I understand that it is hard to find God. Some wish they could believe but can’t. I here offer a reframe. In my experience and many others, we can find God.
Let me open it up with the most obvious point. In any theory of God, we are talking about a spirit, not an object. Therefore, we cannot take to the task of finding God with a telescope or a microscope or a screwdriver. Our eyes are the wrong sort of instrument. Fortunately, humans have ten other senses that can connect with God and interact if they wish. Here are some of them.
- Have you ever had an experience of deep connection with people or with creatures? It is not something you could predict with the ‘certainty’ of mathematics or the self-authenticating ‘authority’ of suffering or gut-feeling. However, the connection feels like something and that it really matters. We were made with a desiring sense for connection.
- Have you been seeking a meaning or purpose for your life or feeling a lack of freedom to seek them. We know that life is meant for more than mere survival. So convinced are we of this that people will risk nearly everything to find this freedom. We were made with a driving sense of purpose. If an ideology of evolution, as distinct from a scientific explanation, has reduced your sense of purpose to the survival of your genes you have been tied into a narrow jacket.
- Reading sacred texts and worship services can be surprisingly and enormously uplifting. People flock to cathedrals because they/we have a sense for the sacred around us. They are expressed in poetry and art most clearly, a tacit knowledge that speaks deeply into us. By all means, read them critically. But reading arrogantly, or being stuck in your own cultural mindset, is narrow, and you lose.
- Ordinary people can be inspiring. At a funeral or wedding, a birth or another moment of pause, we ‘see’ inside a person’s life to glimpse a creature of the highest significance, even though they are not famous and never will be. Look around a food hall and you wonder how these people could possible deserve to be extravagantly loved, but they are so loved by someone most likely. My wonder at the window of ordinary people bounces off realising who they have loved and those who loved them. It means everything to them, did you notice that? Billions of times over in the world, we have been made with a sense of ordinary and extraordinary significance. You lose so much of your own significance if you witness ‘just another person’.
- Have you felt wonder or awe, or ever been brought to silence by a moment in the creation or nature? Both the scientist and the theologian admit to sharing this sense. A place, a sight or sound can make our spirits soar beyond their empirical status as just one of billions in a universe of trillions. We don’t need to possess the moment – unlike consumerism- but just notice it and feel a kind of call into the depths of our unknowing.
- Have you ever sensed what is the right thing to do? It is known as morality, conscience or ethics, but a sense of justice is another calling to which we humans are highly attached. Buddhists question the degree of attachment but not the rightness of pursuing the justice. Before we have the evidence for it, uncertain about the consequences, risking immediate costs for later benefits, we just ‘know’ that we have a reliable enough sense of right and wrong upon which we base major decisions of life and politics. Morality takes particular and varying forms. Calling it ‘Natural Law’ is stating it a bit too highly. However, most would agree that there are common characteristics and that the basic sense is innate. If you enjoy rebutting moral awareness, you blunt yourself.
- Have you ever met a person who is a Rare Bird. It may not have been a Mandela or Teresa, Obama or Arden, but you met someone whose character and wisdom inspired you and others to aspire to a potential that you had not previously seen. In the presence of such an accomplished athlete or musician, we all feel that there can be so much more in our life-span. We have a sense of the presence of true greatness. If we are cynical, cutting down tall poppies, we blunt this sense.
- The basic question of science asks ‘how did this come about?’ It is not only a scientific question. We all look for causes. Not surprising then that we have asked – how did all this come to be? How did all this evolve so quickly to be so hospitable? There must be a first cause. To say ‘it just is’ would be to undermine all of science.
- Similarly, the ancient belief in a God-ordered universe has encouraged science to look for reliable explanations. It is not, this time, the origin of things but the order of things that surprises. Mathematicians speak of the remarkable capacity for explanation in the universe. It is not all random chaos. Patterns emerge, not in the way that we see a dolphin in a bank of cloud in the sky, but that we find that explanations can work well. We believe there are laws of physics, of time, of gravity and so on even if we do not know them completely. We sense an order and we can uncover it.
- As I write, it happens to be the time of year when many honour their war dead. Apart from the excesses that some go to, almost all of us will honour the sacrifice – for any of the reasons above and more. In civilian life, too, we feel we owe a debt of honour to those who sacrifice for us, show great courage to protect us from hardship, even when it is not to the death. It is not transactional. We get nothing out of that honouring. Honour of this kind ‘adds up’ as a great gift within the wider frame of life as a gift. We sense that gift, maybe the giver, a feeling that Christians call ‘Grace’. When it is forced upon us, when it is politicised, it trivialises that greater sense of the gift.
We usually talk of the empirical senses – sight, smell, touch, hearing, taste. Already, you will have noticed in ten kinds of experience that we have more, just as real senses. Your potential is that God can be detected when you use any or all of these tacit senses of connection, of purpose, of sacredness, of significance of life, of wonder, of morality, of rare inspiration and aspiration, of causality, or order and of gift. Each of them point to and lead to God’s being. When these senses are engaged, we experience unlimited richness in life. When these senses are engaged, God starts to be ‘seen’ everywhere, enters into our consciousness, into communion and even into communication. We get to wonder why we did not see it before!
On the other hand, we can make commitments to ways of being that I believe blunt all this potential in life. These may include – when we reduce our senses to empirical rationalism in demand of artificial certainties, practice cynicism, accumulate things in the rush of materialism, deny our conscience, continue careless about structural injustice, play the game of celebrity, interpret all human hope with suspicion, commit to not-knowing, or fail to bring appropriate honour to those deserve it from us. Does this description ring bells about your life in late-modern society? We have been robbed.
We humans are basically inconsistent and enculturated. If the list above describes a lot of your current commitments or life-orientations, you cannot find the God who made you. You are holding out for an objective experience and God does not comply. Even if you were given a miracle, it would not change you – you would merely say “do it again”. You have also narrowed your ability to search for fullness of life, richness, depth of identity and connection with others. You have lost a part of your freedom and it was you who gave it away.
Each of us can restore the right way up. By growing the habit of worship of the God who made us in such a way that we may sense his spirit connecting us with all others, we then grow all these senses. You need to join with others to learn this, because dis-connection is part of the problem. I have to confess that many churches are more interested in their organisation than in God. Choose whichever cultural ‘style’ speaks into you and you will know it when you find it. IF you can’t find it where you live, talk to a few people and start something that is real. As we worship in our days, in the human structures of thought and arts, the limited constructs of buildings and organisations are there to form in us those many senses through which we find the presence of the God who is enough.
Please do not hear this as being all ‘deep and meaningful’ contemplation, though it includes that. It necessarily includes an active habit of the exercise of Love. Everyone knows a bit about love. That too is innate, though sadly it is damaged in us. In Christianity, Jesus demonstrated ultimate love in particular ways. Christians take that as our definition, not the sentimental type of love. To follow him means we are involved in forming our self in a love with God, love with neighbour, love with enemies, love with those in your particular faith-family (‘one-another’) and love with the planet that cures our anxiety. You will become real. These are expressed activities not just emotions.
You can experience this love by taking an initiative to eat with the hungry, visit those who are broken or isolated, give away lots of your money to those who need a hand, meet with people to understand each other across cultural barriers, bring support into the life of a struggling kid or parent or senior or not-for-profit organisation, find the truth and share it, give your time and attention to others or stand up for the poor or for the planet. Those kinds of options will launch a love along the Jesus lines.
If you do that with the tacit senses engaged, you will meet God in those people. In doing so, you will also meet parts of yourself that you will experience as unhelpful. Do not be put off – it is just another reason to connect with others to live the Love. Again, those tacit senses are an ocean current that is carrying you towards healing and humility, if you are willing to go.
In active and contemplative ways, towards eternal life and life now, we can explore God and self amongst the highs and hurts and histories we inherit. Do this and you will live.
Ian Robinson is a lecturer at United Theological College.