The God You Don't Believe In Doesn't Exist

I recently watched "The Big Silence" on BBC IPlayer.  It's a documentary about the experiences of four people who volunteered to attend an eight day silent retreat at a Christian centre in North Wales.

Having been on several week long silent meditation retreats at Buddhist retreat centres myself, I was fascinated by the similarities between my experiences and those of the volunteers, and by the differences in emphasis from the two traditions.

The most compelling message I took from the programme was a confirmation of a long-held belief of mine:  that the human experience at the heart of Christian contemplation and prayer is exactly the same human experience which Buddhists meet in meditation.  Buddhists may talk about Jhanas whilst Christians talk about Grace, but it is the same experience.

I was particularly struck by something a monk said to one of the volunteers, who had experienced something very profound, but was unwilling to describe it as an experience of God: "The God you don't believe in doesn't exist"  That sentence has been spinning around my head ever since.  It is easy to set up a simplistic image of God then pour scorn upon those "simpletons" who believe in that image.  Much harder to open oneself up to reality and see what is actually there.

A monk talked about the pain faced by those on retreat when they realise that they are not as "pure of heart" as they might have imagined.  That certainly rings bells!

Something  one of the volunteers said resonated deeply with my experience of meditation.  She said "It's like we are being asked to jump off a cliff, and God will catch us. But what if he doesn't?"

The paths only diverged when it came to "special experiences".  The mentors at the Christian retreat seemed to encourage the vounteers to dwell upon their seemingly supernatural experiences as potential experiences of God.  In the Buddhist tradition, the usual response to announcements of "special experiences" at retreats is a friendly pat on the shoulder and a "So what?  Enjoy the experience, but be vigilant that you do not become attached to it.  Remain mindful. This is not the great prize."  I guess  that this is probably closer to the actual message given to the volunteers, and that TV simply went for the more sensational aspects of the experience.


  1. Thanks for flagging up this programme - I'd missed all 3 and watched them on iPlayer. I found it a little odd that the only outcome seemed to be Jesus. Is that the only possibility in silence? Is Jesuit or Benedictine silence of a different quality to others? All in all, though, I thought it was a brave idea to make three hours of TV about silence and contemplation.

  2. I believe God is but He does not exist, and He is whether anyone believes in Him or not. The absolute character of God is essential to the importance and relevance of our own, individual, little human pursuit of, and/or relationship with Him.


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