Presence, Absence and Belief in God

I’m continuing to expand on some comments I made at over at glassdimily, as requested by Jeremy John.  In the previous post, I compared Peter Rollins and St. John of the Cross.  I concluded that a difference between Rollins and St. John is that while both may call for a radical doubt of our conceptions or beliefs about God; for St John there is a more radical act, that of trust in what is beyond our conceptions of God.

In Micah Bales post (yes I haven’t moved on just yet.  I think there is a great deal to unpack and good reason to sit with the disagreement between Micah Bales and Peter Rollins)  he used a comparison that I both understand and question, between needing God and needing air to breath.  In the context of Atheism for Lent and Rollins’ work this seems like admitting he needs his belief in God to get along in the world, that with out his beliefs he’d be unable to function in the world.  This is how Rollins’ chose to read Micah’s statement in his response to Micah.  When I first read Micah’s piece I chose to read it differently.   I heard him articulating that God is like air in that we as organisms can’t exist without it. Analogically God (not our beliefs about God) can be likened to  air as God can be said to be that in which all that exists subsists and receives it’s being as gift.

One doesn’t have to grasp what air is (and even saying air is imprecise as what we actually need is oxygen) or even name what we need correctly for the relation between my being alive and “air” to simply be the case.  

I also recognized the romantic element that Rollins points – As we may speak about a significant other, or spouse or lover as one whom one needs like air.   Such a statement can romantically speaking either simply be untrue or co-dependent, but it also can be a hyperbolic expression of true and deep intertwining of two people in a deep love and trust.  Thus, I heard Micah’s words as an expression of depth and experience of God as ultimate concern (to use Tillich’s term as Rollins did) as that which simply is in which all things have their existence.  But also, recognize that such analogy suffers from the limits of all metaphorical speech, and if taken literally is then problematic even destructive.

I interpreted Micah in this way because, as i said over at glassdimly,  as far as I can remember I’ve never given much importance to my experiences or “beliefs” of God.  Feeling God’s presence or feeling God’s absence were of no particular significance for the possibility of God.  I have long, first intuitively and then more consciously, been aware of what I might project upon God.  But I have also had moments of encounter that were not simply an experience of beliefs I might hold about God.  At three and ten years of age I experienced seeing the world glowing, become translucent with a light that came from nowhere and everywhere accompanied by an overwhelming sense of love for all.  At ten the experience occurred while sitting at the edge of the camp fire at church camp, somewhat bored with the campfire program, looking up into the starry night.  At a great depth in myself, answering a question I had hardly articulated and would always wrestle with, a thought/voice/resonance said “It is true.”  When queried “what is true”, the resonance simply insisted “It is true.”

 It is relevant to note that while I was baptized as an infant, the denomination in which I was baptized and raised  also had those who were very concerned that children “say the prayer of salvation”, concerned that we children of the church have a moment of conversion (my parents and their friends didn’t have such a concern).  I never went forward for an altar call. I never went forward or raised my hand in Sunday school.  I disliked those Sunday School teachers who felt it was their duty to get us to say some silly prayer.  Yet, it wasn’t that I doubted there was a God, or that I was to be in relationship with God.  I didn’t find the prayer necessary for me to be in relationship with God.  I was baptized after all.

Baptism and the experiences of the un-created light at three and ten, were the only overt experiences of God I had as a child.  The cathedrals of Europe and the shrine of Lourdes I encountered when eight and nine resonated with me but it was only as an adult that I came to recognize their spiritual impact.  

For much of my life God’s absence has been a more enduring experience, that is if evident spiritual experiences of God’s presence and God speaking to one are signs of God’s presence.

“Belief” in God, as I was taught to believe, had little to do with these experiences or even discrete propositional statements, called beliefs.  Even something like the Apostles Creed was not interpreted to me as beliefs I was to hold, rather it was given to me as expressions of a trust in God, who was totally other (though I didn’t use that phrase until an adult in college).  Belief was trust, it was faith, that is entrusting oneself to an other.   This ‘belief’ did not guarantee outcomes.  My father lost a number of jobs, often due to his faith (that is the way he lived his life as a person of faith).   Dad believed all the same, not in spite of the evidence, because trusting in evidence would suggest that God was an object to be manipulated and controlled for our benefit.

I never found apologetic literature, like that of Josh McDowell’s “Evidence that Demands a Verdict”, convincing let alone as having anything to do with the faith I had, or raised to believe.  I saw such apologetic as a profound lack of faith.

Once in University I plunged into intellectual exploration with gusto, I read widely, was part of a philosophical theological and literary group called The Society, we read Marx, Nietzsche  Feuerbach, and I surprised a Religious Studies professor in a course on Christianity and Marxism with my familiarity with Hegel, and Marx and Feuerbach.  Around this same period,  I doubted my salvation, was convinced I was going to hell, found myself to be an atheist (though I never stopped going to church, so if Wittgenstein is correct and practice and belief are intimately connected then I sabotaged my atheism, but also if Wittgenstein is correct atheism is just another language game no more true or real than any other).  In the midst of this or at the culmination or throughout this time, a persistent image remained of my self represented by large stone bricks suspended in space slowly dissipating into the nothingness, and as they dispersed at the center the crucified Christ was there, and it was the gravity of the crucified one on the cross that kept the pieces of myself from dispersing into oblivion.

Doubt, faith, relationship, and the Crucified One all conspired together to keep me in relation with God.  A god who is as absent as present, a god I believe in as I believe in other persons I trust and entrust myself to, not in the sense of mere propositions that have nothing to do with the real relationship, mere abstractions of a person.  I entrust myself not to that which props me up, but that which knows me and is closer to me than I know or am to myself.  Therefore each Sunday I say ” I believe in God…” not as some intellectual assent but an act of trust and love.

I have doubted. I have questioned all the major doctrines and dogmas of orthodox Christian faith.  I have more often than not felt God’s absence than God’s presence.  Even now as a pastor, someone committed to leading and aiding people in the spiritual life and a life of faith, God’s presence is not a consistent experience nor an experience upon which I depend.  I have no certainty.

As I transitioned from seminary to pastoral ministry, I recognized that beliefs and life of faith, the spiritual life, was more than struggling with questions and maintaining a dubious attitude towards the propositions of the faith handed on to me.  I came to see the creeds, the doctrines of Trinity, resurrection, divinity of Christ, and virgin birth as invitations to radical trust and commitment  precisely because they were things I doubted and because I could not solve them without remainder.  I committed myself to a path, though nothing solved without remainder.  I’m not certain, but I trust myself to the one who is other than I and in whom and from whom I have myself as a gift.

 

  • Jubi Dutcher

    I am fond of saying “I don’t believe in God, I experience God.”
    After reading this post, I can see how that might be misinterpreted as saying I
    ALWAYS experience God. That is far from the truth. I don’t always feel God’s
    presence. However, the way in which I would say I need God like I need the air
    that I breathe is that every day I need God to lift self-destructive
    compulsions I could never stop on my own. Every day God lifts them from me, is
    evidence to me of God’s constant presence in my life. But that doesn’t mean I’m
    always conscious of it.

    There are certain spiritual practices, mostly in the
    Christian tradition, that can bring my psyche into consciousness of God’s presence.
    Sometimes felt, sometimes not. I have also had mystical experiences, but certainly
    nothing I do makes those happen. For myself God’s presence is not a consistent
    experience, but it IS an experience upon which I depend. It’s how I personally do
    relationship.

    I am a person that tends to romanticize things. When
    speaking of God, I am quite likely to use a “hyperbolic expression of true and
    deep intertwining of two people in a deep love and trust.” Frankly I don’t know
    if I’m capable of talking about relationship with the wholly Other without
    resorting to metaphorical speech. So if I may be permitted, when I’m not
    feeling God’s presence, I’m waiting patiently by the phone.

    • Larry Kamphausen

      Jubi, I think your statement also is part and parcel to the change in connotation of “belief” away from trust and faith, that to some degree my post is attempting to re-inscribe in “belief”. Thus it can also be interpreted, I think, as saying God has no particularity for you. though I’m quite sure that is not what you mean.
      Thank you for sharing your experience, adn the role experience of God plays for you.
      In relation to the larger conversation, I wonder what your responce would be to Rollins’ critique of God as a crutch: Whether or not you always experience the presence of God, I could see that possibly Rollins’ may see your experience of God as a crutch. Would this be a criticism you’d embrace? That is perhaps God as crutch isn’t a bad thing. Or would you argue that God’s sustenance as you experience Her better described by other metaphors?

      • Jubi Dutcher

        My pithy answer is: Is it wrong for a cripple to use a
        crutch?

        On one level, without God in my life I would be dead, in
        jail, or institutionalized. Those are my options without this supposed crutch.
        But in a larger context, my conviction is that we are all radically dependent
        on God and therefore all cripples (an analogy of the fall if you will.)

        Having done a bit more reading of the larger context though,
        my understanding of Rollin’s use of the crutch metaphor is a critique of the
        Santa-Claus God that so many people believe in. I know people whose faith has
        been crushed by the hard realities of this world and their image of God did not
        stand up to their dark night.

        I would say that my “belief” in God is something I constantly
        question without the sense that destruction would result. My experience of God
        is utterly absurd. Makes no rational sense. In many ways my Christianity is
        simply a language I can use to talk about that which is beyond reason. Except
        that one third of that experience is something I recognize as Christ. Ludicrous,
        I think, but I spent over a decade trying to deny that experience to no avail.

  • Really loved this post, Larry. If I ever get a chance to, I hope to come visit a gathering with you guys up in Chicago.

    • Larry Kamphausen

      Thanks Thomas. If you do come up to Chicago, know you are welcome to stay with us.