Knowing and Knowing

How do we know what is it that we claim to believe? How do we know if something is or is not real? We get an e-mail making an audacious claim about a politician or leader, or an e-mail saying that with a few simple steps we can make a lot of money without a lot or work, or an e-mail telling us that our computer has a virus or that we can change/enhance our body with just a pill. How do we know if these offers are true and what claims can we believe? We can search the internet, go to and see if there is any truth to the claims that are being made. We can use the mighty Google to instantly give us assurance that the claims are true or false. There are ways to find out and to know.

            Someone tells us that a fire is hot or a pillow is soft, but how can we know? We can touch the fire and rest on the pillow and see if indeed one is soft and the other is hot. We can compare, try things out, let our senses give us assurance. Empirical data holds credence and truth in our efforts to “know.” There are ways of finding out and knowing.

            Yet what about the divine? Someone tells us that God exists and we cannot go to or even the mighty and ever-present Google, or touch God to have assurance in our knowledge. Someone else tells us that God does not exist and we still have no way or method of verification. How can we know if there is no proof that God does exist or that God does not exist? So how do we know about the existence of God?

            For some, it is a simple matter of reason. Whether you are the medieval scholar Thomas Aquinas or a more recent proponent of Intelligent Design (who are just aping Aquinas poorly), reason suggest that everything must come from something and the order and sense in everything must come from something with a sense and purpose. The bureaucracy of the government flies in the face of such a notion, but we can address that another time. The complexity of the eye, the brilliance of ecosystems, the wisdom of the seasons all might suggest that there is something behind it all, that something must have made it and gotten everything started and therefore God must exist. It only makes sense. Reason reigns supreme!

            Or some, like another medieval scholar Anselm of Canterbury (who was on a different softball team from Aquinas) or more recent scholars of cognitive neurology (discussing the “god gene”), might say that because we even imagine or conceive of the existence of a divine being who is greater than anything else we can conceive that therefore this being must exist. The thought itself must come from somewhere – it cannot happen on its own and must be influenced by the presence and existence of this higher power. Or it could just be the way we are wired, but lets say it was because God wired us that way. Reason wins again!

            These are just two examples of ways that individuals have used reason to show and prove that God does exist. We know that God exists because we know and experience creation and therefore know about God. We use reason to have a idea about God’s existence.

            Then there are those who prefer to feel. There are those who say they “know” not because of what they can intelligently design in their head, but because of what they feel in their heart. These are the people who climb to the top of the mountain, and then watch the sunrise (which is a very cold place to be for a sunrise) and from that experience of beauty and grandeur have a sense that there is something more that what can be seen. There are those who take a week of prayer and fasting, and in a light-headed, starved state have a euphoric experience and from that experience believe that there is more to life that what can be seen. There are those who look for the corporate experience of being with a body of people saying the same words all together, singing songs together, and hearing some kind of indoctrinating message and this experience makes concrete the notion of God’s existence.

            These are people who lean on the mystical experience, through moments of excess or of deprivation, as moments that brings one to a revelation of the presence of the divine. It is through experience that one can come to know God; we know it because we feel it. Experience and feeling wins!

            So often we pit reason against experience, intelligence against feeling, scholasticism against mysticism even though both can be avenues through which one can draw near to the idea of the presence of God. Some of us are more of the thinking type and we get very uncomfortable when asked to participate in a hug-circle or to get emotional in a worship experience. Others of us are more of the feeling type, and when hearing about the cosmological or ontological argument for the existence of God our eyes gloss over and we immediately start to fall asleep. It is fine to have our preferences, but what about when we are in a place of doubt? Both of these approaches still make a claim of faith; still have a moment when one has to decide to believe. With doubt we can say that creation, as wonderful as it may be, still happened through accident and coincidence. We can say that the feeling of the divine was just a feeling, a mass of chemicals in our brain, and nothing more.

            When we fall into our ruts of doubt a common response is to double-down and keep doing what we are used to doing but with even greater zeal and energy. We just need to think more, or feel more and we will regain our faith. Yet there are times when that is not going to work; when we challenge and question the very premise of why it is we believe. Sometimes we need to move away from home, if only for a while, and experience life in a different way. There are times, for all of us, when a change of pace may be what is really needed. For the thinker, go ahead and give the hug-circle a try. Or take some time for prayer in your day, try to experience or feel the presence of God. Get out of your head. Feel. Don’t be such an android. Just make sure you ask someone before you hug them.

            For the feeler, take a step back and ask yourself what it is about God’s nature that you like, lean upon, and cherish. Think about creation itself. Read a couple volumes of the Summa Theologica. Get into your head. Think for a bit and build on the foundation of your experience.

            The thing is that there is no one right way to “know” and experience God. There are ways that may suite us more, but if we lean on one, the other muscles of faith atrophy, which can lead to a crippling doubt. We need to have a balance in the ways that we grow in our relationship with God.

            I am not saying that this is a sure-fire way to reclaim a lost faith, but there is something to trying to know God in a different way. Experience or reason, both are true and practiced ways of knowing God. Both can be winners and everyone gets a medal! And the hope is that faith wins!