Tough Questions from Cheryl Ensom Dack

My new friend, Cheryl Ensom Dack - guest editor of - recently had some comments I wanted to share with you.  She writes:
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My experience with God is... sketchy. I read "the book"  :) I have heard countless people say they know things/have experienced things with God. But it's been hard to believe that a real God who is all that others say he is would only reveal himself personally to some and not to others. That in many ways contradicts the nature that those who say they've experienced God say they've experienced! I don't KNOW God. Can I have faith in him? Not really. I can't have faith in something I've not directly experienced. I can think MAYBE it's true, real, etc. I can even think it probably is, but until I have a direct experience that persuades me personally that there is a God, I can't KNOW if it's so or not. I can choose to trust you or someone else who says you have experienced God, but truly that means I am having faith in YOU, not God. I'm having faith in the inerrancy of the Gospels. I'm having faith in the accuracy of the disciples' accounts. I am not having faith in God. To have faith in God would require that I had had a PERSONAL EXPERIENCE of God that engendered trust. On the contrary, my experiences have been that I have tried to have a personal experience in every way I could possibly come up with, including just plain sobbing/begging for years, and the fact is, it didn't happen. So my personal experience is actually one that adds up to God probably not being real, at least not in the "Christian" sense. I have personal experience with there being a spiritual dimension to life. I've seen, heard, touched, felt that. But a personal God? Not so much. I guess I'm saying that I had faith in OTHERS for a few decades, and now I'm not going to do that anymore. When it comes to God/beliefs that form my decisions, perspective, etc... I will not allow my beliefs to be built on faith in others' experiences any longer. I can't tell my children, "Well, we brought you up, telling you thus-and-so was true because so-and-so told us that thus-and-so was true." That's no explanation! I must know something to say I believe in it and that requires a personal experience with it.

So here's another question: Carl Jung and lots of people I've been reading who practice Jungian psychology talk about a "knowing"/intuitiveness/wildness" that is in all of us. They even talk about a collective consciousness... almost as though each of our individual "knowing places" are the nerves that end up connecting to a common brain or something... Jung believed that's why we see common "archetypal" themes showing up in our dreams; the fairy tales, the folklore and the dramas in our individual lives. So how does that strike you? When I've asked my children if they have a "knowing place" they, without pause or reflection, immediately say, "yes, of course." They are quite familiar with it. I asked a roomful of kindergartners I was subbing for this last Spring and they all said the same. I asked them where that knowing place was and about 98% of them pointed to their chests. A couple pointed to their tummies! I've had some experience of this "knowing place." I know it's real... Wondering what you think about it.

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Really great questions, Cheryl.  I'm particularly drawn to your comments about taking the word/testimonies of others' experiences as fodder for one's own faith.  Too regularly, domestic faith relies on the "promises" of others to validate and prove itself.

God can do better.  So can we.


Ira said...

Interesting stuff. I would wonder if Cheryl hasn't, in fact, had experiences similar to her friends' and acquaintances that they are willing to narrate (and believe in) as experiences of God that she is not willing to interpret in the same way.

Or perhaps they really have had a different set of experiences. I don't think this sort of thing can be sorted out with any definitude. But I think it's worth asking the question: I you had the same experience would you necessarily interpret it the same way as the next person?

One of the most profound "mystical" experiences I've ever had is one in which I saw, with pristine clarity, that there is no conscious afterlife. Doesn't exactly line up with the script, does it?

Peter J Walker said...

I'm not sure it's helpful to specifically doubt Cheryl's testimony about herself, but your point is well taken Ira: we all experience the same phenomenae differently. That probably means that we share far more experiences in common than we realize - they're just perceived and communicated differently.

It may be why so many Christians can't seem to get past the name "Allah" when our Muslim neighbors talk about their love and reverence for God. We're not all that different, but we assume we are because the words and contexts are framed differently.

My wife has not had the spiritual experiences I have. But I'm not sure I've really had spiritual "experiences" in the first place. What I have are emotions and perceptions that I relate to an intimate relationship with God.

While my Christian history is not all positive, my general lack of bad or abusive experiences in the church allows me to positively connect God with my positive feelings and perceptions. The fact that I have a highly emotional, passionate, idealistic/optimistic bent to my strongly ENFP personality probably makes all of these elements coalesce as "spirituality" much easier. Another personality, with a different set of experiences, would connect the dots very differently. OR, connect the dots the same, not intuitively, but by specific direction from the church.

And I'm not saying my dots aren't connected by the church. To be sure, many of them are. Now I'm feeling out what the picture looks like if I start drawing the line to those dots over there instead...

Ira said...

Yes -- Cheryl should enjoy (or insist on, rather) the privilege of narrating her life to herself without having me do it for her.

My point was the one you ferreted out nicely: the underlying ambiguity of even our own experiences. "I know what I saw" is the indignant cry of the person whose perception is being challenged but there is always that nagging question at the back of every such perception: Do you?

Peter J Walker said...

I assumed so. Thanks Ira ;)

Cheryl Ensom Dack said...

Just saw this. Funny to read people talking about me! I don't know if I've ever experienced that! LOL :) Only wish we could all sit and have the conversation in a coffee house or something, "in real life."

Yes, Ira (and Peter), I agree...I am confident that if you asked other people in my life if I've experienced God as being real, they would say yes. Here's an example:

I haven't been to church in a couple years, with the exception of a handful of times. Two times I went to two different unitarian/universalist churches. And then one time I went to the most charismatic black church you could ever hope to find. It was like being in another country. The music was nothing like the hymns or even the contemporary worship I'm accustomed to in the evangelical church. It was joyful, loud and raucous. People participated with more than just their mouths and their hands. It was beautiful!

The pastor was one who "knows" things about people. He would pick some random people out of the crowd and pray for them, give them a "word from the Lord," or even heal them. I was sitting there with my friend and her family, in a very dark place in my life...probably the most hopeless I've ever been. I was ALMOST hoping the pastor would pray for me, that he would see something in me and tell me something from God. At the same time, I knew I couldn't trust such an experience, having had so many before that turned out to be b.s. and knowing that I just don't believe in such things. But. that doesn't mean I don't wish it were all true. It doesn't mean I don't wish I could believe in it. It doesn't mean I don't miss that blind faith, that hope that today is going to be the day when God finally relates to me personally.

So you can probably guess that the pastor DID pick me out and pray for me. He knew things about me he shouldn't know...I think. Maybe I just wanted the things he said to be things he "knew" and not just good guesses. He dragged me up on the stage and had a bunch of people gather around me and pray for me. I just sobbed, for about 40 million reasons. And the whole time, I knew I didn’t believe that it was “real.” The pastor said that God was going to do such-and-such and so-and-so and asked if I believed that. I said, “No, I don’t,” which I don’t think is the appropriate response in that type of situation! He asked again: “Do you have faith that God is going to bring healing into your life and…” and I said, “No, I don’t know if I do.” He just kept praying and then gave me his phone number and asked me to call him that week so that we could meet and talk. I agreed.

I called him that week. I called him three times, actually. One time we even made an appointment, which he cancelled. The last time he never returned my call. I will always wonder why. Was it too scary to deal with someone like me? Was he just too busy? I was in such a dark place I was willing to talk to him, hear him out, even if it was just to give someone who smiled kindly into my eyes and hugged me in a warm, fatherly kind of way a chance. He had looked into my eyes that day on the stage in front of everyone and said, “You have the most beautiful eyes. You are just precious. You are such a lovable little person and God loves you.” Maybe that’s why I was going to at least have a conversation with the guy. I was lonely, afraid, grieving and broken. Longing to be loved.

I could have gone to the church again. I could have tried praying again. I tried reading the Bible again for a bit there…just to see…? I don’t know. Hoping again, I guess. But I wouldn’t ask. Not again. Not AGAIN. I couldn’t ask that God meet me, make himself known to me, address me personally, somehow show he was moved by me. Not again. Perhaps reading this will explain a bit about why:

(to be continued - too long for one comment)

Cheryl Ensom Dack said...


I’ve had a few people tell me that my problem is that I took the “personal relationship with Jesus” business too literally. That I expected too much. That I have waited for some kind of HUMAN connection with Jesus that isn’t possible…he’s GOD, after all, not human. Some even try to tell me that addressing me in a human-type-personal way is inferior to addressing me in the God-type-personal way. They’ve tried to convince me that my longing for God to address me in a human way is a problem…even na├»ve.

That may be. The problem is I spent decades pouring over books by Christian authors: biographies, contemplative works, diaries, etc. I spent decades sitting in churches, youth groups, Bible studies, etc. and I know what I heard. I know what I read. I can’t un-know that stuff. What I read and what I heard is that there is a personal RELATIONSHIP that is possible with God. I read and heard what others say they’ve experienced. I couldn’t be satisfied with anything less. In fact, for years and YEARS I wanted not just a personal relationship with Jesus like other Christians wrote and said that they had, but to be closer to God than any other human being ever had been. I had learned that it was about desiring it, about being open to it, about surrendering, about wanting nothing MORE than that.

I’m telling you: I wanted it more. I surrendered. I gave up everything. I was willing to die. I couldn’t have wanted God to make himself personal to me more. And there was nothing.

So I guess, Ira, I’m just saying that I agree: I think others would say I’ve experienced God “personally,” just as much as the next Christian has. But that’s not what I wanted. That’s not what I longed for. That’s not what I begged for, on my knees, face in the carpet, snot streaming out of my nose, screaming. For years. I couldn’t have wanted anything more.

It’s like hearing a lover tell you how much they love you, how they will love you forever, all the wonderful things your lives together will be, but then in real life, they are unmoved by you, ignore your pleas for closeness or walk away from you when you want to give all of yourself to them. There were promises. Hopes. Dreams. But not reality. It’s no good to hear that if I’d….blah blah blah…it would have ended differently. In the end, I gave all I had, all I was and it either wasn’t enough, or I was longing after an illusion that was just that: an illusion.

It doesn’t really matter which one it is. If it’s that there’s a God who wants more than I gave, I have no use for such a cold God. If it’s that there’s a God who only personally relates to some people and not others, I’ll just sit here and wait to see if I am so favored. If God comes after me, so be it. We’ll deal with that when it happens. But I’m done begging. I’m done waiting. I’m done pretending.

It sounds so dismal and hopeless, this “being done.” I know that! But the funny thing is, it’s not. It’s OH SO MUCH LESS HOPELESS than the three decades I lived hoping, waiting, begging, longing and pretending. Now I can just live. And stop feeling I’m flawed or too…something…or not…something. I’m me. I feel what I feel. I see what I see. I hear what I hear. I believe what I experience. I’m open. To God, even. I’m not closed to God! I just am not running after God any longer.

Well that was a novel. Sorry, guys.

Peter J Walker said...

Incredible, Cheryl.

I once had a pastor at a very charismatic church pray to heal my migraines - in front of lots of people. He prayed in tongues, lots of show and fanfare from the "audience..." he checked in: "do you still have a headache?"


He prayed some more. Lots of gibberish.

"How about now?"

"Still have a headache."

Reminds me of your less-than-desired response to that pastor, Cheryl.

Anyway, he kept praying, and eventually got angry with me and asked if I had ever been involved in witchcraft.

No, I hadn't.

We'll then someone must have cursed me. That's right: someone I knew was a witch. And I was cursed. And his speaking-in-tongues couldn't beat it.

Ah well. Try, try again...

Ira said...

What great stories, from both of you -- and Cheryl, I'm pleased for the opportunity to use second person. :)

I'm wondering if, after all this time, you would even trust such an experience if it came your way. I don't say that to scold; I wouldn't trust such an experience, either. I know my own capacity for self-delusion only too well.

I think there's a point some of us reach (or start out at?) where the usual "consolations" don't work because we don't really believe in them, on some level. We know we might be making it up. We know there's no logic or sense to the metrics by which some people get these really profound experiences of God and others don't.

It reminds me of the frontier religions in which people would go to the prayer rail at the front of the church and "pray through" until they'd received some sign from God that they were saved. "Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior" is a gospel song that speaks to this (and Lyle Lovett does a kick-ass version, btw.).

I once had hands laid on me -- I was even anointed with oil -- so as to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. In that moment, I felt like I was close, that I could open my mouth and produce something that at least resembled tongues, if not be the real thing (I'm trying not to presume here). It was, so to speak, at the tip of my tongue. But I backed away from the experience, because it felt too agentic on my part, too much like I was ultimately realizing a script. It was not the sort of thing that simply washed uncontrollably over me, and that's what I was expecting.

Isn't there a point at which we recognize that others are receptive to experiences that we are not, with those experiences being real to them in ways they are not to us, because of what we believe (implicitly or explicitly) about the nature of experience itself? At the risk of being uncharitable on many levels, it strikes as being like watching others take a placebo and getting the desired effect. The effect is often very real, and yet it is unavailable to you because you know it's a placebo. This sounds haughty and arrogant but there's also a sense in which they are getting something we cannot. [I will refrain from making Matrix references at this point, though I am sorely tempted.]

For what it's worth, Cheryl, you have company in Emily Dickinson and Simone Weil (I think you quote Weil on your blog). And some schmuck who blogs as "Ira."

Peter J Walker said...

Great response, Ira. Really good stuff. I had to look up "agentic" but yeah, that's hitting it on the nose.

I've come close myself, and ultimately convinced myself to fake speaking in tongues in certain circles. I knew I was doing it. But I felt something like what you're saying - that it seemed close... almost true... but it wasn't. Not for me, ultimately.

I know what you're saying about your comments sounding haughty or arrogant, but I think there's something really true - and really enviable about being able to believe those things, and thus, experience them. In the video interview I did with Cheryl (above) I mentioned how - if I could buy into simple, easy religion based on unquestioning belief - I might still take it. Because it's easier. It makes you feel good. And it makes you feel right. And that feels very validating. But I can't buy that sort of thing (despite the fact that in smaller ways, parts of me still probably do).

It's funny though. I think my wife Jen sees my "relationship" with Jesus in a similar way to how we're talking about charismatic spiritual phenomena. I don't think she entirely believes that what I have is true (and objectively, she might be right) and so she can't experience what I experience in my prayer life.

I'm cynical enough to know that what I experience is highly subjective and emotion-based, and not much different from folks jumping in the aisles, but somehow I've managed to hold onto enough of it that I can continue viewing Christ as "near" as I always have. It's the underlying reason I continue to call myself an Evangelical...

Cheryl Ensom Dack said...

Ira, I love The Matrix. I think it’s one of the most stunning pictures of what my “knowing” says the reality of this life is. The idea that there is something else…that what I see/feel/hear/touch/taste isn’t the end of the story…that there are other realities at play I just don’t perceive because I’m not awake to them…gawd, there’s so much there.

I’ve thought about what you said about my probably not trusting an “experience” of God if it was in front of me, after all this time, and I think you’re right. At the same time, though, if there’s a God in the sense that I grew up hearing/reading about it, that God would know exactly how I most needed to be communicated with and would find a way to reach me. The idea of a God who hides himself so well, so that humans are left wondering, is so…odd. Why? An evangelical Christian would probably answer me by saying, “Well, Cheryl, that’s where faith comes in. God asks that we trust and believe by faith. And he’s not hiding at all! Look around you! ‘Nature tells of the glory of god, etc.”

In this very familiar explanation of why God is so hard to find and leaves seeming ambiguities all over the place, I’m the one who has the problem: I’m the one needing God to meet me on my terms, rather than on his terms.

My reply? HELL, YA, I’m needing God to meet me on my terms! I would have been content with any of the signs of himself God supposedly gave to folks in the Old Testament: burning bushes, some magic writing on rocks, donkeys talking, wet fleeces, dry fleeces, voices, wrestling or any number of other physical manifestations of God being involved in every day life. Any of those would have been fantastic!

I know the evangelical response to that, too. I’m no fun, am I??? J The response to that is that God HAD to give those signs to folks in the Old Testament because Jesus hadn’t come yet. Now we have the Bible. Now we have the Holy Spirit.

So now we’re back to believing someone else’s claim that the Bible is inerrant and basing an entire belief system, or even a life, on someone else’s word for it. And again my response is, I haven’t had a direct experience that would allow me to believe that’s so. I’m saying I won’t have “faith” in someone else’s experience of God.

(to be continued)

Cheryl Ensom Dack said...

Peter, I thought I had tongues for awhile, too. I was skeptical about the whole tongues deal, having grown up in non-Pentacostal churches/family. So when I attended a Four-Square church all through high school and discovered that basically the whole church except for me could speak in tongues, I felt a little left out. I got prayed for a dozen times but then at a random camp (not even a church camp) I felt this emotional “wave” and my mouth felt like moving and nonsense came out and I chalked it up to “tongues.” I was slightly unnerved by a visiting missionary’s story about a tongues-related occurence, though. He said one of the nationals from the village where he serves came to the U.S. with him and in one of the services, someone stepped up and said they had a “message from the Lord,” and proceeded to say a whole string of things in tongues. The national guy was horrified and after the church service he told the missionary guy, “That man was blaspheming God in my language!” So that kind of creeped me out.

Over time I realized I had just felt pressure to have a spiritual language and that I was saying the same nonsense sounds I heard every week from people around me. I don’t believe I had the gift of tongues at all.

I guess where I’m at, Ira and Peter, is a place where there is no longer fear of hell. Peter’s recent blog post speaks to this issue and I, too, have “taken hell off the table.” For me, with hell off the table, I don’t HAVE to believe/not believe anything. There’s nothing I have to pressure myself into buying into or conjuring up enough “faith” in. there’s nothing I have to turn away from because I can see out of the corner of my eye that it’s going to set me on a course of doubt/disbelief in my faith if I look it full in the face...

Cheryl Ensom Dack said...

I’m open. I’m searching. But not with the frenzy I once had when I was in doubting/questioning mode, trying to hurry up and figure it out so I could go back to a place where I wouldn’t rock the boat or incur the disapproval of friends/family. I NEEDED to believe Christian theology/doctrine. I don’t anymore.

Ira, it looks like you are a professor in religion? I read you were involved in church leadership of some kind recently. Wondering if you feel you NEED to believe anything? Do you mind sharing if you feel afraid of going to hell if you believe the wrong things/don’t believe the right things? You can email me if you don’t want to comment this stuff.

Peter J Walker said...

Cheryl, the length of your responses are really putting Blogger to the test. Sorry for all the comment trouble - I think that was the problem though. It just can't handle your verbosity ;)

That's a wild story about tongues!

Taking hell off the table is all well and good - which I do - but what we do next is the real indication of whether or rejection of hell is constructive, or just catharsis.

Enjoying this dialogue!

Ira said...


I don't mind answering. Up until very recently I was a part-time worship coordinator for a large church in our area. They hired a full-time person so my official staff role is over but my family is still active at the church. Later this morning I will be playing keyboard in the worship band.

"Ira" is a pseudonym that grew out of the title of by blog, which I have kept anonymous (or now, I suppose, pseudonymous) to avoid the social pressure of having my theological aberrations known. :)

I'm not (exactly) a professor of religion. I actually teach writing. But my field is American Studies and my research focus is religion and politics in America, particularly Christian anarchism and the anarchist ramifications of a pacifist ethics (I write about this in my latest blog post).

I have no fear of hell. I have not believed in an afterlife, or in God in the conventionally theist sense, in almost a decade. Certainly taking hell off the table freed me in interesting ways.

I love theology, and do not consider myself an atheist. Atheism is far too certain for my taste. We have no way of knowing what lies beyond, whether it be God, or not-God, or any one of endless permutations of God or not-God. What we call "God" could be any damn thing, or no damn thing at all.

Atheist like to point out that theists reject all gods but their own, and atheists just take that one step farther. My rejoinder is that atheists reject all speculative metaphysical constructs but their own -- I just take them one step farther. :)

Ira said...

Shameless plug here, but I mention this exchange in a new post:

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