Shuck and Jive

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Experience of God

(Conversations with Bob! We're Lookin' For God In All the Wrong Places!)


Thank you for your last post.

I think we have some misunderstandings. You wrote:
And if I understand you correctly, John, you have rejected special revelation.
No. We need to unpack that term before you suggest I reject it on your terms. I trust in the revelation of God through Jesus. You also wrote:
Thus one cannot go from creation or thinking or reason to God. One can only, (through the power of the Holy Spirit), receive the revelation of God in the person of Christ through Scripture.
I suggest then that Schleiermacher’s way, and therefore the path of liberal Christianity throughout the 19th and into the early 20th Century, (please note I use the term liberal Christianity here as a technical term to describe a school of thought that, went from Schleiermacher down to Harnack), cannot lead to God.
A pretty strong statement, Bob. I, of course, disagree. And you wrote:
Schleiermacher bases his argument for the Christian faith on human feelings. Certainly faith involves human emotions. But is faith primarily a “feeling of absolute dependence?” What happens when we don’t feel the feelings?
That is not correct. Neither reason nor human emotions were the basis for Schleiermacher. It was experience. The feeling of absolute dependence (FAD) is about consciousness. I am not here to defend Schleiermacher. The guy lived in the early 19th century! I think he would have held his own pretty well with Father Barth if he had lived in Barth's time.

Experience is not emotion. Experience is not reason. Experience is not "general revelation." Experience is grace. Experience is the experience of God. God comes to us through experience. As I wrote in my previous post:
My faith or trust in God as creator does not come by proof or scientific method. When it comes, it comes usually by grace, that is, I cannot engineer it. I experience it. I need to place myself in an attitude and in a place where I can open myself to that trust.
You also wrote:
Much of theology today again begins with the human situation, often, (as in Liberation Theologies), with particular human situations, and argues that to find God one must start with the human situation. I believe the opposite is true. God must start with us.
"God must start with us." Exactly! That is the human experience of God!

A parable:

Three men are sitting around a campfire. Each of them was formerly blind. Jesus restored their sight. They each tell the story of how that was accomplished.

The first says:
I was with my friend and I shouted out to Jesus: "Have mercy on us Son of David!" He asked us, "Do you believe I am able to do this?" We said, "Yes, Lord!" He touched our eyes and said, "According to your faith let it be done to you."
The second says:
No, you are wrong. That isn't how Jesus heals. I was in Bethsaida when my friends brought me to Jesus. He led me out the village, put saliva on my eyes, and laid his hands on me. He asked me if I could see, but the people looked like trees walking. Then he laid his hands on my eyes again and I could see clearly!
The third says:
No, you are both wrong. Neither of you can see. I was sitting and Jesus took saliva and made mud and put it on my eyes. Then he told me to wash in the pool of Siloam. After that I could see!
The first said:
No! That isn't how it works! You have to say you believe and your faith makes you see after Jesus touches you! Only I can see!
The second said:
No! Faith has nothing to do with it. You have to be touched twice by Jesus. Once with spit, and then again! Only I can see!
The third said:
No! Jesus has to take his spit and make mud. Then you have to wash in the pool! Only I can see!

And they argued on and on and on and on and on....

Hi ho.

So it goes.


  1. I think that you have made an important point, John. Experience is an important factor in coming to God. The experience of the Divine, interpreted by human reason, is one way that people come up with this idea that God exists.

    Regarding this comment:

    Thus one cannot go from creation or thinking or reason to God. One can only, (through the power of the Holy Spirit), receive the revelation of God in the person of Christ through Scripture.

    I think the question of how people come to God is an interesting one. I wrote my views on this subject in exruciating detail in my blog last month, in response to Heather Reichgott's theology game question about the roles of experience and reason. I suggested a couple of ways that someone, somewhere, can come up with the idea of God. Assuming that one existed in a total vacuum and wasn't influenced by what preceded them (which obviously is not how it works), someone somewhere had to have come up with the idea of God. The first obvious route to God that comes to my mind is that of the prophets and mystics; the second is the God of the philosophers (e.g., Plato). (There are probably other ways, but those came to mind.) The third is simply hearing about God from those who engaged in the first two routes.

    Mystics and prophets can come to God via their experience of the Divine, which they then interpret in ways that they define as "God". The use of reason, and drawing on the experience of others (such as what others have written, which obviously would include the Bible) are ways one interprets that experience. The point is, though, that transcendent people don't just interpret God in isolation; there is a sharing process, a passing on of ideas from the past to the present, and within a community of faith. The scriptures are a record of how people in the past interpreted their experiences of God, and thus provide an invaluable source of information. But simply turning to the scriptures alone isn't enough, because it only pushes back the question to a more remote level--those who wrote the scriptures had to have had some kind of basis for writing them in the first place. And my point is that the same processes are at work now--God speaking to us, and we listening to God and interpreting what we hear--that were in place when people were writing scriptures.

    I'm not sure that one can say that we can come to God through creation, but I would say that creation tells us a lot about how God operates. For example, we can infer from the fact that the universe emerged over 14 billion years of creation that God acts in a certain way; I believe that nature shows us that God does not create through sudden miraculous acts, but rather participates creatively and continually as a collaborator in the processes of the universe.

    All of this discussion of what nature tells us about God assumes, of course, that God exists. So I'm not sure that nature really takes us to God per se, except in the sense that God is always active in nature and that (I believe) God is calling out to us all the time. For any of us, it is only a question of listening to God's call.

  2. John,

    The point you make, about the normativity of personal experience, is a good one. do we know that "Jesus" "healed" any of "them"?

  3. Thanks Seeker,

    You wrote:

    "The scriptures are a record of how people in the past interpreted their experiences of God, and thus provide an invaluable source of information. But simply turning to the scriptures alone isn't enough, because it only pushes back the question to a more remote level--those who wrote the scriptures had to have had some kind of basis for writing them in the first place."

    Yes, we cannot substitute another's experience as our own, including the writers of the Bible.

    Oh, I suppose we can, or try to, but why?

    As it probably was obvious in my post, my pet peeve is the claim (said in different ways):

    I know God.
    I know the only way God can be known.
    You do not know the only way.
    You do not know God.

  4. I too find something inherently wrong and erroneous with defining one’s theological statements in such a way that they either explicitly or implicitly define another’s faith experience and/or tradition as wrong a priori.

    And let us be frank, that is just what a lot of the neo-Orthodox theological rhetoric does; make abstract theological statements that when they are unpacked say to Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and other faith traditions “We know God. We know the only way God can be known. You do not know the only way. You do not know God.”

    So what I want to see is right up front is such abstract theological rhetoric unpacked and make plain and explicit what is often left unsaid and implicit, and see them honestly, openly, and forthrightly how such statements address the question of other world religions and the fact of Spirit filled lives yielding the spiritual fruits of the two greatest commandments (love God and love your neighbor) in their daily lives?

  5. We can't help but filter our experience of God through a set of lenses that are in place for us. Those lenses include the culture we live in, the religious beliefs that were imparted to us, our personalities, and probably other things that I can't think of right now.

    I think that the Transcendent reality that we call God is not only far beyond our own limited ability to comprehend, but when we do experience God in some fashion, the lenses that are in place are going to fashion the meaning that we place on it.

  6. mystical

    What do you think happens to a person who changes from one religion to another? Particularly what that person describes it as a conversion experience and that the person's new religion is not that of her/his culture?

  7. Again, Rob, I'm not sure that's exactly the conclusion that neo-orthodox thought jumps to.

    It attempts to explain Christian theology, not Buddhist or Hindu or Shinto or Scientologist. If this leads to a certain tunnel vision, then so be it. Similarly, Euclidean geometry is a system of explaining a particular subset of geometry. It doesn't concern itself with curved space.

    The brilliant breakthrough of neo-orthodoxy in general and Barth in particular is that it shifts the focus back away from the Protestant Bible to what the Bible is meant to be about: God. The Bible may be the most reliable testimony to that God in the opinion of us Christians, but (and this is where I probably make a radical departure from Barth) I don't think it limits an infinite God, and there are some truths in just about every faith. It's probably impossible for a written book to encompass the entirety of God, whether it be the Tanakh, the Protestant Bible, the Quran, or any other holy text (though I'm not sure about Dianetics). It's the glimpse of God that the Bible gives us that is important.

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  9. Bob,

    My response would be that they then interpret their experience under a new set of lens. I suggested that culture is one of the lenses that people filter their experiences through. If you convert to a new religion, it comes with a new set of lenses; some of them may replace old lenses (from previous religions), while they might just be superimposed over others that are still in place.

    My point is that you can't escape those lenses. They're always there.

  10. Sorry Flycandler, the word I should have used is "orthodox" as in certain traditional Christian beliefs that would be defined as "exclusivist" claims that make either implicitly or explicit claims about other religions and other's religious experience a priori. I think such exclusivist claims are made across many denominations of Christianity, including some of the statements made by Barth. Take for example, the following:

    “[Barth] would admit into his theology of religions absolutely no data from the phenomenology or philosophy of religion. It is precisely this concrete application of his method that lays bare its weakness. To state the problem somewhat simplistically, it leads Barth and the Evangelicals to the attitude of: "My mind's made up. Don't confuse me with facts." A case in point is his verdict on Amida Buddha. What both the scholar or religious history and the Christian theologian see in this form of Buddhism is, as Barth admits, the very same belief and practice of "salvation through faith alone." But our eyes and mind deceive us, Barth tells us. Why? Because the Bible tells us that salvation through faith is possible only in Jesus Christ.” (Paul F. Knitter, No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions, p. 91)

    I understand Flycandler this may not be your view, but it is and has been the view of many Christians, and it is this kind of abstract theological statement that has concrete consequences. Not long ago, while attending the same church in which the pastor quoted Joshua’s fictional destruction of Jericho as proof God’s approval of the Iraq war, one of the members in a brief conversation made a point of telling me that the Jews would not receive salvation because they did not believe Jesus was the Messiah. I find it hard to believe that someone with a view like that can truly love their fellow Muslim or Jew as themselves, when they so quickly exclude them from salvation on the basis of an abstract theological belief.

  11. . I find it hard to believe that someone with a view like that can truly love their fellow Muslim or Jew as themselves, when they so quickly exclude them from salvation on the basis of an abstract theological belief.

    Hear, hear!

  12. Again, the case of the pastor with the weird Jericho sermon is an example of the exact opposite of the thought of Barth and neo-orthodoxy. It's a fanatically overblown case of eisegesis that completely ignores the life and teaching of Christ (which Barth said was the central message of the Bible). Barth was a Christian scholar, so I'm not sure why anyone would ask him questions as an expert on Buddhism.

    Karl Barth was a brilliant man, but he was also a man. He lived through (and his closest friends failed to live through) horrors we can only imagine. That his faith remained intact is nothing short of amazing. That having been said, there are many places where not just I, but those who are and were Barth's biggest advocates (the late Shirley Guthrie, who studied under Barth, and Jack Rogers, former PC(USA) moderator and friend of Pastor Bob) part company with him somewhat on issues of religious pluralism. I know for a fact that Guthrie and Rogers have deep respect for people from other faith traditions, regardless of the fact of whether or not they accepted the same creed.

    I know for certain that Guthrie and Rogers (and I am confident Barth too) would be horrified by the Jericho sermon you mentioned. It's just lousy theology.

  13. Yes, Karl Barth was a brilliant man; he recognized when his fellow theologian colleagues were selling out their religion to nationalism, and in the face of evil and sin chose the easy path of accommodating their definition of God to prevailing cultural views; Barth stood firm and “proclaimed” God’s final “judgment” over such unholy alliances and the godless philosophies of secular humanism. Gary Dorrien in his book “The Barthian Revolt in Modern Theology” does a wonderful job of detailing this brilliant story. You are right Flycandler to point out the positive aspects of Barth’s contributions, and I hope to touch on those more. But he also contributed some negative aspects that resulted from some of his more abstract theological claims that have resulted in concrete consequences in views and lives of those who read his teachings. Not all those who followed after Barth were as discerning as those you point out, and to find a path beyond Barth requires a balanced analysis of both the positive and negative aspects of his theology.

    “Materialism denies God, secularism simply ignores him; at least that was the earlier attitude. More recently, secularism has assumed a more militant attitude, assuming to take the place of the religion whose totalitarian bondage it onetime resisted. Twentieth-century secularism tends to affirm that man does not need God. But beware! this godless philosophy of human society will lead only to unrest, animosity, unhappiness, war, and world-wide disaster. “

    I think Barth would agree with the statement above, and his message of only relying on the “Spirit illuminated Word” is not without justification. But each generation must struggle to interpret what this means in the context of an every changing world, and today it seems we may well be entering a period of kairos in which the Spirit may be striving to teach this generation something past generations have either been unable or unwilling to hear, a lesson that the fact of religious pluralism so starkly brings to self-consciousness of the global world.

  14. While Barth and other German Christians took a courageous and necessary stand against the Reich and its apologists in the Church, it is worth mentioning that the legacy of Karl Barth, particularly in what became the PC(USA), goes far beyond Barmen.

    Again, I don't agree with Barth on everything, but I feel the core elements of his theology are sound. It is worth noting that like all of us, Barth is a product of his time and place. Especially after the war, and Stalin's influence spread across eastern Europe and Mao's over east Asia, he was alarmed at the overcompensation for the Fascists' unholy alliances with religion (Mussolini with the Vatican, Hitler with the German churches, Showa (nee Hirohito) and his manipulation of Shinto) amongst the Communist countries with a militant atheism.

    "The Theological Declaration of Barmen" is a brilliant defense of the separation of Church and State from the side of the Church. He was, however, a committed Christian who did not really concern himself with Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Shinto, Taoism, etc. He was a Christian theologian, and if I want expert advice on understanding Buddhism, I would not ask Dr. Barth; I'd ask (say) the Dalai Lama.

  15. Hi Flycandler,

    I would not deny credit where credit is due, and like Tillich would give credit to Barth for "rallying Christian opposition to the attack on Christianity" (Gary Dorrien, The Barthian Revolt in Modern Theology, Westminster John Knox Press. P. 133; 143).

    Barth indeed was a product of his “time and place,” and that is all the more reason to apply the influence of his theology today to critical examination, a dialectic in pursuit of truth, so that we can discern what parts of his theology were a “product of his time” and no longer apply to our own day and age. One such example would be his theology of other religions; in Barth’s day he did not need to “really concern himself with” other religions because he viewed them through traditional Christian exclusivist theology. It is a simple solution when one does not need to concern oneself with other religions, but I think if we have not already entered we are swiftly approaching the day and age when we can only do so at our determinant and the detriment of our children and children’s children, who will increasing live next as neighbors those of other faiths.

    With regard to the problem of religious pluralism,

    So far as concerns religious problems, simple solutions are bogus solutions. It is written, that he who runs, may read. But it is not said, the he provides the writing.

    -- Alfred North Whitehead

    It is realized that to have an intelligent understanding of our common humanity and its problems today, it is necessary to know something of its religions as well as its political and economic affairs, its scientific and cultural achievements. For, whatever may be one’s evaluation of the metaphysical aspects of religion, the significance of religion as social phenomena is fundamental. The ways in which other peoples today and in the past have sought to solve the problem of human nature and destiny have a deep and abiding interest … Moreover, the problem, which other have tried to solve, is a continuing one and confronts each of us, whatever our age or the society in which we live. (Brandon, A Dictionary of Comparative Religion, 1970, p. 1)