Breakthrough to God
Evil, both moral and natural, presents an intellectual obstacle. But the Bible does not merely speak of God in the terms of classical theism: a being who is transcendent, omnipotent, controlling and pre-ordaining, it also speaks of God as being “here” and not merely as “out there.” Something radically other which nonetheless may be experienced. It speaks of the overwhelming glory of God (שכ’וה Shekinah, δοξα doxa) that is to say, the radiance of God. Psalm 19:1-6, “The heavens declare the glory of God …” Psalm 29:3-10 describing the glory of God in terms of the roar and crash of breakers out at sea and the violent cacophony of a thunderstorm: “The voice of the LORD is heard on the seas; the glorious God thunders, and his voice echoes over the ocean. The voice of the LORD is heard in all its might and majesty. The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars, even the cedars of Lebanon. He makes the mountains of Lebanon jump like calves and makes Mount Hermon leap like a young bull. The voice of the LORD makes the lightning flash. His voice makes the desert shake; he shakes the desert of Kadesh. The LORD’s voice shakes the oaks and strips the leaves from the trees while everyone in his Temple shouts, ‘Glory to God’! The LORD rules over the deep waters; he rules as king forever.”
In the New Testament, the gospel of John speaks of Jesus as being filled with the glory of God, “And we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth”, while Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4:6 writes, “For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” This glory, the presence of God, is encountered here, in this world.
But the Bible also bears witness to the experience of God as a reality all around us. So, Psalm 139: “You have searched me and known me; you know when I sit down and when I rise up…. You go before me and behind me, and lay your hand upon me…. Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” The writer, in his imagination, travels throughout the whole of the (triple decker) universe: the heavens, the earth, and the underworld, the place of the dead (שאול Sheol), that was believed in Old Testament times to be the totality of the cosmos, but is driven to acknowledge that there is nowhere in all of that reality that God is not present. God is the environment in which we live. Indeed, in a speech put in the mouth of Paul in Athens, the author of Acts, has the apostle Paul describing this aspect of the reality of God in these words: “In God we live and move and have our being.” Although it is unlikely that Paul actually spoke these words, (historical speeches were generally made up by the historians if the ancient world, to summarise dramatically what an historical figure might have said) nevertheless they encapsulate what the author believed to be Paul’s thought. We are in God: we live and move and have our being in God. God is not simply “up in heaven”, where Jesus was pictured as having ascended to and where, in the vision at his martyrdom, Stephen saw God to be, but also as being right here, right now, the all-encompassing Spirit surrounding us, in whom we are, as fish are in water.
Other biblical texts speak of “knowing” God, not in a Western, abstract and intellectual, sense, but in a direct, Hebrew sense, like that experienced by lovers. ידע (“To know”), is the word for sexual intercourse, it is also the same word used to speak of knowing God. Hosea denounced the people of his day for not knowing God. Clearly, they knew of God for they worshipped him; what they profoundly lacked, however, was intimacy with God. The writer of the gospel of John, that most mystical of gospels, echoes this criticism and stipulated that it is this intimacy with God that is the source of eternal life (“This is eternal life: to know God.”) as an experienced, present reality, rather than simply a future one to be experienced after physical death as in popular Christian thought.
If the numinous, if God, can be experienced, if the testimony of mystics to “ecstatic” experience has credibility, then God is not somewhere else, but is right here with us. William James, Rudolf Otto and Mircea Eliade wrote of these experiences of the numinous. Eliade used, “hierophanies” (manifestations of the sacred) and “theophanies” (manifestations of the sacred as God). They are, according to those who have experienced them, instances when reality is experienced as being “more” than the visible, tangible, everyday world of our normal experience. They are mystical or ecstatic (literally “out of the (natural) state of being” – εκ = out, στάσις = state) in which another dimension of reality is encountered and experienced. Importantly, they have what is called a “noetic” quality them. Those who experience them speak of “knowing”, not simply “feeling”. These experiences are not peculiar to Christianity, nor even, to religious experience, and have occurred throughout history (Moses’ burning bush, the enlightenment of the Buddha, the baptism of Jesus, Muhammad’s night journey, the experiences of shamans and of the dreamtime; perhaps, even near-death experiences). But they are not restricted to founders, prophets and ascetics, many ordinary people have these experiences too. I, personally, had such an experience while travelling in the Irish Republic 25 years ago, which remains as vivid and powerful as the day I experienced it.
Mysticism is a form of religion which places an emphasis on the immediate (in the sense of not mediated) awareness and experience of, and relation to God, or the universe or Spirit, or however else we may choose to describe the numinous. We are familiar with the stories of Jacob’s ladder, the visions of the prophets such as first Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, the “still, small voice” of Elijah and Paul’s Damascus road experience. Perhaps too, we may include Augustine’s experience in the apple orchard, Luther’s thunderstorm, Wesley’s strangely warmed heart, Teresa of Avila’s ascent of the soul, and the unspeakable experience of Thomas Aquinas that put an end to his writing. But there are many, many more.
” … and I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things…”
– The Hindu, Rabindranath Tagore, wrote, “I found the world bathed in a wonderful radiance with waves of beauty and joy swelling on every side, and no person or thing in the world seemed to me trivial or unpleasing.”
– Similarly, the philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal wrote, “In the year of grace 1654, Monday 23rd November, from about half-past ten in the evening till about half an hour after midnight: FIRE. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob. Not of the philosophers and the learned. Certitude. Certitude. Emotion. Joy! Joy! Joy! Joy! Tears of Joy! My God…let me not be separated from thee for ever.”
– Methodist Theologian, Leslie Weatherhead, too, describes his mystical experience of God in the most mundane of circumstances. “It happened on a murky November Saturday evening in a third-class compartment on a train leaving London: For a few seconds only, I suppose, the whole compartment was filled with light. This is the only way I know in which to describe the moment, for there was nothing to see at all. I felt caught up into some tremendous sense of being within a loving, triumphant and shining purpose. I never felt more humble. I never felt more exalted. A most curious, but overwhelming sense possessed me and filled me with ecstasy. All men were shining and glorious beings who in the end would enter incredible joy. An indescribable joy possessed me. All this happened over fifty years ago but even now I can see myself in the corner of that dingy third-class compartment with the feeble lights of inverted gas mantles overhead and the Vauxhall Station platform outside with milk cans standing there. In a few moments the glory departed—all but one curious, lingering feeling. I loved everybody in that compartment. It sounds silly now, and indeed I blush to write it, but at that moment I think I would have died for any one of the people in that compartment.”
– Then, of course, there is the contemporary experience of the theologian and popular Christian writer, Marcus Borg. Borg was on a transatlantic flight when suddenly the light in the plane assumed a golden glow. To Borg, everything—the fabric of the seats, the trays of food, the other passengers—became exquisitely beautiful. “Everything was glorious,” Borg wrote, “filled with glory.” For Borg, such mystical experiences underscored his move away from the supernatural theism of his Lutheran childhood and toward panentheism. This was a move away from the question of whether God “exists” and toward a quest to understand the “is-ness” of the “radiant and glorious more” that suffuses life.
This is why religious experience is the most profound reason for believing in God. It is a powerful experience of something absolutely, undeniably real, utterly certain, profoundly life changing. Yet as a clinical, detached and purely philosophical “argument for the existence of God” to be analysed and dissected, religious experience is as sterile and hollow, and unconvincing as any other. God may be powerfully experienced, but is beyond proof or description, not because the experience is illusory, but because we lack the intellectual framework to analyse that experience. These experiences suggest that there is more than the mundane reality we experience every day, more than one level of reality and that this alternative dimension is one which may be experienced. We may not be able to prove the reality of God, but the evidence of religious experience is compelling. These experiences suggest that reality itself may be much more mysterious than we otherwise understand it to be. The certainty that the mystical experience of God provides us with as to the reality of God, does not come from intellectual argument, or from logic or ontology, not yet by way of unfounded assertions or assumptions, it comes from an immediate experience of being overwhelmed by the presence of God which gives us the certainty of God’s existence. We may not be able to break God’s essence down as the scholastics did, nor make a compelling, rational argument, proving God’s existence, but that which may be shown to exist, explained, measured and quantified is less than the numinous other, is less than God. It is in this mystical experience of the all pervading Spirit, the encounter with the mystery at the heart of reality, the life-breath, heartbeat and soul of the universe, the ineffable ground of being, that we find ourselves standing in our Neolithic forebears footprints, gazing out, with them, at the awe-inspiring numen.
Thomas Merton wrote, “Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God shows Himself everywhere, in everything—in people and in things and in nature and in events.”