Some years ago I attended a symposium on religious experience. A variety of speakers made presentations on how they tried to experience God. One woman, a professor of religious studies, shared how she spent nearly three hours each day meditating, using a strict method for centring prayer. She went on to say that, during those periods of prayer, she sometimes felt God’s presence quite intensely.
During the question period, I asked her this: “How would you compare the feelings you have when you meditate privately in this way to the feelings you have when you are at the dinner-table with family or friends?” Her response: “There’s no comparison, not in terms of religious experience. At table, I sometimes have nice, secular experiences, but in prayer I really meet God!”
I’m both pagan and Christian enough to have reservations about that answer, not because I doubt the power or importance of private prayer, we could all use more of it, but because of what such an answer says about God and our experience of God. What’s at issue here?
Someone, I think it was Buckminster Fuller, once said: “God is a verb not a noun.” At one level, that statement is dangerously false. At another, however, it affirms something very important and Christian about our relationship to God, namely, that God is not, first of all, a formula, a dogma, a creedal statement, or a metaphysics that demands our assent. God is a flow of living relationships, a trinity, a family of life that we can enter, taste, breathe within, and let flow through us.
“God is love,” scripture says, “and whoever abides in love abides in God and God abides in him or her.” Too often, we miss what that means because we tend to romanticize love. We’ve all heard this passage read at weddings; appropriate surely, but, within that circumstance, all too-misunderstood for it is pictured as romantic love, as falling-in-love, wonderful and holy though this may be. Thus, at a wedding, we can easily miss the sense of what this text means. It might best be rendered this way: “God is community, family, parish, friendship, hospitality and whoever abides in these abides in God and God abides in him or her.” God is a trinity, a flow of relationships among persons. If this is true, and scripture assures us that it is, then the realities of dealing with each other in community, at the dinner-table, over a bottle of wine or an argument, not to mention the simple giving and receiving of hospitality are not a pure, secular experiences but the stuff of church, the place where the life of God flows through us.
By definition, God is ineffable, beyond imagination and beyond language, even the best language of theology and church dogma. God can never be understood or captured adequately in any formula. But God can be known, experienced, tasted, related to in love and friendship. God is Someone and Something that we live within and which can flow through our veins. To make God real in our lives, therefore, we needn’t sneak off, shamrocks and triangles in hand, to try to somehow picture how three-can-be-one and one-can-be-three. Nor indeed need we read academic books on theology, valuable though these may be. No. God is a flow of relationships to be experienced in community, family, parish, friendship, and hospitality. When we live inside of these relationships, God lives inside of us and we live inside of God. Scripture assures us that we abide in God whenever we stay inside of family, community, parish, friendship, hospitality – and, yes, even when we fall in love.
This has huge consequences for how we should understand religious experience: Among other things, it means that God is more domestic than monastic (monks will be the first to tell you that). It means too, that in coming to know God, the dinner-table is more important than the theology classroom, the practice of grateful hospitality is more important than the practice of right dogma, and meeting with others to pray as a community can give us something that long hours in private meditation (or, indeed, long years spent absent from church-life) cannot. Such a concept also blurs all simple distinctions between “religious” and “purely secular” experience. Finally, importantly, it tells us that, since God is inside of community, we should be there too, if we wish to go to heaven. Simply put, we can’t go to hell, if we stick close to family, community, and parish.
The most pernicious heresies that block us from properly knowing God are not those of formal dogma, but those of a culture of individualism that invite us to believe that we are self-sufficient, that we can have community and family on our own terms, and that we can have God without dealing with each other. But God is community – and only in opening our lives in gracious hospitality will we ever understand that.