Thursday, July 04, 2019

Experiencing God

Experience of God is impossible. From a philosophical point of view, if God is a transcendent spirit, he can’t be the object of experience in the way other things can be the objects of experience. We experience things by the activity of discriminating — colour changes, the table ends, a sound gets louder, and so on — but, in God, there’s nothing to discriminate: all is everlastingly the same.

That doesn’t mean that nothing can be said about God. People are saying things all the time — but not on the basis of experience. People who see visions are not really seeing God, in my view. A revelation by God is not the same as an experience of God. The Sermon on the Mount was a kind of revelation to the people who heard it, but they experienced Jesus, not the divine Spirit.

1. There's a grain of truth to this, but the comparison is profoundly misleading. It's true that if God is timeless and spaceless, then he can't be experienced directly. 

2. The claim that we experience things by discrimination is interesting. I don't know if that's an accurate generalization. But suppose it is. The fact that God is always the same doesn't mean we always experience God the same way, for we never experience the entirety of God, but only minute samples (as it were). 

3. In addition, we don't experience other minds directly. Rather, we experience other minds via their embodiments. We experience them through the medium of the five senses. But except in cases of telepathy, we never have immediate access to their minds. And even if mind-reading is possible, that seems to be just a sample. Even though human minds, unlike God, exist in time (but not in space), what we experience is at least one step removed from other minds. Personality as expressed through embodiment. 

4. Furthermore, we can experience people through their effects. We experience an artist through his art, a musician through his music, a poet through his poetry, a dramatist through his plays, a novelist through his stories, a moviemaker through his films. In fact, interviewing a creative artist in person may  be a letdown because he already put the best of himself into his artwork. 

5. Finally, we experience the physical world indirectly. That's filtered through an intricate sensory processing system. 

So the roundabout way we experience God is hardly unique to God, but characteristic of human  experience in general.  


  1. --The Sermon on the Mount was a kind of revelation to the people who heard it, but they experienced Jesus, not the divine Spirit.--

    Biblically, it is plainly stated BOTH that God is invisible and unseeable (i.e. deadly to witness unfiltered), AND that Jesus is the visible God:

    No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. – John 1:18

    ...and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. – Matthew 11:27

    By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible – Hebrews 11:27

    To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. – 1 Timothy 1:17

    He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. – 1 Timothy 6:15–16

    For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. - Romans 1:20

  2. The Eastern fathers dealt with this with the essence/energy distinction, sadly lost in the west. We can experience God directly through the nous.

    1. The nous is identical to the divine energy?

      The essence/energy distinction generates a dichotomy. Is the energy different from God? If so, you don't experience God if you merely experience the energy. But if it's identical to God, then the energy collapses into the essence.

    2. The nous is the faculty we have by which we experience God directly. Of course the word "experience" isn't too easily defined.

      The dichotomy is only there if you presuppose that distinction entails division. Palamas would say that getting rid of the distinction leads to deism, and ultimately atheism.

    3. i) What's the evidence that we have a faculty by which we experience God directly?

      ii) Once again, either the energies are consubstantial with God or not. Are you claiming there's something in between being God and not God?

      iii) If you don't know what God is essentially like, you don't know what God is really like.

      iv) Where's the actual argument that "getting rid of the distinction leads to deism, and ultimately atheism"?

    4. i) do you believe in tripartite human anthropology?

      ii) consubstantial in this case seems like a category error. did Moses not talk to God "face to face" like a friend? are not Christ's theophanies in the OT REALLY God?

      iii) can you explain what you mean by "really like?" i would say i know my wife although i don't know her essence.

      iv) oh, i don't know how you could actually prove that. it was just an interesting assertion. a theory.

      btw, i was initially responding to Kenny. i agree with your comments on him overall. we might be talking past each other!

    5. i) No, I'm a Cartesian dualist.

      ii) I discuss the complexities of such attributions in my post.

      iii) So your wife's essential personality is not expressed through her words and actions?

    6. i) well, we won't get anywhere on that one then, lol.

      ii) this post? where?

      iii) her personality? yes it is. but that requires another person. it's still not her essence.

      what are your thoughts on God's transcendence vs His immanence?

      thanks, steve! long-time reader, first time commenter.