I have three friends, each in a different US State, with whom I’ve enjoyed a private online conversation that has run non-stop for several years. We discuss everything under the sun. A lot of the time we agree, but we often disagree passionately. Nobody’s been banished, and none has decided to leave. One recent topic – one we return to often – has to do with whether or not God actually can or does speak to us. If he does, what’s that say about divine freedom to act in the world? If he doesn’t, what’s that say about all the personal and specific ways religious believers attest to having heard/experienced God, not to mention the biblical descriptions of God “doing stuff”?
I’m probably not summarizing the dispute well. There is a concern among some that if God can act in the world outside the constraints of the finite laws of the material cosmos, then he ought to be able to do pretty much anything, including prevent every evil. By “outside the constraints” I mean to describe divine acts in the world which are not themselves a function of, or inherent in, the world’s causal structures. What God says and does is a natural product of dispositions inherent to nature. On this view, the idea of God’s “speaking” – freely, specifically, and personally (hypostatically) – in the immediate act of human consciousness and awareness, presents a problem for some.
Explaining to my buds why I think this is not the case, and why we ought to affirm as real those occasions in which believers testify to “hearing God,” has been an on-and-off conversation. One of our number recently mentioned “mysticism” (particularly the Christian mystical tradition) and asked about the criticisms of mysticism by some Christians who “believe” but have not “experienced” God. I offered some thoughts in reply which I thought I’d share here:
The relationship between “belief” and “experience” is too complicated to warrant an absolute divide between the two. Everything we ‘believe’, we believe based on ‘experience’. You mentioned William James. Well, that’s James straight up I think. We believe what we believe because of the difference that believing makes, and that difference is by definition a difference in experience. So, with James, I’d agree that “experience” is the reason why (or the mode in which) we believe anything at all. If anyone “believes” God exists, it’s because of their “experience” (of themselves, of the world, of the intelligibility of faith, of the explanatory value of God, etc.).
With that in mind – what about the mystics? Given my limited exposure and experience, I’d say that for the mystic it’s not that there are discrete moments or particular experiences that cannot be explained by the reasoning and categories that explain other things (mundane things outside those ‘special moments’), it’s that the experience of all those “other things” gets so inseparably identified with God that experience of those things becomes experience of God. All the world, all of being, becomes a venue and occasion in which God is experienced. That would follow from a proper understanding of standard theism, right? God creates, sustains, and is present in the immediacy of every act of being – every thought, every choice, etc. “Believing” this connection rationally may not blow one away with feelings of ecstasy, but the more truly one perceives it present in, as as the ground of, every truth – a ground not reducible to any one truth or the totality of truths – the all-encompassing beauty and truth that God is can, my experience suggests, translate simply and wonderfully into experiencing God.
Perhaps those Christians who “believe” but haven’t “experienced” God have not perceived the nature of what it is they “believe.” When I talk about “believing,” for example, I mean something more active and engaging, akin to “contemplating.” In the end, mysticism isn’t going deep at some particular point and that depth takes you farther away from other things. It’s going wide, redefining all particular points as equally constituting an experience of God. Mysticism is the show eradication from one’s horizon of all that is ‘mundane’ – God ‘in’ and (cautiously stated) ‘as’ all things (i.e., “God all in all“; 1Cor 15.28), and to see (viz., to believe as in contemplate) the world that way cannot but transform one’s experience. So to your friends who believe but have not experienced – I’d ask them to describe where God is relative to their beliefs. Maybe they’ll discover they’re missing the forest for the trees.