Jerry, reflection on your experience of hearing God speak to you reminds me of others with similar accounts, and both lead me to consider a variety of questions. Various people in history have said God spoke to them, and now a friend of mine, whose sanity and rationality I do not doubt, is one of them. What am I to make of what he reports—and of what others reported long ago as well? I notice that as long as I am in the majority who has not had such an experience, I can comfortably view your and their accounts as curious, puzzling specimens of abnormal human experience. But even a brief look at what more than a few people have written at this website indicates that there are more like you than I imagined–yikes!—leaving me to wonder if we “normal” people are actually in the minority, and you all know something the rest of us don’t!
What should we make of such experiences? What do you make of your own experience, Jerry, and how do you compare it to other such cases in history? You have written eloquently of how you accepted the authenticity of what you experienced. But I know you acknowledge that such an acceptance is not the end of reflection on what has happened to you. Is God really speaking to you and to all of these people in history? What about the ancient prophets of the Hebrew scriptures, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, Amos and Hosea—did they really hear what they wrote down? Or did they invent it and deceive us? Or were they trying to give expression to what they thought God would say if God were to speak in a human language? But then why go to such lengths to describe a seemingly independent source of these thoughts? Whatever we conclude about them, should it also guide how we view other famous cases? What did Muhammad really hear or experience? Or Joseph Smith who founded the Mormons, or Mother Ann who started the Shakers? What about Baha’u’llah of the Bahais, Guru Nanak of the Sikhs, or Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of the Ahmadiyyas?
Are what you and others report to be God’s messages identical or at least consistent, which could suggest they have the same source, or at least are parallel phenomenon? Or are these reports of God’s message incompatible, which could suggest not all of them can be valid, and we have to figure out how to sort through them? Or are none of them what they appear to be, and they should all be demythologized, deconstructed somehow? And in that case, do they tell us more about human beings than about claims for God’s reality or significance? Are the essential choices either “God really speaks to some people” or “This is all imaginary projection”? While these two appear to be mutually exclusive, is it possible in any sense for both to be true? Are there any additional possibilities?
Of course, any of us can choose to ponder these questions, and to many of us they may seem ultimately irresolvable. But most of us haven’t had the experience of hearing God speak, or even of believing we have received some inaudible kind of message from God. Thus, Jerry, you have an opportunity most of us do not have, to engage in an internal dialogue–between the mind which has had these experiences of God speaking, and the mind that can investigate, as logically and as objectively as one can, what these experiences mean.
And it’s an opportunity to compare, indeed, to test in some way, the validity of those experiences, or at least to probe their nature, by comparing them with the reports that others have similarly made. Some in your position might reply that doing so is in some way incompatible with accepting the authenticity of the experience, and might therefore deliberately choose not to “stand outside” themselves to examine their experience. But somehow I don’t think you are that kind of person. Nor do I myself think one must take such a position, although I acknowledge that on this I can only speak as an outsider. On the contrary, it seems to me, to be a human being is to be thrown into a life where we cannot avoid such questions, a life in which these questions assail and also intrigue us—and, yes, may also tempt with distracting digressions as well as enlighten with new understanding.
To take one example of this kind of comparing and testing: Muhammad said God told him there would be no subsequent messengers after him. Yet you are one of many since Muhammad (including several of those noted above) to say God has spoken to you, which already contradicts Muhammad’s account, and according to you, from what I can tell of your experience, God says something quite different than what Muhammad claimed, on this and many subjects. Leaving aside how orthodox Muslims would not only dismiss your claim but regard you as a deceiver and heretical blasphemer, what are we to conclude—and most importantly here, what do you conclude—about the relationship between Muhammad’s account and yours? Who is right, and why?
But perhaps neither claim should be judged by whether it corresponds to an objective reality, which in any case seems impossible to resolve empirically. Alternatively (and this, for now, is perhaps my response to my own inquiry here), we could interpret such claims through an hypothesis about how all humans are quite capable of finding within ourselves many voices. They range from the “ordinary” internal dialogues and conflicts we all experience, to the neuroses that in some way hobble most of us, to rarer instances of persons with multiple personalities, of cultures where spirit possession proliferates, and of shamans who mediated gods to their communities. All these voices give us information about the world, the whole of reality, and, simultaneously, information by means of which we try to navigate our way in that reality.
We may wish that the investigation of such experiences could end by telling us whose claims are correct and whose are false. I suspect we all cling (or one of the voices within us clings!) to the hope that there are certain experiences which can be divided into two groups—those to be either respected as authoritative, or dismissed as delusory. And obviously, sometimes we must, with fear and trembling, make such judgments about the more mundane, internal conflicts we all experience. But at least with regard to claims to have heard God’s voice, what seem to be questions about what we can know may really be questions about what we should value—about whether we should regard someone’s “abnormal” experiences as either privileged or pathological, as humans are so wont to do. That is, we would secretly like to find out whether an experience such as yours is something to which we should defer as a foundation for belief and authority (“does Jerry give us new proof of God?”), or is something meaningless or even dangerous (“should we ignore or humor Jerry, or perhaps pity or shun him?”).
But the more constant and sober truth seems, at least to me, to be that no experience—whether high or low, whether inspiring or suspicious, whether Jerry’s or someone else’s—no experience provides a magical answer to all our questions. And no experience excuses any of us, as either subjects or observers, from the tasks of life and the challenges of being faithful to God as best we can understand God. While that conclusion may be disappointing, there is at least one respect in which it leaves me glad: It preserves Jerry, certainly in my mind and I hope in his, from the burden of somehow having to prove he is neither weirdly gifted nor bizarrely deficient, and lets him continue to be himself—and just my friend.
Fall is the time for high school seniors to begin college applications. For many the college essay can seem daunting. What should I write about? How will I make my essay interesting to an admissions committee? Where do I begin? You actually have many remarkable stories to tell that will set you apart from other applicants. Let’s take a look at how you can thoughtfully approach this task.
What is the purpose of the college essay?
The essay is a way for the admissions committee to see who you are beyond the basics of your application file. Your transcript, application form, letters of recommendation and resume give an overview of your hard work, interests and academic record. Your essay allows you to individualize your application by telling a personal story about what is important to you. The essay also shows the committee how well you write. Can you structure a meaningful essay that interests the reader, conveys a unique message and flows well?
What should I write about?
The college essay is a personal narrative. This essay should be all about YOU! Take some time for self-reflection. What is important to you? What are your values? What do you want the admissions committee to know about you that isn’t already reflected in your application?
• Have you faced a challenge in your life that you overcame, e.g., demanding academics, health concerns, learning disabilities, family or financial struggles?
• Do you have a story to tell about your family traditions, cultural or ethnic background?
• Have you experienced a life-changing event that stretched your thinking and changed your perspectives?
• How do you deal with failure? Tell a story about an obstacle you faced and how you moved beyond it.