Looking for God in the West – Part 1: Perceiving God

It is so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that science has all the answers and that we can only claim to ‘know’ anything if we discover it through the cold, objective methods allowed beneath the umbrella of science. Even Christians fall into this trap; I know I did. Not all that long ago, I believed that the only effective way of leading people to God was to convince them through objective evidence from science. It was only very recently that I reassessed where I stood on this, as after some reading on the subject I realised that the case for the existence of the Christian God could be made much more strongly through investigation into the historical person of Jesus Christ. Although this sort of historical analysis is not recognised as scientific in the strictest, ‘school curriculum’ sense, the objective, analytical, critical philosophy that drives it is very much the same (in my unqualified opinion).

Now I find myself asking, is this the only way to lead people to God, or even the best? What other ways are there? I haven’t come anywhere near answering those questions yet, but in this post I aim to communicate to you my thoughts so far. Be warned, there won’t be a nice, rounded conclusion to this piece, simply because I haven’t reached one in my own mind (and I don’t know if I ever will). But I think, maybe, I’m getting somewhere, and it might help if I share what I’ve thought about thus far. In this post (part 1), I’m going to look specifically at how a human perceives (relates to, interprets) God and a relationship with him.

First of all, I think it’s impossible for an individual to perceive God objectively. Why? Well, I don’t think that an individual can perceive anything objectively. By objective, I mean without any sort of bias or opinion or personal feelings involved. It seems to me that everything we perceive, whether in a physical, sensory way, or a more conceptual way (such as knowledge and ideas) is filtered through our own preconceived assumptions about the world. These assumptions could be a variety of things, but I suppose the easiest way to explain them is to say that they are our expectations of how different things are/should be. We expect dogs to have certain characteristics that make them dogs. We expect to operate a phone in a certain way. We expect things to be normal. But those expectations are by no means universal; they change with cultures, locations, upbringing…all sorts. The point is, they shape the way we interpret the things we come across, therefore, they shape the way we see God.

At this point, I feel that I need to clarify what I mean when I say ‘God’. Otherwise, you might mistake this for a justification of the idea that all religions are paths to God, that they just show different aspects of some sort of One Over All. It’s not. I’m talking about perceiving God differently within the character of the God laid out in the Christian canonical Bible. Why? Because I believe that God is a being, just as you and I are beings. He is not some sort of spiritual life force, a sort of omnipresent, sentient cloud of universal power. A proper explanation would take another post, but I’ll summarise by saying that I believe this because I believe that God revealed himself as personal through the person of Jesus Christ, and relates to us in a consistent way through the Holy Spirit. Thus, God has a consistent, unique character. Although we may relate to him in different ways, he is always the same, just as two students may relate to the same teacher in different ways.

That leads on nicely into the next point (also a continuation of the point two paragraphs up), that if we can’t perceive God objectively, we must perceive him subjectively, through the lens of our individual worldview. I’ve written about this before, basically I’m saying that the aspects of God’s character that we focus on, the parts we find easy to accept, the parts we’ll find hard to accept, the way we talk to him etc. will all change depending on the person. To an extent, personal reactions can also be generalised (this is not without its risks) to entire cultures. For example, modern, Western Christianity is more likely to emphasise the love of God than older, Viking Christianity. Is one or the other wrong? No, they just emphasise different parts. Personally, I accept justice easily and struggle more with mercy. That’s just me.

It’s a hard topic to discuss, because science has become so dominant in our culture. There are some people that will never bring themselves to consider the questions that I have raised, because they accept the ultimate authority of science without question. There aren’t many things that I agree with post-modernists on, but one thing is this: science is not the only way of thinking about reality.

Thus, should science be the only way we can discover God?

Coming in Part 2…

  • Science is one way of searching for God, but what are the others?
  • Are any of the others acceptable in our culture?
  • How far can we trust the notions of ‘rationality’ and ‘reason’ that we normally accept without question?

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