How did two philosophers come to begin a years-long dialogue about God beyond religion, evolution, history, and the meaning of life?
Get a behind-the-scenes look at the theological and philosophical project Two Philosophers Wrestle With God in this final interview, closing out the celebrated series.
MEET THE GUESTS- Dr. Richard Oxenberg
FIND THE SITES- Theology Without Walls | What is God: An Autobiography
BUY THE BOOKS- God: An Autobiography, As Told To A Philosopher | Theology Without Walls: The Transreligious Imperative | On The Meaning Of Human Being: Heidegger And The Bible In Dialogue
LISTEN TO RELEVANT EPISODES- How To Live [Part 1] [Part 2]; The Takeaway [Part 1] [Part 2]
-Share your story or experience with God-
God: An Autobiography, As Told To A Philosopher, is written by Dr. Jerry L. Martin, an agnostic philosopher who heard the voice of God and recorded their conversations.
The podcast began with the Dramatic Adaptation of the book and now has several series:
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 116.
Scott Langdon [00:01:11] Hello and welcome to episode 116 of God: An Autobiography, The Podcast. I'm your host, Scott Langdon. To put a bow on the wrapping up of our dialogue series Two Philosophers Wrestle with God, I sit down for a conversation with both Drs Jerry Martin and Richard Oxenberg. We talk about the series and how it came into being, how Jerry and Richard came to know each other, and how the making of the series affected each of our lives. As we've done with each of the dialogues, this conversation will be a two-parter. Here now is part one of our conversation, which I might refer to as Two Philosophers And An Actor Walk Into A Zoom Meeting. Well, we'll see. I hope you enjoy the episode.
Scott Langdon Welcome back, friends, to another episode of the podcast. And we have something very special. If you're a regular listener to the podcast, then you would probably know that this is the slot that we have for the past year had a dialogue between Jerry Martin and Dr. Richard Oxenberg. Well, those dialogues are complete and Jerry and I thought, hey, let's do something special for this episode, right, Jerry?
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:02:25] Yes, exactly. Who better to go to then let's talk to Richard Oxenberg again, because he led the dialogues. He prompted all the questions, conceived the particular topics, and it was really his creative product as a thinker and as a spiritual being that produced the dialogues.
Scott Langdon [00:02:47] Well, we have him with us today. So welcome Dr. Richard Oxenberg.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:02:52] Yes, hello. Very good to be here with you, Scott and Jerry. And I've enjoyed the work that you did on putting those dialogues together as a podcast, so I'm happy to be here.
Scott Langdon [00:03:04] Well, thank you. Thank you. We've heard over the course of the dialogues how you guys got to meet. And I talked to Jerry about it, you know, often about what was going on with him and where he was headed to. And so I'd like to hear a little bit more about where you were coming from and what you were working on. And before I ask you that, I wanted to just mention this, and that is, as I was preparing for this episode, I went back to listen to some of the dialogues. But what I found, which was really interesting, is that a year ago today, exactly January 6, 2022, we had just finished sort of the second phase of what we were doing with the podcast, which was the, you know, the interviews and things, and we were ready to launch this new year. So what I had done on January 6, Jerry, if you remember, we had an episode that said, "Here's what we're going to be doing in 2022 and we're going to start with some dialogues with Richard Oxenberg." And so we had been working on them, but this whole year has been an unfolding of these dialogues.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:04:17] I feel like there were a total of 12.
Scott Langdon [00:04:20] 12 in all.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:04:22] So that was a full year. That was a full year.
Scott Langdon [00:04:26] And so I feel like, you know, we've been working on them this whole time. And I've been hearing your voice, you know, in my work so much, Richard, without feeling in a sense that, you know, without ever having met you and yet I carried you around with me for this year. And I feel like I, in a sense, do know you. So I want to ask you about what you were working with and what you were working on that when you discovered Jerry's book something said, "Hey, I want to pay attention to this."
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:04:55] Right. Well. You know, as I was thinking about meeting with both of you today and talking and I was thinking about that question, you know, where was I when I first encountered Jerry and his book? And I was going through some of the material, and it suddenly occurred to me and struck me that Jerry and I had a similar experience in our very young life. Jerry had when he was five years old, he had a brother who died in a tragic accident. And apparently, according to the book, it's only mentioned very briefly toward the end of the book that that had an effect on Jerry's experience or relationship to God. I had something very similar when I was eight years old. I had a seven year old sister who was hit by a car in front of me and killed. And, you know, that led to, for me, at the tender age of eight, a tremendous amount of questioning about what was going on here. What's going on in this life? Who's in charge, if anybody? And how good is whoever is in charge? And, you know, because it didn't correspond with the God of perfect love and perfect peace and perfect beauty and perfect everything. And I think that led to, for me, a long spiritual search. Jerry referred to himself as a pious agnostic. I was an impious atheist for quite a good while. And as I reflect back on that, and all this is, by the way, getting to this answer to your question. There's I guess there was a sense of, you know, what happens, I think when those kinds of tragic events occur, there's almost a sense of betrayal. You know, I mean, there's a kind of I think we come into the world with a native, almost naive trust and faith. You know, it's not theological. It doesn't have to do with having read some dogma. It's just a basic trust. And then something happened, and the trust is broken and the faith is broken. And there's a sense of betrayal. And somewhere along the lines, I think it was probably in my twenties or so or later. It certainly occurred to me that you can't feel betrayed unless you value trust. In other words, the intensity of one's sense of betrayal is in proportion to the intensity of one's desire to have faith. And so betrayal is kind of the sense of betrayal is kind of the shadow side of faith. And so I realized that my intense sense of betrayal was actually a form of faith. A weird form of need for faith. And that led, to me, to a great deal of searching. And that searching led me to begin to read books on Eastern philosophy, history, Buddhism, Hinduism. I became very enamored of Paul Tillich's Christian theology, which all involved alternative ways of thinking about what God might be; that we're somewhat different from the kind of pat-idea of a God who is just perfectly good all the time and going to make everything perfect. And so I guess what I was doing was searching for a way of understanding God that would allow me to, on the one hand, overcome my sense of betrayal, and on the other hand, be honest with myself so that I wasn't telling myself a story and just denying the truths of the hardships of life. And I eventually got my degree in philosophy. And I first encountered Jerry at an American Academy of Religion conference, I think it was in 2010, and he was facilitating a session called Theology Without Walls. And that title intrigued me because in a sense, I was already engaged in my own personal theology without walls. I was reading Buddhist text and Hindu texts and Christian text. And so the idea of trying to find a way of understanding God that would make sense and work and would answer my own spiritual needs was very much on my mind and in my heart. And so when I then Googled Jerry's name and found that he apparently has had a conversation with this guy, you know, that fascinated me. I was quite fascinated with how that conversation was going to play out. And I began reading, at first, he posted some of the early chapters of his book on a website. And so I read that. And then some number of years after that, Jerry and I ran into each other at another American Academy of Religion conference. This time. I asked him if he'd stop and have a cup of coffee with me. We ended up talking for about an hour, an hour and a half, and that's kind of how we really ended up connecting.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:11:15] That encounter, you had given Richard a very interesting talk to a group I had attended on radical evil. I remember to this day, emphasizing Kierkegaard and Kant. And then when I ran into you, I didn't remember that you were at that TWW meeting, but you said to me. I must have said my name. You said. Oh, I guess I was probably complimenting you on your nice presentation. Oh, you're Jerry Martin?
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:11:43] Yeah.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:11:44] To this day, you're the only person who has ever said that to me. But you had been reading it online before the book was published. And you were full of questions. An active Oxenberg mind full of - and search - full of questions.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:12:04] Yeah, that's exactly it. We met and I hadn't recognized you from the meeting. So you told me you were Jerry Martin, I said, "Oh, my God. Here he is." And, you know, I mean, it's, you know, it's a pretty extraordinary thing for anybody to come out and say that they've had a conversation with God. God doesn't speak to me quite in the way that he speaks to Jerry. And, you know, at that time, I didn't know Jerry that well. Over the course of the years that we've been together, that I've gotten to know him, he's clearly not having hallucinations. I mean, it's, you know, so there's something here going on and just what it is was something fascinating to me. Then the book came out and I read the book rather carefully, and we've been having discussions about it ever since.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:12:58] You and Scott know the book better than anybody. You, you and Scott, I think, are the two most thorough readers of God: An Autobiography.
Scott Langdon [00:13:08] Yeah, spending time with it in a different way than Jerry would spend time with it is an interesting pursuit that at first for me was a job that was just a side job because I had so many other things lined up in my acting career. And then when the pandemic shut everything down was only left with this project to work on. And through some strange fates of one company that I worked with doing their pay, their tax and their tax work wrong, I wasn't able to go on unemployment like many others in my business. So I really, really was kind of forced to work on the project. And it never felt like a, you know, you have to do this, but it just seemed like the world, God was moving me in a way that like this is what you need to focus on for a while. Just, let's work on this. This is what you're being kind of directed to do. And it's kind of a dramatic story that it takes almost a plague and all this to get out of my own way. But in a sense, those things converged to do what they did. And in a similar way, I'm curious about what it was about the book that made you think, I want to spend the time to really dig into this particular work?
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:14:16] Well, yeah, I, you know, I mean, one of the one of the. And the book is interesting. It would be interesting even if Jerry were writing it. And I believe one reviewer suggested, as you know, just a way of presenting his own ideas, it would still be interesting. But obviously the nature of Jerry's experience is interesting in itself. I mean, one of the great questions that one can ask is who are all these people who, you know, are pronouncing the word of God out there? You know, who was Isaiah? Who was Jeremiah? Who was Elijah? Who was Muhammad? You know, what were their experiences? And in what way were their experiences related to what is ultimately true? And so now here was this guy, you know, once again, who, you know, I can actually talk to and see and ask questions of who has had an experience like this. And so that was a major part of what fascinated me about the book. And then as I read it, I mean, it's written in such a conversational tone, you know, that it almost sometimes I feel the conversational nature of the way it's written disguises some of the depth within it. It's remarkable in its inclusiveness. The God who Jerry, who is revealed in Jerry's book, is inclusive in almost every way imaginable. You know, inclusive not only of all the other religions, but also inclusive of highly transcendental ways of thinking about God, while also being inclusive of basic interpersonal ways of thinking about God and experiencing God. Inclusive of the notion of life as having an ultimate aim and end, but also inclusive of expressing the value of every moment as we live that particular moment, so that the aim of life is not to escape life. So every moment has its sort of sanctity. And one of the great aims of life is to find the sanctity in each moment. I mean, there's a kind of beauty to that vision that certainly spoke to me. And then, of course, there's the element which goes directly to my own experience of betrayal and so forth, that God just comes right out and says, "Hey, I'm a suffering God." Not only-- I'm not responsible for the suffering. I am subject to the suffering. The suffering dimension of reality is integral to what reality is. You can't get rid of it. It's part of what reality is. It's part of what God is. It's part of what the God beyond God is. It's integral to the nature of reality, but it does not defeat reality. In other words, in some ways, it's part of what gives reality its texture and fabric. That to me is maybe the only possible answer to what is sometimes call in philosophy the problem of evil, which is often expressed in very abstract terms. But for people, most people, we run into the problem of evil at very personal levels. There are a lot of bad answers to the question of why is there suffering and why is there evil in the world? A lot of bad religious answers as far as I'm concerned. A very common one within the Christian tradition is that, well, you know, somebody ate a bad piece of fruit, you know, at the beginning of human history, and God have been punishing us. And it's all to punish. It's all God's punishment. And since it's just punishment, therefore, it's actually all the evil is really good. But that way of thinking of things never made a lot of sense and certainly didn't instill in me any sense of trust of the God who would punish us in that way and for that reason. And so I think that Jerry's vision of God is a vision of a much more benign being than one gets in some more traditional versions of Western religion, especially.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:20:07] And that's rather ironic because this is a God who admits to not being perfect and to be in the process of trying to move forward with an interaction with us to be better and better. We're trying to get better. God's trying to get better and is learning through interacting with us. And that's a lot of the drama of the world of life, is that. But somehow God's not perfect. But this evil isn't from God's malign imperfection, really. It's from the raw facticity of the world. It's material and material is resistant to ideality. You know, it's not there for ideality. It's there for gravity and matter and mass and so forth. So the world is full of friction, and God in this vision does not invent the world. God does not just think, go to a big design board, and how will I make the best possible world? No. God's thrown into a world that already has laws of nature, and so forth. Entropy is already there. It's not God inventing it someday. And so entropy, and for human beings and biological life that means disease, aging, death and so forth, are all built in the fabric of reality.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:21:31] And there's a kind of forgiveness, Although, that's almost like you don't need to forgive. But the forgiveness is implicit and just runs through the book. In Christianity, in traditional Christianity, we have a kind of split, almost split personality. I mean, on the one hand, God is all forgiving and on the other hand, he's going to condemn a whole bunch of people to eternal torment. And those are a little hard to reconcile and can drive you a little crazy, I think. But the God as revealed in Jerry's book is aware that life can be hard, that there is a suffering element to life, that there are going to be temptations, therefore, for people to engage in behaviors that are wrong or immoral. But nevertheless, there's a fundamental sense of forgiveness that is implicit in the metaphysics because we're all part of God. And there's a way in which, you know, God can't be complete without us, and so God can't abandon us. He can't throw us all, or anybody into eternal hell forever because He'd be abandoning part of Himself. To me, that's a very healing way of understanding God that heals that sense of, you know, you can't trust this guy. He says He loves you, but He might just toss you into eternal torment. That makes it a little hard to trust. For me, it does.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:23:20] What I am told about sin is that sin does not need to be forgiven. If you're sinning, people do these wrong things that you mentioned, Richard, but stop doing them. And He says, "don't give in to guilt. Don't look backward. Look forward." How am I going to avoid it if I went out and drank too much and came home and beat my wife, well, maybe I shouldn't go out with that gang after work, you know, because it leads me into that temptation that I succumb to. And so what you do is just review your situation and say, "Oh, I've got this was wrong. I've got to stop doing it." And there's nobody that needs to forgive you. You're now doing things right. And that's the process of human growth and development. And God is smiling and happy for you and helping you do that, make that right turn.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:23:59] And there's suffering that is consequent upon sin. But it's not somebody deliberately punishing it. It's that the sin itself, almost by definition, you know, leads to bad consequences. And wisdom comes from recognizing those bad consequences.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:24:19] There's a great line in a novel, I have forgotten which novel it was quoted to me, "We're not punished for our sins. We're punished by them."
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:24:30] By our sins. Yeah. And I think God says that more or less in those words in the book at some point.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:24:39] Yeah, I think so.
Scott Langdon [00:24:49] 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.