Last year I watched the moon pass in front of the sun, and the moment when the sky went dark, I became speechless.
Like many people who came to watch the solar eclipse, I thought I knew what was going to happen. Pretty simple, right? The moon passes in front of the sun, and the sky gets dark. But it was so much more.
It was profound, it was moving, it was emotional, it was beyond words. In fact, afterwards no one really said much, because they couldn’t find any words to match what they felt.
Words couldn’t do the eclipse justice, and that’s what I want to talk about — how words fail to describe the human experience — because that fact is at the heart of so many interpersonal struggles, and we don’t even realize it.
Words consistently fail when describing profound experiences, and yet if we disagree about which description of an experience is more accurate — words never get the blame.
Words are a sign post that say “you know that thing you experienced? that’s what I’m talking about”. But that’s also the problem. If I say to someone “I know God” the word “God” means ten different things to ten different people.
So let’s start with examining a question — because this question has been unnecessarily debated for as long as language has existed.
Do you believe in God?
This question is unanswerable without further information.
That’s because there’s no definition for the word “God” that we agree on, and even if we could agree on a definition, the words being used would only scratch the surface of the experience itself, just as no words could ever re-create the awe and beauty of a solar eclipse.
How could we expect to accurately define such a concept as being with “God”? If I relate to God as mother nature and you relate to him as a heavenly father figure we could go to war over that — but what are we actually fighting about?
Do we disagree or are we just using different words to describe the same thing?
Before Language, We All Agreed
I’ve never met a human who doesn’t have a relationship or an experience of something we could loosely define as “God”, whether that’s seeing God through the eyes of someone you love, experiencing it in nature, witnessing yourself as more than “self”, or the millions of other possibilities.
For the sake of this conversation I’ll loosely define what it means to be with “God”, which is of course problematic but also necessary, so I’ll try to make the definition as all-encompassing as possible. I’m also going to choose the phrase “being with God” versus defining “God” because it’s easier to agree on.
My definition of “being with God” is —
Experiencing something bigger, or greater than who you perceive yourself to be.
Again, you may have a different definition, but this will serve as a necessary frame of reference for what I’m trying to say.
Let’s also assume that every human who has developed a sense of “self”1 has experienced something bigger, or greater than who they perceive themselves to be.
If that’s true, then we all share one common, indescribable experience. In the diagram below, I’m going to call that “the experience”. This experience is literally impossible to represent with words, but of course language is one of our common methods of communication so we try, and we come out with many different versions.
All these versions are different, so it’s easy for version A to disagree with version B — yet the mistake we make is thinking the disagreement is about the experience, when the disagreement is actually about the description of the experience.
I believe experience in it’s purest form, is always universal.
Everyone Believes in “God”
Everyone has a version of what it feels like to experience something bigger, or greater than who we perceive ourselves to be. We may call it something else other than “God”, and that’s fine. “God” is just a word, so is “mother nature”, or “the universe”. Words are there to represent the experience, but they are not the experience itself, just as a map represents the territory, but is not the territory itself.
If we all define words like “God” our own way, than we could say that in a sense, everyone believes in “God”, it just depends on what they mean by “God”.
Even the people who choose to take a stance against believing in God are only taking a stance against someone else’s definition, they aren’t arguing against the existence of an experience.
How We Could Coexist
Disagreement over religious belief is arguably the single most divisive thing in culture today. The way beyond our struggle isn’t in determining who is right, or getting someone into seeing your point of view, it’s seeing that underneath all our dogma, all our convictions and all our words, we are actually all talking about the same thing.
On the deepest level, the level where life is pure experience — we all agree, and it’s the limitations of language that have us believing the lie that we don’t.
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