As from October 1st., 2002:
· Personal Experience of God in Christianity
Personal Christian Experience of God
The Christian believer in Jesus Christ, in particular the contemplatives more than anyone else are witnesses to God in the world. They are in the world but not of the world; however, without a personal “experience” this is impossible, the more today in this time and age of secularisation. When Jesus Christ witnesses to what He knows, what He lives and what He is, He refers to His own experience. And this testimony is corroborated by that of his Father in heaven. When Jesus Christ asks for faith it is because He knows what He is talking about.
Quoting from the Gospel of John, He says to Nicodemus:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony.” (John 03.11) (RVS)
He is adding:
“No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man.” (John 03.13)
These remarks, dropped in the course of a conversation, express the specific nature of the Christian experience of God. It is that Christians take into their own lives, the very experience of God. Before the coming of the Word made flesh there already existed in the world a diffuse experience of God, hesitant perhaps and never quite sure of itself, but very real all the same. Jesus Christ comes to us in that part of the globe, known today as the Holy Land, 2000 years ago with a new experience.
“No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known.” (John 01.18)
What John the Evangelist describes, at the beginning of his Gospel, as the state of humanity before the coming of Christ, still applies today to those who have not yet truly met Him. And for John, the incarnation of the living Word, Jesus Christ, is the beginning of a new era of experience of God. What is there so particular, then, about the Christian meeting with God? What is so special about it that forever escapes the grasp of the unbeliever?
For Christian believers and contemplatives in Asia, this question is certainly primordial. They cannot just simply tell their Hindu or Buddhist brothers and sisters, that in all spiritual disciplines the experience of God is identical. They should be sufficiently aware of their own experience to be able to discuss it without losing sight of the fact that it is not exactly the same as that of others, and yet there are great similarities in both the Bhagavad Gîtâ and the Gospels, the first four books of the New Testament. It becomes easier to admit that each spiritual experience of God has its own specific traits if in fact that is just what it is, an “experience”.
1. The Experience of God in Theology.
At a time when people are looking for the closest contact with other religions as did Father Thomas Merton, Roman Catholic priest and Cistercian monk of the strict observance (1915-1968), in order to understand their experience, they run two risks. The first is that of making out that all true religious experiences are identical; the second, that there is no point of comparison between them.
It is always dangerous to try and judge other people’s spiritual experience; for that, one needs, a deep own experience. But we have to keep in mind a primordial fact: the close connection between religious belief and the formulation of experience. Indeed, we might say there are relatively few religious experiences, even deep ones that are not conditioned as soon as expressed, and even in the living of them, by a doctrinal system.
Thus, it is quite possible to imagine two believers or contemplatives enjoying the same objective experience of God, and immediately translating it, even as it reaches consciousness, in such different ways that it would be hard to believe they are talking of the same thing. This is understandable, since, while the experience itself takes place in the area of the inexpressible, on the conscious level it is all the time being shaped by each one’s accumulated store of beliefs, attitudes and words. What the Buddhist would call the rapture of his self when it becomes aware of its unity with the Absolute, the Christian would describe as a union of love with God, Who is also the Absolute.
So, when dealing with the problem of a specific Christian experience of God, we have to reckon carefully with the fundamental importance of World Faiths. My experience is not only going to be fitted into a familiar framework, at least, one that corresponds with my beliefs, but the things I believe are bound to condition my very experience itself.
When I am suddenly faced with an entirely new experience, when God breaks abruptly into my heart in a totally fresh way, my mind pushes me to try and find out if this apparently extraordinary experience fits in with the faith of my religion. The only rule is the ruthless abandonment of everything which is in the way. “When any man God perfectly desires to love, all things as well as inward as outward that to God’s love are contrary and from His love to let, he studies to do away.” (Richard Rolle, “The Fire of Love”)
The concrete vision of the glorified Jesus Christ has the true mystic quality of ineffability, appearing to the self under a form of inexpressible beauty, illuminated with that unearthly light which is so persistently reported as a feature of transcendental experience. When St. Teresa saw only the Hands of God, she was thrown into an ecstasy of adoration by their shining loveliness. (Vida, cap. Xxviii § 2)
“If I were to spend many years in devising how to picture to myself anything so beautiful,” she says of the imaginary vision of Christ, “I should never be able, nor even know how, to do it; for it is beyond the scope of any possible imagination here below: the whiteness and brilliancy alone are inconceivable.” (St. Teresa, op.cit., cap. §§ 7, 8.) In fact, she learnt how to understand and express what had happened; and once certain of being on the right road she was able to throw herself without hesitation into her experience.
One result of this way of seeing or acting is that everyone normally receives and interprets his own experience of God according to the spiritual theology of his own religion. In fact, it is fairly seldom that such an experience is felt so strongly and with objective clarity that a man is able to go against the doctrine he was brought up on. However, one does come across instances like that of the Moslem, Al Hallaj, who was executed for professing doctrines based on his spiritual experiences that were more Christian than Islamic.
This and many other instances will prove that, though the experience is usually interpreted according to the belief held, it is quite possible also for it to lead to the discovery of truths that are in contradiction with commonly held orthodoxy.
2. The Reality of the Experience of God.
In all the great religions there have been men and women who claimed to have had experiences with God or the Absolute. They describe them as a direct perception, a vision, a touch, a union, and so on. Their testimony on this point converges. But, ask the sceptics, is such an experience possible? If what we mean is a psychological happening, then it cannot possible reach God, for evidently, God in Himself is totally beyond. But there can be something deeper; a perception or awakening to a reality both immanent and transcendent, or more simply, something present in concrete reality yet reaching beyond it.
What makes it possible for us to become conscious of the divine reality is the ontological fact that we hold our existence from God. If he had thrown us out on our own, cutting off all contact between Himself and us, we could never “meet” Him. But we exist by the continual influx of His life. This current of being that flows from God to us is the ontological way that leads us back to God when, so to speak, we go up-stream to the source of life and love. If experience of God is possible for man, it is also because our inmost nature is sculptured in the image of the one who gives us being. The image, in knowing itself, becomes aware of God within it.
An experience based only on these facts would always be relatively poor in objective content because, if you limit the image to itself, it can only imagine, not understand, the One whose image it is. But true experience belongs more to the order of encounter than of deduction. John the Evangelist tells us that after seeing the empty tomb he believed. At first his faith was the conclusion of quick reasoning. The experience of the resurrection was already dawning. But the real experience only came in the face to face meeting with Christ on that Easter evening in the Cenacle.
It is possible to hold that Buddha experienced God but only in a purely negative sense, because he rejected “God” from the world of thoughts. It seems he could never the Absolute otherwise than as a pure intangible beyond, in a total emptiness of every human concept. But if this experience of God in pure unknowing is imperfect, it is none the less a very real one.
Christian experience goes through much the same stages on the way to God as does the mystical experience of other religions, but it seems that we should go a step further. Or rather, God Himself makes it take one more step. However advanced the experience, where God Himself bursts into the world of our own human experience. For that is precisely what God did, when He came to us in His Son so that in Him we might directly meet His divinity.
When John the Evangelist tells us: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” (John 01.18), he is showing us the reality of an “objective” knowledge based on the testimony of the One who knows who God is, because He is Himself God. By accepting this “word” which tells me God, I pass from the subjectivity of my experimental knowledge to lean on the experience of the One who reveals to me what He is. Here we have, one of the characteristics of the Christian experience. By faith in the One who reveals God, this experience takes on the absolute objectivity of God Himself.
(To be continued from October 2002 onwards)