Friday, 24 August 2007

Warning: This Post is Based on My Subjective Experience and May Be Rambling and Boring!

This post is in response to another question asked by that relentless question-asker, Slapdash. I'll warn you before you go skipping blithely onward, that it's rambling and more vague than I like to be. Moreover, it concerns my own experience of things, which may in this case be quite beside-the-point for most of you. Nevertheless, I must attempt, though my powers of self-analysis be strained to the breaking-point. Please keep in mind that my purpose here is not to convince but to explain.

Slapdash's question:

**Can you define what you mean by “know” and describe what you think the door [to knowing God] is? (Slapdash)

I'm not sure that I can communicate this, but I will die in the attempt. By knowing, I mean being sure with sense, mind and spirit.

Of course, we may not truly know a person through the senses, but the evidence our senses are able to gather about a person must either match the other knowledge we have of that person, or the mind must be able to postulate a reason why the sensory evidence does not match.

In order for the mind to know, reason (in as much as we possess it) must be satisfied. I don't say that reason must understand fully, but certainly it must not be ignored; its questions must not be brushed away. If I know my sister, I don't necessarily understand all that she is, nor do I necessarily have a good grasp of the biochemical processes that function in her body and brain. Rather, my understanding of who she is and that she is, is accounted for by reason and does not oppose my logical powers.

The testimony of my senses attests to her existence as an individual. Though I have had greater sensory evidence of her existence than I have had of yours, Slapdash, reason allows for both of you.

But knowing that someone exists and understanding what kind of a person exists is not knowing a person. Knowing a person involves shared experience; feedback; an exchange of views and perspectives; ultimately, a changed understanding because my understanding has been acted upon by the force of another's. When my understanding alters on its own, the alteration is clean and complete. We like to illustrate this in our culture as a light turning on. While this kind of realization may, in a more complex way, happen in conversation with another person, it is usually through a rather more complicated process that I am "convinced" or brought to an understanding and/or espousal of another person's point of view.

I am rationally convinced that I know God based on two theoretical evidences which are convincing to me as an individual. The first is that he offers arguments and opens my understanding to other things that neither appeal to me nor appear in any way to be an extension or progression of my own views. The second is that I am coming to understand who he is and why. The fact that I know WHAT before I know WHY signifies non-progression and offers me evidence that this sort of knowledge is not my own imagination or wishful thinking.

These evidences have been reflected in experience for me by God's fulfillment of the promises he has made to me. There have been times when I haven't understood what he was doing. There have been times when I've believed he wasn't fulfilling his promises. In the end, he has fulfilled every one. In doing so, he has brought me to understand on a rational level the reasons he had for allowing me to misunderstand him or for appearing to fail me. He has also, in different ways and different times, given me satisfying answers to every question I have asked him, with the exception of one. (The exception is a question I asked him recently, and it has been partially answered but not completely.)

As I put into practice the things that God teaches me, I am coming to trust him as well as my knowledge of him. I see evidence that the things he has asked me to do which seemed ridiculous to me have results that are not ridiculous at all.

Finally, I may compare my understanding of God with all of my other hopes or imaginations. While all else that I dream up on my own claims that I am brilliant and under-appreciated, God alone reveals my foolishness, even to me, and attests to the destructiveness of my pride.

I cannot say much on a rational level about the knowledge I have on a spiritual level, but I will try to describe the results. When I am overwhelmed and weakened, there is a strength and a comfort within me that I am aware is not of me. This grows as I share experience with, and come to know God. I am also aware of a growing freedom from myself - from my own wants and wishes and feelings. My self does not dull nor grow less, but my freedom grows greater, and I have a heightened ability to will what I do not want or feel. I have increased joy in things despite the hurt or difficulty they bring me, as I come to know God.

What is the door through which we may know God? The Bible says that door is Jesus Christ. He is the beginning of knowing God as a person because he puts us in a position to approach God and to allow God's Spirit to enter us.

"I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved..." (John 10:9)

Then how is Jesus to be known?

Through exercise of the will. He calls himself the Truth. Thus all who honestly will to know the Truth will to know him.

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:13)

Please don't assume that my meandering attempt here is the real answer to this question. The truth is, I am trying to share what is really a very individual experience. My sister, who shares my knowledge of God despite our vastly different personalities, priorities, and approaches to knowledge, would describe it differently. And yet the God we know is the very same person.

15 comments:

bjk said...

This is an amazing rendering of thoughts and I am grateful and will be rereading and thinking on it.....THANKS

The whole of it being so individual...

And yet the God we know is the very same person.

Slapdash said...

Hi jennypo, thanks for taking the time to write this. :)

You write this:

***
"I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved..." (John 10:9)

Then how is Jesus to be known?

Through exercise of the will. He calls himself the Truth. Thus all who honestly will to know the Truth will to know him.

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:13)
***

I guess part of what I was questioning or challenging back on my blog was this sense I have that Mother Teresa really seemed to embody this heart hungry for God that you write about above. Everything I've seen, heard, or read about with regard to MT points to someone who hungered for the Truth.

And then we learn that, despite this (by all appearances) contrite seeking after God, God was absent.

And this is the discrepency that makes me question God. Was MT's search for God not perfect enough, not pure in heart enough?

To that I say, none of us is pure in heart, the Bible is totally clear on that point as well, as is the general idea (certainly embraced by Calvinism) that we can do nothing, but God bends down to *us*. We can't do it perfectly. I don't have any impression that MT was trying to be perfect. She seemed to be trying to know God. And, by every indication we have, God spurned her.

jennypo said...

***And, by every indication we have, God spurned her. (Slapdash)

This is true. But truly, Slapdash, the indications that we may have about another person's experience with God are not enough to base a judgement about God on.

Mother Teresa is a perfect example - how many years has it been, and every indication we have had is that she had a deep and intimate relationship with God? By that very same method, which we now judge to have been greatly flawed, we see that all was not as we thought it.

Here are the possibilities, as I see them:

1. We didn't understand Mother Teresa's character or experience, and she didn't truly seek God, which is why she had no sense of his presence.

2. We didn't understand Mother Teresa's character, and she did truly seek God but God doesn't exist.

3. We didn't understand Mother Teresa's experience, and she did truly seek God but God ignored her.

4. We didn't understand Mother Teresa's experience, and she did truly seek and know God.

Notice these all start with "we didn't understand". The truth is, we were all shocked by this article. It wasn't what we expected. How is our new understanding of things to be different from the old one when it is based on the very same type of information?

Is it that we assume there can't be more than one great error in our understanding of a woman none of us has ever even met? Is this what gives us such surety in our knowledge of what she experienced that we can judge God by it?

I'm not asking anyone to throw such a woman's accomplishments out the window and call her a two-faced liar. Her work, which I understand you have personally witnessed and participated in, stands as testimony of her character. Rather, I see this entire situation calling into question the reliability of the information we have, since it has been, without question, wrong in the past. Certainly, the characters of God and Mother Teresa ought not to be undermined by such imperfect knowledge when it has, by its own testimony, been wrong before about at least Mother Teresa and quite possibly God as well.

It is necessary for us to make judgements about God. This is not the arrogant judging of God, but a reasonable way of weighing our knowledge as a means of coming to decision, since we may only make decisions based on our knowledge. But it is very important that we use the best knowledge that we have in judging anything - how much more the all-important character of God?

What I may know with some surety is my own experience with God. By this I ought to judge. I may use my observances of others and their experiences, but what weight can I give what I don't really know? They may raise questions, but they may not serve as answers.

Slapdash, I fully support your defection from the camp of "faith" as you have known it. But to make extrapolations about the character of God based on what indications we may have of the experience of Mother Teresa or anyone else smacks of the same blind faith I think you are running away from.

I know that you have also experienced the absence of a sense of God's presence. Please, start from there. Use that to ask the questions that must be asked about God's character. I know that you may not deny the possibility that God has carelessly or powerlessly left Mother Teresa in darkness. But the likelihood is far greater that, again, we have failed to understand the experience of a remarkable woman who has thought and done what few others have thought and done. We have little to compare her to.

From your point of view, there may be only a vague possibility of ever coming to a satisfactory knowledge of God, but there's less than that of ever coming to the same kind of knowledge of Mother Teresa.

jennypo said...

bjk,

Thanks for sticking it through. I feel as though I've communicated very little.

Like you, I'm amazed at the people who are different from me in age, culture, personality, experience - whose ways of describing things are so different from mine, and yet I find in their messages the very same God who makes his way into my experience. My sister is the person I have struggled the most to get along with; probably the most unlike-me-person I've ever been close to in any way. Our lives are completely different, and yet, over and over again, we come to the very same understanding of God and his character. She's probably the best logical proof my mind has for a God outside my own imagination (except that if I could imagine the kind of God I've experienced, people ought to worship ME!) :^)

I love learning from your experience, too. Thanks for sharing.

Heather said...

**the indications that we may have about another person's experience with God are not enough to base a judgement about God on. **

I think this would be tricky to navigate, because to some degree, we can't just rely on our own experiences when judging the character of anyone, supernatural or "natural."

Extreme example following, and I'm not comparing God to an abuser. But if I am dating someone who is incredibly nice, kind and charming, and based my judgement of his character only on that, I'd conclude the nice, kind, and charming. But if this guy also has a habit of torturing puppies, or running over children with his car, then my judgement is flawed. In order to determine someone's character, I need to take the person's interaction with everyone into account, not just me.

The tricky thing, of course, is due to the nature of God and how subjective each encounter can be. But, Jenny, even you provided examples that demonstrate the God you encounter is not simply locked in your imagination, because of the similiar stories you've heard. So it's a fine line to walk, between no outside knowledge at all, and basing something on 100% outside knowledge.

On a random note, I was shocked by the article because it seemed to ignore her wishes, since she wanted the letters destroyed.

Slapdash said...

Hi Jennypo,
I guess I just don't see a difference between you "using" your sister's life/experience/personality to verify or confirm your belief in God (see, you are turning to something external, outside yourself), as it is for me to look at MT's life/experience/personality to verify or confirm something different. Why you call my approach "blind faith" but not your own, I'm not quite sure.

I still get the impression you are downplaying or wanting to dismiss the MT story because it doesn't comport with your own experience of God.

bjk said...

..... She wrote in 1951 that the Passion was the only aspect of Jesus' life that she was interested in sharing: "I want to ... drink ONLY [her emphasis] from His chalice of pain." And so she did, although by all indications not in a way she had expected.

This quote from the article keeps me thinking and thinking.....to pray to share the passion....it just rocks me and seems to be something to keep in mind in discussions....???

jennypo said...

***I still get the impression you are downplaying or wanting to dismiss the MT story because it doesn't comport with your own experience of God. (Slapdash)

If my experience of God were all that it did not comport with, this story would carry a lot more weight with me. It also does not comport with my experience (such as it has been) of Mother Teresa, so that's neither here nor there.

You will notice that I do not base my knowledge of God on anyone else's experience, but I do recognize the experience of others, if I know them well, as a logical proof. If my sister's experience did not match mine, that would be nothing - few, if any, of her other experiences match mine. The fact that it does is therefore amazing to me. However, if I did base my knowledge of God on my sister's experience, this would, as you point out, be a blind faith.

I am not saying we can't make use of another's experience - but we can't base our knowledge of God on it.

Heather,
Your analogy of the abuser is excellent, and reiterates the need to go beyond personal experience, with which I am wholeheartedly in agreement. Where it breaks down is your source of knowledge about your boyfriend and his puppy-torturing habits. How well do you know him? How well do you know the person who is accusing him? Has information gained this way in the past been reliable?

In this case, it is obvious that our information about Mother Teresa's experience of God has been unreliable in the past. Not one of us knows her personally. I'll admit to not being overly trusting of mass-mediated information. These all add up to a big question mark, for me.

Even if you can ignore all of these things and want to call God a bully, you are left with a stack of conflicting information about Mother Teresa. Quite simply, either somebody is wrong or she is not the person we collectively thought she was - and her being the person we thought she was forms a good portion of the basis for condemning God, so we're left with a big circular argument.

This story was shocking - but I wonder how different it would be if she could tell it herself. Like you, I was immediately surprised that it was spread so widely when she had requested that her letters be destroyed. What would induce someone to make such a story known despite the wishes of such as woman as Mother Teresa? Money? Fame? Power? On second thought, not so very surprising at all...

Heather said...

Jenny,

**Where it breaks down is your source of knowledge about your boyfriend and his puppy-torturing habits. **

The difficulty here is what if the source of knowledge is the police? I don't know the police well at all, and they've been wrong in gathering information in the past. Yet because they are in a position of authority, and familiar with this, they would have to be taken seriously.

**it is obvious that our information about Mother Teresa's experience of God has been unreliable in the past.**

I'm not sure we can so quickly say it was unreliable, when all the factors are taken into play. I know what you mean, in the effect that the letters don't add up to what she might've said about her experience. But we can't take that in a vacuum, and for me, I'd have to ask why she didn't say anything earlier. Had she said what was in her letters earlier, while alive, I'm wondering if she would've been ripped apart by some other Christians, who feel doubt is the worst sin of all. It might've harmed those she was trying to help, as the focus kept staying on her.

Rather, the story now might add to the other pieces we had. The information can still be considered reliable, because of the subject matter. If this is someone who says that God is there for you, answers prayer, wants a relationship, and then we look at people who have sought out that relationship, the response or lack thereof should be taken into account.

I'm just not sure we can say "unreliable," because her intent doesn't seem to deceive, or lead people astray.

Slapdash said...

Hi Jennypo-

As always,thanks for the thoughtful response.

Perhaps a better way to say what I was trying to say in my earlier comment is that I'm recognizing MT's experience much as you're recognizing your sister's. I'm not *basing* my ideas about God on her, as I think my varioug blog entries would make clear. My *own* experience of God's absence has been a big part of my story; MT's agonized pleas for God to "show up" mirror in many ways the desperate cries and prayers I have sent heavenward.

Which, from my vantage point, is just doing the same thing you are when you note the similarities between you and your sister's experiences of God despite being very different people.

You keep asking how well we can know anyone else, and you make a good point that indeed, we can't fully know another's heart (though arguably someone's private journal writings get us a lot closer to it than things they may have written or said for a public audience).

For some reason I'm having trouble connecting that thought to the role you think external people or experiences can/should play in our lives.

You seem to be concerned that we are putting more 'stock' in those external things than is warranted - is that it? That at best, they can be interesting reference points but not proofs of anything related to God?

Again, maybe I'm just not getting it (and I was up too late last night working on a proposal), but I feel as though I am looking to MT in the same way you look to your sister - and you call her the best logical proof you have of God's existence. Isn't that "relying" on her in some fashion to validate your experience?

Your argument would make much more sense to me if you had not brought your sister into the mix - to me you are now saying contradictory things -- that WE shouldn't use others' experiences, but YOU are doing that very thing vis-a-vis your sister.

Slapdash said...

Oh, and I also wouldn't use the word "unreliable" to describe what we knew about MT before.

It was incomplete; we didn't have access to her internal state. In some Christian circles, she is to be heralded for continuing to encourage other believers even while struggling personally - the Time article does a nice job of laying out the various perspectives people have on the discrepency between her public and private lives, and there is definitely room for a sympathetic view of her - she was simply being stoic, having a 'stiff upper lip', perhaps not wanting to cause others to stumble in their own faith, following what she knew intellectually to be true even if emotionally it was not ringing true at all.

jennypo said...

***You seem to be concerned that we are putting more 'stock' in those external things than is warranted - is that it? That at best, they can be interesting reference points but not proofs of anything related to God? (Slapdash)

Thanks for the clarification. I am also running on way too little sleep these days. I guess this is a good portion of what I am saying. I just think that using the assumptions we must make about what Mother Teresa actually experienced to make further assumptions about God leaves us with a bit of a stretch.

I'll be honest here about my prejudices - my major was mass communication, so I tend not to put a whole lot of stock in the spin information takes on by the time it makes its way to us, and I'm not left with any clear understanding at all of even what Mother Teresa's experience was. So to extrapolate still further and say that God left this amazing woman high and dry (when after all, I'm not completely convinced that she was so high and dry in the first place) is incredible to me. That such a conclusion resonates with your experience is understandable, but I am concerned, as you say, that you will be tempted to draw conclusions based on the unknowable.

Let me try to explain the great difference I see between using Mother Teresa's experience and my sister's experience.

1. None of us has ever so much as talked to Mother Teresa. I have had many long talks with my sister.

2. If another person shared my experience, it would mean little. If my sister did not share my experience, it would also mean little. Personality and perspective could easily account for both of those things.

If it were not that I have seldom, if ever shared any other experience with my sister, her experience would only be a comfort to me, but mean little on a logical level. It is exactly the fact that our agreement on this level is not easily accounted for by personality, perspective, shared experience, or thinking style that it is logically meaningful to me.

I cannot be 100% sure that she and I know the same God. But I have a lot to base such a belief on - years of personal communication, to begin with, added to the complete lack of such coincidence in virtually every other aspect of our lives. I'd say it's far more reliable a judgement for me to make than any that I might make about Mother Teresa's experience.

***there is definitely room for a sympathetic view of her - she was simply being stoic, having a 'stiff upper lip'... (Slapdash)

I don't mean to call Mother Teresa "unreliable" - rather, I intended to say that our assumptions about what she experienced have proven unreliable. Fine to revise them based on new information, but I will advocate not basing any further assumptions on them.

A short time ago, wouldn't you or I have argued vociferously for her having had an intimate and satisfying relationship with God?

Any woman who has left behind the legacy she left behind certainly deserves every benefit of the doubt; her actions and motives (as much as we have the right or the ability to judge what those motives were) ought to be viewed with every sympathy, every generosity. I just find it hard to believe that a woman so committed to her work, and apparently, to God, could be simply acting a part. If indeed she was, then what else don't we know about who she was?

Suddenly we are informed that Mother Teresa didn't know God, but we are to hang on to our belief that she loved God?

Sorry, I am flogging a dead horse here, I know, but something, somewhere, doesn't add up. Frankly, Mother Teresa being a huge hypocrite (for good reasons or not) is not very high on my list of probable explanations. But it's possible, I admit.

But is it also possible that such an explanation is more resonant than logically convincing to you?

Slapdash, you are obviously not lacking any smarts. If you don't "get" what I really want to say here, the culprit is my explanatory power. I appreciate your willingness to negotiate and renegotiate meaning although we have, at present, irreconcilable perspectives. Your work is not in vain, because it certainly gives me a mind-broadening view of anything we discuss.

(Which is ALWAYS a good thing.)

jennypo said...

Heather,

Yup, I agree that if the police tell you your boyfriend has a habit of torturing puppies, there's a good chance he's not worth your time. At the very least, you ought to get out first and investigate second. The police are in a place to know, and, while they are occasionally wrong, seldom lie - I think.

If the police is your boyfriend's ex-girlfriend, then a grain or two of salt might be warranted, though...

At the risk of running in circles, I feel I should clarify what amounts to possibly a near slander of Mother Teresa on my part. I did not mean to say that she is, as a person, unreliable. Rather, what we thought we knew about her does appear to have been unreliable. If she did, indeed, outright lie, I'd be on the side of anyone who might be interested in giving her a break in the motives department.

I have a great respect for the life of Mother Teresa. What she did is beautiful, honorable, and worth far more than what most of the rest of us are doing with our lives. I fully admit that when such a person speaks, all that is reasonable and right demand that I shut my mouth. There are too few of us ponying up to put our money where our mouth is.

About her, I think we agree.

bjk said...

you encourage me much at my blog and I come here and am encouraged even more.

Thanks.....please continue to 'ramble'

bjk said...

Just checkin in on you, keep on listening to Him.....He loves and desires us to love......keep on pointing any and all to Him and a journey of enormous possibilities.