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]; Purpose [Part 1] [Part 2]; Revelation [Part 1] [Part 2]; Jerry's Story [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 57.
Scott Langdon Hello, this is Scott Langdon, creative director of God: An Autobiography, The Podcast. Welcome to Episode 57. With this episode, we begin a new series of conversations between two philosophers Dr. Jerry L. Martin and Dr. Richard Oxenberg. Before the creation of this podcast, Richard and Jerry sat down on several occasions to discuss Jerry's book, God: An Autobiography, As Told To A Philosopher. In these discussions, Richard and Jerry break down some of the difficult, philosophical and spiritual challenges God presents to Jerry. And these two philosophers go back and forth in an effort to bring clarity of meaning and further understanding to this new revelation. We begin today with Jerry introducing Richard, and then they dig right in to some of the first questions Richard has for Jerry. I hope you enjoy the episode. Here's Jerry. I'll see you next time.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:02:00] What every author most wants and needs is a really good reader. And it's harder to come by than you would think. I use the word author advisedly, since what an autobiography reports mainly what God told me rather than things I said. And those are reported verbatim, you know, from the notes I took as I prayed. But what's remarkable about Richard Oxenberg is both his preparation for reading such a book and his keenness and exploring and questioning it. He's a professor of philosophy and world religions and has read the God book more carefully than anyone I know, including me, because I find that he often will cite passages, you know, things God told me that at the moment I had put out of mind. But Richard, so it's very Good to see you and I very much appreciate your taking this time because you have a lot to do in your life I know.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:03:05] Well, good to see you too, Jerry. And and I'm glad to be able to have this dialog. I think your experiences are very interesting and unusual and raise endless questions, really, which are worth exploring. The title of your book is God an Autobiography as told to a Philosopher. I'm assuming that if God chose a philosopher to tell his autobiography to, then he is not going to be averse to some of the philosophical questions of that story.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:03:46] Yes, exactly.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:03:47] What I would I guess I'm hoping we'll be able to do is basically just have a conversation.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin Yes.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg A series of conversations about the book. I'll bring up questions that it raises in my mind and we can talk about it.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:04:02] Yes.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:04:03] And that's my thought.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:04:04] Yes, exactly. Well, where would you like to begin?
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:04:07] Well, why don't we begin . . . well, why don't you start simply by telling a little bit about how all this started for you or people who may not be familiar with that.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:04:17] Sure.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:04:18] I can take it from there and give some questions.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:04:21] Yes. Well, when God first spoke to me, I did not believe in God. I was a life . . . had been an agnostic my whole adult life and maybe back into childhood- it's hard to trace. And I was a happy agnostic. Some people worry over is there a God, is there not a God? I have found a lot of wisdom in the philosophical tradition. And that was not a burning question for me. It really was not a question on my agenda at all. I have never studied philosophy of religion, and yet I did have an experience remarkable for me. Having been divorced a number of years, my future wife called me on the phone one day and subsequently we actually were in a project that led us to talk almost daily. I fell in love with her on the phone - sight unseen.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:05:14] And this is Abigail.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:05:16] This is Abigail, Rosenthal is her publishing name. And, you know, I managed to court her via Amtrak. She was in New York teaching at Brooklyn College. I was in Washington, D.C., running a higher education organization where she had called me for help. The striking thing for me. people write about conversion experiences and they're dramatic, and for me, the conversion experience was falling in love. I didn't even believe in love. I thought I was looking for compatibility, you know, sort of like the dating services, you know, list your interests and hobbies and, you know, the values that matter most, you know, whatever. But this wasn't like that. It was more like, you know, lightning lit up the world. And as I say, it's as though I'd lived in a black and white world and the world suddenly had color. I lived in a two dimensional world and now it had depth. And so that was dramatic for me. And in fact, I ran and read a bunch of relationship books. So what is this? And novels. I found the novelists often had more insight than the psychologist, but. it was so remarkable and such a change. And I'd done nothing to bring this about. It was like a miracle. I didn't use that - I didn't have that concept. And I don't even know if I would call it that now. But it was certainly a dramatic intervention, let's say, into my life and a blessing, total blessing. So I I just felt this overwhelming urge one day to fall to my knees and say a prayer. I mean, reverted to the, you might say, the kind of religious training I had had as a child, you know, where I you get on your knees to pray ideally. And I addressed a prayer of thanks to, I didn't know what word to use, to the Lord. I didn't know who the Lord was. God of Israel. Jesus. The Lord Krishna, you know. the Hindus worship or just a benign universe. And I didn't worry over that question because I knew this was an authentic feeling. And although I had no beliefs about a recipient of such a prayer, I didn't see any reason I should not be expressing a genuine, overwhelming, authentic feeling. And so I did it. And it didn't change my belief system. I then thought, well, that was just a kind of momentary affusion, a feeling, I went on about my business. So about a month later, I had the same welling up. And this time when I offered a prayer of thanks, I added for some reason, out of the blue and offered to be of service to the Lord who and whom I did not believe. And again, I didn't make much of that, it was an emotional moment and just went on with my life. And then Abigail and I did have a problem. She was a tenured professor in New York. I was head of this organization in Washington, D.C. We did not want that kind of commuting marriage even less an affair. We wanted to create a life together. How are we going to do that? And so one day, sitting on a park bench on the Potomac opposite the Lincoln Memorial, I silently prayed for guidance again without forethought. You know, I wasn't thinking, oh, I better ask God what to do about this. That'll be an answer. It just kind of welled up a kind of natural question. You know, "Lord, how are we going to solve this?" Because it looked unsolvable and. Immediately, there was an experience, a kind of visual experience, I think in the old days, they would have called it a vision, but it was like a hologram - a rising sparkling, multicolored fountain and which I took as very positive reassurance. You know, things are going to work out the life force, you might say, is moving in the right direction and things will work out. But that wasn’t all.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:09:14] Yeah. And then you heard a voice.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:09:15] And then a voice spoke. And while it didn't sound that much unlike my own inner voice, I knew it wasn't me speaking in effect. I turned to see if Abigail heard it. She was sitting on a park bench beside me. She kept on undisturbed and. And so I ask, "who is this?" . . . it is not me talking, somebody is talking. . . "who is this?". "I am God." Well, I didn't know much about religion, but I knew other . . . many gods. I said, "the God of Israel?" "I am the God of all." And I didn't at that moment ponder the implication. How does that answer the question? What does that mean exactly? I just thought, wow, I've just had an experience. You know, God has just entered my life. And for me, agnosticism has now-- it rather goes out the window. I had a naturalistic world view. And I think, ah, like new data come in for a scientific experiment, that view has been disconfirmed.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:10:26] Did you feel that right away, Jerry? Upon hearing that voice for the first time? Did you question it yourself as to what is this or immediately sense that this is God?
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:10:43] Yeah, both. Both. And that was part of the peculiarity inside the experience. That it was God was undoubtable. The voice was too real and benign and sort of authoritative for that. However, I'm a philosopher doubting is what we do, right? We question everything that's what got Socrates killed, running around, questioning, "Do you really know what you think you know?" So, of course, I could step outside and say that this would be the easiest thing in the world. Be deluded it by the people down on the Times Square with placards "the world's about to end". They think God's talking to them. And so, of course, I had to doubt it. And because I knew you can't just stay within your experience. You also have to look at your experience from the outside, as it were, without denying the authority of the experience. You still scrutinize it. So. So I did have to go through that process especially since the voice continued to be available to me.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:11:50] Abigail was sitting right next to you. Did you did you mention it to her?
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:11:56] Only afterwards. I can't remember right away or when we got home. But, yeah, and I know looking at her, I was not surprised that she didn't hear it because I thought, well, maybe it's a voice just for me, but I wouldn't have been surprised if she had had heard it, because it certainly was kind of came in from out there, you might say. So, yes, I told her and she didn't say very much. I asked her later, why not as I had had these successive other occasions where God spoke up sometimes answering prayer. You know, sometimes just out of the blue. And sometimes it kind of to surprised me.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:12:36] And this was the - you never had an experience like this before?
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:12:40] Not at all like this. Abigail asked me that question at some point. And I first said no. But I then remember two experiences that are recorded in the book from from my early life. But neither one had the drama of God speaking.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:12:58] With the specificity nor the . . .
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:13:01] Yeah. No, they weren't verbal for one thing.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:13:04] Vague. You know that at least in my reading of them, they sounded a little bit more vague.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:13:10] Yes.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:13:11] Experiences of moments of transcendence.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:13:15] Yes. They're much more comparable. Something familiar to many religious people and even to non-religious people that you'll have moments where there's a kind of sacredness present. Things like that.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:13:28] I notice when you express the way God sounded to you in your head.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:13:34] Yes.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:13:35] I mean, God has a distinctive sound that you express, which is the kind of a calmness, a sense of authority as some sense of benignity or benign.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:13:48] Being completely benign. And because of the authority. I tried to do whatever the voice would sometimes tell me to do such and such. And I would try to do it because even though I should it had that kind of natural authority.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:14:35] Was the experience of the fountain, the only visible experience that you've ever had that you had in the context of this?
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:14:44] The only thing that you would call a vision, you know, that was sort of like a vision. I had a kind of I Thou, as I now think of it, I Thou relationship with, oddly enough, a drop of water when I was maybe in junior high. And, you know, there was so little to the experience. I didn't remember it at first, but of course, it never went away because it was still striking that it was as if well, I didn't know what to say other than as a child. But it was as though that drop of water had a lot more to it than I could imagine drops of water had and deserve a kind of reciprocity or respect or something, you know, as much part of beating as I was.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:15:30] How old were you when you did that?
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:15:34] Probably about 12 or 13. And just one moment. It wasn't as though then there were a series of I Thou with nature. It was that moment that just stuck. Yeah.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:15:48] You know, it always struck me in reading the book that there's a, I wouldn't quite say unspoken, but there's a clear connection, it seems to me, between your experience of falling in love with Abigail.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:16:03] Yes.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:16:03] And you're having this experience of God. I mean, the two seem somehow related to one another, as if the one was the condition for the other or created the possibility of the other.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:16:17] I think that's the right way to put it. It opened the door that previously had not been open, I might not have gone through that door and opened many doors after, you know, of course. And so it wasn't immediately obvious or the thing to do was to run off and believe in God. But you might be the way to put it is not so much from my decision making side is that it opened my soul. You know, part of being in love. And I remember this, you know, I've been divorced for many years and you develop almost a kind of armor that you used to get through life. And I remember this feeling that, oh, oh, some of this armor now needs to come off for Abigail and me . . . to let the love in . . . You might say.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:17:05] And the vision of the fountain seems almost like a little graphic of how it feels to us.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:17:11] That's true. Yes.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:17:14] It's pretty and multicolored. . .
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:17:17] Yes. And rising, yes. No, that was an empowering experience, as it turns out. Or a soul opening experience.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:17:28] One of the things that you don't go into very much in the book, but I think is interesting in the context of all of this, is on your own background, religious background.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:17:41] Right.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:17:42] You know, at the time that you had your experience, you describe yourself as a pious agnostic.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:17:48] Yes.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:17:49] And yet, in the course of the book, it becomes apparent anyway that you have at least certainly a knowledge of the Bible, a certain discomfort, even when you hear God say things that don't quite . . .
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:18:07] Fit my background?
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:18:11] And so I think would be interesting and worthwhile, both in terms of getting a better understanding of where you're coming from in this, and also in terms of thinking about the differences between what God tells you in the book and what traditional religion tells us. So you maybe say little bit about your own, your own religious background. Where did you grow up? Did your parents attend church? Did you attend church with them? How religious were they?
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:18:44] My early church going, the earliest I can remember, was during the years my family lived in Memphis, Tennessee, which is kind of home base for the Martin family. We lived in the attic apartment of the house owned by my dad's parents, for example. And my grandmother, who was, you know, lady of the house was Pentecostal of some kind.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:19:13] What did your dad do? Just out of curiosity.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:19:17] I come from a family of salesmen. My grandfather, my father. Most of the time did some kind of selling. My dad ended up running his own little company of selling pens and calendars to businesses. I used to always have a sample. You know, the ones with little ads on them. And he was a small businessman who liked and understood other small businessmen and was a very ethical businessman. So I learned a lot from what you know, watching him and as a rare but occasional preachments. So that's what they did. And my dad, I guess my earliest memories or my dad was it was a on the G.I. Bill going to Memphis State University, getting some degrees and preparing to go on in life. And my mother always worked. She was working at Sears, but there was not much religiosity in the home of those two parents. My dad was someone I know later in life at Thanksgiving. I asked, did he want to say Grace? He said, no, my prayers wouldn't pass the ceiling.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:20:27] Was this after your experience?
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:20:30] Yes, yes.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:20:31] You ask whether your dad would . . . Grace was not something that you practiced . . .
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:20:36] My mother was a very simple Baptist, very literal and puzzled by it all. And at the end of her life, was afraid she wasn't going to go to heaven, you know, that kind of thing. And I had to assure her she was also very smart and canny, I assured her that for sure she was going to go. She said "How do you know?" She played the role you sometimes play with me. How do you know this? How do you know that? And so she was so probing and hard to answer.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:21:08] Were they still alive when you first began to have these experiences?
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:21:12] Yes. Yes. They both had long lives and then they were married. . . My mother was right out of. . . My mother was a high school senior when my dad met her. And he said she looked like an overdeveloped 14 year old when he saw her dance, but he went for her and dropped by school everyday after that. He asked her," how old are you?" She said, "Well, I'll be 18 and in a week." And he said, "Well, that's close enough so we can move forward." And anyway, he was 19, but already working the way people did back then. This was the area of the Texas panhandle back then. And so my mother had grown up in Little Baptist Church in a tiny town of a thousand people in the Texas Panhandle and hadn't finished high school. So she was very, very clever, shrewd woman. But because of my grandmother's presence, when we're in Memphis, we went to the Pentecostal church. I found it frankly scary because it's awful scary because they would speak in tongues. They would kind of get off into rants. Even a little Sunday school where you're supposed to be looking at, you know, Jesus with the children and so forth and nice little Bible stories. That's what our book had. But somehow the teacher would start carrying on and tears flowing down her cheeks and so forth. And, you know, I'm kind of like what's going on. It was later because of that, my parents actually moved to California. My dad had been stationed in San Diego and they like the climate out there. So later they left Memphis. moved to San Diego and Oral Roberts came. Who is a fantastic preacher and an evangelist. this was in California and we went to that and almost like Pascal's Wager. Where he's trying to figure out, you know, how do you place your bets in life? The best deal . . . the Baptist was always taught, if you die before the age of reasons, which seem to be about 12 years old, you automatically go to heaven. And so I could never figure out as a child, why is everybody crying so much when a child dies? They should be like, woah well that one really escaped the chief hazard of life, you know, which this is in California, now. So I had that in my mind. Uh Oh, I'm at the age of reason now. Better cover my bets. Yet It was a very moving sermon. I can remember it still where Judas Iscariot . . . he tells Judas . . . is committing suicide. Don't do it. Don't do it Judas! But Oral Roberts saying don't do Judas, he's at the same time he's playing Judas and making out of the chord of his microphone, making a noose and plexus around he head. So just a tremendous sermon. And so I went forward and then they sent me off to a little side tent with a very nice woman and to pray over me. And I remember at the time hoping that I would feel transformed or, you know, saved or something. And other than the chill in the air, I remember it was very cold out there and down on my knees on the kind of damp ground almost teeth chattering. And I was trying to think maybe that's a spiritual experience. No, no, it's not at all. I'm just uncomfortable. And I thought, thanked the very nice woman and I filled out her card. But those are the kinds of experiences I have. The problem is, if you're in a Baptist environment and you've got the kind of mentality that's going to end up being a philosopher, you're full of questions and you're a bit of a rationalist, you know. Everything's got to connect and they've got to have an answer for everything. And the Baptist, I was around didn't have answers for anything. But the answers were very, you know, just extraordinarily shallow. They hardly count his answers at all.
Dr. Richard Oxenberg [00:25:08] Did you do a lot of questioning as a kid?
Dr. Jerry L. Martin [00:25:11] Well, the main thing I would question I didn't have I don't have a skeptical temperament exactly. But I wonder about things. And and I mainly felt like the children going to heaven thing the three that there are a lot of inconsistencies often between what they said and how they lived. I thought, why is somebody talking so much about Sunday clothing? But they would. Didn't sister so-and-so look so great in that white dress and so on. Or we got a dress. I thought it was supposed to be the state of your soul that mattered. Not, you know, did you wash behind your ears? And is that a nice dress? And so forth. So I felt those things. I do credit something from that religious background that I still value, continue to value, which is the sense I got in spite of the theology being, you know, so flimsy, was that the state of your soul is the most important thing in life. And when you say philosophy, as you know Richard, Plato, Aristotle, many of the other great, you know, in his own a different way, Spinoza would say. And so on. That's the teaching of the wisest of the philosophers. So that's part of why, since I didn't need to look back to religion, that you can live a noble life if you just live it according to Plato and Aristotle.
Scott Langdon [00:27:12] 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.