The following interview is with John F. Miller, III, Ph.D., who was my first meditation teacher and is my primary mentor in philosophy and spirituality. More importantly, he is a very dear friend. If there is one lesson that I have come to most cherish from John, it is the centrality of love, not only as we experience it emotionally and behaviorally, but as the very nature of being itself. I trust you will hear his beautiful spirit, big heart, and keen intellect coming through his words.
Here’s a little background information on John: He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Gettysburg College in 1960, with majors in both Greek and philosophy. Earning an MA at the University of Maryland (1963) and a Ph.D. at New York University (1969), John taught for forty-five years at various colleges and universities, including three years at the University of South Florida, twenty years at North Texas (where I was one of his students), and since 1991 at local community colleges in Tampa and St. Petersburg. Author of some thirty articles published in philosophical, theological, and para-psychological journals, he was for three years the president of the Academy of Religion and Psychical Research (now the Academy of Spirituality and Paranormal Studies, Inc.). For four decades, John has spoken at conferences as well.
Dr. Leroy Howe dedicated his book, Seeking a God to Glorify, to John. Dr. Howe has held three pastorates, a university chaplaincy, and served 29 years as a faculty member of Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, teaching courses in both theology and pastoral care. In personal correspondence between Dr. Howe and myself, he once said this about John:
When I was in college, and continuing to search for the Truth that underlay the Christian truths with which I was struggling, I came across Paul Tillich’s book, The Protestant Era. In it, he drew an enormously illuminating distinction for me in discussing the doctrine of justification by faith. He extended justification in our sins to justification in our doubts. I read everything Tillich wrote after that, had some conversations with him during graduate school years, and almost wrote a dissertation on him, had my friend David Kelsey not beaten me to it. Over the years, I’ve encountered a number of people who, like me, “read Tillich in college” and were transformed intellectually by the experience.
I think encountering John Miller is something like that. Humble as he is, he is also a numinous figure in so many peoples’ lives, including my own.
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(In the following dialogue, my statements and questions are in italics, and John’s are in normal font. I’ve inserted links to certain references along the way.)
John, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. I’ve known so many people whose lives have been touched and even transformed through their relationships with you, and I’m grateful to count myself among them. One of the things I’ve learned that comes with gratitude for a blessing is the desire to share that blessing with others. I hope that our readers will find something useful in our dialogue.
Thank you for your love and friendship over all these years. It is I, dear friend, who feel deeply blessed. Any way that I can cooperate with you would please me.
One of the first things I learned with you is the importance of not assuming that a word means the same to others as to oneself, even if we participate in the same culture, tradition, or school of thought. So what does the term “God” mean to you?
For me, the word “God” has so many connotations that I reject, that I would prefer not to use the word. But that’s hard to do in our culture and in my philosophy classes as well.
The terms “God” or “gods” and “goddesses” arose in a pre-scientific/pre-modern era, when the earth was generally believed to be the center of creation. The gods lived in the mountains and waters, and provided the explanation for phenomena not understood in natural terms. Among other things, they offered comfort from the feeling of helplessness that we all feel in the midst of a natural world that, as the Existentialists say, seems utterly indifferent to human desires and needs.
In our scientific understanding of the universe as consisting of a billion galaxies, many of which have perhaps a billion stars, the gods seem “mythological” or an “illusion” (Freud: The Future of an Illusion). As Protestant theologian Paul Tillich argues, there is a “God beyond God”: the Reality of the Divine lies beyond our ability to conceptualize it. The opening line of Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching cautions that the Tao (Ultimate Reality, God) that can be put into words is not the Eternal Reality (God). During the Sixties, there was a movement among some young American Protestant theologians, known as “the Death-of-God movement,” which argued and called for the letting go of the traditional concept of God. I can appreciate the wisdom of that proposal.
So what does “God” mean to me? First, I must confess that I have never had a personal experience of that Reality denoted by the term “God,” but that is not to deny that others might have had such an experience or that God can be experienced as a Person. But such is not my experience. I can conceive of God as a spiritual Presence and Power, a creative Force, expressing itself as Love and Wisdom, at once immanent in the universe and yet transcendent to it, the Source of Life and Consciousness or, better, Life Itself and Awareness/Consciousness Itself, expressing Itself as Nature, yet being not merely identical to the universe, at once the entirety of reality (Brahman), yet in essence one with our own human spiritual nature. As Jesus said, “I and my father are one.” As John writes in his Prologue to his Gospel: the Logos, the creative expression of God, is the “light” within everyone who comes into the world.
You conceive of God as not only transcendent but also immanent, a Presence and Power, a creative Force, expressing itself as Love and Wisdom, Life Itself and Awareness/Consciousness Itself, expressing Itself as Nature. How would you describe your relationship with God, which you also refer to as a Reality, and how does that differ from the personal experience you say you have never had?
I have had two exceptionally profound experiences during a technique that is termed “re-birthing,” where one breathes rhythmically for an hour or more, going deeper into one’s own being. If God dwells within us as our deepest Self, then my experience of Self in those occasions was one of overwhelming Love, in the first experience, and of profoundly and utterly Being Loved, in the second. I had a similar feeling of what I can describe only as “Cosmic or Divine Love,” which poured through me, fifty years ago, when I saw again a beloved friend whom I had known since the second grade but had not seen in years. It was as though the crown of my head opened, and “Divine or Cosmic Love” poured through me and out of my chest. I’ve never felt such love for another person in quite that way since.
In an exceptional experience, on the occasion of walking to school (North Texas) deliberately without judging, I was suddenly overcome by a state of ecstatic consciousness in which I heard these words: “God veils Himself in many forms of Love.” It was as though everything that I experienced that morning walking to school, in a state of non-judgment, was the concrete expression of God, expressing Himself as Love. The use of “Him” is, of course, metaphorical.
I have experienced what I take to be “soul consciousness” on more than one occasion. If the soul is the repository of our spirit, which is one with the Divine Spirit, then I would reason that I have experienced the Divine as it manifests at the soul level. In the Hindu and Yogic (and Theosophical) traditions, the soul is termed the “anandamaya kosha,” the body or vehicle (kosha) through which Reality (Sat) is experienced as “Ananda”: joy, peace, love, bliss, and ecstasy. One experience of this state of consciousness occurred when I was watching a student performance, at North Texas, of “The Man of La Mancha.” Suddenly I realized that Don Quixote was the Christ figure, loving without judgment Aldonza who was experienced as “Dolcinea,” the pure and beautiful soul that is all our souls’ nature. I was raptured into this state of soul-awareness of bliss, which lasted for some three hours. So if the experience of one’s soul, and the divinity within it, is an experience of God manifest in limited form, then I have had that experience.
When I meditate, there are times when I feel the presence of the “Masters,” who themselves are expressions of the Divine, individualized however. So I would not count those experiences as experiences of God.
For years I have said a mantra, expressing that the Divine power lies within me, the Divine Love expresses through me, and the Divine Wisdom manifests in my life. But saying a mantra is not experiencing God.
From time to time I pray, saying words of a prayer I learned in church when I was a child. But saying words, even in prayer, is not experiencing God. Recently, because I have friends with lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer, and ovarian cancer, I’ve been saying a long and formulated (by religious science) prayer, pausing between each verse, saying the names of those friends whose healing I implore of Spirit. But, again, I can go into a somewhat altered state of consciousness, but not one that I would identify as experiencing God. I am careful to distinguish a feeling with an experience of God. Maybe for most people they are the same. For me, I’d not make that identity.
This is hardly a brief answer, Chuck, but there may not be even one experience of God; or, depending on how one interprets them, I may have had more than one such experience.
(End of Part One. Part Two addresses the development of spirituality.)