Remembering John Miller

This morning, January 2, 2021, I got some sad news. My teacher, mentor, and dear friend, John F. Miller, III, passed away last night from COVID.

I don’t know if it’s possible for me to communicate what a huge impact John had on my life, and how dear his friendship was to Susan and me. We always felt so fortunate to have him as both a teacher and a close friend. He stayed in our home several times during his trips to Texas, and we cherished every moment of them.

I’ve already told you he was my mentor. Better said, he was like a second father to me. At a phase in my life when I was trying to climb out of a dark hole I had dug for myself, I went back to college and walked into one of his philosophy courses and instantly knew this man’s heart and mind were both exceptional. It was John who helped me discover the centrality of love, and John who taught me how to meditate. Everything I learned from him about philosophy and spirituality helped deepen my understanding of Freemasonry and shape my work as a teacher of contemplative practice. In my first book, I acknowledged John’s contribution. My third book is in the works, and now it will include a special tribute to John.

I grieve with the thought of not seeing his wonderful smile or hearing his hearty laugh again, savoring good food and drink together, or talking with him about love, philosophy, and the mysteries of existence. But, if any soul could do so, then surely John’s can sense all the love reaching out to it now from all the people whose lives he’s touched. His presence will continue to be with us all, and that makes me smile warmly.

If you would like to know more about the man, then I invite you to read the interview I did with him several years ago.

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An Interview with John F. Miller, III, Ph.D.

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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Chuck: 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.

John: 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.

Chuck: 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?

John: 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.

Chuck: If God is a Reality that is both transcendent and immanent, then how would you describe your own relationship with God and how does that differ from the personal experience you say you have never had?

John: 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 [John is referencing the University of North Texas where he worked] 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, “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.

Chuck: John, what counsel or advice would you give to someone who came to you for help with developing his or her spirituality?

John: Spirituality has, at its first step, morality: spirituality presupposes morality. In the ancient mystery schools, one was not given access to the spiritual teacher until and unless the initiate showed evidence of moral maturity. As far as I know, this is standard in the spiritual traditions. But what does this mean?

First, it means taking stock of oneself, examining one’s “baggage,” seeing where one needs to “work on oneself.” The well-known Buddhist insight is that our sense of separate ego leads to desires, which in themselves are harmless enough until we become attached to them and expect them to be fulfilled. Philosopher Ken Keyes wrote: “We automatically trigger feelings of unhappiness when the people and circumstances around us do not meet our expectations.” Expectations lead often to disappointment, then frustration and anger, and finally violence, whether mental or emotional or physical.

Second, kindness: spiritual people must develop the virtue of kindness. The Dalai Lama says it quite succinctly: “My religion is kindness.”

Third, it is important to attempt to develop agape, unconditional love. Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ research into near-death experience led her to conclude, from the experiences of those who had died and been resuscitated, that loving unconditionally and finding a way to be of service to others are, in large measure, what makes life meaningful and worthwhile.

Fourth, the person on the spiritual path should strive to see the Divine (or Christ, Buddha-nature) in everyone. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me,” Jesus supposedly said (Matt. 25:40).

The next step beyond developing a moral nature is to develop an intellectual understanding of the spiritual worldview or worldviews. This places moral action within a context larger than the ordinary conception of life.

And finally, I would say, to develop spiritually is to develop spiritual disciplines and techniques, among them prayer and meditation. It is one thing to intellectually understand the nature of the spiritual, and it is quite another to experience the spiritual “realities” for oneself. Ultimately, knowing, in so far as it is possible, must be done oneself, wherein one becomes one’s own authority, grounded in the authenticity of one’s own spiritual experience.

Thus, quite simply, there are three steps to the spiritual:  moral, intellectual, and inward “spiritual” discipline yielding experiences of the “higher order” or spiritual realities.

I should add that it is important, if not essential, for a spiritual aspirant to become a member of a community. The Buddhist tradition emphasizes the importance of the sangha or community, and the same seems to be true of other spiritual traditions. You know, from your own experience, the importance of the Masonic tradition in your own spirituality. The same is true for those for whom Theosophy or the Rosicrucians offer similar communities of believers.

Chuck: You highlighted the importance of developing moral maturity. How does one go about doing so, and what are some signs that it is being attained?  

John: First, regarding developing moral maturity, I would say that it is important to develop what are called “virtues”: respect, kindness, compassion, generosity, forgiveness, love, empathy, patience, and the like. The more one develops these, the more loving one becomes; and this I take to be a sign of moral maturity.

Chuck: You also spoke of developing intellectual understanding of spiritual worldviews. Which specific philosophers, theorists, or authorities have you found to be especially helpful in your work with students, regardless of the particular traditions they may adhere to? Could you also share a little about what makes each so valuable?

John: What convinced me immediately to the “truth” of the spiritual (metaphysical) world view was the fact that I could fit my conclusions (knowledge) of many years of reading and studying into that world view. If there are different levels of experienced Reality (physical level, emotional or astral level, mental levels, and spiritual levels), then I could fit the imagery of Homer’s Odyssey, which I so deeply respect, into those levels. The journey of Odysseus is a journey through these levels and the lessons that each teaches. But it would lead us astray if I were to go into detail. The empiricists, like materialists, were describing the physical world; the ethics of the Stoics, the astral world; Aristotle and empiricists like Hume and Hobbes the visible world; Plato and Hegel and Leibniz, among others, the spiritual world or conception of reality. But that’s too much of an oversimplification.

My introduction to the metaphysical world view was through Theosophy; but later I studied the Asian traditions and taught them. What are some major spiritual works? The Bhagavad Gita, and the Yoga-Sutras of Patanjali, for the Hindu tradition; the Tao Te Ching; the general Buddhist tradition; Goethe’s Faust, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and Homer’s Odyssey, for the literary tradition. Of course, for Christians, the New Testament, particularly the Gospels of Matthew and John are central as illustrations of ways of loving (Matthew) and Christian metaphysics (John). But the literature must be interpreted spiritually, so one needs a spiritual (metaphysical) framework in which to understand the great literature of the world. I have taught all these works, in one course or another, and students who are spiritually awakened respond to them all.

Yoga, or union with God, is best discussed in the Yoga-Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. The understanding of how ego, with its fearful and desiring nature, leads to violence is beautifully detailed in the Buddhist tradition: ego leads to desire, desire to expectation, expectation to disappointment, disappointment to frustration, frustration to anger, and anger to violence. The 25th chapter of Matthew illustrates how to be loving and ultimately to see the divine in each person, and the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) is central to Christian spiritual teachings. Sophocles’ Oedipus story, of one who kills his father (God) and marries his mother (Matter) tells the story of us all:  we “kill” the divine nature in us in order to serve our material interests (rule our lives in our own manner). For philosophy, I naturally gravitate toward Plato and particularly his metaphors and allegories: the allegory of the Cave (Republic VII), the myth of the soldier Er who dies and goes into the underworld, only to return to tell us what happens (Republic X), among others.

Which did I find most important?  The Bhagavad Gita, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex understood as explained above, and the Gospel of Matthew (chapters cited). And for philosophical works, the Republic of Plato and (and this is one you love, too) his Symposium, the delightful and informatively insightful dialog on love.

Chuck: How does one differentiate between genuine experience of the “higher order,” or spiritual realities, and delusions?

John: My own personal experience is that there is a “noetic” (knowledge-inspired) quality to genuine experiences. When the experiences break into one’s normal consciousness, or in a meditative state, there would seem to be a self-authenticating quality about them. I am wary of experiences induced by, or produced by, emotional states; but I recognize that there are ecstatic states of bliss and joy, peace and love, that arise in a spiritual context (such as Sufi dancing). One might also say, “By their fruits they are known.” So, the effect in the lives of those who have had a genuine experience may be a sign.

Chuck: Yes, I’m thankful you introduced me to Plato and his dialogues on love, such as the Symposium. It’s interesting that the fruits of spiritual and mystical experience bring us spiraling back to more naturally express the virtues and moral maturity of a more fully loving soul.

John, thank you so much for your time and thoughtfulness. We could easily go on and on, and so perhaps we’ll do something like this again. In closing, is there anything else you want to share with our readers?

John: About you, Chuck: in my forty-five years of college and university teaching, I have been privileged to befriend a number of intelligent and caring students who have become successful and wonderful people, but none more loving, more intelligent, more dedicated to spirituality or serving others than you. It has been a privilege and honor to have been a part of your life since you and Susan were students of mine so many years ago. To your readers: you are truly in the presence of a man whose dedication to truth and whose love for humanity mark him as genuinely wise.

Chuck: Those words are more than kind, John. Thank you. The next time we meet, dinner and drinks are on me! To our readers, I confess to a bit of an inner struggle over whether to include them or not, but obviously I chose to do so. It’s John’s answer to my question, and I hope it illustrates to you the very gracious person he is.