Analytical and energetic dialogues of philosophical and spiritual discussion between Dr. Jerry L. Martin and Dr. Richard Oxenberg about God: An Autobiography, As Told To A Philosopher. A profound conversation of philosophy, sciences, and religion daring to consider God's perspective in the series Two Philosophers Wrestle With God. The first dialogue covers the beginning of the book, and Jerry's story.
Richard Oxenberg received his PH.D. in Philosophy from Emory University in 2002, with a concentration in Ethics and Philosophy of Religion. He has written and published numerous articles on these subjects, many of which are available online. His book: On the Meaning of Human Being: Heidegger and the Bible in Dialogue, was published by Political Animal Press in 2018. Richard currently teaches at Endicott College in Beverly, MA.
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Related Episodes: [Two Philosophers Wrestle With God] The Big Picture [Part 1] [Part 2]; The Nature Of Divine Reality [Part 1] [Part 2]; Purpose [Part 1] [Part 2]; Revelation [Part 1] [Part 2]; Jerry's Story [Part 1] [Part 2]
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 58.
Scott Langdon Hello, this is Scott Langdon, creative director of God: An Autobiography, The Podcast. Welcome to Episode 58 and our second in a series of dialogues between Jerry Martin and Richard Oxenberg. The audio for these dialogues is taken from a series of conversations these two philosophers had over the course of an almost exactly two year time span between 2018 and 2020. In last week's episode, we began with Richard asking Jerry to recount his early experience with God in his own words. And it is fascinating to hear about the experience from Jerry's own lips. This week, the two philosophers talk more deeply about God's voice and the questions that inevitably arise when someone, especially a philosopher, makes such a claim. We pick up the conversation right where we left off last week with Richard speaking first. Thanks for spending this time with us. I hope you enjoy the episode.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:02:00] Did you have a you know, growing up, did you have, like, an image of what God was like in your mind? You know, you were to run into God. What would you think that God to be like?
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:02:15] I don't think I much had an image. The church had images and I found them often kind of off-putting. Well, just puzzling . . .
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:02:25] Off-putting because frightening?
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:02:27] Now I know the images. I tell you, frankly, the images of Jesus on the cross and a little loincloth hanging down. He's we're very sort of sexy. Have seen those where, you know, he's got this lithe body. It's completely toned. You might say very current and quite skimpy, barely on clothing. And that seemed odd. And. But the focus in that church is so much on Jesus that one doesn't even think quite that much about God, the father and what God the father might look like. And I probably didn't even yet know the ...
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:03:06] So when I say image I am not so thinking of a physical image. But a sense of what the character of God . . .
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:03:13] What kind of being it would be. . .
Dr. Richard Oxenberg Yeah.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin I don't think I wondered about that. The Baptists take the story. . . so I kind of like this . . .they take the stories full-hearted and a full-hearted way and they way more sophisticated theologians do and maybe traditions that have a bigger intellectual side, the Catholics, the Calvinist probably have a whole apparatus about that. So I suppose it's more like just a voice from nowhere. You know, the voice speaks out because you don't see God and the voices. But I was not afraid of the Old Testament God.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:03:49] You speak of your mother fearing that she wasn't going to go to heaven.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:03:54] Oddly enough, in my church, in the actual church growing up and later, a little later in life, after we left Memphis, it was of this Baptist church. And I rather like the minister was rather scholarly fellow. He would talk, talk with the Greek New Testament and the meaning of this word and that word and explicated. He was not. And many of congregants criticized him because he didn't do the hell and brimstone didn't bring the souls to Christ. You know, by this more scholarly . . .
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:04:23] You didn't walk around worrying that you might be condemned by a wrathful God . . .
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:04:33] No, no. Many people do that, I know many people with a religious upbringing went around feeling guilty all the time. I felt guilty, but the same guilt I felt when I was an agnostic, you know, just personal inadequacies of life.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:04:48] Can you remember was there is distinctive time that you can recall when you finally decided that you didn't really believe in God anymore?
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:04:57] Well, that's kind of strange because, you know, it was for me in my high school friends, it was a big question. Is there a God? One woman was a Christian Scientist and a little bit educated ahead of the rest of us talked about Spinoza and Berkeley and, you know, some of the philosophers that fed into the Christian science way of thinking. And so it was a question. And I think about my freshman year in college. I decided, well, this back and forth, there seems to be no way to settle this question. I'll just postulate this is the young rationalist, you know, I'll just postulate that there is a God. And then I'll just live with that. But what I immediately realized is all I have here is an empty word, you know, which God knew these different religions, theologies, conceptions and just an empty word. I don't even think I had a definition like an infinite being or something like that. It was just. And none of us seem to worry over it that we weren't that sophisticated. So it's just that God is there not a God. And God was just kind of a word. Most people, if they think if they make such a postulate, would immediately build their own tradition right into it. There is a God, then that's the God they learned about, you know and that their community believes in. But I was a little too much of a rationalist to make that move. And so all I had was an empty postulate. I thought, well, phooey then and I don't need it anyway. The arguments had been shot down in philosophy class and you know how that goes. All the classic arguments for the existence of God. It's really hard to prove God just with an argument. You can prove maybe some kind of being that sounds rather abstract. No. But anyway, those arguments been shot down. And yet I found for a living, a life of high purpose, what I was learning in philosophy was adequate. One of my teachers was the estimable Philip Wheelwright. And his books are still used. So you can look him up. But Philip Wheelwright wasn't just a wise man, richly educated. And called himself a pious agnostic. And since then, I've thought of him as a humanist with a very high ceiling, there are humanists who have very low ceilings. There's a really reductionist of some kind. There's only a matter. Wheelright was not like that at all. He thought to be a human being was an amazing thing already that the world had amazing things. And he was interested in literature and poetry and myths and so forth. And one of his cardinal rules was the only . . . kind of was, "never say nothing but, never say this is all." So it was an open ended ceiling, though, with him for him, never filled in by what you'd call a belief in something higher. But my belief in always having one's heart, mind and soul open to whatever the highest that could come your way was. And for him that was, you know, T.S. Eliot and Dante. The level of whatever that Finnish myth was called. I remember, he would talk about some of these somewhere in his book as well. I think from that he quotes the line of something about "to sing the full song". They have to sing the whole song.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:08:48] So that in some sense became your philosophy of life.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:08:51] Well, that's all very natural to me. Let's be open. And I've tended to believe in experience. And rather than if you have the rationalist tendency I did have, you kind of almost need a counter failing tendency because the rationalist tendency say, "if I can't make logical sense of it, then it's not so". "It has no meaning and it just can't be true." And if you do that, you close off your experience. And I know even people some of the psychology books I read treat love that way. It's really just projection and it's just biochemistry. Phera names (pheromones) . . . Somebody attributed my falling in love with Abigail to the farrow names (sic) or whatever that is. Well, that was quite a trick I was in Washington, D.C.. Never seen her in person. So but, you know, people take love, honor, duty . . . everything. They'll reduce it to biochemistry and the Wheelright Maxim was no, except rich view of human experience.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg Yeah.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin And take it take it all in.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:10:04] And of course, Gnosticism is not atheism.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:10:08] No. That's why I was never an atheist. I've never had an appeal to me because I vaguely seemed to imply that you've done a complete inventory of everything in the universe and God is not there. Not a list like that. How could you know that? How?
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:10:23] Simply, I think what the atheist does is, first of all, they have some conception of God. They are then rejecting and saying that's not that's not there. No real. So there is a judgment involved saying that the end usually probably the God of Western religion, that the God of the Bible.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin Yes.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg And then if you can't fill it in with anything else at that point, you call yourself an atheist.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:10:50] Yeah, I think you're exactly right. They're rejecting a very specific conception of theologians complaint. They're not very theologically sophisticated in their conception of the God, but they're rejecting in order to be atheist.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:11:05] So as we continue, Jerry, as we continue with these discussions, we're going to go know in much greater depth into the content of the book but perhaps we could just wrap this particular session up by my asking you How has your experience of yourself and the world been changed through your encounter, this new encounter with God? They went from being a pious agnostic, being I don't know whether you want to call it a pious theist or something. Something else.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:11:39] Something else.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:11:41]And how has that changed you? It might be an interesting question to have you answer. Yes. As we wrap up this little session on you.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:11:51] In my world view, it's made me way more open to what you might call bizarre experiences, because I thought if God can talk to me, then these things I've always pooh poohed before, coincidences that are taken to be divine guidance or the kind of miracles or something. I'm now much more open to and I'm inclined to first credit them. And that includes in my own life, if I have trouble getting to an appointment because the trains aren't running. My first question now is, is this a message for me? I don't assume that it is. It's very hard to connect these dots after all. But I do view the world, as you might say, having a lot more meaning before. It's a kind of syntax with no somatics. It's just a pile of things. Personally, it's made me more. So trusting the little thing, I notice when someone first asked that as I'm nicer in traffic now. Oh, I don't think I don't have to be the first one there. Let them go.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:13:23] And then what is it about the experience that creates that? I mean, what is it about the experience or about God or about having some sense of the presence of God that makes someone nicer in traffic?
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:13:38] Yeah, I think that's a good question, Richard. I think it's I hadn't thought of this before, but I think it's surrender. You surrender to the divine. My will is not the main thing anymore. Before my will have been everything, and my wife certainly notices the difference. I'm not so pigheaded, you know, as I was before. So, you know, there's a kind of masculine stubbornness where we kind of entrench and I do less of that than I used to. And that's out of my well being them at best. The number two wheel in the world. Hmm. And I guess as a good husband, I often think, well, maybe the number three most important will sense.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:14:21] And I suppose that in order to be able to surrender in an authentic way. One has to have some kind of experience. Of that, to which one can surrender. Right. I mean, if you haven't, you don't have that, too, which you can surrender. It might not be so easy to surrender.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:14:47] I think that's absolutely true. It always seems, you know, the one of those arguments for the existence of God. They shoot down. Oh, you seem the only one that would ever be persuasive. And that's the argument from religious experience, that you have an experience of the divine either directly in my dramatic way or like Buber through an I thou with nature, which he said extends then to the eternal thou or, you know, taking the Eucharist in a Catholic ceremony. It can be any number of things. But if you have that moment where you sense there is a divine element here in the in the universe and it's you realize its extraordinary specialness, after all, it's not simply another fact about the universe, then it becomes very natural to think, I want to be in harmony with that divine element.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:15:41] And I suppose it also helps people to feel not quite so ontologically alone.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:15:48] I know you're not alone. One of the huge differences of especially if you're a theistic, you're religiosity is theists like mine or God speaks to me. You're never alone, you're never alone. I was talking to Abigail the other day. There's an old statement, everybody dies alone. I don't even think about in terms if I were dying and Abigail's by my side. I'm not dying alone. Also, God is present. If you have this kind of experience, God's present at every moment. And that's a huge life change.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:16:23] That's a palpable experience for you now. I mean, you walk the feeling that God is, if not, is either immediately there or
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:16:34] Yes.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:16:35] just around the corner. And that's something that you have with you all the time.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:16:41] Yes. Yes. I actually I mean, I get distracted and don't think about it. But if I pause, meditate, pray. I feel, you know, God's kind of inside me and as many religious people I have that kind of experience that God, Jesus, Krishna, whatever. How are they might feel it is inside them and with them and but also outside them, also watching over them, you might say. And it gives your, as Augustine discovered, it gives your whole life that kind of drama because it's not just one thing after another anymore. It's the unfolding of something. And for God, that must have ultimate meaning. And you've got to create a meaningful a life as you possibly can. In part because you have the primo audience of the world. That's a huge difference.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:17:38] You know, one question leads to another. And I don't know, at some point I will wrap this one, this section up. And maybe I maybe this is a too big a question to get into at this late moment. But the question that occurs to me, and especially in the context of your experiences, which are so concrete.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:17:59] Yes.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:17:59] I mean, it's not some abstract idea of God.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:18:04] That's part of the surprise. Right.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:18:06] And that's what is, I think, so compelling about reading your book that, you know, you're not just reading somebody's theological notion or even somebody's vague sense of having a vague experience
Dr. Jerry L. Martin Right.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg But there's something very direct and concrete and real about it. I guess one question that I think you've been asked this question before is, well, you know, how come everybody isn't having that? What is it that is preventing that? Presumably it's not God was withholding himself. So then what would it be? What I thought we would do. Maybe next time. That's a question that I think will come up. In some sense throughout our whole discussions. But perhaps talk specifically about the nature of your revelatory experiences. But now about your religious background. nd maybe we can talk about the nature of those experiences and how they came to you and what revelation might be like and how they might compare to other experiences of revelation or reports of revelation that we that we hear about.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:18:52] And why a new revelation now.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:18:55] And that's a good question too. Yeah. Yeah.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:18:56] OK, very good. Thank you, Richard. And I have I've been edified by this discussion. I hope others are getting something out of it as well.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:19:08] Yeah. I think it's a fascinating topic. And I look forward to continuing with you.
Scott Langdon [00:19:28] 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.