Why We Don’t Experience God

The following is a post by Pastor Rob Golding of First Artesia Christian Reformed Church. He also writes for the Westminster Theological Seminary Magazine.

One common objection to faith in God is grounded in a lack of experience. Since the Enlightenment, doubting the intangible has become standard. If we cannot observe it, touch it, poke it, prod it, and put it in a test tube, it isn’t real. We have been conditioned to think that if something is not perceptible to our five senses (sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing), it is simply and completely imperceptible. This notion assumes that our five senses are the sum total of a human being’s capacity to experience reality. This extends to the belief that we do not have rational souls capable of experiencing spiritual reality. Since a soul cannot be touched and it has no odor etc., it must be a figment of the imagination, modern man thinks.

This lack of experience of God, which propels our atheism, is simply a contradiction in terms when approached from the perspective of Enlightenment naturalism. We are saying we do not believe in a God we cannot touch because we cannot touch Him. The intangible God must not exist because our fingers have not felt Him. This is like denying gravity for the same reason or because one cannot smell it with the nose. It is a purely irrational critique. Gravity is experienced by using the mind and through observation. Its effects are witnessed by the eye and considered by the mind; it is demonstrated with non-physical principles like mathematics. Gravity, like God, is an intangible reality. Both hold the world together, and because of this, they need to be intangible. For something to be everywhere on the one hand and to allow the existence of other things on the other, intangibility is required. If gravity was a physical entity like a weighted blanket, there would be nothing but weighted blanket. We would be pushed out by the omnipresent reality of gravity. We would not exist. So it is with God, though, of course, He is truly omnipresent, existing where even gravity does not exist. Indeed, gravity is nothing more than an extension of His power to hold all things together through the power of His word.

But someone would say that the effects of gravity are clearly perceptible and, therefore, it is empirically verified. Though we can’t see gravity, we can see an apple fall from a tree. Of course, he would be correct. But this does nothing to counter the point that God must be experienced through spiritual (and not physical) faculties. The point is that gravity and all other things must be experienced in the way that they dictate. Gravity must be experienced first through observation of its effects, then through its mathematical articulation, which verifies those effects as having arisen from a universal rule. If we dictate the means by which gravity is experienced – by the sense of smell, for example – we only bar the door between us and it. Insisting that the nose is the faculty for experiencing gravity will produce nothing more than pointless sniffing. So, we cannot doubt God because we cannot perceive Him with the eye any more than we can doubt gravity because it doesn’t have a certain odor.

Our five senses aren’t the whole story. We must seek to experience God with other faculties, like prayer, the spiritual reading of His word, and submission to the means of grace administered through His church. Furthermore, we must not expect these other faculties to manifest their experience in a physical way as if writing down g = 9.81 m/s2 would produce for us the smell of gravity. The equation for gravity and the faculty of smell are entirely different categories. So it is with the spiritual experience of God and physical sight or touch. They are simply different things. We must approach God with spiritual, non-physical, means if we want to experience Him. The person who gropes around in the air for a while and exclaims, “No God!” is not being very empirical.

In man’s search for God, he must use God’s means of experimentation. Man is ready to submit to gravity’s authoritarian rule that says it must be observed only with the eye and not the nose, but when it comes to God, man reverses the roles and says he will not observe God with the spirit, but only the eye. This is the cause of man’s inability to perceive God. It is a fundamental mixing of the categories, between spiritual and physical, between God and man. Everything has been flipped on its head, and man wonders why he has a headache. He says the ocean of God’s existence is imaginary because he cannot fit it in his bathtub. He holds up the eye of a needle and tells the camel to walk through.

If he really wants to know if God exists, he must submit to the means by which God is perceptible, and he won’t get very far by begrudgingly using those means and all the while doubting their existence any more than Newton would have figured out gravity by not really believing that mathematics was real. Newton based his life on the belief that mathematics was a reliable guide, and the product of that faith was a profound discovery. If we want to “discover” God, we must believe – wholeheartedly – in the spiritual faculties He has given us and use them believing that they will provide us with true experience. If a poor workman blames his tools, a poorer one doesn’t trust them (though, I suppose, blaming and mistrusting are one and the same). We must trust the tools God has given us to experience Him, and stop blaming Him when our calculators don’t show us His face.

When I was younger and more foolish (I am now a little older and slightly less foolish or, at least, older), I pursued the experience of God in terms of my senses – I wanted to physically see and hear Him. I was following certain charismatic trends in Christianity that emphasized a real experience of God in terms of naturalism. I looked for a vision of God, I prayed for physical healing, and I listened to a song that allegedly recorded the voice of an angel. I still do some of those things (maybe I am no less foolish), but in so doing, I am attempting to fit God into my experience. Rather than seeking a vision of Him that is so grand it transcends the capabilities of eyeballs, I’m looking for a mere picture. Ironically, Enlightenment empiricism had seeped into my spiritual life. To be sure, God is perceptible to our five senses, but it seems that the bulk of our communion with Him on this side of eternity is encountered through the spiritual senses.

So, the question is, why cut off the channel of divine grace? Why force God to come to us in the form and fashion that we have set out for Him when that reduces Him to servant and doesn’t see Him as Lord? Is it possible that, in so doing, we are precluding a real experience of God in the first place? Forcing Him to crawl to us leaves no room for us at His feet. In our best interest, it seems, He refuses to capitulate.

-Rob Golding

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