Saturday, October 5, 2019

Does God Exist? I Don’t “Know”

What a great way to say it

Does God Exist? I Don’t “Know”
Pete Enns, Ph.D.


I get asked now and then, “Pete, you’re a reasonably intelligent guy, with a PhD and everything. I want to be like you. But how is it that you still believe in God? On what basis is God still an option for you?”

God or not God? I think about that question a lot.

This won’t be solved in a blog post, but here’s basically where I am with all this “believing in God” business—in under 800 words. Just don’t mistake this as an “argument for God’s existence.” It’s just where my thinking process is.

First, note the way I phrased the staged questions above. I use the words “intelligent” and “basis.” The question presumes that belief in God is something to be settled on the basis of intelligence, education, knowledge of facts, etc. Without discounting all those wonderful things, I do not think that the God question is settled this way.

The western way of knowing privileges the observation and analysis/testing of external evidence by knowledgeable, experienced, and educated people who make arguments and defend them. I’m all for that. I like the fruit of this way of knowing—everything from electricity and medicine to electron-microscopes and radio telescopes. I’d rather live today in the western world than at any other time in human history. It’s not utopia but I’ll take it.

But I don’t think this way of knowing settles the God question, since it presumes that God is an element of the cosmos that occupies space and is subject to observation and testing—like a quasar, proton, or tectonic plates—waiting to be discovered or discerned through methods by which we know the physical world.

I believe that, if there is a Creator, this Higher Power is not a “being” that we can “know” exclusively or primarily through this western way of knowing. In other words, “I don’t believe in God because I see no evidence for God” or “I believe in God because the evidence proves it” are both nonsensical claims for me.

I realize that there is a long and rich history of discussion over difficult philosophical issues concerning the existence of God. I’m not discounting the importance of thinking through these deep questions. My point is a rather modest one: the question of God’s existence is not settled—one way or the other—on the basis the kind of evidence-based knowledge that modern western culture (rightly) embraces to help us explain many, many things around us.

That just doesn’t work for me. As I see it, knowledge of God accesses different ways of knowing.

In fact, presuming that evidence-based knowledge is the only sure way of knowing anything worth knowing lies behind both the angst and the sense of certainty many feel about God’s existence or non-existence.

Perhaps a great offense to many of us in the modern world is that God is not known in the way we are used to knowing many other things—which is a hard pill to swallow if you’re committed to evidence-based knowing as the only path forward.

A few years ago David Benner’s Spirituality and the Awakening Self: The Sacred Journey of Transformation was very helpful in pushing me to look at the God question differently at a time when I was ready to hear it. (I’ve blogged on Benner several times, for example here .)

In chapter 5 “Learning from the Christian Mystics” Benner discusses a knowledge of God that is “transrational” and “contemplative.”

Christian mysticism should . . . not be confused with experience. Instead, it should be understood as participation in the mystery of the transformational journey toward union with God in love. . . . Mystics are . . . much more defined by their longing than by their experience. They long to know God’s love and thereby to be filled with the very fullness of God [Ephesians 3:17-19].

This sort of knowing is beyond reason, but it is not irrational. It is transrational. It is knowing of a different order. It is a form of knowing often described as contemplative. And this is the connection to mysticism. Contemplation is apprehension uncluttered by thought—particularly preconception and analysis. It is based on direct and personal encounter.

When you know something by means of such encounter, you may not be able to express it verbally, at least not in a compelling, coherent, or exhaustive manner. But you do know that you know because your knowing has a depth and immediacy to it that is never present in simply knowing about things—even merely knowing about God. [pp. 75-76]
Thinking one can prove or disprove the existence of God through rational analysis is to apply to God a wrong way of knowing.

Rather, knowledge of God is described by terms like:

participation
longing
fullness
transrational
contemplative
apprehension uncluttered by thought
defying compelling verbal expression
depth
immediacy

So that’s where I am at this stage of my journey on the whole God thing. I’m still working on it—of course. And now my 800 words are up.


This blog was first posted in March 2016.

PETE ENNS, PH.D.
Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me SoThe Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works.Tweets at @peteenns.

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