Faith Unboxed: God can be experienced, not explained

By Martha WoodroofPublic radio contributorFaith Unboxed As people of faith, should we concern ourselves with God’s nature, relatives, ways and … Continued

By Martha Woodroof
Public radio contributor
Faith Unboxed

As people of faith, should we concern ourselves with God’s nature, relatives, ways and history?

I, for one, think we should not. It seems to me that we can’t really know anything about those subjects. If God is, then God is beyond us; and claiming otherwise corrals the great Whatever within the confines of human language and intellect. This means that society’s great chorus of conversation about God–all our debate, all our competing forms of worship, all our loud denials of God’s existence–is humanity noisily getting above our raisin’ by attempting to demonstrate we know something about that which is un-knowable. We “know” God only in the changes our partnership with the Almighty makes in ourselves and our lives, and through other people’s accounts of similar changes in themselves and their lives.

Oh my. There are few things in life I find more difficult to accept (or more uncomfortable to experience) than not knowing about something–not knowing what’s going on, what to expect, what to do, how to help, how to be right, how to stay safe, even what happened to Amelia Earhart (has she really, finally been found?). Yet, as I see it, any recognition and acceptance of reality (an obligation inherent in faith) must include a recognition that God is now, and shall forever remain, unknowable. In other words, as a person living in partnership with the great Whatever, I do have to accept down to my painted toes that God is an inscrutable, ineffable, unknowable mystery.

Furthermore, I may not allow religious language or practice to separate my recognition and acceptance that God is mystery, from my recognition and acceptance of the rest of reality. Dandelions are yellow; cement is hard; I will never be 40 again; God is mystery.

My husband, Charlie, came with a Blues collection, so it was through him that I first heard blues man Lightnin’ Hopkins introduce himself this way: “I am the man that is the Lightnin’ Hopkins.” This, to me, means that Lightnin’ Hopkins–according to Lightnin’ Hopkins–is not comparable or understandable as anything other than Lightnin’ Hopkins; i.e. once you start thinking about the man, you no longer get the man; Lightnin’ Hopkins can only be experienced, not explained. Ditto, I would submit, for the great Whatever. The mystery that is God is–period. End of philosophy. End of theology. My relationship with the great Whatever is an extra-intellectual adventure. It is truly expressed only in my habit of being.

Once we accept Mystery’s presence in our lives–once we give up any hope of understanding God in the way we understand other things–we also have to give up any hope of understanding the ways in which God works. We must accept that everything we, or anyone else, have to say about the great Whatever’s nature, ways and motives is perforce myth-based. However–and here’s the rub for a lot of people who reject organized religion–just because we can’t understand God’s nature, ways and motives, doesn’t make God any less real and available for partnership.

This I know from personal experience is a fearsome leap for a lot of people, and not just the religious. One time I was on a train, traveling from Charlottesville, Va., to New York City, headed for Book Expo to do a book signing for my first book–my take on how the Twelve Steps and my partnership with God had sent my addiction into remission. Behind me sat the dreaded blowhard with a carrying voice, and a doctor whom the blowhard had just met and was trying to impress.

I’m a reporter; I’m nosy. Since I couldn’t read, I listened. Their conversation got around to new drug therapies used to treat addiction. The doctor worked with smokers and was mystified by the fact some of them could quit and others couldn’t. It made no sense to her, she said, didn’t they know smoking would kill them? I took a deep breath and handed her my book–without saying it was my book, just that it was a book on addiction of which I had an extra copy. A few minutes later, the man handed it back to me saying that he had no interest in it. When I reminded him that I’d actually given it to the woman, all he said was, “Oh, she’s a doctor. She isn’t interested either.”

When he finally got up for a few minutes, I asked the doctor about her take on addiction. She said she thought being able to quit boiled down to the fact that some people either didn’t really want to or just didn’t have enough will power to quit–or that they weren’t truly addicted in the first place. She didn’t seem in the least curious about how anything that defied the confines of scientific study might help addicts. Such things were, to her, irrelevant to the recovery process, and that was the end of it.

I could empathize, for I, too, had once firmly believed I could think and will my way around my own addictions. That, however, hadn’t gotten me sober and something else had. I’ve accepted that I will never be able to explain that something else, but I can still recognize it and name it God–by which I mean it’s something inexplicable, un-quantifiable, extra-human as it were, that moves in me and in my life.

I did wonder about that doctor’s defensive incuriosity, why she was so uncomfortable with the possibility of mystery moving through another person’s life. I would suggest that her denial of the possibility of mystery shares a common motivation with religion’s explanations of it. We humans are flat-out fearful of sharing our lives with something we are drawn to that we can neither control nor explain.

As for knowing God’s history, it is so wrapped up in competing myths of Mystery moving through human history–competing religious writings–that it appears to me damagingly detached from reality to claim the validity of one set of myths over another. What we can recognize from these writings is that humans have been seeking a working partnership with something greater than ourselves for as long as we’ve been around.

Now, it’s your turn. What do you think?

Tell me at Faith Unboxed.

Martha Woodroof freelances for NPR and writes, reports, and blogs for public radio station WMRA in Virginia.

  • Secular

    Now, it’s your turn. What do you think? Thank you. Your article is utter nonsense, that’s what I think. You wrote “Yet, as I see it, any recognition and acceptance of reality (an obligation inherent in faith) must include a recognition that God is now, and shall forever remain, unknowable. In other words, as a person living in partnership with the great Whatever, I do have to accept down to my painted toes that God is an inscrutable, ineffable, unknowable mystery”. Recognition of reality is an obligation inherent in faith? That statement is such an oxymoron, I could hardly believe someone wrote that sentence. Faith is acceptance of truth claims sans any evidence for it.On one hand you claim that god is unknowable at the same time you try to tell us what you know of god. Once you pronounced that god is unknowable, then you have nothing more to say about god. Every charlatan who claims that god is unknowable goes on to prescribe how everyone must live their lives and that is god will, go figure.

  • ThishowIseeit

    Martha W,

  • PSolus

    “Twelve step programs actually work for many people. ‘Splain that to me,…”Because magic only works for people who believe in magic?

  • Secular

    Ebbyronadams you asked me “Twelve step programs actually work for many people. ‘Splain that to me, Secularist’”.I do not have any quibbles with 12 step & 13 step or for that matter any N step program. Different strokes for different folks. My quibble is with the delusion called god. Just because the concept of god is incorporated in the 12 step program does not imply that there is any truth to the concept of god. That would mean for instance that 12 step program would not work for me at all then. But if I were to follow the 10 steps, that are devoid the concept of god, that remaining 10 step program is likely to work, what does that prove? Nothing, absolutely nothing. The burden of the proof for your delusions is on you not me. When a person says that God is unknowable, yet continue to enumerate what god is, they are logically contradicting themselves

  • areyousaying

    Here we go again with “people of faith..”Whose “faith” are you talking about?The faith of:- torture?- pre-emptive war?- capital punishment?- a time honored tradition of clergy helping themselves to the bodies of little boys?- international criminal racketeering by hiding pervert priests?- electroshock torture to “cure” gays- forming a huge, multi-state PAC to discriminate against gays while claiming tax exemption as a “religion”- protesting the funerals of fallen soldiers justified by cherry-picking Leviticus combined with psychotic religious transference?Please tell us who these “people of faith” are. I see hateful people.If you want to experience God, get a puppy or look into the eyes of a newborn or very young human before they’re trained not to be God-like anymore.

  • edbyronadams

    Secular wrote:Actual proof is powerful stuff, not so easily dismissed. In science the basic forces of the universe are currently irreconcilable. That does not subvert the abundant actual proof that scientific methodology works and that actual proof provides hope that the basic nature of the universe may be explainable by we insignificant manifestations of the same.My beef with Ms. Woodruff is exactly the opposite. She claims to be a believer but refuses to define what she believes. Any human description of the transcendent must be an approximation since it is not fully comprehensible but without choosing a practice, merely believing is empty rhetoric, devoid of regular practice or discipline and prone to self delusion.

  • Rob43

    I am a big fan of Martha. Her spirit and her spunk are marvelous and I admire much of her work here in the Shenandoah Valley. She has also helped me to get out an idea that I have had (unrelated to the current topic). With that context in mind, I this essay makes no sense. But this is not my opinion, it is a fact – a knowable, journalistically reportable fact. There is not any angle from which these thoughts are coherent. She contradicts herself unapologetically. I love spirituality, and think it is very important to our collective knowledge of God, but you can’t say anything is true and have it be true. If you make a mud puddle and say it’s God, your saying it is God does not make it God, even if you think it was the source of your healing and happiness. I am sure that Martha respects her readers and listeners, and cares for them (us) very much. In this piece, however, I do not feel respected or cared for because the mistakes are many and the thoughts are poorly communicated. There are a few things that she said that have roots in solid, theological thought and history, but she does not cite these references. Keep trying, M!

  • good-bad-n-ugly

    “WE THE PEOPLE”

  • PSolus

    “Guys please watch this video.I couldn’t make it past the first two minutes.I have a very low tolerance for superstitious nonsense.

  • haveaheart

    Have any of your folks even checked out the Faith Unboxed blog? The ideas, conceptualizations, and personal experiences discussed there really are “conversations” about how people experience faith.Unlike the bumptious, cranky, and high-handed debates that occur on this blog, the folks contributing on Martha’s blog really are trying to share themselves as well as to further their consideration of their own set of beliefs and maybe receive or provide a little enlightenment. It’s a genuine give-and-take.Before you flip her off, you might take the time to read some of the posts at faithunboxed.org.

  • BlaiseP

    I like Ms Woodruff and her blog. But she subscribes to the Spinoza concept of all-knowing but unknowable, unchangeable God, outside time, outside matter &tc. Unfortunately this God

  • phal4875

    Dear Ms. Woodroof,Your recovery from an addiction is impressive. It would seem that whatever helps you and hurts no one else is a positive development in that process. The difficulty I have is trying to pin down anything about God.Is this God the entity who speaks through a brave, self-sacrificing, intelligent, and kind Jesus, or is He the barely civilized egomaniac who torments Job, destroys his possessions, and kills his family in order to win a bet with Satan? Perhaps He is the God who barely stops Abraham from killing his own son (Isaac or Ishmael, depending on one’s religious point of view).Is this an all-powerful intelligence who walks beside us all, and yet who is perfectly content to let people kill other people in cruel and hideous ways? Is He the God who had Moses order the death of 3,000 because they created a graven image and worshiped it? Is there a Protestant or Roman Catholic church without a graven image in 2010?Did God create the universe – maybe the multiverse – and then stand back? Is there anything that has ever happened to anyone that could only have happened because there is a God?These are questions, not answers from someone who thinks he knows. I do not know, but I find it hard to base my belief system on little more than a guess.I sincerely wish you continued success in your journey. I am being greatly presumptuous, but I think your success is to your credit, not based on a possible force no one can detect.

  • BlaiseP

    phal4875 | July 6, 2010 2:08 PMI can’t answer most of your questions (well, any of them) but I do know a little about mysticism, especially Christian mysticism. And the Christian mystics ‘come back’ knowing they had met God and that he was love. Not that he He made us animals and free spirits and that meant that she also allowed evil into the world. But think–if the Creator had been evil, what would the world look like? Like the inside of a volcano maybe..But it doesn’t look like that. It is beautiful! She didn’t have to make it so very beautiful.

  • gibsonpolk

    As an atheist, I don’t have much of a problem with people who wish to define “God” in universalist terms (as in this article). Spinoza, a hero to atheists, used the word “God” all the time (equating it with Nature). But, in 2010 America, people wishing to define the word this way should either choose another word (since, for most Americans, the word “God” means something altogether more sinister and infantile) or they should take their arguments to the fundamentalists, to reclaim its meaning. Their disagreement should not be with atheists, with whom they are much closer philosophically. Their argument is with fundamentalists with whom they share this ill-defined language.

  • Athena4

    Secular, et al:There are some options for the non-traditional believer in 12 Step Programs. Namely Secular Organization for Sobriety (SOS), and atheist/agnostic AA (and associated group) meetings. However, if my last contact with 12-step programs was any judge, most of the meetings had been “steeplejacked” by Fundamentalist Christians who were going around saying that they (and others) were nothing with God. One of the main reasons that I left was that I got tired of asking people to stop assuming that I was a Christian. 12-Step recovery programs are great things, but they require a lot of spiritual and emotional heavy lifting. There are a lot of drawbacks to them – like exchanging one addiction for another, etc. But, they helped me get my head on straight about my addictive personality. I can honestly say that I am a better person for having spent time as a member of one. I learned what I needed to learn and moved on. Sometimes it works like that. Sometimes it doesn’t, and you need to “keep coming back”. My friend has 25 years of sobriety because of AA, so I’m not knocking it. Just go into it with your eyes and mind open.

  • harveyh5

    “The doctor worked with smokers and was mystified by the fact some of them could quit and others couldn’t. It made no sense to her, she said, didn’t they know smoking would kill them?”Based on genetic predisposition, individuals fall on a continuum of addiction from none or limited to strong and uncontrollable. While a smoker for many years, my father quit instantly when a doctor told him he should stop. He repeated the behavior in other years to quit drinking and, finally, to quit chewing tobacco. I know another person though who was still asking for a cigarette while on oxygen on his death bed in a hospital. The difference? My father had a genetic disposition opposed to substance addiction, the other person did not. A support group and a 12 step program may have helped the latter person, but God is no factor at all.

  • bpai_99

    Oral Roberts proclaimed that he saw a 900-foot Jesus. I saw one also, but he was 1000 feet tall. Later, I saw him on a bagel and then in a pool of motor oil. Truly I am blessed, for He is everywhere!

  • ThomasBaum

    Martha Woodroof Part IIYou also wrote, “Once we accept Mystery’s presence in our lives–once we give up any hope of understanding God in the way we understand other things–we also have to give up any hope of understanding the ways in which God works. We must accept that everything we, or anyone else, have to say about the great Whatever’s nature, ways and motives is perforce myth-based.”Maybe if someone would actually give up trying to “understanding God in the way we understand other things”, one just may open up themself up for God to reveal Himself to them and find out that some of the so-called “myths”, are not myths at all.You also wrote, “However–and here’s the rub for a lot of people who reject organized religion–just because we can’t understand God’s nature, ways and motives, doesn’t make God any less real and available for partnership.”Some of those that “reject organized religion” also reject at the same time, that buried under all of the “rules and regulations and such”, there just might be something there.Also, some of those that “embrace organized religion” do so in a way that they squeeze God right out of it.One of the things that I believe that you are trying to get across is that many people; those that believe in God, those that believe in something greater than themself but are not willing to call this something God and those that believe in nothing greater that that which is perceivable with our senses which includes the enhancement of our senses with technological innovations, want to be able to “put in a box” this God, the Great Whatever, fill in whatever term one wants.As I have previously stated, the “box” you want to put God in, is that God is “unknowable”, God does not fit into that “box” either.I am not a “know-it-all”, do not need to be a “know-it-all” but I do know that God Is.God Is Knowable and I “know” that God is a Being of Pure Love, as in Love is not an attribute of God but is God’s Very Being.The “fact” that God Is Love, is beyond my conception but nevertheless, God revealed this to me.As I have said many times: God is a searcher of hearts and minds, not of religious affiliations or lack thereof, in other words, God looks at the person, not the “label”.Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • ThomasBaum

    Martha Woodroof Part IYou wrote, “I, for one, think we should not. It seems to me that we can’t really know anything about those subjects. If God is, then God is beyond us; and claiming otherwise corrals the great Whatever within the confines of human language and intellect.”Who is doing the “corraling” here?Are you implying that God can not reveal something of Himself to us?Just because “human language” may be inadequate in speaking of God does not mean that it is totally unusable.Just because our “intellect” may not be able to “fathom God”, does not mean that God can not and does not make Himself “known” to whomever God wishes to.You then wrote, “This means that society’s great chorus of conversation about God–all our debate, all our competing forms of worship, all our loud denials of God’s existence–is humanity noisily getting above our raisin’ by attempting to demonstrate we know something about that which is un-knowable.”As I have previously stated, you are the one that is “corraling” God and saying that God is incapable to revealing Himself in whatever way that is of God’s choosing.You then wrote, “We “know” God only in the changes our partnership with the Almighty makes in ourselves and our lives, and through other people’s accounts of similar changes in themselves and their lives.”We only “know” God in whatever way God chooses to make Himself made known to us.As far as “other people’s accounts”, we can take these with a grain of salt if we wish but at best it is “believing, not knowing”.You also wrote, “Yet, as I see it, any recognition and acceptance of reality (an obligation inherent in faith) must include a recognition that God is now, and shall forever remain, unknowable.”Since I have met God, I find that this statement is absurd. There are many that believe in God but in this lifetime will not “know” that God Is, but you seem to be saying that never, even after this lifetime, will anyone know anything about God, is this really what you are saying?You then wrote, “In other words, as a person living in partnership with the great Whatever, I do have to accept down to my painted toes that God is an inscrutable, ineffable, unknowable mystery.”Seems to me that using “mysterious” words does not make what seems to be a “non-existence partnership” into a partnership, sounds more like you have a phd in round talk.You also wrote, “Furthermore, I may not allow religious language or practice to separate my recognition and acceptance that God is mystery, from my recognition and acceptance of the rest of reality. Dandelions are yellow; cement is hard; I will never be 40 again; God is mystery.”Are you afraid that you might actually learn something about God?

  • ThomasBaum

    gibsonpolk You wrote, “(since, for most Americans, the word “God” means something altogether more sinister and infantile)”.I wonder, just where did you get this “statistic” from?Are you numbered among these “most Americans”?You also wrote, “Their disagreement should not be with atheists”.Are you speaking for “all atheists”?I have noticed that there is a great deal of differing opinions coming from people that call themself “atheist”.Just as there are many different ways that people who call themself “Christian” present themself or for that matter whatever “label” one affixes to oneself or is affixed by someone else.There are both “theists” and “atheists” that groups all of the “others” together and there are both “theists” and “atheists” that try to read or hear what the other person has to say whether they agree or not is up to them but they at least listen.It can be amazing what one can hear if one listens.You also wrote, “ill-defined language.”Language can be inadequate but if and only if both sides listen can it even be attempted.Language can be used as a “tool” or a “weapon”, just as so many other things in life.Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • gibsonpolk

    Thomas Paul Moses BaumOuch. You got me. I don’t have the statistics handy but my guess is that they would back me up – that most Americans think “god” is a “man-in-the-sky”, who punishes and rewards people, who listens in on their prayers, cares who they sleep with. As an indication of what Americans do believe, though, a recent Pew poll indicated that 41% thought Jesus is likely to come back to Earth sometime in the next 40 years (while another 13% didn’t know). These are the nut-jobs that the more mysterious believers (possibly like yourself) need to distinguish themselves from.But it sounds like you do believe in “God”. It would seem like you are the one who needs to explain himself. If the word is meaningful to you, tell me what you think it means? Does your god favor people of certain “faiths” over others? How do you feel about Zeus? Does your God override the laws of physics to punish or reward people? Is your god any different from the angry, vengeful God of the old testament? – and how, possibly, can you know any of this?

  • catherine3

    Well this is profoundly unhelpful. God just has to be experienced. How? No idea. Swell. Thanks a lot.

  • jpanzal

    So many words, so little wisdom.I don’t understand lightning, so a god hurls bolts. I don’t understand why I got sober, so a god inspired me.Wherever there is ignorance, there you find god.Perhaps the great Whatever is unknowable because what does not exist is unknowable.

  • ThomasBaum

    gibsonpolk Part IIYou then wrote, “Does your god favor people of certain “faiths” over others?”As I have said, “God is a searcher of hearts and minds, not of religious affiliations or lack thereof” and “God looks at the person, not the “label”.I have also said that God Is a Trinity, I have met the Trinity and that Jesus Is God-Incarnate.Something important that I learned in second grade, “We are all equal in God’s Eyes”, not the same but equal, God did not create us as individuals so that we can attempt to turn ourselves into clones.You then wrote, “How do you feel about Zeus?”Don’t know much about Zeus but he is not God.You then asked, “Does your God override the laws of physics to punish or reward people?”I suppose God could but that is not what God is about, as a matter of fact when God-Incarnate was here, He downplayed His Miracles constantly and tried to point out their “significance” which is what they pointed to, not the “miracle” itself, and the “what they pointed to” was a Who.As a matter of fact, He asked the question back then, and it is just as pertinent today, “Who do you say that I AM?”.You then wrote, ” Is your god any different from the angry, vengeful God of the old testament?”Actually, God Is God and the God that chose and formed the Jews thru Abraham and asked Abraham to sacrifice (kill) his son, Issac, even tho this “sacrifice” was not allowed to be completed, is One and the Same.Then you wrote, “and how, possibly, can you know any of this?”Just so happens that the “God” that I met and the “God” of the bible are One and the Same, I have also met satan who is mentioned in the bible also.There is plenty that I do not “know” but then again, I am not and do not need to be a “know it all”, I am here to speak of the “big picture”, so to speak.Sometimes I wonder who is going to be the “most surprised”, some of those that believe in God or some of those that do not believe in God.I also include, in the above statement, those that “know” God’s Name but seem to “know” absolutely nothing else about God.Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • ThomasBaum

    gibsonpolk Part IYou wrote, ” a recent Pew poll indicated that 41% thought Jesus is likely to come back to Earth sometime in the next 40 years (while another 13% didn’t know).”Since 41% said that they “thought…” which is the same as “I don’t know” and 13% said that they did not know this adds up to 54% saying that they did not know.You then wrote, “Well, I actually do know. He’s not coming back.”I don’t know what the remaining 46% in the poll you referred to said but I imagine some believe He is coming back but have no idea when and some believe that He is never coming back and I suppose you group yourself in the “believe He is never coming back” except you say you know it.Seems as if what you “know”, you will never know if it actually works out that way, doesn’t it?You also wrote, “These are the nut-jobs that the more mysterious believers (possibly like yourself) need to distinguish themselves from.”I do not need to “distinguish myself from” anyone.It is up to each individual person to make up their own mind about whether to “group together” others or to actually read/listen to other people and then make up their mind.There seems to be many “open-minded” people that appear to be only open-minded to like-minded people.How could anyone possibly disagree or agree with what I or anyone else writes unless they actually read and think about it?As I have said before, God looks at the person not the “label”, maybe we, whether we believe in God or not, should look/listen/read what the person has to say and not let the “label”, whether self-imposed or imposed by others, get in the way.You then wrote, “If the word is meaningful to you, tell me what you think it means?”I guess you mean the word “God”.To me, God means Someone, not necessarily what the proper definition of “Someone” would mean, created absolutely everything, physical and non-physical which includes time, except for Himself.I would also say that language can be an impediment in speaking of God but that should not deter one from attempting to try.I also would say that God can and does reveal Himself to some in a very personal way and in a way that the person “knows” that It Is God Who is revealing Himself to that person.I would also say that God is “outside of” time and space, God’s Creation, but that God, of His Own choosing and for reasons of His Own, became One of us in a very specific time and space.I would also say that God Is a Being of Pure Love, which happens to be beyond my comprehension, but nevertheless has been revealed to me in a way that God chose and that I would recognize.

  • mindthegap

    I agree with this blog post, and I feel the same way about questions of a hereafter (or of previous lives) as its author does about God. Iris DeMent said it in the song, “Let the Mystery Be.”Recently I came across a theory that with the Enlightenment (despite its obvious benefits), humanity’s concept of the Earth changed from that of a living being, a mystery, a “mother,” to that of an object that exists to be exploited for our material benefit. This season’s news from the Gulf has been only one of the most dramatic examples of that approach’s downside.In addition to the God stuff, religions do have ethics. I believe the ones shared by all of the best-known religions CAN point us to truth in pragmatic ways. Ex., the Golden Rule – “Love thy neighbor as thyself” – appears in various wording in the scriptures of most of them (see

  • mindthegap

    I agree with this post, and I feel the same way about questions of a hereafter (or of previous lives) as the blogger does about God. Iris DeMent said it in the song, “Let the Mystery Be.”Recently I came across a theory that with the Enlightenment (despite its obvious benefits), humanity’s concept of the Earth changed from that of a living being, a mystery, a “mother,” to that of an object that exists to be exploited for our material benefit. This season’s news from the Gulf has been only one of the most dramatic examples of the downside to that approach, which claims to live above mystery.Yet in addition to the God stuff, religions have ethics. I believe those that receive a consensus, shared by all of the best-known religions, CAN point us to truth. Ex., the Golden Rule – “Love thy neighbor as thyself” – appears in various wording in the scriptures of most of them (see

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