Experiencing a Personal God

According to Nancy Murphey, “experience” has quite a lot going for it in terms of being a “foundation” for religious belief (if you are a foundational thinker, of course). For example, “experience” has the potential to be universal, it is, when personal, not subject to challenge in any serious way, and if foundational then it is the source of doctrine and so not (at least technically) evaluated by doctrine.

When it comes to experiencing God, some theologians would classify such experiences into different types: (i) Numinous experience of the Holy (a sense of awe, reverence, mystery, wonder, etc.); (ii) Mystical experience of unity (a sense of being united with “the other”, e.g. through meditation); (iii) Personal transformation (a sense of forgiveness, a need to repent, etc.); (iv) Ability to face up to suffering and death (a sense that life has meaning despite its transient nature and the reality of suffering); (v) Moral obligation (a sense that injustice is wrong and evil, and the urge to fight against it); and (vi) Experience of natural wonders (a sense of awe at creativity, beauty and order in nature).

If I say that I have had a “God experience”, is there any way in which that claim might be supported? In our discussion we came up with a couple of possibilities: (i) if my behavior is changed in a way consistent with the “God experience” I have claimed, and (ii) if the “God experience” is one that the community has seen historically as normative. I suppose there is a third if the community claims Scripture as authoritative because then the “God experience” should be consistent with that (as well as with historic tradition) in order to be authentic.

Thomas Reid (“common-sense realism”) would claim that common sense tells us that what we perceive bears some actual relationship to reality. Reid’s “common sense” is that God implanted each person with beliefs about the existence of the world, existence of God, etc. and that this is “common sense” because to doubt it would be madness. Common sense realism suggests that we can trust what we perceive and so if we perceive a “God experience”, we can trust that perception. Of course, this assumes many things (e.g. we are not under the effects of hallucinogens, not suffering from certain mental illnesses that affect perception, etc.).

When we ask if a personal “God experience” is real (true), then we are usually working with a certain definition of truth in mind. The common views of truth of which I am aware include (i) Correspondence: the truth claim corresponds to reality (at least, as observed); (ii) Coherence: truth claims are true if comprehensive and internally coherent (the idea of a network of claims); (iii) Pragmatism: An idea is true if it works in practice.

Our discussion began to focus on how we might know God (and God’s attributes) through experience and it seemed to me that we were mostly using the idea of truth as given in (ii), above. We wondered whether it is possible to experience God and conclude that God is omnipotent (or omniscient or whatever). We considered our own experiences against the network of claims of classical theism and, at least in some cases, didn’t always find coherence with that network of claims.

One of the issues that arose is the relationship between God and spacetime, a relationship whose understanding, it seems to me, underpins most theologians opinions about issues such as predestination, foreordination, omniscience, and so on. My own working model for this interaction is that God relates to spacetime such that all moments are eternally “now” for God. That means that we can have free will and make our own choices (it also means that the future, an imaginary construct for us, is actually real for God). The artists among us observed that the human experience is like reading a book (one word at a time, with the story slowly appearing) while God’s experience is like looking at a painting (all the input at once and the whole story appearing simultaneously).

We spent a few minutes on the subject of “the image of God” and what that means. This is an interesting topic and certainly worth more time. For the record, and as I am a Wesleyan, I’ll just lay out one particular understanding of this (Wesley’s understanding, of course!). John Wesley saw humankind as created in the imago Dei that he understood in a relational sense (i.e. not as a capacity for reason or as a capacity to do good). The imago Dei is evidenced through our relationship with God and our relationships with others [note that redemption affects all four of the key relationships: God, self, others, nature]. Wesley saw the image of God in three fundamental ways:

(i) Natural Image of God: We are spiritual beings (homo spiritualis) not reducible to simple physical parts. We have the capacity to transcend ourselves (by worshipping God – this is what differentiates us from other creatures – we live in God through faith, in our neighbor through love). We are endued with understanding, will and liberty. (The entire animal realm participates in the natural image of God, not just humanity, although the degrees may not be the same).

(ii) Political Image of God: Also a relational image – we have been given “authority” or “dominion” (i.e. humanity is to act as “vice regents” for God to mediate his grace to all his creation). Humanity is the conduit through which God’s grace flows to his creation (the grace of God often wears a human face). After the Fall, this conduit was disrupted. Thus it is humanities’ responsibility for the consequences felt by the rest of God’s creation.

(iii) Moral Image of God: We all participate in moral judgments – it is part of being human and so is part of the imago Dei. Righteousness and true holiness (Eph 4:24) are to be the “tempers and dispositions” of our hearts.

In the Fall, the Natural Image and the Political Image were marred but the Moral Image was utterly corrupted.

That’s how Wesley understood it, just as one opinion on the imago Dei!

We also touched briefly on process theology and openness theology but each of these is a huge topic deserving its own discussion, so I’ll defer until then. We touched on a lot of topics in this gathering and I know I have missed several of them (feel free to add as you feel moved!!!).


  1. Julian A. Davies

    I think that the problem that arises when omniscience and omnipotence are challenged is what that challenge might do the nature of God. If God doesn’t know everything (might that include not knowing me, for example?) and isn’t all-powerful (might God not be powerful enough to bring about redemption, salvation and so on?), then one might ask if God is worthy of praise, worship and so on.

    Personally, I think there is a lot to be said for emphasizing the difference between “God is loving” and “God is love” and that difference, as you put it, might well transfer to other attributes. Is the difference between “God is wise” and “God is wisdom” simply that the former is an anthropomorphism, or is there more to it than that???? What do you think?

  2. Rick Gaillardetz

    Brad, I would invite you to consider the danger of imagining omniscience and omnipotence as representing the ultimate term on a sliding scale of power and knowledge in which you and I possess some knowledge and power, others we know possess more knowledge and power, and God possesses all knowledge and power. I think we tend to imagine God this way and in doing so turn God into simply, as Karl Rahner famously put it, “one more being in the larger household of reality.” Such philosophical attributes of God must be used cautiously precisely because, quite against our intentions, we end up diminishing God by making God another being on our sliding scales. I hope that makes some sense.

Thanks for visiting!