In Thursday’s post (link here: https://bengarry.wordpress.com/2013/09/12/looking-for-god-in-the-west-part-1-perceiving-god/) I laid out my thoughts about the ways that we humans perceive God; not objectively, with unbiased data and cold calculation, but subjectively, through the lens of our upbringing and environment. In this post, I aim to explore possible answers to the questions that I posed myself (and you, the reader) at the end of part 1:
- 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?
Science is one way of searching for God, but what are the others?
When I first thought of this question, I naively assumed that I’d have a positive plethora of possibilities on hand in an instant to provide you with an encouraging list. Unfortunately, I don’t. The more I think about it, the more I think that I have been so indoctrinated by the scientific philosophies of this post-Enlightenment age that I find it very hard to consider non-scientific options in the search for truth. This is mildly troubling, to say the least. That said, I have come up with one or two possible ways of searching for God that do not involve some sort of scientific analysis, and I shall deal with the problem of ‘scientific indoctrination’ more when I look at the second question.
The primary way of seeking God that has come to my mind is this: reading and reflection (or R&R, if you want a cheesy, but memorable name). Like all the major world religions, Christianity has sacred texts that we believe contain the true revelation of God: the Bible. Where better to start the search for him? Seeking God with this method would involve patience and a willingness to spend a lot of time working towards an intangible goal. This is not something that comes naturally to us Westerners in the 21st century. If we’re going to spend a lot of time on something, we like to know what we’re going to get at the end of it. The thing is, when you’re searching for God, you’re not searching for a reward, some sort of satisfactory closure to the search, you’re searching for a divine person, and the effort doesn’t stop when you find him.
The alternatives to scientific searching: reading the Bible (or other religions’ holy texts), meditation, prayer, asking people to explain difficult theological principles all take time, and there can be no definitive guarantee of success. To search for God in this way requires humility, and a willingness to try doing things that you may think pointless, or unnecessarily time-consuming. It seems that there is no easy way out for the non-scientifically minded.
Are any of these ways acceptable in our culture?
If you think I’m being derogatory towards science, then you misunderstand my intentions: I think that science is fantastic, and that we can all benefit from embracing its advances. My argument is simply that it should not be considered the only way of gaining knowledge. To do so is to give it godlike status. It becomes a religion.
The thing is, most people don’t see any problem with science’s complete domination of the thought patterns that govern our culture. Look, maybe I’m wrong and science should be the only way of thinking…but honestly, I don’t think I am. If everything we perceive I subjective, and I believe that it is, objective science can only take us so far. Most of us don’t think in terms of cold, detached quantitative data (data that can organised into stats and numbers); most of us think in terms of opinions, emotions and words (qualitative data). Science doesn’t tend to accommodate qualitative data very well.
And yet, somehow, these methods that I suggested in the previous section seem inferior to science, even in my own estimation. Part of me asks: how on earth can reading the Bible and meditating provide us with the same sort of certainty as science? The other part of me says: it can’t…not if you’re expecting everything you know to be backed up by objective evidence. You see, I don’t think that believing in God is all about evidence. Don’t get me wrong, evidence is always welcome, but what it comes down to is that I’ve rarely seen cases of pure evidence leading people to a relationship with God. Even when I read about scientists’ testimonies, it is often the beauty of their discoveries and research that lead them to God, and appreciation of beauty is a subjective, qualitative thing, even if you’re appreciating the beauty in a mathematical equation!
Our culture may be slow to accept the knowledge of God that comes from prayer and reading the Bible, but for each of us, on an individual level, that is a far better way of knowing God than knowing him as a cumulative evidential case. This way of thinking may not come easily to us, but I think the rise of personal spirituality in the West, whilst being concerning in many ways, does reflect a shift in the way we approach religion; we’re starting to rediscover the ancient truth that seeking God is as much about the heart as it is about the mind.
How far can we trust the notions of ‘rationality’ and ‘reason’ that we normally accept without question?
We are told that we should be rational beings, that we should reason through every decision we make and every conviction that we hold. Not all that long ago, I wrote a post on faith being supported by reason and rationality. That’s all well and good…in a scientific sense. The reason and rationality preached to us from childhood serve us well up to a point. They are important for thinking through evidence, for weighing up problems and chasing leads to their logical conclusion – all skills that can be extremely useful in the search for God.
But when I say that I have faith that Jesus was (is) the Son of God because the Bible tells me so, or that I believe that Jesus will come again, as John predicts in Revelation, my beliefs are met with amused smiles at best, or complete derision at worst. People say, ‘Where is your evidence?’ I don’t have any, not in the sense that they are asking. I have no scientific reason for believing that Jesus will come again, for believing that Samson pulled down the temple of Dagon or that Ezekiel saw a vision of Heaven. I believe it on faith, because of a personal conviction that God’s words are truth and because of humility to say that his knowledge and understanding are greater than mine could ever be. Not all that long ago, I would have been desperate to demonstrate that my faith was rational, reasonable and scientifically sound…now I find myself caring less about that, because I’ve started to realise that following God isn’t always about being rational and scientific, it’s about saying ‘I choose to believe in God over the philosophies of this world; may his will be done’.
Drawing to a close…
Some people will no doubt think that I have taken a backwards step in retreating from science as a dominant way of thinking. Some people will think that my notions of faith and trust in an unseen God are foolish, even idiotic. To be honest, I can’t bring myself to care.
It now seems obvious to me that engaging with God is about more than just evidence and rational surety, it’s about acknowledging that we respond to him subjectively, and not being afraid to accept that emotion and feeling are as important as empirical evidence in seeking him. Just as your relationship with your spouse, parent, partner or best friend is not based on statistics of the number of times they’ve helped you, met you or spoken to you, your relationship with God shouldn’t be all about numbers. Yes, we can seek him through scientific research and evidence, but that’s not always going to be enough. It just might take a bit of humility, a bit of emotion and a bit of faith if you really want to find him.
There’s more to be said on this, of course there is. But I’ve waffled on for about 1,400 words now and I should probably come to a finish. I hope you think about what I’ve said, and don’t hesitate to comment with questions or disagreements. This topic is an ongoing discussion, only recently formed in my mind, and certainly not the finished product, wrapped and sealed with an extravagant bow. Below are some questions on this subject that you might like to consider:
- How much does science dominate your way of thinking about the world?
- If you don’t know God already, is science the best way for you to find him, or do you need to explore other options?
- Do you think that scientific rationality and reason are the only sound ways of arriving at a conclusion?
- If you know God already, how can you help people find him if they don’t know him already?