There are people who claim that they have had immediate experience of God, but it seems to me that anything human beings can experience is by definition human and worldly. So I think they are mistaken, in some cases, dangerously so. For myself, I am content to have faith in God, for faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. God is not part of my experience but rather an interpretation of it.
Moses was not given an appearance of God but the symbol of a bush burning in the desert, plus a set of instructions which were an interpretation of all his previous experience: that as a former slave and part of a slave people, he Moses could lead them to freedom. Who told him this? The one called, “I AM” who “spoke” in Moses’ mind, without being visible, without proof of identity, although he / she claimed to be the ancestral God of his people. The initiative seems to be with “God” but who decides that God is speaking? Moses.
Elijah in despair at the power of idolatry in his nation, went to the traditional mountain of God to be strengthened by a divine revelation. And he got the stage show: wind, earthquake and fire, but God was not in any of them. And after the fire, a still, small voice. Who decided that this stern and commanding voice was God? Elijah, who realised that there were plenty people on his side and there were things he could and should do.
In both cases the human being is ready for revelation but God never becomes an item of experience, never gives proof of his presence, but meets the person as his past experience, his present decision-making, and his future destiny. Of course there have been people who had similar experience, decisions and destiny without reference to God. The content of worldly experience might be the same, the difference lies in the faith which is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Faith interprets the experience as a revelation of God, using an imagination which has been informed by a tradition of faith. The exhilirating, terrifying, nature of faith is that it has to take human responsibility for its own vision. When it claims that it is compelled by an experience of God which has authorised its absolute certainty, it is either mistaken or lying.
When Luther, faced with the absolute certainty of the Roman Church, said that his conscience was in chains to be the Word of God, “here I stand, I can do no other,” he was saying that he interpreted his interpretation of scripture as the voice of God. Or he should have been saying that, for as became evident over time, his absolute trust in his own interpretation of scripture became divisive and sectarian.
When I say that the “house of God” theology I’ve been outlining in the past series of blogs expresses my experience, I do not mean that I have some special experience of God which justifies this this language about God; but rather that my experience of life and my knowledge of the Christian tradition, illuminated and made meaningful by personal faith and the shared life of the Christian community, are expressed in this theology. I have spent some time on that last sentence, which remains clumsy but is essential for my argument.
From now on, I’ll refer to the theology I’ve sketched in these blogs as oikos (Greek for house) theology.
I find it meaningful first of all because it helps me to understand myself, others and human community if I imagine them as possible dwelling places of God or of the powers of the world. I do not think of the individual self as a fixed identity but rather as an embodied mind-and-spirit, part project and part memory, co-existing with with other identities in society and nature. For such identities to be closed off is death -we need physical, mental and spiritual interchange in order to live- but openness also has its dangers: we can be overwhelmed by grief, betrayed by love, infiltrated by greed or ambition, possessed by hate.
That’s why I like the metaphor of the self as a house which we may share with the spirits of our dear ones, of the transpersonal powers of society, of the groups with which we identify, and of God. When I look back I realise how much I’ve been moulded by these indwelling spirits, some of which I am glad to have evicted, once I saw what they were doing. I grew up with the prejudices of the British Empire, the self-righteousness of the middle class in Scotland, the protestant superiority to superstitious Catholics. These spirits lodged with me, influencing my attititudes to people and events until I recognised who they were and showed them the door. But these spirits are respectable compared with the vicious arrogance which at times inhabited my life, leading me into words and actions of which I am ashamed.
Jesus taught that the human “house” cannot remain void but will be occupied by evil if not goodness. This checks with my experience of myself, that only a conscious hospitality towards goodness protects a person from being invaded by evil. The moral philosophy of Simone Weil emphasises that a connection to divine goodness is what makes us human. The neo-liberal ethic which assumes that we are all decent people with the right to be prosperous in this world, denies that the self can be a house of good or evil and promotes the savage blandness which, even more than savage sectarianism, destroys life.