By Corry Pelsor
Lost on the upper west side - not lost exactly, but not completely sure where I am except that Central Park is now two blocks east of me - I'm confronted by a stranger with a familiar refrain.
"Excuse me, do you have...."
"Sorry, man I don't have any change," I cut him off tersely as I tuck my chin and hurry by. It's most humane not to lead them on, isn't it?
"Man I'm not looking for change! I'm looking for that green! You gotta give me a dollar!" he hollers at my back. Apparently, inflation affects even the homeless.
I chuckle. What he said was funny.
I turn around, "Yeah man, I've got a dollar." He smiles wide, revealing a noticeable gap where a front tooth should be. Still, he has a kind face.
We exchange names. He is Leif. "Let me ask you Corry, do you believe in God?"
Although I've been in New York long enough to know better, I'm forced to concede to myself that even Jesus was homeless. I nod, "Yeah, sure."
"You're one of the good ones, Corry. You came back and you were generous with me so I'm going to be generous with you."
Leif launches into a story about new-age author Neil Donald Walsh who has written a book called A Conversation With God - a book that begins with the author sitting down to write an angry letter to God, and finding that through his pen God is responding. The rest of the story then takes on the form of a dialogue between the author and God himself. Leif quotes specific passages verbatim, three pages worth. I know because I later buy the book. As he speaks I stand in rapt attention. What's more unbelievable? A bum quoting new age scripture word for word, or someone in New York City actually stopping to listen? Humor me and momentarily suspend your disbelief.
"So this author, Neil, finishes his angry frustrated letter with 'I'm venting, but if these questions have answers, I'd sure as hell like to hear them.' To his surprise, the pen began to move of it's own accord and he looked down to read, 'You are sure as hell about a lot of things, but wouldn't it be nice to be sure as heaven?"
As he recites this line Leif's voice lightens, his mouth breaks into that gap-toothed smile, and his voice seems to radiate a calm warmth that I find hypnotic.
Leif continues, "So this author, Neil, asks a question that he's been wondering for a very long time... How does God speak and to whom? And God responds, 'I talk to everyone all the time, the question is not to whom do I speak, but..." - at this point Leif pauses and looks at me expectantly.
I find I know the answer to his silent pop-quiz: "Who listens?"
Happy to find I'm paying attention Leif continues, "When asked to expand God explains, 'First let's exchange the word talk with the word communicate. It's a much better word, a much fuller, more accurate one. When we try to speak to each other - Me to you, you to Me, we are immediately constricted by the unbelievable limitation of words. For this reason, I do not communicate by words alone. In fact, rarely do I do so. My most common form of communication is through feeling. Feeling is the language of the soul. If you want to know what's true for you about something look to how you're feeling about it. Feelings are sometimes difficult to discover - and often even more difficult to acknowledge. Yet hidden in your deepest feelings is your highest truth. I also communicate with thought. Thought and feelings are not the same, although they can occur at the same time. In communicating with thought, I often use images and pictures. For this reason, thoughts are more effective than mere words as tools of communication. In addition to feelings and thoughts, I also use the vehicle of experience as a grand communicator. And finally when feelings and thoughts and experience all fail, I use words. Words are really the least effective communicator. They are most open to misinterpretation, most often misunderstood... Words are merely utterances: noises that stand for feelings, thoughts and experience. .. Now the irony here is that you have all placed so much emphasis on the word of God and so little on the experience."
And here is MY experience. I stand here on a darkened street corner, a cold wind biting through my winter parka, and a homeless man, quoting a new age whack-job, utters the most true statement about God I have ever heard. I feel this in a visceral way that makes my skin tingle and grow hot from the tops of my ears to the bottom of my neck. For a few moments we just stand there in silence nodding, smiling. Two men who are separated by age, economic class, social status, and skin color have suddenly found a like identity in a shared understanding of God.
French sociologist Emile Durkheim would say this is the experience of religion.
I thank Leif, we part ways. I later buy the books. They are exactly where he tells me I can find them. I will lose interest and stop reading halfway through book two.
So what do I conclude? It's easy to write off religion with the rationale that we get so much wrong in the name of God that it's simply too dangerous a phenomenon for poor gullible mankind. One need only read a newspaper or turn on a TV to find various self-proclaimed men and women of God justifying all types of discrimination, stratification, and violence.
Yet it seems to me that to deny religion completely is to deny something that is inherently human. Every society, every culture, every race, has had religion for as long as we've recorded our history. And if two people in one of the most stratified, discriminating, and violent places on earth could set aside their differences and bask for a moment in the glory of a shared understanding of what God could be, there has to be hope for religion - and by association hope for us all.
I hope that these words will reach people, and reach them in a way that Leif reached me, in a hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck stirring, let me reconsider my religious philosophy kind of way. I hope that people will read this and see not just the danger of an author writing us his version of what God might say but also the potential of every human being saying, "God is not what someone else tells me, he's the experiences that make me say I am more human than I am my job, title, or net-worth." I hope people share all their most positive feelings and they spread and spread like a disease until we experience world peace, equal rights, health care for everyone, and environmentally sustainable solutions to all our industrial woes.
Of course, if it doesn't, I won't be surprised or deterred, after all I know that words are the least effective communicator, they are the most open to misinterpretation, most often misunderstood. Words are merely utterances: noises that stand for feelings, thoughts and experience.