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GOD CAN BE EXPERIENCED

46 GOD CAN BE EXPERIENCED – A PERSONAL OPINION (Saba.T. Malik) Is the existence of God something which we can claim to know? Or is it a belief for which a more or a less strong case can be made? Or is it a fantasy for which there is no reasonable case at all? Before we can claim to have had “experienced” God we must have faith in His existence and some type of relationship and knowledge of God. Firstly, then let us understand what we mean by the word “knowledge”. It would be a mistake to suppose that there is one clearly identifiable something called “knowledge” which one either has or has not got. “Knowledge” is always a progressive word denoting’or signifying some kind of achievement or attainment. I am not here concerned with knowing, in the sense of knowing how but of knowing that or knowing what, i.e. knowing that such and such is the case or knowing what so and so is like. If as the theists so maintain our knowledge of God is obtained in a kind of personal intercourse with Him, such as we have with one another then it is after all empirical knowledge. The really important difference is that while we can see other people’s bodies and check our understanding of them ‘by following their words and expressions from moment to moment. God has no body for us to see our interpretations of His thoughts and purposes from the course of observed events is schematic and highly debatable. The other important factor is that different people will have varying degrees of intercourse with God. The more intense the relationship, the deeper the experience. Another factor to point out as Peter Vardy notes, is that there are different types of God. For example the God of religious language, the timeless spaceless God, the superspaceman God and so on. Obviously the God of language cannot be experienced, for He is only a God of words. The timeless spaceless God cannot be experienced either because He is neither within time nor space so He would not be able to have any kind of relationship with human beings. The super spaceman God is obviously the only type of these Gods that can be experienced but let us reject these in favour of God in the standard sense. ‘GOD CAN BE EXPERIENCED 47 One difficulty springs to mind at once; God in the standard sense of the term is not a possible object of experience. Not just by the accident of our circumstances but essentially by His very nature. He ‘is incapable of coming under direct human observation. If we are to learn anything about such an object from experience we must learn it indirectly from other objects which are observable. Because God cannot be described with a remotely comparable degree of precision, an intelligent being such as He is supposed to be is most readily traced by His actions. Such an inference is often made by historical students and in detective work. One finds among one’s data a set of facts which seems to invite interpretation in terms of an agent previously unknown to us. In the case of God the case lies overwhelmingly in the seeming traces of purpose in nature, most strikingly in the long record of the evolution of life and mind. For a God belief founded on an argument such as this it is sometimes claimed that an experimental verification is possible. From one’s conception of God one deduces certain types of directives for conduct and lives life according to these directives. In course of time one finds one’s idea of God and the universe becoming clearer, and sees more and more of the signs of God’s guiding action in events as one becomes better able to detect them. The individual will find if she is of the responsive kind, that she enters into a kind of intimacy of fellowship with God and, by reflex of this, with others around her circle. In this type of relationship one could be said to be “experiencing” God everyday; experiencing God in thoughts, feelings and prayers. In the same way one would “see” God in the world though not as part of the world. One would see Him in the processes of nature somewhat as one “sees” human agents in the things which they make and the processes which they initiate and control. The analogy is far from perfect. We should not suppose for a moment that God is related to the universe as humans are related to their bodies and that which they create. Nor do we normally profess to read God’s thoughts and purposes in detail as we often do those of other human beings. All we do is to “see” God’s agency in the world around us. It is an intuitive perception possessed only by those who have a strong and true belief in God. For a profound believer of the intimately personal God experiencing God is an everyday occurence. We walk with Him we talk with Him and we believe that the world has derived its very being and existence from God. It follows that this type of God cannot be met personally and in isolation, but always in relation to the world, a relation such that He is not there because the world is there, but the world is there only because of Him. It is a relation of unilateral dependence. Since God is not seen as depending on anything else because the world depends on Him, we concieve Him as an absolute 48 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS being with absolute existence, an infinite being, Who although is not timeless or spaceless is still nevertheless not confined within the limits of time and space. Religious experience is of various kinds, but in none of them is God percieved as an object; though there is always that which is taken to be His presence and activity. The basic form of it is to be. found in the God vision, as Anthony Kenny puts it. In this type of experience with God, the believer percieves or seems to percieve the activity of God at the heart of all that is and all that happens. She will often say “I see” God in these things, so she does in one sense of the word “see” but God is not present to her as an object of direct perception. All that is present are physical things and events. Into these she reads with God. Religious experience in the form of the vision of God, as in seeing God’s hand in all things is the foundation on which the whole structure of God is ultimately built. But the theological doctrine, once established, reacts upon our experience, and the more developed forms of religious experience are the result of our reactions to the doctrine of God and the universe and our attempts to work it out in life. We find ourselves drawn into a kind of personal intercourse with God which becomes more and more intimate as we progress in our spiritual life. This constitutes part of the the realm called spiritual or religious experience. Not every God believer has experience of it. Indeed many think they have none at all; their religion is their ethic backed up by a belief in its supernatural warrant. But others seem deeply initiated in experience with God and what they say and do affects the spiritual and intellectual atmosphere for themselves. The most primitive reaction to God is the emotional response of awe. It is an emotion to which some people are more susceptible than others. Like other emotions it is subject to a degree of control; one can resist feeling it or one can throw oneself open to it. But essentially it is a passive experience, a response to something percieved or imagined. “Experience”, however does not mean only seeing or feeling; it also means learning about things by seeking and finding and interacting with them by enquiry and experiment. Religious experience has this exploratory and experimental dimension too; there is areligiousway of living and an expertise to it. There is a kind of “Knowledge” of God which is gained through a sustained active contact with “Him in the events and actions of one’s life. And there is for the finely attuned spiritual person a peculiar contemplative kind of awareness of God sometimes associated with a perpetual awareness; not of God in himself but of His action in the soul. It is a difficult phenomena to describe with precision but it is a constant awareness of God working GOD CAN BE EXPERIENCED 49 not only in the mind but also in the soul and spiritually cleansing it. This would seem to be the most intense type of experience of God. But how does one experience this type of functioning of God in human thought and life? Again it is by experiment and enquiry a type of trial and error of procedure. Let us start with what is believed about the nature of God and the nature of the human beings. Since we as intelligent beings are in some degree akin to God, we may venture to suppose that there can exist some kind of relationship between Him and us. However, this depends on, most importantly on our cultivating that in us which is most akin to God, and making ourselves responsive to any communications that may come from Him. The characteristically religious life pattern is one endeavouring to do this; though the details of the way, and the nature of the goal, are differently presented in different doctrines. An individual’s relation to God in her own life is implicit in the vision of God as “All-Doing”. For if all that is and that happens is His doing, then in seeing anything, I am not merely seeing a thing, but something in which God is manifesting something which he is showing to me. In my recognition of this, my appreciation of His work, there is already a relationship, a kind of shared experience between Him and me. One can get into the habit of sharing experiences with Him in this way. But the relation becomes richer and more significant when I am confronted with a situation requiring that I should act or deliberately take up an attitude. God is “All-Doing” all the facts which together constitute my situation are His work. He made them, He brought about the situation and He brought me into the situation. If it requires of me action or decision, then it is He who through the situation demands these things of me. But further, I myself am His with my needs, desires, ideals and principles. These are not what they would be if I were morally and spiritually more mature, but such as they are, they are the guide lines which He gives me in this situation, here and now. If I interpret the guidelines wisely and follow them earnestly, my judgement will be dearer and firmer next time. If I fail to achieve my purpose, if disconcerting results follow, then either my choice of means was unwise, or I may have got the wrong directive; or I may have thought too readily that if I do the right thing, I am entitled to expect success. This may be God’s was of governing events, or of disciplining me. So through reflections like these I may grow in wisdom, insight, and experience. The moral life is an education, it is a life in which we gain fuller understanding as we act on the understanding which we have. All this is in a relationship with God, a relationship which matures in experience as we ourselves mature, through this relationship with God in thought and experience. The REVIEW of RELIGIONS The Review of Religion is the oldest magazine of its kind published in English language in the Indo-Pakistan Sub-Continent. Its first issue was published in 1902 and it has been continuously published since. It bears the distinction that it was initiated under the direction of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian, the Promised Messiah himself. During more then eighty-six years the message of Islam has been conveyed through this magazine to millions of readers and many fortunate persons have recognized the truth of Islam and accepted it through its study. The articles published in it deal not only with the doctrines and teachings of Islam but also set forth a comparative appreciation of the teachings of other faiths. One of its outstanding features is the refutation of the criticism of Islamic teachings by orientalists and non-muslim scholars. It also presents solutions in the light of Islamic teachings of the problems with which the Islamic world is from time to time confronted. A study of this magazine is indispensable for the appreciation of the doctrines of the Ahmadiyya Movement and the teachings of its holy Founder. Printed by The Raqeem Press, Islamabad, Tilford, Surrey GU10 2AQ, U.K. Published by The Review of Religions, The London Mosque, 16 Gressenhall Road, London, SW18 SQL