Knowing God

An interesting question was raised here on the blog: “…I think this is the most fundamental religious question and it is more important than the question of God’s existence. If you don’t know what God is like, how do you know what to look for?”

This question led us to revisit “general revelation” (e.g. knowing God through the experience of nature) and it seemed to us that while it might be possible to recognize “a God” from general revelation, it is not possible to recognize “the God” of classical theism from general revelation alone. It seemed reasonable to conclude that special revelation (i.e. God being revealed through God’s own direct “unveiling” in the world, such as the incarnation) would actually be required if we are to know enough about God to recognize God in an encounter.

As an example of the problem of recognizing God in an encounter, the work of the author Philip K. Dick was mentioned (e.g. “The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick” in 5 volumes). This writer had an unusual experience which he had difficulty classifying. He considered several possibilities, such as a direct encounter with God, a “flashback” brought about by earlier use of hallucinogenic drugs, or that space aliens had contacted him! His novels explore these possibilities and illustrate the difficulty of authenticating an encounter with the divine.

We revisited the ways in which we thought a “God experience” might be authenticated.
[We have discussed these previously on this blog: (i) if my behavior is changed in a way consistent with the “God experience” I have claimed, (ii) if the “God experience” is one that the community has seen historically as normative, and (iii) if the community claims Scripture as authoritative then the “God experience” should be consistent with that (as well as with historic tradition) in order to be authentic.]

The last of these three points led us once again to the issue of how a text, claimed as somehow central in a given religious tradition, might be of value in discerning the validity of a “God experience”. The problem arises, of course, when different traditions use different texts to validate their experience and these texts disagree on central issues. We considered, as a case in point, the Bible and the Qur’an which are aligned in some areas (e.g. both maintain that there is one God) but which differ in others (e.g. the nature and work of Jesus). We have previously discussed the various ways in which Christians have viewed the Bible (e.g. whether it is “revelation” or “a record of revelation”) and briefly discussed the conventional Muslim view of the Qur’an as being revelation in its own right (i.e. the words of Allah given directly to Mohammed). How do we deal with the question of which book to claim as central to our specific religious tradition? This is a question that has being lying on the table for a while. The question was previously framed this way here on the blog: before you are two books – let’s say the Bible and the Qur’an – and you are asked, “Why this book, why not that book?” – the rules of engagement are that quoting from your book of choice to justify it over the other is not allowed (because then quoting from the other book to justify it over your book is fair game, and we just go round and round citing our own favorite text in the face of citations from someone else’s favorite text).

We had several interesting and helpful comments that arose in regard to this issue. First, it was mentioned that the Bible was written by many people over many years and the witness of those people over an extended period of time is such that the trajectory for the narrative is one to which all the authors contribute. In other words, the trajectory of the narrative is validated by diverse voices over a very long period of time. The Qur’an makes no such claim, being a text said to be passed directly to one author at one time. Second, the eschatological nature of the Biblical text was one lifted up as a contributor to validating its centrality. In other words, the fact that the Biblical narrative is headed in a certain direction (it is “teleological” in nature – it heads towards a specific endpoint) means that we might assess it by whether or not those who hold to it are actually moving in that direction. It seems unlikely that the Muslim community would make such a claim for the Qur’an, although in all communities there are many voices with different opinions, so we will see.

There seemed to be general agreement that in any consideration of two texts, such as the Bible and the Qur’an, the issue on the table is NOT the blanket rejection of one over the other but rather what to do when they disagree over a specific issue important to a given community. In such a case, both cannot be correct at the same time on that issue and hence a choice has to be made.

For example, for the Trinitarian Christian, who takes the Biblical witness on the nature of God and the person and work of Jesus seriously, the Qur’an in 4:171 will likely be very problematic [(Sura: An-Nisa’ in the YUSUFALI English translation): “O People of the Book! Commit no excesses in your religion: Nor say of God aught but the truth. Christ Jesus the son of Mary was (no more than) an apostle of God, and His Word, which He bestowed on Mary, and a spirit proceeding from Him: so believe in God and His apostles. Say not “Trinity”: desist: it will be better for you: for God is one God: Glory be to Him: (far exalted is He) above having a son. To Him belong all things in the heavens and on earth. And enough is God as a Disposer of affairs”.]

Understanding why we choose one text over another and what the basis for that choice might be seem to be important in the world in which we live where religious pluralism is common. All of us involved in the discussion have friends who are of different faiths and nobody wanted to insult a friend by rejecting out of hand what that friend holds sacred. Yet, we saw that in cases where there are mutually exclusive truth claims being made, a choice is inevitable. We hope we can learn how to make good choices.

8 Comments

  1. Julian A. Davies

    Let me take the last point up here and reserve the other points for in-person discussion: can an intelligent reader deduce the Doctrine of the Trinity from the Bible? I think so. I’d do it this way.

    First point: There is One God (now and forever):

    RSV Deuteronomy 6:4 “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD;

    RSV Isaiah 43:10 “You are my witnesses,” says the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am He. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me.

    Second point: God is Father:

    RSV 2 Peter 1:17 For when he received honor and glory from God the Father and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,”

    Third point: God is Son:

    RSV John 20:28 [speaking to Jesus]: Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

    Fourth point: God is Holy Spirit:

    RSV Acts 5:3-4 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.”

    Note here the synonymous parallelism that shows that the Holy Spirit is equated with God.

    Fifth point: The three separate and distinct persons are one God:

    RSV Matthew 28:19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

    Note: In Greek, when two or more singular personal nouns (not proper names) are separated by “and”, and are preceded by the definite article, two or more separate and distinct nouns are referred to. In other words, there is only “one” name for the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

    That, I think, shows the basics of the Doctrine of the Trinity from the Bible (of course, one would need to take the text as authoritative in this regard for the argument to make sense).

  2. Rob R

    A proffesor of mine claimed that the new testament name of God actually was “the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”. I think it’s an interesting idea but I still don’t know what to think of it. I’d like to get a greek scholars opinion on it some time… as a matter of fact, I think I’ll do just that.

  3. Julian A. Davies

    Hi Rob:

    The point you raise here is what I was trying to get at when I wrote: “In Greek, when two or more singular personal nouns (not proper names) are separated by “and”, and are preceded by the definite article, two or more separate and distinct nouns are referred to. In other words, there is only “one” name for the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” I think your Greek scholar friends will agree that the rules of Greek grammar show that “the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” constitutes one name for one God. Let us know what you find out!

  4. Rick Gaillardetz

    Brad, I don’t think trinitarian doctrine is directly dependent upon Greek conceptualizations. Contemporary thinkers have developed trinitarian thought using philosophical personalism, as when they apply Martin Buber’s I-Thou conceptualization to their understanding of trinitarian personhood. Also there have been a number of thinkers who have (not very successfully, in my view) incorporated process thought. Postmodern approachs are evident in the work of philosophers like Jean Luc Marion who have critized what they conceive as modern onto-theological approaches to trinitarian discourse. As for your question about central tenets that were later discarded, I suppose it depends on what you mean by a “tenet.” I would distinguish between a central doctrine and diverse theologies used to render that doctrine intelligible. For example, I think it is a central tenet of the Christian faith that Christ’s life, death and resurrection effected the salvation of humankind. It is hard to imagine that doctrine ever being discarded by Christianity. On the other hand, there have been a number of theologies (what we call soteriologies) of Christ’s saving work, not all of which have endured (think if ransom theory, substitutionary atonement, etc.)

  5. Eric Snider

    I think I do not fully agree with the claim “if we do not know what God is like, how do you know what to look for?” It makes it sound as if an individual seeker after God would have to first get an intro theology course. On the other hand, maybe the only cognition one would need of is a very vague and general concept of God, something like “greatest possible being.” I think one would not need to know it was that being that Hebrews referred to variously as Yahweh, Elohim, and so on, Christians by theos or kurios, and on and on. Nor would one need to know the amount of theology proper expressed in the Apostle’s creed. Maybe all one needs, the only concept one needs to be a God-seeker, is something like “that whatever it is that that person over there or those persons over there talk so much about; that is what I am interested in.”

    Not very bright, but they are my lights,
    Eric Snider

  6. Eric Snider

    I think I do not fully agree with the claim “if we do not know what God is like, how do you know what to look for?” It makes it sound as if an individual seeker after God would have to first get an intro theology course. On the other hand, maybe the only cognition one would need of is a very vague and general concept of God, something like “greatest possible being.” I think one would not need to know it was that being that Hebrews referred to variously as Yahweh, Elohim, and so on, Christians by theos or kurios, and on and on. Nor would one need to know the amount of theology proper expressed in the Apostle’s creed. Maybe all one needs, the only concept one needs to be a God-seeker, is something like “that whatever it is that that person over there or those persons over there talk so much about; that is what I am interested in.”

    Not very bright, but they are my lights,
    Eric Snider

  7. Bill

    I think it’s important to bear in mind that “God” is beyond human comprehension. Knowledge of God is synonymous with eternal life (John 17:3), but “knowledge” in this sense describes a relationship as much as comprehension (which, I think you can see from both the Hebrew and Greek.)

    The key for me is community. The Bible was written by a community for a community. The Trinity is an expression of God as a community. The church is not a vehicle for individual salvation, but a community of believers, and “to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” (1Cor 12:7)

    So I think Eric hit it right on the head – the only thing you need to be a God-seeker is to be interested in entering into a God-centered community.

  8. Julian A. Davies

    In response to both Eric and Bill, I’d add that a line that I work into sermons as often as possible is this: “It is my experience that people fall in love with the community of Christ long before they fall in love with the Christ of the community”.

    I know that soem folks have deeply personal, isolated God experiences, but my general experience is that people encounter God through community – as I like to put it when I’m being preachy: “Lost sheep need to experience the love of the flock before they can ever expeience the love of the Shepherd”

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