It’s hard to believe in something we can’t see. So why doesn’t God make himself visible to us, if he wants us to believe in him?
Or is God more “visible” than we might first think? Some people seem to think so. Can we learn something from them? Or is it impossible to know God second hand?
I don’t feel I experience God, do you?
My life is fairly ordinary. I believe in God. I think I have good reasons to believe. But I don’t feel God intervening in my life in obvious mays.
I pray to God every day, but I’m not aware of him talking back to me. If I am sick, I pray for healing, but I also go to the doctor. I pray to keep Covid-free, but I have also been vaccinated.
I feel like I’m fairly typical. So I’m guessing your experience may not be very different to mine, even if your belief is very different.
Surely a powerful God would be obvious?
This all makes many people think. If God made the world, sustains it so we can live in it, if she loves us deeply …. why don’t we see her more? Is he hiding?
So some people conclude God isn’t there at all …. or isn’t worth thinking about. Others construct reasons why God might keep himself less obvious.
But then I think again …..
But maybe I HAVE experienced God a few times?
I have posted on this blog a time when it seemed like supernatural intervention saved me from a serious car accident. So it seems like God actually “spoke” to me then. More accurately, it seems like God put a thought in my head that didn’t arise naturally.
And then there are other times. Times when God seems to have directed my thoughts in less startling ways. Times when fortuitous coincidence occurred. Times when something I said in a chance remark had helpful significance to that person.
Of course there have also been times when I’ve made spectacularly bad decisions, to act or speak in certain ways that I later regretted deeply. But when I look back on my life (I turned 76 last week) I can honestly say I am both surprised and grateful that so many poorly conceived actions and remarks haven’t been more disastrous.
More people than you might think
Research shows that many people feel they’ve experienced God in some way:
- More than half people surveyed in a British study had had some sort of significant religious experience.
- About half of the US public says they have had a religious or mystical experience, defined as a “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening.”
- Research suggests that something like 300 million christians around the world claim to have experienced or observed a supernatural healing miracle.
- There are many apparently credible reports of people being healed, seeing visions of Jesus, hearing God speak to them, or experiencing God guiding and helping them in life, or overwhelming them with his power and love.
The interesting thing is that most of these reported experiences cannot be classified as arising from abnormal or pathological psychology. They generally occur to “normal” people and they generally have a beneficial effect. Sometimes these experiences are life-changing in a good way.
Of course, we need to add into the mix reports of people seeing ghosts, recalling past lives, having near death experiences and seeing aliens. And those people reporting healing by other gods. Do all these experiences, the christian and the non-christian alike, reveal truth? Can they all be explained by any one world view, such as christianity?
I’ll leave that question for you to consider. I’ll just conclude that there is indeed evidence that many people claim to have experienced God, and perhaps they have.
Doubts and reasons
Critics will argue that there is always another explanation for these different experiences, and this explanation will always be more probable than a supernatural one. This is a much argued philosophical matter, but seems to me to depend on two questionable assumptions: (1) that religious experience is unusual and unbelievable (but as we have seen it is quite common), and (2) that we ignore the cumulative weight of so many testimonies (even an unlikely event, if it happens enough times, becomes statistically more likely).
Furthermore, many aspects of life only make sense if there’s something more to life than the mere physical. Our consciousness, apparent free will, objective morality and even rational thought itself are all difficult if not impossible to explain without God.
So I conclude that God’s intervention is a reasonable explanation of what people experience.
So why some people and not others?
Does God discriminate? Does he choose to reveal himself to some people and not to others? Perhaps some deserve it more, or are seeking him more fervently?
Or maybe some of us are not paying attention? Maybe the signs are there but we don’t recognise them? Or perhaps we refuse to recognise them?
Somehow, neither of those seem to fit the evidence. There may be truth in them, but they aren’t the main explanation.
It seems to me some people are more intuitive, others more analytical. Certainly psychologists recognise those differences, though they think most people use both forms of thinking at times.
So perhaps more intuitive people are more likely to have a spiritual experience, and more likely to believe in God. People who favour analytical thinking, on the other hand, are less likely to value experience, less likely to have such an experience, and less likely to believe in God.
The thing is, I tend to favour analytical thinking, including thinking about God. I fit the pattern by not having many obvious experiences of God, but I don’t fit the pattern because I nevertheless believe in him. Not sure what that proves!
So I think we tend to get what we are looking for and what we need most.
But I can only speculate why God doesn’t give us far more of himself in more obvious ways. Like others, I can only guess that maybe he respects our autonomy – I think he created us to be autonomous from him in some respects – and he wants to leave us a genuine choice about how we behave and what we believe.
But that’s only a guess.
Second hand experiences?
When you think about it, most of what we know about the external world comes not from experience, but from other people. I’ve never been to Machu Picchu, the Orkney Islands or Český Krumlov (sadly) but I know a little about them because I’ve seen photos taken by others. I learn about the big bang not from my own experience, but by reading cosmologists who have studied it. I know little about Covid-19 and vaccines, but I trust my doctor who does know about them.
So can we learn about God from other people’s experiences?
Surely we can. I personally have gathered stories from books and websites that are well documented and seem plausible. In a few cases I’ve contacted or heard the person speak. The evidence and the information stacks up.
And this may be the answer to the question of “why some people and not others?” We are communal creatures and we depend on each other for most of life – we probably didn’t produce most of the things we eat and wear, the houses we live in and the cars we drive.
So why can’t we learn about God from those who have experienced him more directly than we may have?
So, does God play hide and seek?
But if he does, I reckon it is for our benefit.
I think we all get what we need, or else we are only expected to respond according to the light we have been given.
I think that’s worth thinking about.
What’s YOUR experience?
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