Hubris and arrogance should have little quarter in the lives of those with animating and authentic faith; yet I have observed in myself and others something quite troubling. And though it is a patently false idea, it has been embraced by believers. I am referring to the notion that the unenlightened (non-believers) wander aimlessly through life devoid of any sense whatsoever of spiritual reality until I (we) burst on to the scene and into their sorry lives. It is then that we the “initiated” or enlightened explain the ‘truth’ to the lost ones. Such thinking places the agency of change in human hands rather than God’s.
I certainly hold that those with a genuine faith have the responsibility, rather, privilege, to share the ”good news” in a loving way; yet I am referring to something far deeper. If we embrace the orthodox notion that all are made in the image of God, is it unthinkable that God through many varied and mysterious channels is attempting to connect with His created? (This is like buying a company with no investment banker in the middle!)
God’s ways of transmitting to mankind is diverse – perhaps through a thunderstorm, an internal prompting, or some life threatening experience. It seems to me that the wonder of God is that we cannot box Him in and assume that we know the way that God communicates truth and love. After all, doesn’t Scripture teach that if God has no witness that the very stones will cry out? And didn’t God speak (in the book of Numbers, Old Testament) through a donkey? How’s that for humbling the proud?
Two brilliant thinkers of the 20th century have put names to this subtle yet real phenomenon of God’s inclination to communicate quite directly to humankind. Dr. Peter Berger, Boston University professor of Religion, Sociology and Theolog., called these quiet promptings, ”signals of transcendence,” whereas Oxford scholar, CS Lewis, offered a similar idea in referring to ”sign posts.” Both capture the thought that a loving God, while not visible, leaves traces and hints for us who are longing to find and connect with the numinous.
Some years back in Denver, this realization came home to me in a very particular way. Pete Coors of the Colorado Brewery family asked that I share a few of my thoughts with the World Presidents Organization which he was chairing. WPO is comprised of CEOs from around the world who regularly gather to discuss matters of common concern. I shared for around 8 minutes about the human longing for meaning and God. As the meeting concluded a Jewish CEO from Manhattan cornered me. The gist of what he said was, “Your approach to religion is novel; I have never heard such a perspective, particularly from the son of an atheist. Would you be willing to spend several days with a group of business leaders like myself, atheists and agnostics, to engage in conversation?” I happily agreed, yet heard nothing for several months.
The call eventually came, and I was summoned to New York’s fashionable Leash Club on the Upper East Side for a “check this guy out meeting.” I arrived around six p.m. and was quickly ushered into a well-appointed room where approximately 40 men sat silent in a circle, with one solitary chair in the center for yours truly. I took the seat and was then pummeled with awkward questions. The inquiry ran something like the following: ”Do you intend to proselytize us?” “We are not interested in religion, so what will we discuss for three days”’ “Do you object if we bring women other than our wives?”
They dismissed me for 30 minutes and argued among themselves, attempting to arrive at a shared view of me and my participation. When I reentered, they had a final question. “Convince us that we should go off with you to discuss some uncomfortable topics at the Boulders Resort in Arizona.” My response unsettled them a bit, “I wouldn’t advise that you do this. My personal experience makes me believe that when you begin exploring matters of meaning, faith, and God, crazy things start happening. Perspectives and behavior start changing when you are honest with yourself and explore the role of faith and meaning in your life.” I was thanked and sent on my way, uncertain if we would meet again.
Several months later, the call came from my Manhattan banker pal. ”You’re on!” he blurted. So now what do I do? Yikes!
I thought carefully about those coming days, with only a few guiding principles in mind: less is more, theological, philosophical debates accomplish little and human stories and lessons move people to action.
It was then that a dear English friend of mine and I began discussing the eminent British art historian, Sir Kenneth Clark, well known for his many written works and made more popular to a broader audience through his television series and book Civilization. And while Clark was a vocal atheist, an episode in his life impacted both my thinking and approach to the upcoming retreat.
In Clark’s 1977 autobiographical work, The Other Half, he describes an experience that for an atheist is nothing short of stunning. Atheist Clark describes a ”religious” experience that took place in the church of San Lorenzo in Italy. He describes the most intense experience in his life that irradiated his person with a kind of ”heavenly joy.” This experience was one where he “felt the finger of God.” In other words, a nonbeliever was moved directly by God with no help from the home team.
In pondering this short account of Clark’s, I sensed an approach that just might work with my New York group. In contemplating the profile of those who would join for those days in Arizona, they were similar in worldview and professed atheism to Kenneth Clark. So my thought was to relay the Clark story and then pose a question. The question would be a take off on Clark’s expression concerning the finger of God.
Fast forwarding to the retreat, the time arrived when I would begin conversations about faith and meaning. There were perhaps 70 gathered for those three days. On the second day of our time together, I popped the question. “Have any of you experienced what Sir Kenneth Clark articulated? Simply put, atheists or agnostics though you are, have any of you ever felt the finger of God in your lives?”
What happened next was shocking. Around the tables, one story after another was accounted. Awkward at first, but then it flowed. Stories where they had sensed the touch of God or the presence of God at some point in life’s journey. It’s safe to say that no one had previously asked them to recount any such personal experiences. I was amazed that, contrary to my own fears and low expectations, many had some particular and quite often moving stories to tell.
My take away from this experience was the realization that God is highly active in people’s lives, despite any professed lack of belief. Secondly, I concluded that the arrogance of many believers holds that until we, the believers, show up, that God has no means of touching His beloved creation. I realized that by merely asking the ”right” question, individuals are given the chance to express a spiritual experience that was real and meaningful.
In 1890, a rebellious, English doctor Francis Thompson captured in his vivid poem, The Hound of Heaven, the idea of God’s relentless pursuit of His independent and willful people. He likens God to a great hound ever on the path of those He loves, while man continues to turn away until finally captured by the fearsome yet loving force.
“I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid for Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From strong Feet that followed,
But with unhurrying chase,
And unpertubed pace,
Deliberated speed, majestic instancy,
They beat – and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet”
Note to self: Expect God to show up in unexpected ways.
J. Douglas Holladay is founder of PathNorth, which serves as a resource for business leaders to bring meaning and fresh perspective to both work and life.