What is God? by Jacob Needleman: Q&A


1. What new perspective can you bring to the tired debates between atheists and believers about the existence
of God? Is there another way to approach
this argument?

In the present debates both sides tend to treat God as a purely external entity
accessible only by faith—faith defined as belief unsupported by evidence or
logic. My book presents the idea of God as representing a conscious force
within the human psyche which is accessible through careful inner
self-examination. The process of inner self-examination brings about a
knowledge that is as rigorous and supported by evidence as anything science has
to offer. At the same time, this point of view redefines faith as a knowledge
that is attained not only by intellectual means, but also through the rigorous
development of the emotional side of the human psyche. Such emotional knowledge
is unknown to the isolated intellect and has therefore been mistakenly labeled
as “irrational.”

This “new” idea of God proposes that all the characteristics traditionally
attributed to the purely external God are, in an important sense, attributes of
this inner force of consciousness. When this inner energy of higher
consciousness is experienced, it then becomes clear that such an energy
permeates the entire universe. In this way, it is through self-knowledge that
the existence of an external God is verified and understood.


2. You were once an atheist. Can you pinpoint a
particular time or event that caused you to reevaluate your beliefs?

When I started my career as a professor of philosophy I was required to teach a course in the history of
Western religious thought—much against my existentialist and atheistic
inclinations. In order to teach this course, I had to do a great deal of
research in the writings within the Judaic and Christian traditions and I was
astonished to find in those writings philosophical thought of great power and
sophistication. These writings completely blew away all my opinions about what
I had taken to be the irrationality or immaturity of religious ideas, opinions
which were and still are fashionable in many intellectual and literary circles

But even so, somewhere in myself, I was still unconvinced—down deep I was still an atheist when it came to my personal, intimate
feelings. It was only when I embarked on a personal work of guided
self-examination that I experienced a glimpse of a reality that could be called
“God.” As my personal explorations continued, I experienced this quality of
inner reality more and more and could no longer doubt that the meaning of God
lay in this direction. At the same time, these undeniable experiences lit up
and were in turn illuminated by all the philosophical and historical knowledge
I had by then amassed and I began to understand in an entirely new way the
teachings of both Judaism and Christianity as well as the teachings of
Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. I was again astonished that nothing of this
understanding seemed to be in all that I had heard about religion and God when
I was growing up and when I was being educated in some of the best universities


3. What spiritual or philosophical ideas did you encounter that made you reconsider the teachings of Judeo-Christian and Eastern

There were very many such ideas, far too numerous to mention. Here are just a few:

–The idea that God needs man (Judaism) as a uniquely free being who is yet at the
same time under supreme obligation.

–The idea that scripture is deeply allegorical and symbolic, with many levels of
highly sophisticated philosophical and psychological meanings. Many of my
atheistic leanings were due to my literal interpretation of scripture, which,
in numerous places paints a horrific picture of a presumed just and loving God.

–The idea that Jesus Christ was a highly developed human being who was a great
teacher and that the idea that he was also God needs to be taken in a much more
nuanced way than was commonly presented.
In Judiasm, for example, a highly spiritual human being was often referred to
as “son of God,” without thereby implying he was God Himself in the form of a
human being.

–The idea that there exists such a thing as genuine mystical experience (as opposed
to many self-deceiving claims throughout history) and that these experiences
really validate through direct evidence the fundamental teachings of religion.

–The idea that all authentic religions, Western and Eastern and throughout the whole
world and human history, converge in genuine mystical experience (which may
also be called higher states of consciousness). The differences between
religions are only differences involving the pathways that lead toward the
practice of directly experiencing higher levels of perception and
understanding. All religions are paths to a metaphorical mountain-top variously named Wisdom, enlightenment,
self-realization, the kingdom of heaven, righteousness, etc. Differences that
lead to violence and persecution are based on a corrupted relationship to the
teachings and practices of religion.


4. You believe that atheists and believers alike have been visited by an inner experience that points to the existence of God. Can you describe or explain this experience,
and why it is that so many don’t recognize it as significant?

Almost all of us have had experiences during our life when we sense with great clarity and power a tremendously heightened state of
presence, of being there, an
immediate and unforgettable sensation of I
Perhaps it is a moment of
great danger or even impending death, or a moment in a strange place or foreign
country, or a moment of indescribable joy or a moment with no apparent cause at
all when suddenly we are stopped within ourself and feel our sense of identity
more intensely, calmly and purely than anything our everyday life has to offer.
Such moments occur more frequently, perhaps, in childhood. These are the only
times in one’s life that we actually remember; all the rest of our life being
much more cloudy and merely inferred. But the great moments of pure presence
are vividly etched in our memory as though they happened yesterday.

Our culture does not know how to interpret these moments, these experiences. Maybe they are called “peak experiences” or “mystic moments”
or “breakthroughs”—we lack any precise words for them. In fact, they are, so to
say, “messages” from our genuine Self as though saying to us: “I am You. Let me
into your life.”

The work of cultivating such experiences until they become more accessible is part of the essential nature of genuine spiritual
discipline. These are moments, at the very least, of approaching the
experiential verification that there does exist something Higher within and
perhaps also outside of ourselves. Moments at the very least of approaching
what the religions call God.

5. How does our present confusion about the concept of God reflect a widespread psychological or spiritual starvation? How would you
guide someone who is confused about the concept of God?

Every human being is born with an intrinsic yearning to understand, to contact and, eventually, to serve something higher in ourselves
and in the universe. Plato calls this
yearning eros. It defines us as human
beings—even more than our biological nature, our social conditioning or our
ordinary reasoning capacity. Our modern world-view tragically misperceives and
wrongly defines what it is to be human. We are conditioned by our society to
believe happiness comes from pleasure, or from getting things or power over
people or money or fame or even health and survival. None of these sometimes
very good things can bring ultimate meaning to our lives. We are born to be
deeply conscious, inwardly free and deeply capable of love. The longing for
these things is the definition of what it means to be human. At the present
moment in our culture this yearning for meaning and consciousness, this
yearning to give and serve something higher than ourselves, is breaking through
the hard crust of our widespread cultural materialism and pseudo-scientific
underestimation of what a human being is
meant to be together with an equally tragic overestimation of what we human
beings are capable of in our present everyday state of being. The intensity of
the present confusion about the nature and existence of God is a symptom of
this yearning within the whole of our modern culture.

As to how I would guide someone who is confused about the idea of God, I would suggest that he or she begins identifying what one might
called “philosophical friends,”—people with whom one could seriously examine
our thought about God through listening to each other, reading important and
useful books together and trying to think for oneself while familiarizing
oneself with the ideas of some of the world’s great thinkers. Cultivate
openness without gullibility and skepticism without cynicism.

And, as soon as possible, be on the lookout for someone whose whole manner of speaking and being makes, as it were, a “sound” that
draws your mind and heart. And then, little by little, try to see if that
person can be of real help on the way to genuine self-knowledge and insight
about what God is and is not. In this realm, more than any other even, the
paradoxical marriage of both openness and scepticism is essential.

6. Many believe that God is a personal God, existing outside of themselves, with whom they can have an intimate relationship. Do you believe that this type of relationship
with God is possible? Can God be accessed or experienced outside of one’s own
inner self-examination?

Here there is not one question but two distinct questions, each of which alone, and both taken together, are crucial to the work of
deepening our understanding of the idea of God. These two questions or aspects
are these:

*Is God a personal God with whom an individual can have an intimate relationship—as opposed
to God conceived of as an impersonal, absolute principle or force?

*Can God be accessed or experienced outside of one’s own inner self-examination or “work
on oneself.”

Spiritual experience will show that the sharp philosophical and theological distinction
between personal and impersonal God is a purely theoretical or even a merely verbal
dichotomy not supported by actual experience. It is a fundamentally false
dichotomy often introduced to distinguish
the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God from the God of Asian traditions such as
various forms of Hinduism which often speak of Brahman only as a supreme
energy, rather than as a “person”—or Buddhism in many of its expressions which
seem to deny not only the idea of personhood in God, but also the very existence
of God and, for that matter, the very existence, or reality, of a personal
human self. The higher energy of consciousness in an individual human being
exhibits an incomparably intense quality of what one might call “I-ness”. It is
a profoundly personal force; it is I
as I is never known in our ordinary everyday sense of identity. That is why
this energy is called the Self, with a capital S in Hinduism. Similarly, but in
inverse form, in Western religion—especially in its “esoteric” or contemplative
forms, the experience of a personal God—Jahweh appearing to Moses, Christ
appearing to St. Paul, Allah speaking to the Prophet —is a force inhabiting a
material reality whether as a great voice or human messiah. This is clearly the
case in individual experience—the personal contact with the true person within,
the “golden person” of Hinduism, is more truly oneself than one’s socially
constructed self or ego.

Space does not permit even a few of the countless examples of the impersonal God
being worshiped as a personal figure in the East or the personal God being
worshipped as an impersonal energy as in the teachings of Jewish and Christian
mystics. The main point to emphasize is that the highest or most real always
has the character of I-ness whether it is understood as a cosmic reality
defining the fundamental nature of the universe or as the true individuality
within the contingent and fundamentally empty reality of the ego as understood
in Buddhism. Buddhism concentrates on deconstructing the ego in order to allow
the true infinitely personal energy of pure consciousness to shine through and
inhabit human life.

There are a thousand aspects to this question which would take us into all the subtle and delicate human experiences and essential powerful
ideas related to the idea of God that have been completely lost to view in the
cacophony of simplistic argument and fanaticism that can characterize both
sides of the atheism/fundamentalism debate.

But one thing more must be said about the second question—namely, Can God be accessed or experienced outside of one’s own inner
self-examination? The first thing that
must be said, and it is paradoxically both obvious and elusive, is that great
faith in a “purely” external God can
only take place within a transformed human psyche. To have such faith (and
space does not permit elaborating on the deeper meaning of this sometimes
tarnished word—such faith can only be attained through a transformed
relationship to one’s own inner mind and emotional life. Therefore authentic
faith in an external God is already evidence of inner work on oneself whether
or not it is named as such. It is
therefore erroneous and dishonorable to oppose the work of interior
self-examination as somehow superior to profound faith in the universal,
“external” God of love, justice and mercy in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Of course, if one is comparing the deep self-examination of, say. the Hasidic
Jew, the Christian monk in the deserts of North Africa or the Sufi in his
spiritual brotherhood with naïve, sentimental or fanatical impulses that are
given the name of faith, then of course, that is a wholly different

Without lengthening this response beyond what is necessary, we should of course say something essential about the idea of an
external God, a God of the universe, a
God of the All and the Everything. Spiritual experience will show that the
inner God of higher consciousness is not simply a product or aspect of the
individual person. It is experienced as more intimately “myself” than my
ordinary sense of self while at the same time it is seen, with total certainty,
as not “my own,” but as a quality of reality itself beyond oneself and beyond
man or any other separate entity in the conceivable universe. This touches on
an extremely crucial point that we can only mention in passing: namely, that
there are many, many ways leading to the mountain, but the work of climbing the
mountain is very, very similar in each pathway. Religions that are strikingly
different along the way to the mountain are even more strikingly similar in the
ascent of the mountain. (See my essay, “Why Philosophy is Easy” on my website).

7. If you were to enter into one of these debates about God – with a believer (Michael Novak?) and an atheist (Christopher Hitchens?) –
what would your primary arguments or discussion points be? How does an intense self-reflection lead to a
knowledge or belief in something that exists beyond the self or the material?
How is God/self-knowledge different from projection of desire? And is the
knowledge of God completely reliant on the discipline to delve into intense
self-reflection and study? Do you
believe in the concept of ‘grace’ or ‘revelation’– without this kind of
discipline of self-reflection?

Most aspects of this question are discussed in the response to the previous question. But concerning the matter of grace or
revelation: here we are dealing with the fundamental question of the
relationship between grace and effort, a question that lies at the heart of
every religion and spiritual tradition at many levels of religious and
spiritual practice. Just as in Zen Buddhism it may take a monk forty years of
inner, slowly developing struggle in order to have the instant gift of the
experience of awakening or satori; and just as in Judaic and Christian
spiritual work, it may often require much discipline to become receptive to the
unearned gift of grace; and just as in authentic esoteric spiritual practice in
religious or “gnostic” traditions, it may require great effort to reach the
stage of profound “non-effort,” so always and everywhere the balance of effort
and grace is continually being played out. In the known history of religions,
we see the constant back and forth of this dialectical relationship, When a
tradition becomes too “muscular,” too much oriented on “works” or “doing,”
there often appears a revolution in the direction of grace and submission—and
vice versa. This is true in the history of one religion or sect as it is in the
birth of “new” religions that are brought forth within an older religion in
which one or the other of these two aspects have become over-emphasized. But,
most fundamentally, this interplay is a crucial element within the individual
psyche of all spiritual practitioners following a genuine spiritual path.

This is a small representation of the high-quality writings you’ll find in every issue of TIFERET.

We receive no outside funding and rely on digital issues, workshop fees, and donations to publish. If you enjoy our journal’s verbal and visual offerings, we hope you’ll consider supporting us in one of these ways.

Click Here to Purchase Digital Issues