Sunday, August 2, 2015

From where does our Sense of the Divine come?

The Bible generally describes the Judeo-Christian God as tangible essence existing somewhere in space and time as part of our universe—essentially an entity of the world.  The modern Christian church perpetuates that concept of God in its hymns, sermons, liturgy, prayers, etc.  In the most ethical biblical concepts of God, however, God is far less like we are—that is, like another inhabitant of our physical universe, only more powerful. There are at least two concepts of God in the Bible that mostly bypass the general view: in 1Kings 19:12 God is conceived as "a still small voice"; and in John 4:24 God is described as "spirit."
               Spirit may still be tangible, however; depending on how it is conceived.  If spirit is conceived as an entity that takes up space, like visible steam from a tea kettle, or the nearly invisible vapor arising from a heated substance, or the taste left in the rum cake when the "spirits" have evaporated, then it is tangible. If spirit is not left-over taste, or vaporous mist—or something barely visible to the naked eye; that is, if spirit does not leave an image on the retina of the eye, what is it?
               I would suppose that God, as intangible spirit, is likely a denizen of a parallel spirit(ual) universe, a complex that does not occupy space and time. In this case, God is not a part of the physical universe, but "over there" in the spirit(ual) universe, along with other invisible spirits (good, evil, and unclean), demons, devils, Satan, and other spiritual forces, such as angels, the Prince of the Power of the Air (Ephesians 2:2), the Principalities and Powers in heavenly places (Eph 3:10), the world rulers of the present darkness (Eph 6:12), the spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places (Eph 6:12), angels, principalities, powers (Romans 8:38), etc.
               I prefer the description in 1Kings 19:12.  This description rejects the dramatic physical manifestations of God, such as wind, seismic convulsions, and fire (1 Kings 19:9-13).  God is conceived, for good or ill, as no more or less than a particular sense or awareness of a divine small voice, whether in the mind or vibrating on the ear drum is unclear.  It is once stated that Elijah "heard" the voice (19:13), but people "hear" voices and even carry on conversations—in the mind, in dreams, in "visions" without the voices resonating on the ear drum.  Twice the voice is not "heard," but simply "there" (19:12), "and a voice came to him" (19:13)—that is to say, "an awareness" of a voice.  Being sensed, the Divine is always incomplete and imperfect; it does not exist over apart from us, but perhaps arises from within us.
               We all sense the Divine differently—whether it is a divine righteousness that must be appeased (sensed by Paul), or a divine emptiness (sensed by Ecclesiastes), or a divine legalism (sensed by "Moses"), or a divine capriciousness (sensed by Job), or the sense of the sacredness of all life (sensed by Albert Schweitzer).  In sensing and experiencing the Divine, we do not have the same sense or experience. Consider the sense of the Divine projected in the mystical Orthodox tradition or the philosophical Roman Catholic tradition, or the charismatic Assemblies of God tradition, or the emotional fundamentalist Baptist tradition.  The difference of religious experience is most marked when the various international religions of the world are considered; Buddhist, Shinto, Hindu, Taoism, and Islamic traditions provide striking testimony as to how diverse religious experiences can be.
               Whence have come those fleeting impulses that have led out in such startlingly different religious experiences?  Are they "sent" to us from "out there"?  That is, have they come from that parallel invisible universe of the Spirit and not from within us?  There is no critical answer to this question. All the evidence is anecdotal and testimonial.  It consists only of the experiences claimed by those who believe in and attest to the parallel universe.  There is nothing to analyze except their confessions and anecdotal experiences—not even a fleeting image on the eye's retina.
               Is it possible that our various senses of the Divine arise from within each of us? That is, the impulses come not from "out there" but from somewhere in the cortex of the human brain, or they are built into our DNA.  If that is the case, some of us would seem to be hard-wired either to receive Divine impulses or more probably to create a sense of the Divine.
               In the final analysis, the question of whence originates the sense of the Divine is unanswerable, but then the answer may not matter at all.  In the long run, human beings are better for having sensed the Divine—however imperfectly so.  The difficulty lies in vetting what people claim to experience as the Divine; I recall that Paul thought Satan could "disguise himself as an angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).  The warning is inevitable: be wary of those who claim to have a definitive knowledge of the Divine.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


bobinberea said...

Thank you, Charlie! Very thoughtful!

Anonymous said...

I think that this "sense of the divine" is built from learning. If it is a matter of DNA what accounts for the many who earlier in life receive or create these impulses, then reject them?

I see most “normal” children as being curious. Parents generally facilitate this curiosity by “filling in the blanks.” Schooling reinforces some of these concepts, displaces others, and destroys some. Church has a major role, though, in shaping the “sense of the divine.” At least that’s how I see it, as a learned response to curiosity about life, and especially about death.

Incidentally, you mentioned Ecclesiastes. I am reading a fantastic translation of that by Robert Alter (The Wisdom Books). He explains many core terms used in the Hebrew and how they have been translated. Wisdom? "... all is mere breath, and herding the wind..."
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Anonymous said...

What a thoroughly interesting topic, Charlie. My current thinking is that naming develops from the holistic impact of immediate experience. For example, did the concept of 'wheel' emerge before someone saw a round stone rolling down a hill. It seems unlikely that the concept of 'divine' and its characteristics emerged before someone felt finite: for example, guilt when wronging someone, insignificance when beholding the creation, helplessness in staring down death.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Charles Hedrick said...

Hi Dennis and Gene,
You both seem to take the position (as did I) that that since we cannot see, touch, or measure spirit, it is not there. But not even physical scientists always operate in that way. For example they have theorized the existence of quarks, which they project are elementary particles and fundamental constituents of matter. No one has ever seen a quark on its own, however, and much of what is known about them comes by observing composite particles called hadrons (which they theorize are comprised of quarks).
Perhaps Hedrick is wrong, and in like manner we can learn about spirit by observing those we theorize are influenced by spirit.
What do you think?

Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie, reviewing what's been written, I guess I'm not clear what is meant by a "sense" of the Divine. My comments were directed at a possible origin for the "idea" or "concept" of the divine. Regarding spirit, I think that Paul had it right when he concluded that spirit awareness flows from a condition of trust (faith). Building on my previous remarks, I would say that the "idea of the divine" deriving from the immediate experience of our finite condition merges into "awareness of the divine" stimulated by the trust required by the finite circumstances (see previous post). The spirit is the creation of space carved out by trust, and what happens there is observable.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Anonymous said...

Not exactly, Charlie. I just don't see "the sense of the divine" as existing in the DNA. I think it is learned. "Spirit" for me is a different matter. I see that as awareness. Unlike Gene, I see this awareness as coming from sensation and perception. (When out in the woods I can sense a copperhead or bear by smell. I can sense rain coming from watching the movement of birds.) "Spirit" for me is being attuned to the world and one's place in the world... A long way from my SBC roots, I realize, but I don't see it as supernatural or transcendent. It's being here mindfully. It is the "mere breath" of life of awareness.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.