God, The Experience of God, & Faith in God
Earlier, I posted, talking about the problem of getting the experience of God and the reality of God confused. As I said, this isn’t an unusual or unreasonable thing. We’re born not knowing anything, and we make connections about what is real and meaningful based on our experience. Therefore, at that age, what is real IS what is experienced. We cannot distinguish between them so early in life. But maturation includes a separation between the two.
But as I was meditating on Rom. 8:38-39, which is what put me thinking about this in the first place, I realized that there aren’t just two different aspects that are crucial here, there are three. There is the reality of God, the experience of Him, and one’s faith or belief in Him. That is, there is an objective reality (God), an immediate subjective perception of an objective reality (the experience of God), and a psychologically objective image an objective reality (belief in God).
Our subjective experience of God does not affect the objective reality of God. Unlike Hinduism or some New Age theologies, Christianity does not hold as one of its essential tenets that a person or persons’ faith or beliefs determine reality. We can deny God all we want, but He’ll still be there anyway (saddened by our stubbornness most likely). But our subjective experience of God does have a very real effect on our belief in Him, our psychological image of Him, particularly when we are young or at particularly sensitive moments or when experiences seem to be repetitive. When we experience God in a manner that we interpret as absent or hostile, then we form our image of God so that it conforms to that experience. We believe that God is absent or hostile, or at least we believe that more than we did previous to that time.
It’s too extreme to say that God doesn’t care about our experience of Him, but I don’t think it’s too extreme to say that our experience of Him is not of utmost importance in the long run. On the other hand, our belief in Him is important. He wants relationship with us, and if we reject Him or if we believe wrongly about Him, then that relationship suffers. Therefore, our experience of Him is not utterly insignificant as it sort of moves or influences the needle of our belief.
And therein lies the dilemma that I haven’t quite figured out how to deal with. The reality of God is of utmost importance. No relationship, psychological image, or experience has any meaning apart from the simple reality that He is and that He loves. Therefore, one’s experience of Him is of lesser importance, at times perhaps even not at all important. But because there’s this psychological image, this belief or faith, then experience isn’t completely unimportant. I can’t just completely say that it’s okay if I fail to experience God. “Well, that’s okay! The experience of God isn’t important!” But it is…
Someone commented in response to my previous post that we cannot live or exist without the experience of God, but whether or not that’s true depends a bit on how you’re framing it. We can most certainly live and exist without the experience of God at a particular moment or even an extended stretch of time. However, if we never have any experience of God, then there is nothing on which to base a belief, a psychological image, of Him, and a complete life as created beings is to have a belief in the Creator. We need belief, and that belief is, somehow, formed by experience. So in that way, we do need experience of God. Just not all the time.
But… when do we need it?
I guess that’s sort of in God’s hands. One of my stock phrases lately is that He knows what He’s doing. I’ll trust that He’ll provide experiences of Him when we are in need of them and take them away when we are hindered by them. Maybe here is where our image of God becomes even crucial. It is through our image of God that we interpret our experience or even our lack of experience of Him. When we fail to experience God, when there is no experience, is this both conscious and unconscious image robust and coherent enough to encompass this absence and still maintain the existence and goodness of Him? When we have an experience of God that seems contrary to His goodness, is that image capable of containing this conflict? If your image is, perhaps to your frustration, one of God not being good, is that image flexible enough to accept the possibility of good experience and be changed?
I’m thinking while I type, here, which means this may not have come out completely coherent. C’est la vie. What I don’t want to do is completely discount experience of God as some hard theologians seem wont to do, nor do I want to demand its consistent necessity as seems to be the penchant for post-modernism. I want experience to be shown as something primarily initiated by God and then interpreted, perhaps rightly or wrongly, by the shape of our faith. There is a hierarchy: God, Image of God, Experience of God. The peak is of utmost importance, but each must have its place.