Can we know God by experience?

It is in his first two paragraphs that Donovan states his case which he then goes on to explain.

His argument is his worry that people who have religious experiences claim a superior kind of knowledge and unquestioning ‘rightness’ on the basis of it. He says these people are convinced they are right but his concern is that in history others have been equally convinced of the ‘rightness’ of their beliefs to the detriment of others. (He calls these people tyrants and dictators.)

The problem he suggests arise from those who do not allow any questioning of their positions: ‘I know I am right; don’t confuse me with arguments.’ This leads to abuse. The trouble is that these people claim their ‘intuition’ is the source of their ‘inner conviction.’

Ordinary intuition is one thing (and he gives several examples) but he wonders whether having a religious conviction is good enough reason to refuse to answer questions.

He then goes on to discuss the nature of intuition and to define what kind of knowledge is gained through it, concluding that intuition of the reality of God is not the product of reasoning neither is the faith which is the natural response to the experience.

However he argues that although intuition may be the first way that God is known nevertheless it is important that any experience is understood in a context. Not all experiences come to believers but it is through them that he is known on a personal level; a kind of knowledge which can only come directly to the experient and which according to the bible is a natural way for God to interact with his creation. It is this knowledge which, Donovan quotes HP Owen as saying, needs ‘no further argument or support.’

However Donovan and others still disagree. These argue that the fatal weakness’ is in relying on intuition as a special case for exemption in the case of religious faith. These make the distinction between psychological and rational certainty. The concept of ‘certainty’ causes much dispute but Donovan suggests it is the difference between ‘feeling certain’ and ‘being right.’

We can easily understand the difference and we know that the one doesn’t make the other! He continues that intuition is not reliable enough; we can be convinced (as he uses Bertrand Russell’s idea) that someone loves us but that doesn’t make it true! and concludes that sadly the intellect is far more reliable. In addition to argue from religious experience to the conclusion that it was of God is to assume that there is a God to experience and that is precisely what hasn’t been proven. Just because we accept certain types of intuitive knowledge about the existence of other human beings doesn’t mean that we can assume it of God.

Donovan does admit that this isn’t all Owen and others are saying but basically they are arguing for the prime importance of an intuitive, not-argued-for knowledge of God and acceptance of his existence. There are still too many ‘ifs’.

These same theologians remind us that we have two different types of relationships with people and things – I / It and I / You. The former is objective; the latter is personal, direct. Only the latter is truly human the former is more like a robot trying and failing to be fully human. Belief in is better than belief about but for this faith is needed. It is the ‘leap’ needed. You can know about Bob Geldof or God but can only truly know them if you have direct experience of them. Even so it is rare for us to experience each other on that deep level.

There are three problems even in these relationships: the first is that we may be mistaken (we never really know another person); the second presupposes we already know about the other as in an I / It way (Christians for example are highly unlikely to have an experience of Allah or Brahman!); and thirdly even in the depths of that experience-of we still don’t know! Donovan concludes that the problem is that believers often claim to ‘know’ purely on the basis of the experience and this is insufficient he suggests. Therefore the criticisms do not prove the ‘knowledge of God’ is not real but do mean that we still do not have ‘good reason’ to believe in God.

He finishes off by explaining that these personal experiences have kept belief in God alive; the philosophical criticisms have not removed the possible validity of these experiences but have opened up the arena to discuss them rationally, all the more so if one is a philosopher and believer too! And even if one were to conclude that these intuitive experiences do not count as ‘knowledge of God’ it doesn’t mean it isn’t a valid discussion to have.


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