he wants them to hear. People did the same sort of thing with The Aeneid in ancient Rome and in China today Bibliomancy is practiced with the Tao Te Ching. Yes, Divination is a rich and layered art form that is not at all without its merits but…
Notice how in all of it the common theme is that Answers have to come from outside yourself.
All such oracular activities, all such recourse to divination, is based, fundamentally, on the assumption that you are one thing and that God is another and that therefore any answer to your prayers can only and ever come from the outside. Externally. From a third party source.
But what if that’s not true?
What if, as he did with Elijah, God speaks in the very smallest of whispers?
“I say my prayers and then just sit quietly and wait for whatever answer comes into my mind,” I answered after my friend pressed me further on how I hear from God.
“Yeah,” he frowned. “But that’s just you though. That’s just your own thoughts.”
“Is it?” I asked.
At the risk of sounding both New-Agey and like a pompous armchair theologian at the same time, the eschatological telos of Man is that the boundary between himself and God be erased. In simpler terms, the ultimate destiny for those who choose it is to be united with the Godhead. Theosis they call it. Divinization. As Saint Athanasius said, “God became Man that Man might become God.”
This has been forgotten.
As much as some Catholics today like to bash on Protestants, the truth is that things like Calvinism are the logical result of a Catholicism which has forgotten its purpose. Which no longer thinks or preaches that its followers, the ordinary frumpy people in the pews who are often a little simple minded, are one day going to become God. Once upon a time that was more or less common knowledge. Now? Today? People are more apt than not to call you a heretic. Such an idea seems blasphemous, if not simply incoherent or impossible. Somehow, despite the obvious breach of such made by the Incarnation, most Christians today are still of the opinion that the divide between themselves and God is more or less impassable. Sure. Sure they hope to make it to heaven, yes. But they don’t imagine anything being overly different about themselves when they get there. They think perhaps that they won’t age or get sick or be sad, and that they’ll be sinless, but it never occurs to them to ask how that’s going to be possible. For what is sinless and eternal except for God, and how can you partake of those things unless you are part of him? Your eternal destiny is not to continue being little old you… just forever.
It’s to be something else. Jesus said so.
“In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”
But we don’t want that really.
That’s kind of scary.
To be frank what most Christians today actually want is a closer to Islam or Judaism, for in those faiths the strict delineation between God and Man is indeed non-negotiable. Those faiths really do believe in an uncrossable barrier forever and always separating Creator from Created. Indeed, this is why they can’t believe that Christ was God, for to suggest that God became Man is anathema to them, a heresy, an idea that Christians stole from the Greco-Roman religions with all their demi-gods and semi-divine persons like Hercules and Theseus. Modern Christians tend to think the same and have taken to just sort of mouthing ideas about God impregnating a human female and fathering a son with her without really thinking about what that means. Phrases about how we are made “in God’s image” and how God is also “The Son of Man” just never seem to register. But Christians cannot continue like this. For the barrier between God and Man that the other Abrahamic faiths believe in is no longer uncrossable. God himself built a bridge across it. He did it with his two outstretched arms.
But you see if you cannot see this, if you cannot feel in your bones that You and God really can, and one day must, be melded into one… well then of course you cannot hear from Him. Of course your prayers will always seem one-sided. You will be forced to either give up praying altogether or be reduced to one of those nervous superstitious types, running around with your charms and tarot cards and ending perfectly good relationships just because your star chart said you should. And further, I think your inability to believe that you can be one with God will sooner or later manifest into an inability to believe that he can love you. You might say that he does, sure. You might mouth it. You might recite the words “God is Love” in a hymn…
But you won’t believe it.
Your belief in your own ego, your own limited and small version of “self”, will be so strong that you will reflect that ego back onto God and imagine him to be the same sort of being as yourself. A being worried about his status. Scared. Anxious. Afraid of being usurped or not sufficiently liked. At the end of the day you’ll be unable to see any reason why he would have created you if not so that you could puff him up and tell him how great he is and magnify his glory. You’ll see nothing whatsoever incoherent about saying a loving God created people just so he could seem them to Hell.
Bad place to be.
“I do not call you servants any longer, because servants do not know what their master is doing. Instead, I call you friends, because I have told you everything I heard from my Father.”
Men have a harder time with this maybe. The concept of union with the divine I mean. Women, at least those who experience pregnancy, have direct knowledge of sharing their bodies within another soul. As it must be one day with us and God, in utero the division between Mother and Child is not at all clear. Additionally in the act of breast feeding again there is a sharing of the body, and even for those women who never carry a child, the act of intercourse itself requires penetration of the individual. Therefore for numerous biological reasons women are perhaps less likely to have an overly strict definition of the self. By contrast, never having had to share his body it is quite possible for a man to live his whole life under the semi-delusion that he is a self-contained unit. But the soul has always been defined as female, precisely because it is open to penetration and impregnation and many men are carrying all sorts of spirits without realizing it. The divide you now feel between yourself and God will not persist into Eternity. It cannot. God is a giver and wants to give everything he can, including the sum total of himself. Do you see then that the idea that our sole purpose in Heaven will be to worship him is actually nonsensical? That after a while such would feel rather silly?
A bit like worshiping ourselves?
But people don’t like that.
They’re afraid I think.
Afraid maybe of being “swallowed up” or “losing themselves” in the divine. If God unites with them, they think, then they will be destroyed, and to an extent that’s true. To the extent that you define your self with your sins, your vices, to the extent that you self-identify with your bad behavior and evil thoughts… yes all that will have to go. You can’t go into Eternity maimed. The Deaf will have to hear again, the Lame will have to start walking, the Blind will have to see. Your sexual perversions that you believe are “just who you are” are going to have to be burned off. Your jealousy that you identify as a little quirk of your personality? That’s going to have to die. Your fear for the future, your anxiety? Even things like your Attention Deficit Disorder or your OCD.
They have to go.
The most pernicious lie The Devil has going at the moment is getting us to identify with our defects.
Prevents us from coming to God.
How can we unite with him when we believe that what makes us who we are is going to be burned away?
And so you understand why people want God to be in the fantastic. Out There, in the big and the scary. In The Other. The fire, the wind, and the earthquake. Because those are excuses. Reasons not to obey. Not to listen to the still small voice speaking without our hearts. And all those versions of Christianity which insist on a hard and fast division between Man and God are just complicated versions of the same. Ways to make God out there. Other. So that we can feel pious whilst ignoring him. So we can save those defects we have identified with and pretend they’re going to Heaven to.
You pray, you ask God for guidance and instantly the answer comes. Is it not so?
“God, what should I do about my sister and how she treated me?”
There. Your answer. Like a flash of lightning across your mind.
“What was that God? What did you say?”
“Can you give me a sign?”
But he already spoke and he knows you heard him.
Why would he speak again?
But you don’t like what he said and so you will pretend. You will tell yourself that that was just the misfiring of your own brain and besides isn’t it hubris to believe that God would speak to you? Little old you? You know, when he’s so Big and GLORIOUS and OTHER? Better go ask your priest for a second opinion. Better go roll some dice. Better go search the scriptures. Better go do anything to still feel like you’re obeying while ignoring what he said.
See, the hard and fast division between God and Man is an artifact. A fake thing you’ve set up so you don’t have to listen. Because in truth God almost always answers instantly.
“God, I’m unhappy. I don’t like where my life is at right now and…”
You know what you’re supposed to be doing with your life.
“… and… um… I was just wondering if you thought I should move or change jobs or…”
Is it not so?
If you’re honest, doesn’t God answer most of the time? And answer almost instantly?
I think if you pay attention you’ll find that God almost always speaks back. It’s just that we pretend he doesn’t because we dearly wish he was saying something else. We wish he was telling us how to go make a million dollars or to lie just a little to make things go easier at work or to break off that relationship instead of trying to repair it. That’s why Christ said that the wicked and the perverse seek a sign. An external confirmation. Because the Kingdom of Heaven is within, and all that looking for God in fire and wind and earth is just a way to ignore it.
“The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.” — Jesus
Amor Vincit Omnia.
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