By Lucy Cao, VI Form
The Individual’s Perception & “Knowing” God
The controversies over the existence of God or the validity of religious beliefs derive from a lack of tangible proof. Religious doctrines, unlike mathematical equations or scientific formulas, are usually proposed without a sequence of logical inferences backed up by repeated and consistent observations. Therefore, the question lingers whether a consensus is attainable among us regarding a universally accepted proof of a deity. My answer is no. Nevertheless, we can still know God. Religious and spiritual experiences rely on the self. The uniqueness of each individual’s perception of God makes it impossible to establish a defined path to the objective knowledge of God. However, we can know God through a subjective point of view, and the validity of the knowledge of God should not be diminished by its subjective nature.
Some contend that religion is invalid because it is built upon the biased perspectives of a small group of individuals. I will argue that religion is indeed a practice of personal faith, yet the validity of religious experiences can only be assessed by the individual directly involved. Therefore, it is very much possible to know God or any transcendent reality subjectively through personal experiences and reflections. Nevertheless, it is impossible to establish the objective or shared knowledge of a deity that will be undertaken by the masses in society. Moreover, given the exclusiveness of the knowledge of God and religious experiences, the person experiencing God is the only one who can discern the validity of his or her knowledge. An outsider, whether a layperson or a well-distinguished religious authority, will never be able to provide as just an evaluation or validation as the self.
First of all, it is possible to know God subjectively through personal experiences. Direct experiences through our senses construct a reality for all of us on this earth. Therefore, our knowledge of an apple or a god relies on our individual experiences. According to the British Empiricist David Hume, senses and experiences from the senses dominate our perception of the world. We know that an apple is red because our eyes convince us of that knowledge, and we know that an apple is sweet because our taste convinces us of that knowledge. Every piece of our knowledge derives from what we have seen, heard, smelt, touched, tasted, and felt. Similarly, we know that a god is existent because one of our senses has been triggered to discover such knowledge. People claim to know God because their sensory perception of the world has coincided with a deity. We often hear people say, “I saw God,” or “I heard God.” The seeing and the hearing are what constitute the knowledge of God. Sister John of the Cross’s visions of God have given her knowledge of the transcendent reality. Sister John is sincerely invested in the belief that she has heard God’s message, successfully communicated with the transcendent being, and confirmed his existence. Her sensory proximity to God in those moments of enlightenment is her source of knowledge of God. She is convinced that she knows God based on her personal experiences. Meanwhile, Brad Warner shares similarly powerful and mind-opening experiences with the Buddha. Warner repeatedly emphasizes his revelation of non-dualism in a literal sense, as his vision of everything around him has become a reflection of himself. He knows the transcendent reality because of such an overwhelming vision.
Secondly, it is possible to know God subjectively through personal contemplation and meditation. The discovery of the knowledge of God does not come without hard work. We cannot know God simply by adopting the views of others. We can only know God through a self-driven revelation, which usually requires a long period of thoughtful meditation and reflection. An instillation of religious teachings may stimulate the process of acquiring such knowledge, but to truly know God and to keep ourselves from blind faith, we must go through an arduous journey of deep contemplation. Repeated practices of prayers and meditation help individuals know the transcendent being with not only empirical but also contemplative confirmation. If a person has reached a state of mind where he or she recognizes the non-dualism between the self and the transcendence, it is valid to say that he or she knows God in a subjective sense. I agree with rationalist René Descartes on the power of thoughts; however, our contemplative exercises bring us nowhere near objectivity. The knowledge of God certainly cannot be reasoned to or universally accepted as an ultimate truth for every individual, which leads me to my next point –– the unattainability of God or the transcendent reality as objective knowledge.
We cannot acquire objective knowledge of God. Each individual may or may not have an exclusive experience with God or a personal perception of religion. Therefore, the uniqueness of each perspective makes it unlikely that we will ever establish a universal comprehension of the transcendent reality. No one logical path can be followed to reach the conclusion of God. Moreover, the absence of objectivity in personal thoughts refutes Descartes’ argument that God can be known objectively given his subjective premise that God certainly exists. We are in no place to define objectivity given the fundamental defect that all our thoughts are subjective. Collective subjectivity cannot be proven to represent objectivity because our subjective selves cannot know if the accumulation of perspectives eliminates subjectivity. Hence, if we do not comprehend objectivity, it is utterly impossible to acquire the objective knowledge of a transcendent reality. The Kantian Synthesis presents an impenetrable barrier between the phenomena and the noumena. It is impossible to know objectively or reasonably the transcendence or things beyond sensory experiences. However, Kant does not argue against the existence of such a transcendent reality. We will always attempt to stand on the edge of human reason and try to look over the abyss from the phenomena to the noumena. However, the God we know will only be real in a subjective sense in our imminent reality, and the objective knowledge of God will forever be kept from humanity.
The knowledge of God also cannot be obtained through social constructs. As for many civilizations past and present, instillation of religious doctrines is central to maintaining morality and order in the society. However, people are blinded to their own perspectives when they are forced into “believing” what has been presented to them. It is impossible for them to know God when they are not given a chance to doubt, to explore, and to come up with their own answers to the question of the existence of a transcendent reality. As Sigmund Freud has argued, the majority is discontent with the imposition of moral values and only unwillingly yields to rules and regulations laid out by religious beliefs. These people do not know God because they are faithless believers who have been pressured into the fate of following God’s words. Hence, we cannot know God through society, as social constructs in a religious community often do not allow personal experience or reflection to contradict the knowledge of God. A lack of space for doubt eliminates the possibility of acquiring a valid perception of transcendence.
To assess the validity of the knowledge of God, I will first review how such knowledge can or cannot be obtained. We can only know God through personal experiences and individual reflection while we cannot know God in an objective sense or in a perspective established by societal background and social constructs. However, as we take on the path of knowing God, how can we discern whether our knowledge of the transcendent reality is valid? I will argue that the only person who can make such a judgment is the individual himself or herself. As vividly depicted by Brad Warner and Thomas Merton, their transcendent experiences are the most exclusive. No word has the brilliance to convey what they have seen, heard, or felt at those moments of enlightenment. Therefore, who are we, as outsiders, to evaluate the validity of those experiences leading to the knowledge of God when we have no clue what has possibly occurred to them? Whether Sister John’s tumor invalidates her religious knowledge is a question that she herself has to work through. One may say that her tumor has provided a shortcut that renders her visions worthless; another may say that her faith does not directly derive from her tumor and that her epilepsy simply enhances what she already knows about God. However, Sister John is the only person who can choose which perspective to take and to convince herself of the validity or invalidity of her knowledge. According to the wisdom of Mark Salzman, religion is an irrational pursuit that cannot be reasoned to. Faith is truly a strenuous practice of the internal struggle between doubt and certainty, and one has to rely on the self to know God and to validate the knowledge of God for oneself.
Lucy Cao is a VI Former from Shanghai, China. She loves art, music, and philosophy and enjoys traveling with her family.