Break down the walls in theology, and you just may find God in new and surprising ways!
Two Philosophers Wrestle With God and discuss the diversity of religious specialties, values, and the Theology Without Walls' mission. Theology Without Walls goes beyond tradition, exploring the insight and enlightenment found across multiple traditions, religions, practices, cultures, and times.
Join Scott Langdon as he connects Dr. Jerry L. Martin and Dr. Richard Oxenberg for a profound spiritual conversation of philosophy, sciences, and religion, daring to consider God's perspective in the series Two Philosophers Wrestle With God, Part Two of The Takeaway.
Dr. Martin is a philosopher, founding chairman of Theology Without Walls, and author of the true story God: An Autobiography, As Told To A Philosopher.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg is a professor and has many publications on ethics and philosophy of religion, including his book: On The Meaning Of Human Being: Heidegger And The Bible In Dialogue.
Read God: An Autobiography, As Told To A Philosopher.
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Related Episodes: [Dramatic Adaptation] 27. I Learn Human Effort Completes Creation | 10. I Learn How God Reveals Himself To Humans [Two Philosophers Wrestle With God] The Takeaway [Part 1] | The Essential Project Of The Divine: [Part 1]; [Part 2]
Related Content: [Video] Theology Without Walls Mission | Spiritual Discernment; What is Theology Without Walls?
Scott Langdon [00:00:17] This is God: An Autobiography, The Podcast. A dramatic adaptation and continuing discussion of the book God: An Autobiography, As Told To A Philosopher by Jerry L. Martin. He was a lifelong agnostic, but one day he had an occasion to pray. To his vast surprise, God answered- in words. Being a philosopher, he had a lot of questions, and God had a lot to tell him. Episode 105.
Scott Langdon Hello and welcome to Episode 105 of God: An Autobiography, The Podcast. I'm Scott Langdon, your host. This week we bring you part two of the 11th dialogue between doctors Jerry Martin and Richard Oxenberg. In this dialogue, Richard and Jerry turn their thoughts and attention to some of the things we all might be able to take away from this modern revelation for this modern time. Far from being the start of a new religion, God: An Autobiography is instead, as one friend of Jerry's put it, a revelation about revelations. And there is much we are called to do when we examine the work in that context. Here now is part two of dialogue number 11 we're calling The Takeaway. I hope you enjoy the episode. We begin with Richard speaking first.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:02:00] And so, once again, we have this notion of a God that is evolving along with us, suffering with us, but also evolving along with us. And it both helps us deal with, in a sense, you know, one of the things that the book's view of God helps with is, we call it the problem of evil. But maybe even more broadly, we could speak of the problem of imperfection. The Problem that the universe is not a perfect whole, and it requires constant effort and work on our part.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:02:36] Yes.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:02:37] Right? And if we say to ourselves, well, if there were meaning in the universe, it would be a perfect whole, and since it's not a perfect hole, therefore, the universe is meaningless. We find ourselves between these two dichotomies. Right? Either the universe is this, you know, perfect crystalline thing, or there's no meaning to life. Right? But the book is saying the very imperfect nature of the meaning, the very imperfect nature of the universe is what lends it its meaning.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:03:06] Yes. Yes. I often think of one of the-- there's an awful lot of religious motivation that's yearning for perfection.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg Yeah.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin And if you want perfection, then you've got to work very hard to find it in our world or projected on to the divine being. But if you're looking for meaning, which often seems to me the more fundamental problem, it's does life have meaning? You know, if it has meaning, then it doesn't have to be perfect. You know, I mean, everything I'm engaged in that fills my life with purpose, none of it is perfect. You know, but that's, oddly enough, imperfection sounds by definition not a flaw, but in fact, it's-- what do they call it? A trait, a function, not a glitch. It's what makes the world the place of purpose and meaning.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:04:13] Right. Right.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:04:14] Precisely that we're not sitting on the ground. The Garden of Eden came to an end.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:04:23]Right. And it's not that there is some grand ultimate meaning that everything else is instrumentally related to, it's that the meaning can be realized in every moment.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:04:34] Right here and every moment.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:04:36] So, I was looking, the next little point. One of the questions I found myself asking as I read through the book.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin Yeah.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg Is what is the morality of the book, right? Does the book present an ethical dimension? And it's not something I think is emphasized in the book.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:04:56] Right.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:04:57] But I guess where I finally found it was in the notion of the sacrificial.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:05:03] Ah Huh.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:05:04] And there's a passage in the book in which you are having a dialogue with God, and it's funny, I don't have the exact quote here, but it's, you go through a number of different interpretations of what sacrifice is all about.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin Okay.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg You finally hit on one, and God says, yeah, that's the one, that's the one.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:05:28] That's the one, yeah.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:05:34]And that one is that sacrifice is, as I read it, the surrender of one's separatist egoistic desires to, what I would call, the teleology of love.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin Yeah.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg In other words, that the ego wants what it wants for itself, and there's a selfishness sort of built in to the nature of the egoic life.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:06:08] Right.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:06:08] But what is required, in order for the teleology of the universe to work itself out, is for us to subordinate that, not eliminate it.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin Right.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg Right? But subordinate it to the demands of love.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin Yes.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg Right? To say, you know, even though I'd like to have the whole blueberry pie, you know, there's somebody else here who would also like a little bit of the blueberry pie, and out of love for that person, I'll have a little less blueberry pie for myself, so that they can have some blueberry pie, too.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin Yes
Dr. Richard Oxenberg Right? And that's the sacrificial. And so in that sense, even though there isn't in the book any discussion of particular ethical questions, what I read the book as saying, is that life should be led under the guidance of this principle of sacrificial love?
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:07:12] Yes.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:07:13] Would you-- does that make sense to you; does that sound right to you?
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:07:16] Well, yes. Yes. I always think a little more particularly than these large formulations. All the religions are against greedy, lustful behavior, and there's more to life that's meaning. However, the particular norms that they put forward vary a good deal, like the Chinese harmony, or the Confucian role responsibility, including preserving the great tradition. These are all goods in their norms, but there is no insistence, at least I don't think I got any guidance that one of these is no good.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:08:03] Right.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:08:03] They all are ways of actualizing human fulfillment and our relation to the divine. Or as you want to put it, you know, the mandate of the teleology of love.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:08:16] Right.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:08:17] Very different modes. There are a lot of different modes of loving to begin with--
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:08:21] A lot of different ways in which love can itself manifest.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:08:24] Yes. Yes.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:08:26] So here's a quote about love. On page166, (Episode 27)
Dr. Jerry L. Martin Yeah.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg God's speaking, right? “Love is the basic force in the universe. I enter the world out of love. The world yearns for Me, and turns for Me, out of love. Love forms the bond between man and woman, one neighbor and another, and the orders of nature. It is love that pulls all of nature upward, and heals the soul and repairs the breaches in the world”
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:09:02] Yes.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:09:02] So, you know, in a sense, love is the teleological force of the universe. Right. So there is this great diversity that emerges out of the God beyond God. Right. Which separates everything. And then, there that very separation, at least as I read it, itself creates a kind of hunger for reunion. And that hunger for reunion is the sort of arrows of love that is driving everything back to everything else. And the way that I was reading it, you know, one of the things that the book does not do-- is present its own version of the Ten Commandments.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:09:53] Right. Right.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:09:55] It doesn't tell us how we should regard the abortion question.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:10:00] Right.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:10:01]It doesn't tell us how we should regard homosexual marriage. It doesn't tell us how we should regard any of these big issues.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:10:10] Right.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:10:10] And my reading of that, is that what it's really saying is, we, not just human beings, but God too, because God is all intimately involved in human being, we have to work this out ourselves under the general guidance of this notion of sacrificial love, this notion that we have to shoot for a loving solution to whatever the problem is, and given the inherent imperfections and limitations of life, we can pretty much expect that we're going to get it wrong, you know, not infrequently. And we have to be charitable toward ourselves about that as well.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:11:06] We're not getting it wrong. But of course, we're, I mean, who knows for sure. So... And it could be that there's some, that the disagreements, say over abortion, are fruitful. You know, each side has something going for it, and as events change, sometimes how one evaluates the particulars of a hot moral issue change. Sometimes even technology can change valuations. Also, we should be sensitive to our use of sacrificial love, which seems exactly right, and the teleology love is very appropriate language for God: An Autobiography. At the same time, we realize, well, this is God working through Jerry Martin. Love is going to have different definitions at different cultures and different traditions. I think, you know, like all these cross-cultural comparisons, you can always emphasize the similarity, or are you going to emphasize the difference, in particulars, because there are always shades of difference between. And I think did we talk at some time about Buddhist compassion? But there's some discussion in God: An Autobiography of compassion and different things. I mean, you could say they're same thing, because in one perspective they're the same thing. There's certainly the part recognizing its role in the whole in a positive and helping way. And I'm told, both are necessary. You need both. There's a distinction drawn between love and compassion.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:12:52] Well, I think in the Buddhist tradition itself, there's a distinction made between Metta and Karuna.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:12:59] Draws that distinction, okay.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:12:59] Right. Where Karuna is compassion...
Dr. Jerry L. Martin Mm hmm.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg As I understand it, and Metta is more generally something like good will. You know, the desire that the other be well.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:13:17] Yes.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:13:17] Whereas, Karuna is specifically an entry into the other's suffering. So, compassion specifically in that context means caring about the suffering of others.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:13:32] And entering into that. But anyway, just thinking of love, we've got to be using it in a kind of large sense, you know, not affixed to a very specific cultural or traditional religious traditions' understanding of love.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg Right.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin So, maybe this is a concept some have really got right, that's also possible. But to the extent the religions sort of specialize, each does- What does it mean? Each may make certain things more right than the others--
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:14:03] I would say that there's a kind of--.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:14:04] Where it's specializing in that- specializing in passion.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:14:11]But I would think we want to try and avoid a kind of radical relativism here.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:14:17] Right. No. No.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg Right?
Dr. Jerry L. Martin There are ways of understanding one another and of relating the norms in one tradition to the norms in another.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:14:27] Right.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:14:28] And you can have more than one norm and have them all have been valid.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:14:33] Right. But there's something that would fall outside of the bounds of anything that could reasonably be called love. Right?
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:14:40] Right, right, right.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:14:42] Slavery was not an institution that could reasonably be called an institution of love.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin Right, right.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg Right. Right. You know, so I think that, again, is one of the values of the book, that on the one hand, it recognized there can be many forms of love and many expressions of it, and they can be quite different from one another in many ways. But that doesn't bring us to relativism.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin Right.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg Right? Where there is no right or wrong, there is no good or evil, and everything is equal to everything else.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:15:18] That's one of the hardest things for people to hold on to, I think maybe for psychological reasons, that you can have a diversity of values. A diversity of ways of living one's life. Each of which is completely valid. But there are other diversity that would not be valid. Just because there was more than one valid one doesn't mean, and each one, you could explain why it's valid. It's not just a mute fact that these people seem okay and they do that. But you can explain it in human terms that people outside the tradition can understand. We do all live in the same world and under the same dome of heaven. So you can-- and in God: An Autobiography with all of its appreciation of diversity and particularity, you know, your life is going to be different from my life. You have a different calling than I have, for example. It's crucial that you get your calling right and that I get my calling right. And it's not necessarily they be the same calling. Yours is right for you and your situation, mine is right for me in my situation. You can say that about, you know, you can generalize that up to the level of cultures and so forth, that it's fine that they're achieving the values they're achieving as long as they're achieving values. You know, of the high order and the values, you might say, that move the universe forward, that God would want them to be achieving.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:16:59]I should also just mention we didn't mention it, but it just suddenly struck me that an important point to make, and that is that the human being participates in the whole of the universe going on and on beyond the individual life, according to the book. Right? This isn't our only shot.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:17:20] Yes.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:17:21] And, in a sense, that also is a necessary way of thinking, in order to make ourselves, or allow ourselves to experience ourselves as a part of the grander whole, so that we are not just isolated into our own individual lives. You know, I mean, if we would just sit back and just express it in a kind of overall sense.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:18:17] Yeah.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:18:18] one of the words that come to mind, to me, is non-dogmatic. Right? It's a vision of God and a vision of religion that is almost deliberately non-dogmatic. Right? it's participatory as opposed to hierarchical, right? There's not a a divine authority over here and human beings over here who are subject to that divine authority. It's everybody is trying to work it out together.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:18:49] TThe main reason for the lack of dogmatism is there are truths and there's a vertical, there's a difference between up and down, that's not something to be formulated in propositions. You know, in a set of theological, in a creed, for example. It's not to be formulated in that way. It's to dynamic for that, is to diverse, to particularlistic, because it varies here or there in the other place. Nevertheless, in each of those, there is a vertical dimension and a right and a wrong or a better and worse, and that unfolds.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:19:29] And, I guess the way that I think of the takeaway from this is that-- and the book is not, even though it's a revelation, I mean, you said this right at the beginning of our discussion today, even though it's a revelation, it is not intended to found a new religion.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:19:48] Right. In a way, there's nothing new here.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:19:51] Well, in a way there is and isn't. There's a lot new, but you're not trying to so much start a new religion as a new orientation to religion.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:20:02] Yeah.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:20:03] Right. The book is–
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:20:06] To the Divine, to the Divine, to the ultimate reality.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:20:10] And here's a significant quote from page 44 (Episode 10), God is saying to you, "Now we need a new systematic revelation, from bottom to top, almost to start over again– with a (new) Genesis, one might say, with a new gospel of John.” And I understand the reference to the Gospel of John here to refer to the notion of the word made flesh.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:20:37] Probably.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:20:38] Yeah. “And a new philosophical understanding of God. The old one was only partly inspired and contains too much of the arrogance of human reason.” A nice phrase. "Mankind does not live in a period for a great prophet. You know, there can be no new Moses or other deliverer. There can at best be olajuwon's, prophets and seers, people who explain my story in a form that can be understood by this age. Right? And that's what this book is itself a contribution to.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:21:16] Yes, exactly. Exactly. It's for people then to take in, and in light of it, move forward.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:21:26] Right? Right.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:21:29] Because it is a process.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:21:30] One of the ways, maybe we can finish on this, in which you are taking it forward is through the Theology Without Walls project. And, maybe, you just want to say a little bit about that. You know how that's related to all of this?
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:21:51] Toward the very end of the book, I'm given that in light of of what God had told me about the revelations to the different cultures, my understanding of that, in the wake of that, I was told start a new theological project. Which struck me as I'm for one thing, I'm a philosopher and I didn't even know any theologians. But I had to learn more about religion. I had started attending American Academy of Religion meetings. That's the official organization of all the theologians, religious studies, scholars, and so forth. And learning something I had made a point of getting to know some people, speaking to them one on one. And one week before the Baltimore meeting, whatever year that was, I was told, okay, now it's time to start it. And so I actually printed out some of what I've been told in prayer and made some notes and so forth. I'd given one talk that's reported in the book about Theology Without Walls and found most people were responsive and set up, we proposed a panel to the most natural group, the comparative theology group. They turned it down. But I found, oh, well, you can schedule your own panel for a very modest fee. And so we did that, and I didn't know if anybody would come. Nobody's heard Jerry Martin. Nobody's heard of Theology Without Walls. But we did have some distinguished panelists and I asked them, you know, because they've gotten interested, you let everybody on your email list know, because I was afraid nobody would come. And maybe you were in the room, Richard, during that--
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:23:36] Was this in Atlanta?
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:23:37] No, San Diego.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:23:39] No, I wasn't at the San Diego meeting.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin You were not at that meeting, you were at a planning meeting later.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg I was at an Atlanta meeting.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:23:44] Okay. Yes, I now remember that meeting. But this was San Diego, because we were at the hotel across the train tracks, their commuter train, and then we're here. So I didn't know anybody would come. It was standing room only. I thought this is amazing. There are people literally standing in the doorway the whole time, craning to hear what was being said.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:24:07] There's a hunger for this message.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:24:09] There's a hunger for it. And what's happened, and this is why I just call it the syllogism, because it was very easy to see once I had not looked around and saw what was happening to religion. At first I didn't know Why is God having me do all this? I look around, what's happening? Well, anybody who studies religion now I'm overstating it that everybody does this, but it's very common. They don't study only their own tradition, they go study other religions and the first people doing this were missionaries. And they often reported, gee, these people already are very spiritual. And it doesn't seem, you know, at first it looks hokey because they worship like the Hindus have a God with an elephant's head. And, you know, you have all that kind of iconography that's off putting to an alien culture. But they started noticing. But when you get to know it, the scriptures are profound, the people are holy. You know, people are supposed to be holy, are holy, and have this deep, deep spiritual life, and you can multiply that. One person I was on one of our panels, I got to know is, Kenneth Cracknell, who's the leader in Interfaith Dialogue. But at first he's a young Methodist charged up to spread the word, goes off to the Igbo, I think, tribe in Africa. And to his amazement, he said the Igbo already knew a lot about God and they learned from him, he learned from them.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:25:40] Yes. You know, so.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:25:41] This started coming about and now scholars do it routinely, divinity schools do it routinely, they have courses in theology of religions, which is from within one's own tradition. What are you going to make of the fact there are other religions?
Dr. Richard Oxenberg Right.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin Do they have any saving truth or how do they relate to what my church teaches?
Dr. Richard Oxenberg Right.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin But it's the seems inevitable, and what I always just called the syllogism that I formulated and I repeated almost every talk I give, is if the aim of theology is to know all we can about the divine, or ultimate reality, and if there are revelations, enlightenments, epiphanies, etc., about that reality in more than one tradition, then theology can't just be what they call confessional theology, can't be just the interpretation of my own tradition. It should be theology without those limits, hence, Theology Without Walls. And that project has flourished. We have two sessions every year now for the last, well, since that first one in San Diego and, so, special issues of journals. And then it seemed time sooner than I would have thought, but John Thataminal whose a theologian at Union Theological Seminary, said, you know, from these journals we've done and panels, we should be putting out a volume of essays. It's time to kind of plant the flag because that's how you do in academia, you have to plant the flag by bringing out a volume. And so we brought out a volume last October/November 2019, called Theology Without Walls The Transreligious Imperative. Because if you want to know the divine fully and want to relate to the Divine more adequately, then you have to take in the multiple traditions, the many aspects of the divine. That doesn't mean you've got to run around worshiping in multiple traditions. But even if you stay right within the tradition, you have to understand this is part of a larger story. And so you start claiming exclusivity.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:28:06] Yeah, yeah, and I guess just, I would say that, well, the second premise of your syllogism.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:28:14] Yeah.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:28:14] That there is revelation to be found in all the different religions.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:28:19] Yeah.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:28:19] Right? Is what has been traditionally denied.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:28:23] Yes.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:28:24] In a lot of religions. But it, as you yourself point out, as people become exposed to these different religions, it becomes harder and harder to deny that.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:28:37] Yes, if you're really studying them with an open mind, the way you're supposed to study things. So you take it in, then, wow these are really impressive.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:28:48] Right. And, you know, and I guess I would say that there is, you know, what we've had up until just now and, you know, in modernism, you know, is we've had this choice between dogmatic religion on the one hand and sort of atheistic secularism on the other. Right? And, you know, you have to choose one or the other. You have to either be a secular atheist or a dogmatic religionist.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:29:19] Yeah.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:29:19] And what your book is basically saying is that's a false dichotomy.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:29:24] Totally false.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:29:25] Yeah. That there's a religious dimension, it's non dogmatic, it's part of the human telos to pursue it, and we can be charitable toward ourselves and each other in our pursuit of it.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:29:46] Yes, exactly. Exactly.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:29:48] Yeah.
Scott Langdon [00:30:18] Thank you for listening. To God: An Autobiography, The Podcast. Subscribe for free today wherever you listen to your podcasts and hear a new episode every week. You can hear the complete dramatic adaptation of God: An Autobiography, As Told To A Philosopher by Jerry L. Martin, by beginning with episode one of our podcast and listening through its conclusion with Episode 44. You can read the original true story in the book from which this podcast is adapted. God: An Autobiography, As Told To A Philosopher, available now at Amazon.com, and always at godanautobiography.com. Pick up your own copy today. If you have any questions about this or any other episode, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and experience the world from God's perspective as it was told to a philosopher. This is Scott Langdon. I'll see you next time.