A fascinating and important re-visioning of God and religion: “God: An Autobiography”

It was around 2010 that I first became aware of Jerry Martin’s book in progress titled God: An Autobiography as Told to a Philosopher. I was deep into blogging at the (now-defunct) Demon Muse site at the time, and I was developing A Course in Demonic Creativity from those materials. So thoughts about the experience of perceived communication from an external psychological or spiritual source were very much on my mind. And when I began reading excerpts and even entire chapters from the God book at its website, I was transfixed. The official description that accompanies the eventually published full version of the book will indicate why:

The voice announced, “I am God.” For Jerry Martin, that encounter began a personal, intellectual, and spiritual adventure. He had not believed in God. He was a philosopher, trained to be skeptical — to doubt everything. So his first question was: Is this really God talking? There were other urgent questions: What will my wife think? Why would God want to talk to me? Does God want me to do something? He began asking all the questions about life and death and ultimate things to which he — and all of us — have sought answers: Love and loss. Happiness and suffering. Good and evil. Death and the afterlife. The world’s religions. The ways God communicates with us. How to live in harmony with God. God: An Autobiography tells the story of these mind-opening conversations with God.

Jerry L. Martin was raised in a Christian home. By the time he left college, he was not a believer. But he was interested in the big questions and so he studied the great thinkers. He became a philosophy professor and served as head of the philosophy department at the University of Colorado at Boulder and acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. In addition to scholarly articles on epistemology, the philosophy of mind, and public policy, he wrote reports on education that received national attention and was invited to testify before Congress. He stepped down from that career to write this book.

So you can understand my interest. I got involved in some of the online communications with Jerry that appreciative readers were conducting through the book site, and it swiftly became evident that he and I shared a similar set of concerns, although my own experiences have imparted a decidedly darker cast to my thoughts and writings about the perception of divine and daemonic communication. Jerry and I also conversed through Facebook (to which I only recently returned, with a new account, after a multi-year hiatus), and I found him to be a very kind and generous-spirited correspondent. When the full, final edition of God: An Autobiography was published last year by Calladium, I was pleased to see it make slow but sure and steady headway as readers began to catch on to its import. Kirkus Reviews weighed in with a sparklingly positive (and nicely informative) response in which they called the book “a captivating religious dialogue for the modern age.” A writer for Reading Religion, the book review publication of the American Academy of Religion, praised God: An Autobiography as “the most path-breaking material for future philosophical and theological reflection I have come across in a long time.”

I concur with both assessments. Today I finally got around to writing my own brief review of the book. I posted it at Amazon a little while ago (making it only the second Amazon review that I have ever written; the first was for The Secret of Ventriloquism by Jon Padgett). Now I’m sharing it with Teeming Brain readers, many of whom I suspect will find it, and the book itself, of interest.

* * *

A Fascinating and Important
Re-visioning of God and Religion

God: An Autobiography is not just an important book but a compulsively readable one, and the author’s professional history — as a philosophy professor, as president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, as acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and as a prominent voice for higher education reform — lends it unusual credibility. His account of how he, a confirmed atheist, unexpectedly began receiving apparent communications from a divine source that announced itself as God is amazingly absorbing, and it completely avoids the possible collapse into New Agey silliness and insipidness that inevitably haunts initial perceptions of such a project these days. Both Martin and the God with whom he converses come off as humane and reflective, and the insights that are communicated about God, the world, human beings, and the world’s religions are profound.

Personally, I was as much taken with the interlude chapters offering summaries of various world religious and spiritual traditions as I was with the God-conversation content. Martin’s experience as a teacher is evident in these portions, which serve as concise and effective introductions to their respective topics. The section introducing Siddhartha Gautama, for instance, and giving an account of the origin of Buddhism and its Four Noble Truths, is a wonderful little resource, and I have used it with my college students in an introductory course on the world’s religions.

The way Martin layers this information back into the God conversations is also effective, with the total package offering what strikes me, at least, as some authentically groundbreaking insights into the possibility of a new paradigm for interreligious dialogue and understanding. Nor does he (nor does the God with whom he talks) shy away from the hard questions about the difficulties that all of this may present for traditionally oriented adherents of some religions. Of course, the high quality of this aspect of the book may not be surprising in the end, as God: An Autobiography comes from the pen of the man who founded and coordinates the Theology without Walls project at the American Academy of Religion — something that, as Martin reveals late in the book, actually grew out of those unexpected divine conversations.

I give this book my highest recommendation. It is an important work that deserves to be read, and that rewards deep reading and rereading. For those who are drawn to study and reflect upon theology and comparative religion, and who are equally interested in the theoretical and practical applications of such studies, I predict that Martin’s book may well prove to be not just interesting but liberating, and even, for some readers, transformative.

About Matt Cardin


Posted on March 28, 2017, in Religion & Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Coming from you, Matt, this positive review is deeply, deeply meaningful. It is a blessing! Thank you!

    • Thank you for the book, Jerry. I hope my review brings it a few more readers (as a couple of communications from the Teeming Brain audience have already indicated that it has).

  2. Does the author, Martin, discuss Julian Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism? Or does he bring up any of the related work, such as by Tanya Marie Luhrmann? I did some web searches and absolutely nothing came up.

    I was surprised that you didn’t mention any of this in your writing about this book. You’ve mentioned Jaynes and Luhrmann in previous writings. Did this not come up in your discussions with the author?

    I looked at a few other reviews and read some of a sample of the book. I was trying to get the sense of where the author is coming from. But it wasn’t clear to me.

    Jaynes and Luhrmann considered voice-hearing as not just relevant to understanding religion. First and foremost, it touches upon what it means to be human. They both approach it as a normal aspect of human nature, a potential existing within all of us. Research has shown how surprisingly common is voice-hearing.

    Obviously, this touches upon what kind of reality we exist in where this can be normal. And related to this, as we are social creatures, the power of the social world we live within. To Jaynes and Luhrmann, voice-hearing is very much a part of our social nature.

    I was just curious to get a better sense of the author’s worldview. And I’m even more curious to how he might relate this to others who have previously explored this issue.

    • I just today happened to visit this review and found this comment. I have not read Jaynes, but I did look at accounts of his views. Since I did not find them plausible, I did not pursue his work. I found Luhrmann fascinating. Philosophically, I do not share her implicit framework (roughly, that everything is going on in our minds/brains, some of which gets assigned to an external source). She is so skilled a participant-observer, however, that her account of what goes on with a congregation of people who try hard to hear God and then (sometimes, including Luhrmann herself) do hear the divine voice is wonderfully informative. My experience was not “social” in that sense at all. I had no interest in hearing from God, no friends who were religious in that way, no interest in such questions, no spiritual yearning or quest for more meaning than my life already had. I am not terribly interested in studies along these lines, since they tend to start by assuming it can’t be God, therefore they look for an explanation elsewhere. When I told a friend about my experience, he said kindly, “you know, Jerry, some people would say this is just chemistry.” Yes, I thought, those times say the same thing about love and duty and what I think of as the entire “semantic” level of life. Everything becomes physical syntactics. I would love you have you as a conversation partner. If you leave a comment on my God: An Autobiography website, I would be happy to respond. We should be Facebook friends as well, though I am not active there. My experience has also led me to start a project at the American Academy of Religion in which you might have an interest. You can also just email me at jerry dot martin at Verizon dot net. Be well, my friend.

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