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Book Recommendation: The Trace of God by Joseph Hinman

June 1, 2014

I don’t remember what year it was or exactly how old I was when it happened.  The kids were young: that much I remember, so I must have been in my mid-40s.  It was summer– I remember that, too.  

I was standing in our tiny back yard behind the kitchen door, under a sky filled with stars. I think it was about 10 or 11 pm.  I was alone. For some reason more stars were showing than usual; maybe some of the street lights were out.  It was very quiet.
I looked up into the stars and thought of God.

And then. . . 

Something indescribable fell away from my ordinary sense of things.  Perhaps it was the careful, reasoned categories I was accustomed to use to frame my thoughts.  I had a sensation of being lifted up and up, though I also knew I was still standing solidly in the night-sweet grass.  Over the horizon the moon swept up; it was a gibbous moon, about two-thirds full.  And I saw.

Saw that all things were part of a serene and purposeful whole.  Saw that I myself was a valued and necessary part of that whole, as were the trees, the grass, the stars, the moon, and the minuscule flying creatures that brushed my face.  Felt a tender, loving purpose guiding it all towards some unknowable but beautiful end.  

“All is well. All is one.  am here.”

It wasn’t a message spoken in words, but an indescribable knowing that was frankly impossible to doubt or question.  I didn’t question it.  I breathed quickly, flutteringly– completely astonished yet completely at ease, completely accepted and accepting.

Slowly, slowly the feeling faded, drained away.  I was left there in the dark grass again, myself again, and I turned and drifted back through the door and into bed and sleep.

But I have never forgotten, and I have never been the same.  The memory of joy– joy present in part now and expectant of fullness in time to come, has ever since held in peace the foundations of my soul. 

————-

“There is no proof of your god.”

Several years before the experience I have shared above, I had a crisis of faith.  In my early 40s I encountered on the Internet people who knew a lot more about science than I did and who insisted that if something was real, science would support that it was real.  I found I didn’t know how to answer them.  “There is no proof,” the atheists said, and I knew they were right.  Anything that seemed to me to be a good enough reason to believe, was never going to be enough for scientific rationalism.  So what if they were right, and I was wrong?  Supposing I was only deluding myself about the existence of God?

I remember my frustration, how I cried to the heavens, “God, couldn’t you just give one incontrovertible proof? Something so we could be sure?”

But there was no answer.  God, it seemed– if he existed– felt no need to answer such a prayer.  Or maybe he couldn’t, because he wasn’t really there. . .

For months I struggled, suspended between faith and doubt.  And then an online friend directed me to the Doxa website.  “Doxa” means “glory,” and the website author, scholar/theologian Joe Hinman (who calls himself “Metacrock” online) showed me that the real problem was that I was letting the skeptics determine the rules of engagement, playing the rationalists’ game on their own playing field.

They said my God was a big imaginary friend in the sky.  They made it sound so silly. But Doxa helped me see that I didn’t– and needn’t– believe in that little straw-man deity anyway.

The scientific rationalists said I needed to question all my assumptions.  But I began to understand that they were leaving most of their own assumptions unquestioned.  Could their assertion that everything that is real can be scientifically verified, itself be scientifically verified?

If I must doubt my faith, couldn’t I also doubt their skepticism?

“Why should  I mistrust my own experiences of God’s presence?” Joe Hinman taught me to ask. After all, we don’t mistrust other things we experience.  We don’t doubt that the chair we’re sitting in will hold us, unless we have some good reason to think something has gone wrong with our senses.  We don’t have to accept the self-proclaimed expert in science as an expert in metaphysics.  Nor need we accept the standard of “absolute proof” in terms of scientific categories that may be inadequate for the phenomenon in the first place.  We can have good, reasonable reasons — what Hinman calls a “rational warrant” to believe.  His newer website, The Religious A Priori, explores belief and rational warrant from a number of different angles.

And now Joe Hinman has encapsulated some of his best thinking into a new book: The Trace of God: A Rational Warrant for Belief.

The Trace of God is a scholarly work, but written in a style that a layperson can follow.  Its main point is that experiences like the one I describe above (called “religious experiences” or “peak experiences”*) do constitute good evidence, even from a scientific point of view, of the existence of God.

God can’t be absolutely proven, Hinman says, because God is “not just another thing in the universe.” God is the source and foundation of everything material and empirical; God is not material himself, nor is the sense of God conveyed in human empirical senses such as sight or hearing.  Instead we must look for the “co-determinate”:

The co-determinate is like. . . a fingerprint.  The trace is the sign that always accompanies the thing itself.  In other words, you can’t see the invisible man, but you can see his footprints, and wherever he is in the snow his footprints will always follow.  We cannot directly observe God, but we can find the “trace,” the co-determinate, the effect of God in the world. [p. 67]

Religious experience, and especially “peak” experience, is that footprint in the snow.  Hinman spends several chapters detailing the methodology and findings of the many careful scientific/sociological studies that have measured and quantified religious experience.  He details the real, empirical effects of these studies on those who experience them, in terms of their “ultimate, transformative effects”:

The effects of these experiences are dramatic, positive and long-term. . . There is data to suggest that religious experience has enabled addicts to get off of heroin, alcoholics to stop drinking and even helps people quit smoking. . . [there is] a clear feeling of meaning in life. Many speak of losing their fear of death. [p. 85]

Hinman goes on (pp. 88-89) to highlight the findings of several studies showing that those who have peak experiences:

  • Are less likely to value material possessions and money or status
  • Give greater value to work for social change, solving social problems, helping the needy
  • Are reflective, inner-directed, self-aware, self-confident
  • Are less authoritarian and dogmatic**
  • Exhibit integration, allocentrism
  • Exhibit psychological maturity
  • Show self-acceptance, self-worth
  • Exhibit autonomy, authenticity
  • Experience increased love and compassion

Hinman then spends several more chapters exploring the views of dissenting thinkers and alternate explanations for these transformative effects, and explaining why authentic experience of the divine is the explanation that most reasonably fits the phenomena.  For instance, the fact that children often have spontaneous peak experiences precludes the idea that this is a specialized state of mind caused by the self-discipline of meditation.

Finally, at the end of the book he addresses how his understanding of religious and peak experience (which can and does occur in all religious traditions and even happens at times to the non-religious) fits into a Christian viewpoint.  Hinman is himself an orthodox Christian, though he does not identify with the evangelical tradition.

I found the book enlightening and uplifting, and was also intrigued to find that the incident in my backyard under the stars was a quintessential “peak experience.”  It certainly has had transformative effects on my life! I am less fearful of the future, more anchored and confident, and better able to navigate the trials of life (not that I never doubt or have disappointments in my faith, but that my memories of that time are something I can always fall back on).

As Hinman puts it:

[R]eligious experience enables us to know who we are and where we are going, fills us with purpose and gives us the sense that our lives are on track. . . It also enables us to face life’s trammels and bitter experiences.  The upshot of the argument is that RE [religious experience] works for navigation in the world. . . it helps us live and make choices and keep going in a complex world. . . . [ p. 100]

I was honored to be one of those who got to preview this exciting book (which is now available for purchase).  I hope many others will enjoy it too

———————–

*Note: Hinman uses the term “religious experience” to describe a variety of experiences on a sliding scale from the frequently felt sensation of a presence in prayer or worship, to the more rare, apex-type experience (what happened to me in my backyard is an example). This latter type he calls “peak experience” after Abraham Maslow’s “M-scale” studies; see for instance p. 86.

**Note: The Trace of God is not concerned with cultic, authoritarian or spiritually abusive forms of religious involvement; indeed, my only real criticism of the book is that I think Hinman should have spent a little more time on the existence of this type of religious practice and its nearly opposite, negative effects, in order to differentiate this from normative religious experience.  However, he does briefly mention (as I myself have experienced) that often it is genuine religious experience that helps people endure and move out of authoritarian religious control.

 

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