The German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach was among the first modern thinkers to attack the classical notion of God. He suggested that God was simply the outward projection of our inward human nature. His thought gave rise to many varied theories. Freud thought God was nothing more than a projection of the Super-Ego, a sort of cosmic version of our parents. Durkheim suggested that God was simply a projection of society’s moral demands. Marx had yet another explanation of why people imagine God to exist, as did Nietzsche These seminal thinkers of modernity have been dubbed the “Masters of Suspicion.” And, strangely, they were all correct, at least in a certain sense.
Human beings have a tendency to invent idols. Whether grounded in our fear and need to control, or some other deep inner force, we simply have a way of creating false images of God. These philosophers, despite whatever perversities may have driven their thought, were fairly accurate in analyzing human inventions that are named “God.” Any decent confessor worth his salt could have told them as much (had they asked).
In my pastoral experience, Christians are often not suspicious enough. We frequently put great store in our own ideas and impressions of God. As often as not, the larger problems surrounding our primary relationship with God are our unexamined attempts to merge Him with the God of our own invention.
In order to know God, you first have to admit that you don’t know Him.
Belief in God is not the same thing as the acceptance of a set of propositions. Even if the propositions are “supported by the Scriptures,” that entire interpretive exercise is as subject to the imagination and idolatry as pure fantasy. Most Christians whom I know who have a very distorted view of God have Scripture to support their notions.
Christ makes a very key statement on the knowledge of God:
All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. (Mat 11:27)
This is an essential point in Christian teaching. No one knows God except as He is made known through Jesus Christ. You cannot “go behind” Christ to speak about knowing God. We do not first know God, and then draw conclusions about Jesus. But Christians regularly “go behind” Christ to imagine God. They consider any number of attributes from “He’s mad at me,” to “I can never please Him.” Most of what people “think” about God is pure illusion.
There has come to be a mass expectation of “God-awareness” in modern culture. This has some likely roots in the great revival movements of the 18th and 19th centuries that created most of modern Protestantism. It is the place where the language of “having a relationship with God” comes from (readers, please note that the word “relationship” occurs nowhere in the Scriptures). I was taught as a child that if I prayed the “sinner’s prayer” and asked Jesus to “come into my heart” He would do so. And further, I would know that He had. I have had perhaps thousands of conversations with people who claim, on a similar basis, an awareness of God. People will say, “I believe God is leading me to….” At least one Presidential candidate this year described this as the process he would use in making major national decisions.
This is a strange subjectivity created within modern Pietism and provokes questions from within the classical tradition. How you “feel” about God at any given time, or how you think He feels about you, are, on the whole, information about the inside of your head, not about God. One of the benefits of regular confession is having someone there to help think through these thoughts and feelings. The tremendous weight that many give to their thoughts and feelings about God is a testimony to the psychological narcissism that pervades our culture. We think that what is in our heads is actually real.
When, for example, we read that St. Silouan experienced the absence of God (described in various ways), this is by no means the same thing that most are experiencing when we speak of not sensing God’s presence. First, the grace he knew prior to that dark night, is qualitatively different than our popular religious subjectivity. I have, tragically, seen excerpts from St. Silouan applied in general as a remedy to depression. This kind of confusion of our modern psychological sensibilities with what we read in the lives of the saints is part of our cultural delusion. It creates false expectations for the inner life.
People come to faith in Christ in a myriad of ways. The heart is simply too unique to declare one path to believing. But the central tenet of the Christian faith is the claim that Christ is truly God and truly man and that He rose from the dead, fulfilling the Scriptures. Regardless of how we might come to accept that, it remains the starting point for Christian believing.
We internalize many images and feelings in our lives. The observations of the Masters of Suspicion were correct in parts of their analysis. It is very difficult not to import experiences of parents and other authorities, or simply our experience of the world, into what we think about God or expect from Him.
I grew up with a father who struggled with alcohol during my most formative years. I loved him dearly and felt that it was returned. But my experience of him was frequently frightening and often disappointing. And there is no doubt in my mind that I carried a certain orientation to life, including to God, as a wound from that early experience. At one point in my adult life, I had to work hard to untangle God from my earthly father. That tale is a tangled mess of contradictions and painful work. And it never entirely disappears. The habits of the heart are generally formed quite early in our lives.
But a sort of “agnostic discipline” has been essential. It primarily consists in rebuking the false images and assumptions that arise in my mind as I try to pray, to think, and to simply go through the day. What I set in place is the Father as shown to me in Jesus Christ.
There is a “Biblical God” espoused by some. In this, they do not interpret the Scriptures through Christ, but seek to know God through the larger Scriptures. Thus, for them, the meekness, and the radical kindness of Christ is to be balanced against the other images of God. The cleansing of the Temple thus becomes the doorway for importing the God who hates Esau, who demands the utter destruction of the Amalekites, and (they imagine), demands a payment for our wrong-doing.
The statement of Jesus, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” is thus altered to, “Study the Bible and you’ll come to know God.”
Christianity is, rightly, Christocentric. Jesus is the revelation of God. We do not know God apart from Him, including by reading the Scriptures. He promises to make Himself known. He even says that He and the Father will “come and sup” with us, a wonderfully intimate image. However, we too easily read this into a promise to be fulfilled in our subjectivity.
The sacramental life and public worship are the two most prominent venues for knowing God within the Tradition. God is truly present in the Holy Eucharist, but our subjectivity can be all over the map. Over time, I have slowly discovered that there is a knowledge of God that differs greatly from my inner thoughts. This is very difficult to put into words, since it is “extra-subjective” (outside of subjective experience). It is much closer to knowing than thinking, and somehow independent of mood.
The classical path described in Scripture and the Tradition is rooted in worship, the sacraments, regular prayer, and in the keeping of the commandments. There is, over time, a growth and formation in the knowledge of God. Unlearning the habits of modern culture is difficult, to say the least. The knowledge of God is a genuine formation in character, rooted in the sacraments and a true transformation in the Divine life. It is not, however, simply one more set of thoughts and impressions within our modern subjectivity.
At a certain point in my adult journey, I despaired of any confidence in the subjective world of contemporary Christianity. My heart yearned for something truly substantial. I’ve learned that such a yearning can be fulfilled but over a long time. The Church bears the knowledge of God within the fullness of its life. It has been through living in the bosom of the Church that this same knowledge has slowly become known. It is where we receive the sacraments and where we pray. It is the place of our repentance. It’s is Christ’s primary gift to us – that we might know Him.