A reader of this blog, named Peter, asked me a couple of questions recently. He had been at church where he heard a priest speak about a controversial issue with a kind of rhetoric that implied “this is what God wants for the church.”
So Peter writes:
So I put 2 questions to him. 1. Does he know there is a God and 2. Does he also know God’s plans. If yes, then I requested his explanation of how he knows these things.Of course I don’t expect an answer and in fact have never heard an answer to these questions from the church, other than the tired old, the Bible told me so.So just wondering how these two questions are answered in the mystical tradition.
The Short Answer
Let’s be blunt. No one knows for sure that God exists. No one knows for sure that they have a certain and unquestionable understanding of God’s will. I mean no one — not the pope, not the bishops or the theologians, not your grandmother, not any of the great saints or mystics, and most certainly not some local priest who thinks he can speak assertively and authoritatively about God’s will.
And anyone who tells you otherwise is deceiving you and/or themselves.
There’s a reason why we speak of Christian spirituality in terms of faith. Faith is not certainty! (There’s even a book about all this, which I have not read, but the title is pretty compelling: The Sin of Certainty by Peter Enns. Might be worth checking out).
Faith is about the trust in our heart, not the unassailable (or even assailable) knowledge in our minds. When Saint Paul says we are justified by faith, he’s saying it is our capacity to love and trust in the mystery we call God that will bring us to wholeness — not our assent to some system of doctrinal orthodoxy.
Listen, I have nothing against the church establishing its core teachings and doctrines and maintaining that such teachings help us to understand what is unique and distinctive about the Christian faith. But all the teachings, doctrines and dogma of the church matter only to the extent that they support us in following the teachings of Jesus, the core message of which is love — love God, love your neighbors as yourself, be forgiving, be merciful, love your enemies, and so forth.
But Then How Do We Know?
So there’s two parts to Peter’s question:
- How do we know that God even exists?
- If we believe in God, how do we know God’s will for us?
My conviction is that we can only “know” God’s existence and God’s will through love, which is to say, through the intuition of our hearts, not the certainties of our mind. I believe that everything about Christianity: the Bible, the myths and stories of our tradition, the wisdom of the great saints and mystics, the rituals such as baptism and communion, and yes, the doctrine and dogmas, all have meaning only to the extent that they help us to grow in that intuitive love for God — but intuitive love will never be absolutely certain. This is always a matter of faith.
That’s not to say it can’t be really real in the experience of our hearts. Indeed, the first line in my New Big Book of Christian Mysticism makes this bold statement:
Love is real, God is love, and God dwells in your heart.
Am I certain that this is true? No, I’m not. But do I have faith in it? Yes, I do. I have faith in love, and I have faith in goodness. And I have faith that love and goodness are both larger than the entire cosmos, and small enough to reside in our hearts. And I call the mystery that weaves all this together “God.” For lack of a better word.
Because I have faith in God, I’m willing to give my life to (lay) ministry; I’m willing to orient my values and beliefs to Christian teachings related to love and mercy and forgiveness; I’m willing to hope that I will know my loved ones in eternity, and so forth. Basically, my life is oriented toward faith, love, and hope, and I agree with Saint Paul that the most important of the three is love.
But since I do not have absolute epistemological certainly, there are things I’m not willing to do. I’m not willing to sanction religious violence. I’m not willing to back unethical or unscrupulous politicians just because they agree with my church teachings some of the time. I’m not willing to scapegoat people that have historically been rejected as “sinners” or “outsiders.” I’m not willing to turn a blind eye of the sins of the institutional church or to acquiesce to religious behavior that is hostile, aggressive, abusive or even shaming. And I am bolstered in my unwillingness to do all of these things because I am convinced, based on the plain words in the New Testament, that Jesus was opposed to all these things as well. And I would much rather have my faith oriented toward Jesus than toward some “thick and ordinary” Christian who thinks he knows God’s will inside and out.
Discernment, Mystery, Faith… and Love
Peter, you asked both about knowing that God exists, and then knowing God’s will. Two different questions, but I think they point to the same “strategy” for how we live into our faith. Trusting that God (Love) exists also means trusting that we can know how Love wants to direct our lives. Again, no certainty. But the possibility of intuitive guidance, nevertheless. Instead of asking, does God exist? or, what is God’s will? Try asking, does Love exist? and what is Love’s will for my life, our lives? Again, there’s plenty of mystery and no final certainty. We are called to trust, to hope, to have faith. When we foster a faithful trust in Love-with-a-capital-L in our hearts, we don’t have all “the answers” — but we do have guidance. And trust me, it’s the guidance of Love. So once again, it’s not about insiders and outsiders, or sheep and goats, or shame, or scapegoating. Instead, it’s about hospitality, and compassion, and kindness, and caring, and feeding the hungry and caring for the sick and so forth. No certainty, but lots of direction that emerges from our faith.
You’ll often hear contemplative Christians talk about discernment — it’s the idea that we can carefully and prayerfully discern (not absolutely know, but faithfully discern) what we believe is God’s will for our lives. Discernment, like faith in general, is not about certainty. It, too, is based in trust, in hope, in faith, and most of all in love. Discernment does not shy away from mystery, but seeks to know God’s existence, and God’s will, squarely in the heart of mystery. In the dark night of the soul. In the cloud of unknowing. In the mystery.
You asked how these questions are answered “in the mystical tradition.” In truth, many mystics speak with many different theological values and perspectives. So you can find mystics who sound like fundamentalists. But I believe that, overall, the mystical and contemplative strands of Christianity point us toward a willingness to embrace the mystery with trust and love and faith, rather than some anxious insistence on adherence to a set of propositional beliefs that some men (it’s always men) somewhere decided was authoritative.
Hope this is helpful. And if anyone is reading this and feels it is scandalous, I encourage you to listen closely to your heart. To acknowledge that the demands of love sometimes takes us beyond the black-and-white dualisms of dogmas and doctrinal systems. And then remember, Jesus never said a think about believing the right things. But he sure said a lot about love, and forgiveness, and mercy, and faith. Take it from there.