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Steve McSwain

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How to Know God Beyond Organized Religion

Posted: 06/16/11 06:59 PM ET

"I want to know the mind of God," said Albert Einstein.

I do, too. But for much of my adult life, knowing God and knowing mind -- feeling a sense of connectedness to something grander than myself -- escaped me. Then, one day, something happened to me and I made a remarkable discovery. Meister Eckhart was right: "The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me."

Two assumptions are behind today's blog: 1) That God is and 2) that she is knowable. I call God, God. You might prefer Being, Transcendence, the Eternal, the Mind or nothing at all. I have long suspected Intelligence has many names and aliases.

I'm not looking for agreement on these suppositions. Some of you will agree and that's fine. Others of you won't and that's fine, too. If you don't share similar assumptions, you'll not like anything else you read here either. If you're looking for something to disagree with, you have likely found it already.

What follows are a few things I've learned about knowing God or living a Divine, enlightened life (or, as the Christians say, "saved," although many of them know neither what a person is to be saved from or what a person is to be saved for).

To know God is simply the deep, inner feeling of inexplicable oneness with what is; a kind of wholeness and connectedness with life itself, with God. I love the way Eckhart Tolle puts it: "The word 'enlightenment' conjures up the idea of some superhuman accomplishment ... it is really just your natural state of felt oneness with Being."

Here's what I've learned:

Knowing God is the purpose of human existence. It's why you showed up. It took me half a lifetime before I got this. I had always thought, and had been taught, there was some "grand purpose" for which I appeared on planet earth; some job nobody else could do and that I was supposed to do. So, I wasted a big chunk of my life looking for what it was. Perhaps you've lived with similar expectations. When I awakened from this illusion however, I realized there was nothing I was supposed to "do." I had shown up simply to be.

When you get this, you're at peace. The search is over. Grandiose, ego-driven expectations disappear. Life begins to be genuinely celebrated. Then, you're free to go "do" whatever you wish while enjoying who you are in the process.

We show up for one reason and one reason only: to walk with God, as did Enoch of old (Genesis 5:24). The rabbis say this is an anthropomorphic way of describing what is the natural experience of deep connectedness with God. When you read all of Genesis 5, it occurs to you the writer is making the point that Enoch's contemporaries were born, begat and died but never got it. That is, they never quite figured out the most profound truth about human existence. Life is not about its duration (something our culture has yet to learn). Instead, it's about walking with, or knowing, the Divine, being one with oneself and one with what is.

There is something else. Knowing God takes no effort whatsoever. Effort is the baggage of religion. Virtually all of them, too. While most religions seem to start out right -- that is, with the purpose of helping people know and feel connected to themselves, to life, to the Divine -- it isn't long before they turn spiritual grants into religious loans that must be repaid with obligations and offerings, duties and doctrines, debates and disagreements, and, in the not-too-distant-past, violence and bloodshed against anyone who disagreed. This extreme is still the modus operandi with some religions.

Here, along with those who have left (or are leaving) religion for reasons associated with clergy or institutional abuse (and those may number in the millions), there are millions of others leaving organized religion because what should be liberating and joyful is instead incarcerating and burdensome. While religion should be a blessing, the unfortunate experience of many is that religion is a burden. Rather than liberating people to be who they are, it imprisons them in stereotypes, prescribed lifestyles, and heaps upon them rules and regulations as onerous as the proverbial Sears catalogue. Instead of encouraging people to experience their full humanity, religion leads people to deny their humanity and so become more and more insane. Rather than a joy, church-going for many Christians in the U.S. has become a job. The hours are long, the duties are relentless and the reward isn't worth it.

The most recent report of this exodus from the church was acknowledged among Southern Baptist leaders. Historically, they've been the largest denomination as well as the fastest growing. It is no longer so. It is going the way of other mainline denominations, experiencing steep and irreversible declines. Listen to their misguided leaders explanation of this, however, and you'll discover they are clueless as to the cause. They mistakenly think people are leaving the church because the church is becoming too liberal. What they do not know, perhaps because they're minds are like those of the religious leaders in Jesus' day, is that the real reason people are leaving is precisely the opposite of liberalism. People are leaving because of narrow fundamentalism.

I know this. I talk to many of them on a regular basis. They're tired of trying to please a fundamentalist god who accepts heterosexuals but not homosexuals; a god who has no interest in the world being compassionate, cooperative, while celebrating its diversity; a god interested in cloning all people to look alike, think alike, even believe alike. They've had it with fundamentalist leaders more interested in building ego-kingdoms unto themselves on earth instead of investing in, building and encouraging a new humanity, one of greater equality and mutual respect for all faith traditions...one where the faith traditions actually work together, instead of competing with each other, or worse, fighting with each other, to fashion a more sustainable and compassionate world.

My advice is this: Don't feel badly about leaving any organized religious tradition that promotes the kind of madness I've just described.

But don't assume they are all guilty of this either. That would be a kind of narrow-mindedness at the other extreme. There are many religious groups, churches, temples and mosques that have a healthy and, from my perspective, Christ-like vision of the future -- one that does not lead people to look for a way to escape this earth as in the Rapture, but to live within it in a transformative fashion.

Furthermore, there's no need to make knowing God into a problem, whether you've given up on organized religion or not. No need to left faith degenerate into a kind of meaningless performance, duty, obligation or ritual. Know this: You know God already. You only think you don't because your religion has conditioned you to think there's something else you must do to enjoy walking in the presence of the Divine. There isn't. Otherwise, it could not be called an experience of grace. Grace is gift. There's nothing you must do to know God. It's all been done for you. Knowing God is simply the progressive realization of the Presence within you, which is you already. Why else did Jesus say, "The kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21)? Look there. You could never be any closer to God than you are now. So, know that every thought of God, every impulse you feel for God, is God.

I would also suggest this: Give your attention to the inclination you feel to know God. I love what Thomas Merton said, "As soon as people are disposed to being alone with God, they are ... no matter where they are: in the monastery, in the city, in the country ... in the woods. At the moment it seems they are somewhere in the middle of their journey, they have actually arrived at the destination already."

Give your attention to the questions you have about God, too. Even the doubts. See where doubt may take you. For some, it may lead them away from faith. But for those who are open, it very often leads them back to an authentic experience of faith. Your religion might tell you that you should accept the things you've doubted or questioned on the basis of faith alone. But that's nonsense. God does not ask you to ignore your questions or disregard your doubts. Faith never precludes doubt. Real faith is learning to live in ambiguity -- with paradox and with questions for which there may be no answer.

Going to church, or any spiritual tradition, is not to find your "questions answered," as someone put it, "but to have your answers questioned." Further, your questions might frighten the faithful. But I assure you that your questions are encouraged by God. She created you with a mind. Use it. As I say in "The Enoch Factor," "Doubt is no more disbelief than questions are compromise." The most faithful followers of any faith have been those whose minds doubted, questioned and so contemplated the inexplicable mysteries of life. I would go so far as to say until you question your faith, you have no faith. You might have beliefs. Most religious traditions are full of people who cling to a plethora of beliefs and so vigorously defend those beliefs as more "right" than the beliefs of others. But there may only be a few persons in any tradition who actually know and walk with the Divine. Decide, therefore, to be one of these persons, irrespective of your spiritual tradition. Any spiritual path will take you to the mountain.

Meditate more often than you medicate. It may be unfortunate in our western world but, as Christiane Northrup has rightly noted, "The only acceptable form of western meditation is hospitalization." My own suspicion is that life will give you whatever experience you need (even a hospital bed) to help you evolve -- that is, to look within --w hich is, of course, the only place where you could ever really find yourself or experience the Divine presence. The rabbis say, "God has but one synagogue ... the human heart."

Although I am a devoted follower of Christ, I regularly practice eastern meditative disciplines. There is much that Christians could learn from the spiritual traditions of the east. Ignore those Christian leaders who warn against meditative practices such as yoga. They're only admitting they live more from a place of fear and suspicion than they live by faith. I have the highest regard for those spiritual traditions that, while different from mine in many ways, have informed and enriched my journey. In fact, the more I learn from other traditions the more devoted I am to my own and the more I realize the similarities in all of them.

Benedictine monks in the Christian tradition practice meditation. And many New Testament scholars believe Jesus regularly practiced meditation just as his eastern avatars did. What do you suppose he was doing for 40 days and nights as he wandered in the wilderness? On a hunting or fishing trip? Of course not. He withdrew into the desert to withdraw within himself and so grapple with his own dark, inner impulses that the New Testament describes as "temptations." He had to go within in order to find his way out and into the fullness and oneness of life itself. You will have to do the same, too. To learn to meditate will more quickly mediate God's presence than anything I know. Lao Tzu said, "Where there is silence, one finds the anchor to the universe."

Know that every experience carries within it an expression of the Divine presence. I am not suggesting that everything you might encounter in life is sent by God. But I am saying that everything that happens in life can be the occasion for connecting deeply with the Divine. When I experienced a profound shift in spiritual consciousness a few years ago, I did so with the realization that life unfolds as a series of synchronous events that, seemingly coincidental or random, are actually conspiring together to bring you into union with the Divine. This understanding has been transforming my reaction to and interaction with every experience of my life -- the good, the bad and the ugly.

Make it your daily spiritual practice to bring your awareness into the present moment. When you are here (and not somewhere else in the mind) you will be at peace in presence. If you haven't discovered this already, you will likely learn that one of the greatest challenges to living with a felt sense of oneness to God is disciplining the mind and so training it to the "here and now."

Union with God may take no effort. But to know that union, and so enjoy its blissful benefits, well, that will likely take a lifetime. Which is why it's important to get started now and why the 16th century Carmelite monk, Brother Lawrence, called it "practicing the presence of God." Think of this in the way Ernest Hemingway said to think of yourself: "As an apprentice in a craft where you could never become a master."

Again, don't make a problem of this. Just know that knowing God unfolds naturally as you train yourself to give attention to every thought, impulse or inclination you feel to know God. Acknowledge the thoughts. Follow the feelings, however faint they may be. It is here you will find peace, enter presence and so know God.

The ancient sages said that Enoch walked with God. If he did, so may you.

 
 
 

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