The following article is excerpted from Richard Smoley’s book How God Became God: What Scholars Are Really Saying about God and the Bible, published in June 2016 by Tarcher Perigee.
Let me begin with a quote from Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town.
“Everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”
Here, in this stale old play, rarely performed outside of high-school auditoriums, is the central truth of our existence, stated plainly and nakedly. There is no need to elaborate on it.
When I think about—or, rather, try to sense—this “something eternal,” one image that comes to me is that of a water table. Somewhere under me is a table of water that sits beneath the ground. Most places on earth, as far as I know, have this water below.
I would say that this something eternal is like a water table underlying everything that we call reality. It is a living, vibrant, moving presence, and it is there whether we know it or not. The world of the five senses—everything from your coffee cup to the submolecular particles and remote galaxies proffered to us by science—is simply a crust that floats on this eternal presence. And it is this eternal presence that gives life to this crust that we call reality, and this reality would not exist without it.
What name shall we give this underlying presence? Some people, possibly thinking of an image like the one above, have called it the Ground of Being. Another common term is Spirit.
I could take my water table metaphor a little further. There are areas where it does not rain or hardly rains at all. If people live there, they have to rely on the water table for their water supply.
Let’s say that our physical reality is like a region of this kind. It has no life, no energy of its own. All the life it has is drawn from this Ground of Being, this Spirit.
What, you may ask, about the forms of energy described by science? They are not what we are talking about here. Those energies are the operations and reactions of things on the crust—no matter how small and subtle, or how large, they may be.
To live, in any true sense, is to have a connection with this Spirit. The Spirit must “water” the surface crust of physical reality. We can imagine this process as involving wells, or springs, that connect the two levels of being.
Given this much, we can say that there are points in this crust of reality where the water of the Spirit breaks through, or where the crust is thinner and it is easier to dig down and draw up this water.
These “wells,” shall we say, are moments of encounter with the sacred. They are described in many places. If you want to turn to books, you can read The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, or Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill, or The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley. These are all classic studies with many firsthand descriptions of such encounters. But it would probably be better if you looked back on your own experience to see if you find anything that resembles what I’m talking about.
Sometimes the word revelation is used to describe these encounters. If you have such an experience, all the doubts will go out of your head. You will not be bothered about creationism versus evolution or why God isn’t always a nice guy. You will believe. Or rather, you will not believe. You will know.
Encounters with the sacred have many features in common, but they also vary wildly. I have known people who have had these experiences while walking down the street on an ordinary day. One of the most famous of these revelations came to a shoemaker who happened once to glance at a glint of light coming off a pewter dish. Entranced, he stared at it for some time. It seemed to him, he said later, that he could see into the heart of things. Jacob Boehme wrote down his insights in books that still echo today. He is considered one of the great mystics of the West.
To take the groundwater analogy a step further, let’s say that there are places where it seems to arise more often. People are attracted to these places. They come repeatedly, and the place starts to become famous. More people come. Hotels and other accommodations are built for them. Someone notices that this water seems to surface more often at one time of the year than others, so the place attracts even more people then. These become regular occurrences, and, like everything else in human activity, they become somewhat formalized.
This groundwater does not belong to anybody. It cannot be owned. It comes and goes as it will, sometimes in a more or less predictable pattern, often unexpectedly. But the land around the spots where the water comes up can be owned; it is real estate just like anything else. The property is bought up, by the devout and by the shrewd, and they start to limit people’s access to the water. These owners set themselves on high. They say the water rises because of certain things that they themselves do. They will let others take part—if these others will do exactly what they say and pay them a price for the privilege.
This is a capsule summary of the history of religion.