Welcome guest contributor, Arienne Johnson McShane!
Arienne is a recent graduate of Harvard Divinity School where she studied Islamic Feminism. Her worldview was shaped primarily by San Franciscan suburbs, Ohioan cornfields, and West African dust storms. She is currently living in Washington DC where she hopes to convince politicians to use interfaith interactions to leverage world peace.
God the Heresy
It’s difficult to throw out the word “God” in the first sentence of a soliloquy posted on a religion blog without immediately being categorized as an Evangelical Minister. But Gahd!—this is an unfortunate predicament, and since I’ve been asked to write about “my experience with God”—bear with me while I try to explain why I happen to think so.
You’ll already be wondering who I am, and if not a self-ascribed evangelical minister, what makes me entitled to address the God topic in the first place. You will roll your eyes at this next bit, as I sheepishly admit that my upbringing was Protestant Christian, that I recently finished a Master’s of Divinity degree from Harvard University, that I’ve won awards for “preaching” (of all the things!)—and that I am, for all intents and purposes, a member of the white, privileged, Western society in all of its self-absorbed notions of “divinely-ordained” Power-Glory.
But as you brace yourself for precisely which Brand Of Manipulation I’m about to yoke around that neck of yours, you should also know these particularities: My MDiv was in Islam. I embrace the term “heretic” as an underhanded compliment rather than an insult—after all, the etymology of heresy stems from the Greek “haeresis”, meaning “a taking or choosing; a choice”— which is in essence what I believe religion of all stripes should be: Chosen. In this vein, I was raised and continue to embrace life as a “movie-going” Mennonite (meaning that, like the majority of Mennonites in North America, you wouldn’t notice anything particularly “plain” about my lifestyle or the way I choose to dress myself). And though you may shrug this next part off: I am both young and female—making the fact that I’ve been allowed at both pulpits and Harvard a relatively recent possibility in the scope of patriarchal societies and a privilege that I am acutely aware of on a daily basis.
This is all beside the point, leading to another important non-point that despite all of the divinity schooling and sermons—despite the Youth-Grouping and church services of my childhood—despite my undergrad religion major and Master’s classes dedicated entirely to analyzing sacred texts—or the recognition that the label “religion” is now branded on the very cusp of my identity-shirt-sleeve—it so happens that despite all this, in my 26 years of existence I have rarely—only VERY rarely talked about “God” directly, as an explicit kind of thing.
Here, it is important to note that God and Religion are separate topics. “Religion” is the framework created by humans to create and interpret meaning in our world. Religion dictates morals and motives; it establishes traditions, rituals, narratives, and rules that guide group notions of shame or respect. But religion is a social construction and the fact that it is flawed is because we humans are ourselves flawed.
Don’t get me wrong—I happen to believe that religion is capable of offering the best that exists within the scope of humanity—but I also believe it can offer the worst that exists. And that’s why religion is the kind of taboo that hipsters love to hate on. Or why so many young adults leave their hometowns for college and simultaneously shrug off the constricting denominations they were brought up in. Often we look at religion and what glares back most loudly are the flaws and the failings that are reflections of our communities and ourselves more than the sacred aspects that religious frameworks intend to uphold.
This all makes it pretty rad to be able to deconstruct religious controversies at white vegan dinner parties between the topics of “modern architecture” and “personal levels of gentrification-based guilt.” We don’t need to look far back in history to witness the horrors committed under faith-sans-questions religious rulebooks. Look at the Westboro Baptist Church. Look at the Jonestown Massacre. Don’t get me started on Millenarian movements. That’s not what this is supposed to be about.
This is supposed to be about God with a capital Gee—at least how “I’ve experienced” Her.
—See what I did there? Pronouns. The first thing to crack in this discussion is the image of God as He-man: or as that bizarrely buff white Santa Clause sitting with a trident on Neptune’s throne (but in the sky).
Whether we like it or not, we humans have strong visceral reactions to images, and whether we like it or not, it is more difficult than we’d readily admit to detach proscribed images based off childhood picture books with abstract notions like “God.” Since this is a subjective account about my own experiences, I don’t mind if I offend you when I trash the “loving-but-reprimanding Higher-Than-Thou Father-in-the-Clouds” analogy that so many of you, like me, are bombarded with constantly by well-meaning monotheists out there. It is to overturn this image (more than merely to overturn notions of gender) that I vigilantly utilize female pronouns whenever I’m referring to God. For all of you who are crafting defenses in your mind right now like “JUST BECAUSE I USE MALE GOD-PRONOUNS DOESN’T MEAN I REALLY THINK *SHE’S ACTUALLLLLLLY A SKY-NEPTUNE COLONIZER NAMED G-I-JOE/GOD”—I would say to you: great! Because I’m genuinely glad if you’ve given the topic enough thought as that. But I also will say that I found the exercise harder than I expected to mentally produce the face of a wrinkled African Baker whenever God was referenced in my midst rather than that pesky throne trope.
Mind you, after spending some real time in West Africa it became a lot easier to conjure up the wise wrinkles imprinted from my Senegalese host-grandma’s smile during times of meditation and prayer, but doing so consistently still takes a great deal of intentionality and practice. So I’ll challenge you to the same task: find new associations for the term “God”—begin with an image—one that is radically different than a male monarchical European figure—(even if that male monarchical European figure is tacked to a cross). Train yourself to pull up this new image in your mind with the God-term whenever you hear it. Assess whether this drastically alters your ability to connect with religious messages you hear, and why that might be—is it the image you chose that is wrong, or does it have something to do with the message? Are you still simply skeptical of this whole topic?
Stay with me for another second. That Senegalese host grandma of mine—a beautiful Muslim woman who spoke neither English nor French—was not the only human being in whose eyes and general presence I’ve experienced God. Once I found God while wandering Chicago side streets in May for a school project. It was around 3:00 in the morning when I asked a man sitting on the curb for directions to the nearest homeless shelter. As I shivered (it was a strikingly cold night), he directed me with a gentle voice to take two lefts and walk about four blocks. Before parting he squeezed my hand, looked deep into my eyes and said the words, “happy mother’s day” with the most compassion I have ever personally been on the receiving end of.
As soon as I turned the first corner I split into fragments and tears—dissolved by the realizations that: first, it was in fact Mother’s Day and I was a terrible daughter for (once again) forgetting it. Second, I had allowed him, a homeless man, to believe I was myself homeless—all for the sake of fabricating a “genuine” interaction for a school project. This was horribleness at a pretty low bar, and I’m the first to admit it. Third, if I were actually homeless, the prospect that I was pregnant or had already given birth was an extremely high probability that I frankly could not fathom in my then-21-year-old state. Lastly, the most undeniable of all: I had just met God incarnate for that man had a glow about him that was transcendent. As guilty as I felt for the context through which our conversation transpired, the immorality of it (from my end) was nothing in comparison to the gift he’d given me somehow, inexplicably, in a mere moment of outpouring absolute compassion and grace. Oh People—know this—sometimes we are indeed divine vessels!
It is difficult for those of us who rarely undergo those harsh realities that construct the spine of humility (like homelessness, poverty, disabilities, racism, warfare, whathaveyou) to truly understand what it means to receive genuine and un-trumpeted compassion. Perhaps that is precisely why so many atheists and agnostics exist in middle and upper class societies, whereas the God-topic is last on the topical taboo sheet among communities that deal with constant struggle—even if those conversations do often veer toward the God-imagery involving Stern Fathers and Punishing Tridents.
Part of what it takes to notice God’s existence is the simple reality that we humans are so, so finite—so very flawed and limited in our lives. And yet our very existence is a miraculous feat. This world is unfathomable in its level of complexity—and we are individually strung along by an infinite number of daily miracles. Take the miracle of breath or of white blood cells or galaxies or of ideas that have enabled us to use materials in this world to advance our natural abilities! While many are of the opinion that the miracles in this world are purely human invention, and too often enacted toward worldly destruction rather than gain—I experience God so often through beautiful moments of human achievement and generosity.
When peers tell me flatly that they’ve never experienced moments of awe at the vastness that exists beyond our individual selves—that they don’t particularly see how anything is outside the scope of human control and our supercilious vanities—I am heartbroken for them as I am heartbroken for the kid whose sense of self is so narrowed by screen-gazing that she never takes time to contemplate the movement of the sky above or all the ways she might try (and fail) to paint it.
I can’t really talk. As a kid my family made cross-country road trips constantly and I remember my dad’s frustration as we’d bypass mountains and trees while my sisters and I had our eyes glued to our books and barbies inside the van. “Look at the view, girls!” dad would say, desperately trying to snap us out of our plastic trances. We’d glance up, “uh-huh. It’s pretty dad”, then snap heads down again.
I still live most of my life that way—head glued to a tunnel of task-lists toward things that are mostly insignificant, if I’m being honest. But if I’m being honest there is another layer of God that exists for me in my personal experience and it may or may not also exist for you. It is this part more than anything else has perplexed me when trying to make sense of the way God interacts with creation.
Back to those images—my favorite image of God will forever be a dove, and that’s because when I was ten years old I was the kind of flower girl who fainted flat in the middle of the wedding. I made enough of a spectacle in my one flower girl fiasco that for years afterward I was introduced at family gatherings with: “you remember Arienne, she’s that girl who fainted at that wedding!” But more remarkable than interrupting a wedding was that I had a vision while unconscious. The vision, as you’ve already guessed, was of a dove. Amidst the darkest darkness I’ve ever perceived, the dove began as a tiny pinprick of light in the distance. It flew toward me in a straight line, and I realized it was carrying an olive branch. Just before the dove collided into my face I snapped back into a fuzzy greyed world of regaining consciousness in a room full of frazzled wedding guests.
This vision is not something I’ve shared with many people in my life, but I am sharing it now because there is no particular reason not to share it. I still do not understand the nature or reasoning behind visions—(divine or otherwise), but I am acutely aware that the experience marked me more deeply than anything else has ever done. Moreover, the vision follows me still—taking the form of a visceral sensation that I directly associate with God’s presence. The sensation creeps up on me suddenly—sometimes when walking, sometimes when having a conversation with another person, sometimes (but not always) when I intentionally seek it out by closing my eyes to meditate/pray. This feeling of God is frustratingly indescribable, of course, which adds to the reason I don’t talk about it much—but it strikes me kind of like arm tingles (except not at all like arm tingles), and the tingles flush through my body sometimes in a wave so forceful that I must stop everything I am doing until they finish their sweeping process. Each time it happens I try to concentrate and maintain the feeling for as long as possible because it is basically the best feeling that I know—but sometimes the moment is awkward—sometimes it happens when I’m in the middle of a sentence or something—and in attempts to dilute it I will gulp the sensation down and blink my eyes repeatedly and shrug out, spastic, until it fades. In other moments the God-presence is a subtle thing that bubbles up gracefully and simmers unencumbered in the background of my consciousness. While these occurrences are not something that I have been able to control, I’ve found that when I take time out of my weeks trying to summon the sensation it comes more regularly. It has, some weeks, become as close to me as the backs of my eyelids. In those periods I am struck by awe—how rejuvenating God’s presence actually is!—How incredibly accessible!—And still how rarely I intentionally go back to it!
Admittedly, most weeks I am no better than I was as a little girl on road trips: too consumed by my laptop’s screen and life’s task list to proactively seek the “experience of God” that is there and waiting if I’d just take time to summon it. And when those weeks of hiatus turn into months without the sensation I begin to forget that God’s presence ever happens directly at all. But when I least expect it it’ll strike me again—a wave of rolling “God” that burrows through my chest and lingers effervescent. And in those times, like right now as a bus carries me through Pennsylvanian fields and I again glance sporadically up while cradling a screen in my lap, the intensity of the sensation comes in and out of focus, and I am able to simply bask in it without any inkling of how long it might last—or when (or whether) it will decide to come again.
Underlying these moments is an overwhelming realization that God exists. That God is moving. God is comforting us in ways we cannot humanly comfort. And perhaps more importantly, God—this incredible force of something that I have come to see and feel and know as a reality that extends and unites us all whether we feel it in the same way or not—this God is something that religions do not have enough vocabulary with which to box—not enough sacred texts with which to define—not enough to contain, not the world over.