Can a Religious Experience be Used for or Make a Case for the Reasonableness of One's Belief in God?
My Changing Image of God
I was raised catholic. A few years ago I was having a conversation with my little niece. At that time she was only three years old and we were sitting in the kitchen. On a shelf above the window there was a small statue of Jesus. At one stage during our simple conversation she asked me who or what was the doll on my shelf? At first I was a little surprised to hear the statue being referred to as a doll, but then I thought, how beautiful is the innocence of childhood. Eventually I explained that the statue was of Jesus as a grownup man. To my surprise my niece expressed her opinions on the matter and in her own words totally disagreed with me. For her Jesus was a little child, just like her.
If I could relate to my own childhood in a similar way, I am quite sure that this is how my personal image of God would also have been. I suppose that for the most of my childhood, there was a tendency for me to mirror Jesus as my personal image of God. As St. Paul writes in one of his letters: ‘When I was a child I thought like a child and reasoned like a child, but when I became a man I put away childish things.’ And so, this is how I believe that most people begin to interpret God, beginning in a simple and unsophisticated childlike manner and ending up with Theist or Atheist views of him. Now I am a man and I have put away my childish things. But it is also important to note that without these childish images, it would have been impossible for me to envisage and conceive God as something or someone to believe in.
Throughout my life I would say that God was someone who was always close to me and that I have always had a deep awareness of his presence in my life. From a one time pious way of life in which I encountered God in what seemed to be more as that of an image, rather than that of a spiritual essence, to a present spiritually encountered presence. At present it is not God who has changed, but my own personal experience of him that has come to make me realise that God cannot be described, for God is indescribable. Just as the scent of something such as a simple flower is indescribable.
A Personal Religious Experience
There have been two people in the history of my own life who have been able to set my heart on fire. One being Jesus Christ and the other, Anthony de Mello, SJ. Both being sons of God, and the latter being a disciple of the first. I cannot describe my encounter with these two people as one which is experienced when one physically touches the hand of another person. But more so, it was encountered by a deep awareness of my own personal self. Through encountering the spiritual insights of Anthony de Mello, I began to discover a whole new world within myself. A world in which I began to experience for the first time a sense of personal liberation. Through this, I gradually found myself slowly coming to terms with a painful experience of the past, which I had been carrying around inside of me for some time.
My liberation from this experience occurred when I visited the Holy Land about fifteen years ago. On the second day of my pilgrimage I contacted a bad stomach bug. I hadn’t slept the previous night and was so weak that I couldn’t get out of bed. In the early hours of the morning I can remember hearing the call to prayer from a nearby mosque. As its sounding praises echoed across Bethlehem, I became aware of my need for God. As the morning light slowly encompassed the starlit sky, I made a prayer to him in hope of healing. The following morning I stayed behind in my hotel room while the others continued on with their pilgrimage. In my state of solitude I remained in bed and at around mid-morning out of sheer boredom, I proceeded to read an Anthony de Mello book titled Contact With God. At the beginning of this book there is a chapter containing instructions on how a disciple should love his master. As the chapter moves on, De Mello begins to introduce some scripture passages to coincide with the subject of his text. Of all of those scripture passages that I read that morning, there was one in which Jesus asks Peter: ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ At that moment I felt something take hold of me as if someone laid across my body on the bed. In the passage Jesus proceeds to ask Peter this question three times. On the third time I had to get out of bed and stand up. This was due to the force of energy that was present and flowing within me. Never before had I ever experienced anything that could be related to this physical sensation that was being driven through my body from head to toe.
Can I Interpret This, as Been an Experience of God?
In discussing this question let’s look at the reasons that could lead to a reasonable explanation that it was in fact somewhat an encounter with the Divine. However, it is important to note that throughout this experience I did not at any time see nor hear God. This experience was mysterious and with this in mind it would be important to stress that, in being a follower of Christ, the experience in itself falls in line with the context of Christ’s gospel of forgiveness. I say fruit bearing because the liberation I experienced at that time continues to manifest itself in a state of perpetual holiness. And through this I am sustained in God’s love. I have no physical evidence to support this argument. As in the view of a sceptic, this experience could very easily be written off as a psychological malfunction caused by a certain sickness, which in turn lead to a series of hallucinations. After all, at that time I was weary and tired due to a sickness, and was not to be found in a state of full health. In giving these sceptical reasons, the experience was not premeditated. In fact, at that time God was fairly distant from my state of consciousness. But it is also true that this experience is based strongly on personal faith and prayer. If I define faith, then I am trying to define that which is unknown. And as long as the subject remains unknown then it is reasonable to have faith in its existence. God can exist, but at the same time God remains unknown.
In Brian Davies book, The Philosophy of Religion, the author states that in dealing with this type of subject, literature tends to concentrate on the area of mystical experience. This is to be understood as that in the state of the experience, all distinctions are transcended, even those between subject and object. In the light of my own experience, I would say that it was a mystical experience. When I say mystical I mean that it was a rare happening, and one in which a great difficulty prevails towards the exposure of its full meaning and content. This content was not of seeing or hearing God, but more so, of a presence which I could interpret as being from God, but not exactly God. I could also say that this was a part of God’s activity working through the non-objective openness of his subject. In other words, at that time I was willing to meet God unconditionally, and at the same time being totally unaware of such a possibility actually happening. The encounter itself was not a fearful experience, but one of gentleness, acceptance and love. A definite feeling of having been freed from a soul-destroying feeling of hatred. A fulfilment of reconciliation between me and the subject of my hatred. This in itself came as a personal request made devoutly in prayer to God. This was all I asked from him, nothing more but to be freed from this state of discontentment.
Was This a Religious or Spiritual Experience?
Personally, I would say both. Over the years leading on from this experience, there has been within me a certain tension. This tension very often withdraws me from my past views on that which I see to be as religious. It is much easier for me to explain or describe a religious experience more so than that of it being a spiritual one. With religion, we have a theological backbone to support and express our experiences as they are to be experienced within a structured faith. But with spirituality, there is really no formulated theology. Spirituality for me is where I come into contact with God within an unconditionally structured source. Although, religion is a framework which enables us to seek God. As a runway enables a plane to achieve flight, so too, does our religious convictions enable us to find God. But we must be willing to leave the runway in order to attain flight and achieve the higher altitudes of our faith.
It has been through the integration of spirituality, which has lead me to a greater awareness of who I am, who God maybe, and to the beauty of ‘human nature’. I think that through my own personal realisation of God that the beliefs I inherited at birth, have in themselves, gradually come to pass. They are but in themselves memories, just as words in themselves are inadequate descriptions of what reality is. And in time when I look back at this very essay, it to will be but a memory of that time in my life when I had known God in that way. But I am a changing man, and it is only through the openness to change that one comes to a gradual awareness of oneself, and in doing so, openly encounters God.
© Niall Markey 2010