But that leaves atheist Nancy Ellen Abrams to figure out how the God she discovered could be real.
Three years ago, my wife and I had a jolting experience of suddenly getting in touch with our actual aspirations. This had a big impact. It led us to do unsettling things like leaving a good, secure situation with our five kids in tow and making our way across the country in search of things that were far less tangible than what we had.
Just this spring, a friend from our new hometown undertook a Lenten practice of praying through things she powerfully wanted. She said the prayer experience was mostly tormenting. Until right at the end when she had her own jolting realization that she actually didn’t want the thing she’d thought for years she wanted more than almost anything. The few times I’ve seen her since, far from tormented, she’s seemed jolly— though she is now going a completely different direction than the one she was monofocused on only a few weeks before.
I’ve just run across an unexpected teacher on this surprising phenomenon. Nancy Ellen Abrams just published a crazy book about God—or about a God that likely only applies to one person on earth, her. This book explains what happened to my wife and me and our friend in ways no other book has.
I heard about Abrams from Salon.com, a politically-liberal, mostly anti-religious website. She’s married to the theoretical physicist Joel Primack, who’s well known for his foundational work on the nature of the dark matter that comprises the vast bulk of our universe’s mass, so she’s lived her adult life at the forefront of scientific exploration. She rejected the Judaism of her youth when, prepping for her bat mitzvah, she couldn’t affirm that she believed in God. That got her expelled from her synagogue. Then she developed an eating addiction. As she went to a 12-step group, she found power in turning her life over to “God as she understood him.” This unsettled her. What did this mean? As an atheist, what was this power she was finding?
Maybe, she mused, the key was the “as she understood him” part! Maybe there was power in constructing a personal, if hypothetical “God.” Alas, the moment she ran with this thought, all the power she’d been experiencing stopped. And so she plunged herself into trying to understand what this God was that she’d discovered. She tried to take an empirical approach. As a scientist, she wasn’t interested in any idea of God that started with teachings from above. Rather, she wanted to start from below, from what scientific understanding and her own experience could teach her about A God that Could be Real (the title of her book, with the subtitle, Spirituality, Science and the Future of Our Planet). “I have no interest in a God that has to be believed in,” she writes. “If I am going to have God in my life, it has to be a God that cannot help but exist. We don’t need to believe in these things; they just exist. We can choose to learn more about them, or not.”
I won’t lie to you good people. I’m befuddled by a good deal of what’s important to her. She, for instance, has a long chapter on “a God that can’t be real.” This God, for reasons that evidently have to do with science, can’t have created the universe, can’t know everything, can’t plan what happens, and can’t violate the laws of nature. This has to do with things like complexity and the speed of light. It all seems like a category mistake to me, as if she’s envisioning a God trapped within the physical universe—when any believer in any monotheistic religion would nod sagely and slowly explain, “But that’s not the God we’re talking about. The God we’re talking about transcends the universe rather than being trapped in it.” Of course, there’s a very real chance I’m missing her point.
Her God isn’t outside of us, but emerges from humanity’s collective aspirations. She draws parallels to ant colonies and financial markets as entities that emerge as real things unto themselves. Ants and Wall Street both have their own emergent, big-scale rules as a natural consequence of having a certain number of participants, each going about their own local business. In a similar way, a very real God emerges as a result of millennia of human beings aspiring for better things (which sets us apart from other animals which can desire but not aspire). This God, again, is very real and is inextricably tied to all questions of meaning, but is not a separate, loving entity. We can love this God (and we’ll find that we do), but it can’t love us back. This God will prod us out of our nationalism and tribalism to embrace the common good of all people—past, present and future. Global warming will become a major moral issue, because it uniquely threatens the whole human project.
The things I find myself talking to my friends about are Abrams' view of prayer and of sin. She writes that what we most benefit from in prayer is getting in touch with our own actual aspirations. She points out that we love movies whose lead characters powerfully want something—we even respond to villains who have profound aspirations. The reason we connect with these movies is because none of us is really in touch with what we want and—and, as turned out to be true for my wife and me and our friend—this is the great, pressing question of our lives. As we pray, she argues, tat we move beyond our superficial hopes to our actual ones. When she prayed to lose weight, it didn’t work. Too superficial! When, pressing deeper, she prayed to be a healthy person, it did. This God helps us get in touch with our surprising and deep hopes. This God, as we pray, reframes how we look upon—and what we hope for from—our lives.
The benefit we get from this God is coherence. She argues that scriptural literalists are forced to live an incoherent life. Because all scriptures were written at a drastically earlier time, the authors carried now-disproven understandings of the universe. If we demand literalism from them, we’ll be at war with our own eyes, having to disavow things we know to be true in order to “take the scriptures seriously.” The goal is to find coherence with our actual aspirations, our actual understanding of the world, and the God we’re hoping to know. Incoherence, like the traditional understanding of sin, will tear us apart. Coherence will give us what we’re looking for.
Abrams gives a hearty endorsement to T.M. Luhrmann’s book When God Talks Back. Luhrmann, a Stanford anthropologist, studied how some evangelicals learn to talk to a God who talks back to them, focusing not on evaluating whether this is a nutty belief, but instead on examining the skill that these evangelicals work hard to master. To Abrams, this is the skill to master, and she believes her devotees will have a leg up on Luhrmann’s evangelicals because, having mastered this, they can also have a coherent world view. To Abrams, “God is in perpetual dialogue with all of us.” Given this, what’s her advice? “Pray, pray, pray.”
I don’t know the person who’d read Abrams’ book and say, “Exactly! That’s the God I experience!” Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes the introduction to the book, and starts off by saying, “I must begin by acknowledging that I do not agree with everything that Nancy Abrams says about a scientific understanding of God.” Her approach is quirky. But Tutu goes onto say, “I am thrilled that we have the creativity and originality that is exhibited in this book, and I recommend it to all, religious or secular.” And I’m with him there too. It strikes me as amazing that she’s found what she has in the way that she has. I want the coherence she describes, and I’m not sure I’ve heard that coherence described more powerfully anywhere else. After an hour or so with her, I went on to page through the Psalms—and suddenly my perspective was all Abrams all the time. Take Psalm 51. “You desire truth in the inward being.” (Coherence!) “Blot out my transgressions.” (The ways that I’m incoherent and disintegrated!) “Restore to me the joy of my salvation.” (The consequence of ultimate coherence!)
Abrams' understanding of how we discover our actual aspirations seems profound. Recognizing that my wife and I hadn’t yet understood our actual aspirations was startling and (literally) dislocating. The God Abrams describes flings its adherents hither and yon in service of finding both connection and their actual place in the universe. The coherence and connection she describes are not gentle and obvious, and they require the kind of transcendence she works so hard to describe. Again, praying to the god that she made up for her own purposes didn’t work! This “God that is real” turns out not to be an extension of our preexisting political or moral beliefs but is, instead, relentless in grounding us in our actual self as only it can. And this God turns out to be equally relentless in breaking us out of the knee-jerk tribalism that we otherwise have no option but to live in and reinforce.
The New Testament describes a series of spiritual journeys that are crazy and dislocating. The apostles are anything but middle-class “good religious people” as they get ripped from their homes into a journey that’s beyond anything they could have anticipated. Most sympathetic readers take inspiration from these stories but can’t imagine how their own lives could mirror them. Abrams’ God joltingly repositions us again and again into a place where we can actually know ourselves and actually connect with the whole world. However we feel about the ins and outs of how Abrams takes us there, that’s powerful stuff.