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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Borg and Radical Amazement

I've never read any of the work of Marcus Borg although I knew him to be a scholar of biblical studies and a fellow of the Jesus Seminar, but today I came across an archived post at On Faith, that had his (and other people's) answer to the question: What was your own most formative religious experience, if you had one? Here's his answer below ....


My most formative religious experiences were a series of mystical experiences. They began to occur in my early thirties. They changed my understanding of the meaning of the word "God" - of what that word points to - and gave me an unshakable conviction that God (or "the sacred") is real and can be experienced.

These experiences also convinced me that mystical forms of Christianity are true, and that the mystical forms of all the enduring religions of the world are true.

My experiences were what scholars of mysticism call "extravertive" or "eyes open" mystical experiences (the other type is "introvertive" or "eyes closed"). I saw the same visual "landscape" – a forest, a room, the inside of an airliner – that I normally see. There were no extra beings, no angels.

For a minute or two (and once for the better part of an hour), what I was seeing looked very different. Light became different – as if there were a radiance shining through everything. The biblical phrase for this is "the glory of God" – as the book of Isaiah puts it, "the earth is filled with the glory – the radiance – of God." The world was transfigured, even as it remained "the same." And I experienced a falling away of the subject-object distinction that marks our ordinary everyday experience – that sense of being a separate self, "in here," while the world is "out there."

They were experiences of wonder – not of curiosity, but of what the 20th century Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel called "radical amazement."

They were also experiences in which I felt that I was seeing more clearly than I ever had before – that what I was experiencing was "the way things are." And they were also experiences of complete peacefulness, marked by a sense that I would love to stay in this mental state forever. Anxiety and distraction utterly disappeared. Everything looked beautiful.

When I had these experiences, I had no intellectual understanding of mysticism. Indeed, whenever I tried to read mystical writings, they seemed like gobbledy-gook. I had no idea what they were about – they were completely opaque. But after these experiences, mystical texts became luminous. I recognized in them what I had experienced.

The effect was to transform my understanding of the word "God." I began to understand that the word does not refer to a person-like being "out there," beyond the universe – an understanding of "God" that ceased to be persuasive in my teens and twenties.

I began to understand that the word "God" refers to "what is" experienced as wondrous and compelling, as, to use William James' phrase, "the more" which is all around us. Or to use a phrase from the New Testament, the word "God" refers to "the one in whom we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17.28). "God" is not a hypothesis, but a reality who can be known.

Thus, to argue about whether God exists seems to me to be based on a misunderstanding of what the word points to. If "God" means a person-like being "out there," completely separate from the universe, then I am an atheist. I do not believe there is such a being. But if the word "God" points to a radiance that pervades "what is," as I now think – then, of course, God is real. Not just the God of Christianity, but the God of all the enduring religions.


I recognize his mystical experiences, but somehow I've still kept the feeling that God is a person-like being, though not one separate from the universe. Interesting :-)


Blogger Liam said...

That's interesting. I would say that I have had a similar experience in returning to religion -- the experience of God as present and not "out there." God would be "person-like" in the sense that we can have a relationship with God, but not in a limiting anthropomorphic dude-with-a-long-white-beard type of person. Of course, as Christians, we also believe in God made man in Jesus, so God is person-like in that sense.

8:02 AM  
Blogger Cura Animarum said...

Yes I can relate to the mystical experience he describes but I do not feel that it has led me away from the idea or experience of God as a true person, just an awareness that my own person-hood, and that of others is far more expansive, encompassing, interconnected than perhaps our limited definition of that word accounts for.

I don't think it precludes a being we can relate to, it just places that 'being' in a more intimate, say immanent, context. The person I know as God is not 'out there' but 'in, with, and under' all.

The most intense mystical experiences I have had have always resulted in a sudden amazement that in embracing another or being embraced, I am in intimate contact with my Lord and my God. When that beings to dawn I suddenly want to embrace everyone I meet, friend and stranger alike, and looking into the eyes of another causes great peals of joyour laughter to being to rumble forth form deep in my belly.

After a truly intense experience I generally walk through the day grinning at everything from ear to ear like some great, love-struck goofball.

PS: Just seeing the header of the post, I was expecting something about Picard and STNG...this was better though. ;-)

9:30 AM  
Blogger crystal said...


That's how it seems to me too - God enough of a "person" to have a relationship with but not limited. I have to learn more about that Orthodox idea of panentheism, where God is in everything but at the same time transcendent.

I'm looking forward to when you post about your conversion experience.

10:12 AM  
Blogger crystal said...


you will be assimilated - resistance is futile :-)

I've had that experience too but not with other people, only nature. I think this is what Ignatius means by a foundational experience, one that helps a person really believe God loves them, etc.

10:22 AM  
Blogger cowboyangel said...


Thanks for the post. I could really relate to what Borg had to say, though I never experienced the light/radiance thing. (I did have a dream once where I was part of a new John Coltrane piece of music, which was also the most beautiful golden light I've ever encountered.)

Unfortunately, a lot of mystical writing still seems like gobbledy-gook to me. Though what's interesting is that I can now connect with mystics in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, as well as with many Buddhistic concepts that probably would have meant nothing to me before.

But my life definitely changed. Existence seems bigger, wider, deeper, and I feel interconnected to everything, especially at times the physical planet. (At least on good days. Bad days are the fragmentation of this.)

And my concept of "God" definitely changed. I identify a lot with what what Borg says. I find I trust less and less contemporary society's easy and casual use of the word "God." Too often it feels like a cartoon God. How can THE ALL be so easily pinned down in language, especially when people don't use language very well or accurately most of thetime anyway? That's why music, art, physical love, etc. are so important - because they help give expression to what can't really be expressed. To echo Liam's comment, Jesus is - in Christianity - the incarnation of this infinite, majestic and incomprehensible ALL into a human and personable form. It's been an interesting journey since my "mystical" experiences and reading of other traditions to reconcile my old concepts of G-d with the powerful new things I've lived.

12:35 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

It is hard to define God, especially after a mystical experience that seems to expand the defnition in ways you can't explaon even to yourself :-)

But he still seems person-like to me. Jesus called him Father, which seems very person-like. And somewhere (?) Jesus says that if you want to know what God is like, look at him (Jesus) ... also person-like.

God is mysterious and beyond our understanding, but it seems to me that it can't be impossible to know him ... everything that exists must be connected so intimately to him. Maybe religion makes it harder than it has to be.

2:36 PM  

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