This week’s Question That Haunts Christianity, Andrew challenged us with a question not so much theological, biblical, or historical in nature. Instead, his question is spiritual and, ultimately, existential:
Why do I not experience God like I have been taught I should? Why don’t I hear his “voice?” … If Christianity is for real, why am I not able to have experiences of God?
Ayayay. In many ways, Andrew’s question is the toughest one we’ve tackled yet. When it comes to issues of Heaven or the inclusion/exclusion of the Gnostic Gospels, I can reiterate long-standing arguments, even if I argue with aspects of them. Not so much with this one. For Andrew’s question, I need to answer from the heart.
Andrew, I don’t hear God’s voice either.
Like you, I was promised that I would hear God. I can’t tell you how many talks and sermons I heard in my youth that said I could hear from God, if I just listened hard enough, asked the right way, and kept a “pure heart.”
The problem with those answers, of course, is that the audibility of God’s voice depends on me, and that can’t possibly be right. If the God of the Universe is intent on communicating with me, then S/He can surely break through all of the chatter that surrounds my everyday life. Some readers will disagree with me on this, but I do not think it’s reasonable to believe that the ability of God to communicate is somehow contingent on our ability to hear.
If God does communicate with human beings, then God is entirely able to do that with no help from us. I realize that there are biblical examples of God coming in the “still, small voice,” but generally God shows up in much bigger ways: pillars of cloud fire, descending clouds and doves, loud voices, and a presence that splits rocks and lights shrubs on fire. In other words, the Bible portrays a God who cannot be ignored or overlooked.
Some commenters to your question posited that God speaks primarily in silence, as stated most eloquently by St. John of the Cross:
I think that’s beautiful, but I also think it’s a cop-out. It’s a way that Christians get to say, “The more quiet God is, the more I can prove God’s existence.” That’s what we call a circular argument, and one that cannot be argued against.
However, Andrew, you and I have another problem. A lot of people around us do claim to experience God’s presence — even to hear God’s voice — and our lack of that experience does not negate their experience. In fact, as you’ve probably encountered, it’s very difficult to argue with someone’s experience. The Four Atheists of the Apocalypse do that all the time: they write off human experience of the Divine as psychological weakness and self-fulfilling prophecy. You might think it’s God, they argue, but you’re nothing more than a meat puppet who’s abiding by an old mythology.
I have a much harder time negating the experience of my fellow believers. This summer, I asked readers why they do and don’t pray, and, while a lot wrote about God’s silence and absence, many also wrote about their own personal experiences of God. No matter how rational my version of Christianity, I cannot bring myself to the point of thinking that someone else’s claim of a God-experience is invalid.
In fact, my non-experience of God these days could just as easily be questioned by them. They could say that God is tapping my shoulder every day, trying to get my attention, but I am so wrapped up in my non-experience of God that I cannot feel the tap or hear the voice.
That gets us back to the point I made above: If God does communicate directly with us, isn’t it most likely that the communication would be un-ignorable? I think the answer to that question is yes.
So you and I have a choice. We can have faith in our fellow human beings, that their experiences of God are real and authentic. Or we can write them off as delusional kooks. At least to this point, I’ve chosen the former (although I remain deeply skeptical of some experiences of the divine, like, for instance Joseph Smith and glossolalia – so I guess I pick and choose: I appreciate the experiences of the divine that seem rational and in keeping with my view of how the world works, and I am dubious of the ones that seem out-of-step with that).
I also take comfort in the fact that I am not alone. You don’t hear God either, and neither did some of my heroes of the faith:
The lesson of Mother Teresa is that, even if God does not speak to someone, that fact alone does not rule out faith. Therefore, like Mother Teresa, I continue to believe in God and Jesus, even in the face of no personal evidence of their existence.
In fact, these days I’m even praying again, hoping for an answer…