Neal Donald Walsch and ‘Prior Assumption’

A few weeks ago, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked me to interview Neale Donald Walsch, the author of the 1995 best-seller “Conversations with God” and its sequels, and to write a story about people who talk with God. The occasion was the impending release of the film version of “Conversations with God,” and Walsh and the film’s director, Stephen Simon, were on an 18-city promotional tour.

We met in a hotel conference room bereft of amenities except a big, square table, a few chairs and some bottled water. Walsch is a burly man, well over six feet tall, and wore dark slacks and a bright blue, long-sleeved shirt. With his full white beard, long white hair and spectacles, he looked like Michelangelo’s depiction of God, albeit a God who’d just finished with the day’s paperwork.

Walsch proved to be a willing and agreeable interview subject. Indeed, I got the impression that he has been interviewed often, and rather enjoys having an audience, however big or small.

Walsch said he thought it fairly commonplace that people talk to God, and pointed out that books, magazines, films and even TV shows over the past decade have abounded with reference to God, angels, etc. He said he still talks to God himself, and still sometimes wonders “if my mind is playing tricks on me.”

The message from all this communication, he said, is that the common understanding of God is “all wrong.” Namely, that God is not the master puppeteer, but rather the hands-off executive producer of a sweeping epic in which the actors – us – have free will to do as we please. Dramatic tension is provided by the conflict between love and fear, a conflict that Walsch says is too often won by fear because we do not understand God and our relationship to Him.

Walsch said his books raise “a simple question before humanity: is it possible that there is something we do not fully understand about God, the understanding of which would change everything?”

Questioning “the prior assumption” occurs in every other field of endeavor, but not in religion. “If modern medicine was approached the way religion is,” he said, “it would be like going into brain surgery with nothing but a sharpened stone.”

And, indeed, in researching the story, I found that one theologian after another, no matter what faith, did not question the prior assumption. As far as they were concerned, scripture is God’s word perfected and applies then, now ands always.

As a seeker myself, I agreed with Walsch’s sensibility, if not always his reasoning. And yet at one point, I stopped taking notes, just as I’d stopped re-reading “Conversations with God” after only 65 pages. Ten years ago, it was provocative and timely, a primer on contemporary spirituality. But now it seems dated, shopworn.

Perhaps if I’d asked different questions, we might have broken new ground that was neither theoretical nor philosophical, but practical and inspiring. That’s what interests me now.

But I have met or known a number of ministers, and for the most part I’ve been disappointed that there wasn’t more excitement about them.

Years ago, I heard a sermon by a woman who had struggled for years against the hierarchy to become an Episcopalian priest before finally succeeding. But her sermon was cool, reasonable and disappointing. There was no passion, no sense of shared truth, just ideas and beliefs.

Just a week ago, I attended a service conducted by a man I respect and like. His sermon suggested that we “re-form” our idea of God, but his performance was inflamed by nothing brighter than the power of reason. It was the kind of stolid, dispassionate, eminently reasonable sermon I’ve heard in Presbyterian, Congregational, Episcopalian, Methodist and Unity Churches all my life.

Maybe I’m too idealistic, but it would be cool to see spiritual leaders who are inspired and willing to challenge assumptions.  I imagine that the dominant characteristic of the spiritually enlightened is serenity, but I don’t think excitement is out of the question.

Fundamentalist churches are growing because people are looking for something more than cool logic. They want an experience. Not, I hope, the tawdry show biz of some televangelists, but a genuine and soulful sense of connection. The desiccated religion of the past is the “prior assumption,” and it’s being shoved aside for inspirational sizzle.

I attended a service at a Church of God in suburban Atlanta recently where  the congregation was singing a song of praise as if they fully believed that God was listening. I’d never seen had that impression anywhere before, and it was powerful.

I mean, if you can’t “give it up” for God, what’s the point?

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