Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Comments on comments: encounter, experience, etc.

We've been talking about encounter, experience, propositions and revelation in the comments on Part 6. I wanted to post some of my thoughts on this topic and hope more will unveil themselves as I keep writing.

Some kind of "touch" (either a feeling of warmth spreading in the body, or specific words spoken in the mind, or deep conviction of sin and the desire for forgiveness, or inexplicable peace in trials, or a sign - as in, asking God to reveal Godself through a specific sign and then seeing that sign fulfilled) is often associated with evidence of God's existence and personal care through relationship. For some Christians, the sacraments are what mediate God's presence and create the encounter with God that offers the reassurance that God is with us.

However, there is a large group of Christians who report that they have not had a "God-experience" though they pray, read the Bible, seek forgiveness, are in community, take the sacraments and believe the doctrines they've been taught.

What is faith, then? What constitutes the basis for faith? These are the essential questions here. Christianity is a religion that proposes the idea of revelation - that God makes godself known through revelation. By that revelation, we enter a relationship with God. The supreme example of that revelation is in Jesus Christ. A less explicit form of revelation is found in creation. A more personal experience of revelation would be the inner conviction of sin (so some say).

Yet if we scale back each of these, we see that the conclusion that God speaks to us is one we draw after we have applied a Christian perspective to the naked experiences. For instance, it is because we have 2000 years of Christian witness and interpretation that we conclude that Jesus is the revelation of God. It is because of interpretation that we conclude that the Bible reveals God to us. We say that creation testifies to the glory of God after we consider the possibility that God exists. We attribute guilt about sin to the work of the Holy Spirit after someone suggest to us that the HS is the source of that conviction.

When we say that faith must be sourced in a person, in a relationship, not in propositions, it is a bit of sleight of hand. The idea that Jesus goes on existing and can be known today does not come to us without a Christian proposition that makes that suggestion. Apart from dreams and some reports of visions, most people have never seen Jesus, nor have they any reason to even know about Jesus apart from Christian history and witness. We are taking someone else's word when we say that we believe that Jesus is the Son of God. That idea does not come by itself. Someone teaches it, and we accept it, adopt it, believe it. We then learn to correlate the experience of warmth in the body or conviction of sin or words in the mind or peace without understanding as evidence of the proposition we've been taught.

This is what is called encounter with God in my circles.

But the experiences themselves don't have definitions until we give them.

Belief in God and the Christian worldview can occur without experiences, though. Many people are drawn to the faith based on the beauty of its ideals, the values it espouses, the forgiveness for sin which leads to a promise of heaven. Without a correlating experience of God, though, it is difficult to believe as easily. Something in us seeks tangible evidence that the invisible actually exists because we are comforming how we view all of life to suit the Christian frame of reference. When we diminish just how central experience/encounter is in this relating to God, we are not necessarily helping the one who hasn't had the experience. We may unwittingly be raising the issue of why the person isn't as worthy as others to receive specific evidence of God's presence in that person's life.

Why can she "feel" God's love and peace and I can't?

Why don't I feel close to God?

Why doesn't God speak to me?

Aren't these the building blocks of all relationships? How does one have a relationship without communication? Those who suggest that the Bible is the source of that communication help a lot at this point. For many who have no experiences of God, the Bible takes them a long way in giving them a tangible source of communication. Yet it's a double-edged sword because if the Bible is the primary source of relationship, the day that the Bible becomes suspect is the day the relationship to God is destabilized.

That's why experiences of God are so pivotal in reinforcing faith. Otherwise, what is the personal relationship built on, if not these experiences or encounters or revelations of God?

If we assert that relationship with God is by faith, not experience, then what is that faith? Is it assent to propositions? Is it a relationship to the Bible? Is it belief in an invisible deity, trusting in the idea of God's existence without any way of knowing it is real? Is it fundamental trust in reality absent specific beliefs and experiences? Is it participation in a community? Is it bringing human care to the oppressed? What is faith exactly?

And then what does relationship actually mean?

I'd welcome more of your thoughts on these questions. :)


R. Michael said...


Thanks for part 7 as follow up to the part 6 discussion. it is helpful...with all of these ideas coming at once it is like trying to drink from a firehose (for me at least)! but keep it coming....I will try to digest it as soon as I can.

Elleann said...

For the moment, Julie, all I can say is thank you for articulating so clearly one of the core issues that has had me tied up in 'existential crisis' knots for several months now.

julieunplugged said...

elleann, I just went to your blog and read your powerful entry from March about the letter you wrote to John Eldredge and your experience of seeking God and not finding him.

The response really is a thing that makes you go, Hmmmm.

mariam said...

elleann, I followed Julie's link to your entry. I haven't had time to read the rest of your blog so you may have already looked at this but...

What struck me is how you talk about feeling left out and isolated as a child and how your relationships with men have been negative. Sometimes when life hands us lemons we keep going back for more. I wonder how you view God, when you make a picture of him/her (I really wish there was a seperate genderless God pronoun)? Just a thought here. If you view God as male and males have often disappointed you and been unloving or faithless or didn't listen to you then your subconcious expectation is that God is going to disappointment you as well. When I first started "giving God a chance" I behaved in what I see now was a very superstitious way. There was this common but irrational belief that God was punishing me for my various sins and that that was why all the terrible things that had happened to our family were happening. I would pray each night, using my common prayer book but sometimes I would forget or I would be too exhausted or I would fall asleep before I finished. In the morning I would be in a panic - I would have to find out where and how my daughter was. Had she died overnight because of my weakness and faithlessness. This became a source of a lot of anxiety to me. One thing that helped me was reading Kushner's "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" and I realized how common this feeling was. But the other was a talk with my pastor. She asked me how I addressed God when I prayed and what the image of God was in my head (and no matter how rational and postmodern we are we are going to have one) and I said that I always started with "Heavenly Father". I had never thought about it - all those years of school prayer, it was just a habit. She asked me about my relationship with my father and I admitted it was a bit rocky - that he was a hard man, loving at times but more often judgmental and punishing and that I was afraid of him. She suggested that I find other language other than the father metaphor for addressing and thinking about God. I don't know if you have tried this. I have - sort of but God is still pretty much silent to me as well. I also prayed hard for revelation in my teenage years and didn't receive any that I could recognize. Now I don't pray for that - I pray for strength and courage, something that if I look hard enough I can find in myself. The one time however that I completely gave over to God and prostrated myself as you describe I was praying for my daughter's life. If she had died I don't know if I would have persevered with this path.

My other thought is more mundance. We need to truly love and accept ourselves to feel loved by God. It is important to recognize God in us. As for God outside us, I think that that God is pretty darn big, maybe too big to fit into a personal revelation. The only things I can see in myself as "revelations" are a new appreciation of evil, suffering and pain and in some ways, because of that , a truer and more grateful experience of life, love, beauty and our capacity for goodness.The concept of forgiveness has been an important one for me to allow myself to feel loveable again - oddly not because of something I did but because of a terrible thing that was done to our family.

Elleann said...

Mariam, the really odd thing is that only a few months ago, when talking to a Jewish friend re her boyfriend's lack of belief in God, I suggested to her that maybe his inability to believe in God was due to the abuse he received in childhood.... I never really turned it around and applied the concept to myself! :-)

I truly do appreciate the points you make. But I'm not sure that just trying to see God as something other than Father is the thing that's going to make a difference. Despite being mostly postmodern, I find myself wanting and needing absolute answers - does God exist or doesn't He? And how am I ever, ever going to find the answer to that question? (Which is why I'm liking this series of yours so much, Julie!)

One of the longest-standing God questions I have yet to find a satisfactory answer to is this: IF God loves us as much as we have been led to believe, and if he created us specifically to love him back, then why is it so difficult for us to find/experience/know Him - why does he keep himself hidden away from us, and make it all dependent on Faith?

mariam said...

Now, I am going to say something a bit flaky that I wouldn't say for fear of offending or invoking mockery on a more conservative or orthodox blogs. I do not KNOW for certain that God exists or what his nature is. I am very aware that if there is a God person, like that described in traditional Abrahamic religions, there is no way in which He/She has been revealed to me which I could not easily explain in a natural way.

However, I can and do believe that there is more to the universe than meets the eye, that there are patterns we cannot perceive, that there are things we observe that we cannot explain. That is my starting point. I also believe that as humans we have a "spiritual" aspect. That between or above the physical, emotional and intellectual parts of us there is something else and without that something else we don't work properly. Without the spiritual our brains amplify our ability to destroy which is rooted in our reptilian brain. The something else that we need in order not to destroy ourselves and the world around us can be seen in our longing and need to be more than a bag of molecules, our desire to be good, to be giving, to create beauty, to be in harmony with the universe, to love. I may not feel "God", but I feel these things very strongly and they cannot really be explained with evolution or science. For me that is the beginning of belief in God.

What if God is that longing in our hearts for harmony, for beauty and love? What if God is the wonderful symmetry and laws of nature? What if God is the good we try to be and we see in each other? What if God is the creative spark? What if God is all these things and also intelligent and immortal? What if God isn't finished with us yet - that we are still his work in progress? What if God's purpose for us is for us to learn how to live in loving harmony with each other and the universe and the only way we can learn and evolve (individually and as a species) is through mistakes and that is why He doesn't often interfere. If God is like that (which is how I think of God) He/She is revealing Himself all the time. He is out in the open, not hiding at all. But that kind of God is awfully big and vague for my mortal and limited brain so I need some sort of day-to-day guide for living.

In our attempt to communicate and understand God we create an interface and that interface is religion - God made in our image. Just as it is very difficult (impossible for some of us) to make a computer do anything without user-friendly software, it is hard for us to imagine God without resorting to human and earthly symbols, without giving God a human face. Christianity is one way of trying to reach for the divine. I chose it because it is familiar to me and the person of Jesus (the face of God in man) resonates with me. It provides a map for everyday living and in the person of Jesus Christ, whether you see Him as entirely human and entirely divine, or whether you see Him as largely a metaphor, in Him we are shown "the way" to God.

thechurchgeek said...

I do have a few faithful folks who have expressed not having such experiences with God, and they often see themselves as a little less worthy than other Christians. So I've begun to wonder if maybe the whole relationship notion is just ridiculous.

Rob Bell has a wonderful video in which he talks about God and walking in the way of Jesus not as relationship but as shaping our lives in 'tune with God' God and God's way is the rhythm which live is to be played and we can play in tune or out of tune.

julieunplugged said...

Mariam, I liked your reflections in the second comment you made. One of the ways I see God language is how you've described it - God-talk tends to revolve around the best of ideals and hopes. It can lead people to think about how they might be kinder, gentler, more humane and so on. the flip side of course is that God-talk has also been responsible for heinous indecent crimes against fellow human beings.

Have you read _Honest to God_ by John A. T. Robinson? His book gave me some breadth of thinking about how to be honest about God and to explore some of the limits of language in thinking about and describing God.


Chuck said...

My current mode of thinking about "relationship with God" involves not worrying much whether what I experience is God or a deeper part of myself. I'm not sure we as humans have learned how to interpret our experiences very well, so we "anthropomorphise" and personalize way too much. God easily becomes a possession.

One of the few pieces of the bible that I hold on to is "Christ in you". I've internalized that for myself to mean not that I am God, but whatever God is can be found within me. So I don't worry much (OK, not even at all) about the character/nature of God. I've always looked for "organic" or naturalistic explanations for "spiritual" experiences, so I guess this is consistent with that predisposition.

Dcn Scott Dodge said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
julieunplugged said...

Well, I came back to respond to Dcn Scott but he has deleted both his comments here and instead has posted them on his own blog.

Feel free to interact with him there if you like. :)