For me, the Earth is an unchanging solid foundation. The sun rises in the East, travels across the sky, and sets in the West. I understand that the apparent motion of the sun is an illusion caused by the Earth’s rotation. But no one complains when I speak of the sun’s daily journey across the sky. We understand the different frames of reference.
I also talk to God. For example, 25 years ago I administered the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS) to an institutionalized young man who was cheerful and sociable, but had little cognitive ability. One of the subtests required him to arrange colored cubes into a specific pattern. The simplest pattern used two cubes; even a small child can do it. This man could not. He lacked the ability to look at a picture and then arrange the two cubes. Frustrated, he gently pounded one cube on top of the other, hoping they would magically align themselves. I was watching anxiously having never seen his level of deficit before, when God spoke to me. “How would you tell this man about me? He is my child too.” I knew the answer. I would tell him that Jesus is his friend; that Jesus will take him by the hand in life and never leave his side; that Jesus will be with him always. The explanations about the existential ground of being, God’s mind expressed in the order of mathematics—well, these would not do.
As I answered God I knew the weight of intellectual tradition was against me. Belief in a personal God, a God who interacts with us, was not fashionable among the academics with whom I then worked, nor is it now. Einstein once said, “In their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God.” Freud was more negative: “A personal God was nothing more than an exalted father‐figure: desire for such a deity sprang from infantile yearnings for a powerful, protective father, for justice and fairness and for life to go on forever.”
A few years later, while I was out standing in my yard, I looked up and felt how high the sky was above me. When I looked down I saw an ant crawling on my shoe. God spoke again: “Try explaining Microsoft Windows to an ant, and it will give you some idea of the difficulty I face with you.” I imagined holding the ant up to my computer and saying, “Behold, ant, Windows: the work of Gates.” It’s a hard problem.
The ant didn’t even seem to recognize me as another living entity, treating me more like a giant moving landscape. Then I imagined a robot ant equipped with pheromones to be sent among the other ants—a sort of Jesus ant. I envisioned that the ants would have trouble understanding the message—pheromones not being a very symbolic language—and so would likely start competing religions. And I had still failed to explain Windows, or to understand why God would choose that as a topic.
What I did realize was that I was less than six feet higher than the ant, and almost on its level compared to the height of heaven. I remembered God’s words to Isaiah (55: 8–9): “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways. As the heavens are higher than the Earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
My experience of a personal God has been deeply embarrassing to me at times. It is not the majority view among liberal Quakers. In a survey of 550 Friends in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, conducted with the Making New Friends Working Group, only four in ten Friends said they believed in a God to whom one could pray in the expectation of receiving an answer. Four in ten is the same level of belief as that of professional scientists, but less than half the level of the U.S. general public.
As much as the scientific view rejects a personal God, the popular view embraces it. Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life espouses a personal God: a God who has detailed plans for your life, who guides you and even challenges you with adversity and disbelief. Warren finds meaning in everything, even in the apparently random incidents of life. His book is now reputed to be one of the best selling books of all time (more than 161 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list). For the majority, God is personal.
Darwin could not believe in God. He was appalled at God’s handiwork: “There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.” The reality of life for evolutionary theory is that Nature does not think in moral terms; Nature is profoundly indifferent to suffering and pain. God’s plan, if revealed through nature, is not a kind one.
Late in life Darwin wrote, “I feel most strongly that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe what he can.”
Here is what I hope: that my experience of God is real, as real as the sun rising in the East and setting in the West. I do not have the intellect to explain the contradictions. I have to maintain two frames of reference, not knowing how they are connected. Yet I hope. Recently I have had the sense that Jesus is walking with me—behind, out of sight, so that I will not be embarrassed in front of my friends, but still close—and that I will meet him face to face when my journey comes to its end.