Thursday, July 20, 2006
How We Experience God
Over on the eBay Atheist message boards I posted a long post about different ways that we experience God, borrowing Brian McLaren's list and explanatory quotes from his book Finding Faith. Since I spent so much time typing it up, I thought I'd reprint it here as well. Brian starts by saying:

"Does God exist - one God, good and powerful and personal? Is God in any significant way "knowable" - not exhaustively, of course, but significantly, much in the sense a fellow human being is knowable: able to be apprehended though not completely comprehended, touchable but not graspable? Is God really and truly "there" and yet not completely obvious, so that we must take some special effort to seek for God? If we have tentatively answered these questions affirmatively, then how might we best position, posture, or prepare ourselves to experience God, and how can we readjust our concepts of God to gain increasing alignment with what we learn of god? A survey of spirituality through history and around the world suggests to me at least twelve categories of answers:

1. Ritual
"I have met more than a few people who claim to have experienced God through ritual. They tell me that the familiarity and repetition of words or actions have become for them a kind of transparency, putting them in a frame of mind where the acts and words themselves become invisible, creating a "field" or "space" where God can somehow be experienced... That's not the whole picture though, because it is often through the ritual, not in spite of it, that people experience God... might certain movements of the body actually express and reinforce certain conditions of the soul, and of the spiritual relationship with God - as making love expresses and reinforces the love of husband and wife?"

2. Nature
"The experience of God through nature comes to me on many levels. There is an intellectual level. As I ponder the amazing intricacy of an organism, its perfect "fitness" for its environment, or the amazing ways the elements of an environment work together to make a self-sustaining system, I find myself saying, "God, what an amazing artist, engineer, scientist, inventor, and manager you are."... But there are dimensions that go beyond intellect too. One of the essential experiences of mysticism is an awareness of a glory hidden in all of creation, in every tree and blade of grass and speck of dust and grain of sand. That experience, I think, is an experience of the creator, coming through the medium of God's creation."

3. Obedience/Self-Denial
"Oddly, saints and sages throughout history will tell us that God is often found through our doing things we don't want to do, or not doing things we want to do... Spiritual enlightenment in this way seems to follow doing what is right. Doing what is right doesn't earn enlightenment (as in "goods paid for services rendered"), but it rather becomes a medium of enlightenment, just as doing wrong would reinforce us in our dis-enlightenment," plunging us deeper into experiences of alienation, guilt, and shame rather than experiences of God, goodness, and love."

4. Worship/Art
"It's hard for us to even imagine "knowing" anything through any other means than critical analysis. Except when we fall in love. And perhaps that is how worship can best be defined: looking toward God with our hearts ready to be caught up in the thrill of love. That is why, no doubt, many of us experience God in worship more predictably and intensely than through any other means. As we sing and think about God's goodness, as we hear that goodness expressed through the well-chosen words of sermons and prayers and readings, and as it is celebrated through dance and drama and music and other art forms, we sense a Presence drawing near us. In the experience of that Presence, we feel reunited not only with God, but also with one another in a new way."

5. Community
"Those who seek for God generally agree that God is often found in other people, and more specifically, in the experience of loving and being loved by other people."

6. Suffering
"In suffering, people often feel abandoned by God... For many people, it's suffering that drives them to atheism or agnosticism. Yet to be fair, there are many others who say the opposite. I think of an older woman [who was in the hospital with heart disease and pneumonia] when the thought hit her: "I may die before daybreak tomorrow". At first she felt a panic... and then the thought came to her, "I'll pray." And as she prayed, she told me a peace came over her - a peace she had never experienced before. The fear of dying left her... "Brian," she told me, "I've always heard people tell stories like this, but I've never experienced anything like it myself. But since that night, I've known that God is real - real in a way I never imagined I could know." One of the benefits of finding a faith community is that you surround yourself with people who have stories like this to tell."

7. Compassion
"Sometimes we see God in the caring faces of those who care for the suffering. Sometimes we see God in the agonized faces of those who suffer themselves... To those who have shown compassion in various ways to their needy neighbors, God says, "As you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me." In other words, we can experience God in us as we show compassion, and we can also experience God in the person who receives our compassion."

8. Life-change
"Have you ever attended an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting? You'll better understand this means of experiencing God powerfully if you attend a few meetings with a friend in recovery sometime soon... Story after story you will hear, and even though the room might be filled with cigarette smoke, and four-letter words will likely be as common as "amens" and "hallelujahs" are at church, you will sense the presence of God. At least I know I have."

9. Prayer/Intervention
"I can tell you so many stories from my own life where I have felt the direct intervention of God [in response to prayer] - plus, as a pastor, I am in contact with hundreds of people each with dozens of stories of their own. Put together, those stories are pretty compelling evidence for God's existence and involvement in our lives." (Brian does go on to admit that such stories have a "problematic edge" to them, such as why are some prayers answered and not others.)

10. Solitude
"There is something to be said for getting away from other people for extended periods of time, to have a time where the only companionship available for your soul is the presence of God."

11. Repentance/Grace

"Repentance literally means to give something a second thought, to think again, to see life and oneself in a new light... That kind of reflection - where we see ourselves and think again about what direction we want to take in the future - often puts us in a frame of heart and mind where we experience God. Why is this? Here's my guess: At those moments where we freely admit our wrongs, we are as close as we ever get to being truly humble. At those moments there is a response that comes from God, a personal response so natural and strong that it can't be stopped, like a hand instantly reaching out to a companion who falls, or like a mother's instinctive turn when she hears her child's cry. The words the theologians use for this pure, spontaneous response is "grace" - amazing grace... When we experience the grace of God in this way, it can be one of life's most significant events."

12. Joy
"In each pure experience of joy is a hint of something more, a call to find an even greater joy, a joy of the spirit, a joy of being connected to God. As life's pleasures and joys come our way, the sense that there is someone to thank is, in a real way, an experience of God. These experiences really are a gift, and if a gift, then there must be a giver."

I resonate with all of the things in this list, because, like Brian, I have experienced God in all of these ways. Of course, these are not "proofs". I don't offer them as arguments for why God "must" exist. I offer them as examples of how I have "seen" God in and at work in the world.

This is why, when the atheists at that site tell me that they don't see God anywhere in the world, I often find that I can't relate at all; because I have come to the point where I can't not see God. When you open your eyes to him, he's everywhere. It's like the quote from George MacDonald that Brian closes his chapters with:

"The Spirit of God lies all about the spirit of man like a mighty sea, ready to rush in at the smallest chink in the walls that shut Him out from His own, walls which even the tone of a violin or the smell of a rose is sometimes enough to rend."


posted by Mike Clawson at 1:14 PM | Permalink |


At 7/21/2006 10:10:00 AM, Blogger FDR

Good stuff Mike!


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