By Harris Franklin Rall
HOW CAN I KNOW GOD?
I. WHAT IT MEANS TO KNOW GOD
"To live is to know God," said Tolstoy. "And this is life eternal," we read in the fourth Gospel, "that they should know thee." In religion the phrase, "to know God," has a special and deeply significant meaning. It is more than believing in the existence of God. Men believe in the existence of God because others round about them do, or because they have been so taught as children, or because it seems reasonable to hold that there is some such power back of this world; but this does not mean knowing God. It means more than knowing about God. I may learn a vast deal about people on the other side of the globe, facts that I have gained from books or travelers; but I have never been there and I do not really know these people.
This distinction between knowing and knowing about we must grasp clearly if we are to realize what it means to know God. In languages such as the German, French, Latin, and Greek, there are different words to express these two kinds of knowledge, knowing about and knowing. So the Germans have wissen and kennen, the French savoir and connaitre. We may describe the difference as that between the knowledge of fact and the knowledge of acquaintance. The farmer may not know the facts of chemistry and yet he knows his fields, the feel of the earth when he plows, the response when he plants this crop or the other, the look of the fields on a summer morning or under the winter snow. The carpenter does not know physics; he would open his eyes wide if told that this apparently solid and inert plank was composed of swiftly moving electric particles, as far separated from each other in proportion to size as the stars in the heavens. But he knows wood, even if he does not know these facts about it; he has the knowledge of acquaintance and can tell you how it feels under the plane, how it behaves when he saws and nails, or when he leaves it exposed to weather. This difference is most clear when it comes to our acquaintance with some person as contrasted with knowing endless facts about him.
But someone will say, Is it possible to know God? He is invisible; no man has ever seen him. He is infinite; how can the finite grasp him? The answer is: We can know things which we do not see or wholly comprehend by getting into working relations with them. So it is with God. Of course we are not left to mere guess or imagination; though we do not see and cannot grasp, the Infinite touches our life. The unseen world is not something uncertain or afar; it is here in the beauty that thrills us, in the solemn splendor of night that awes us, in the love that calls us out of selfishness, in the high ideals of justice that command us, in the Power on which we feel dependent, in the Help that answers when we trust, in the presence of Christ as we bow with a sense of sin and rise with the courage to believe in God's mercy. God comes to men at times even when they do not name his name.
II. THE WAYS OF KNOWING GOD
How, then, shall we know God? There is one word which for many gives the whole answer—"revelation." Finite man cannot know the Eternal, they say; only God himself can give such knowledge, and this revelation is in the Bible. The word "revelation" holds a truth that we must not simply admit but emphasize. If you believe in a living God, then it follows that such a God will reveal himself to men. Christianity believes in such a self-giving and self-revealing God. The knowledge of God does not rest simply upon human search and discovery; there is a double search, God for man and man for God. And even man's search is something that is inspired and guided by God. So there is no knowledge of God that is not revelation, that does not come from God and through God. But revelation must always enter through human experience, and it is this human side with which we are here concerned. What are those ways of human experience through which God is known?
1. We know God by the help of others. This is the way all knowledge begins; life is urgent, our knowledge is limited, therefore we constantly have to depend upon others. That is not merely true of childhood; throughout life, in matters of business, health, politics, morals, everywhere we seek wisdom from those who know where we are ignorant. There is special reason for this in religion. We are not deserting the way of experience; we are simply asserting that we should use all the experience that is available to us, that of others as well as our own. The insight into the Unseen, the knowledge of how God works in our life and how we may relate ourselves to him, is not easily gained by one individual. We turn to the long experience of the race, and to those men whose persistent search, deep devotion, and special insight have led them further than others. Here is a heritage, tested by the ages, the most precious single treasure passed from one generation to another. Here are the prophets and seers and saints; here above all others is Jesus. The best of this has come down to us through the Bible, but we use other writings as well that give us contact with such souls. The Church, with its fellowship of faith and love, of teaching and worship, brings this to the individual and makes it vital and appealing.
Objection is often raised to this. Do we want lifeless tradition, a mere knowledge about God instead of knowing God? And have we any right to hand over this supreme concern to others, inertly accepting and blindly following their word? But that is not what is proposed. There is a wrong way of using tradition in religion as elsewhere. The ideals and insights that we get from others are not a substitute for our own knowledge of God; they are a stimulus, a help to individual experience and discovery. Who has not felt as he joined in a great hymn, or read a psalm, or a chapter from the Gospels, that God himself had spoken to him? We do not receive passively; rather, our minds are quickened, our hearts are stirred, our eyes are opened to the Eternal. And what we thus receive from others is not the end but simply the beginning. These words are an invitation and an impulse to action. They do not relieve us of the need of thought or effort or individual experience; they give us direction and start us on the way.
2. There is the way of spiritual awareness. With many people, perhaps in a measure with all at some time or other, there comes the immediate sense of something High and Holy, of an unseen Presence, a Power that is more than man. Some would deny this, but perhaps that is because they look for it in the wrong way. This does not necessarily mean some thrilling emotion. Nor is it something apart from all else, coming as a bolt out of the blue. We may call it by other names—beauty, sublimity, love, truth, justice. It is these and it is more. It is the sense of something that speaks through these, more than the finite, more than the changing; it is the Eternal in the midst of time, calling us to reverence, awe, and obedience. Here is perhaps the greatest value of prayer and worship. The sense of the Infinite is easily destroyed; the clamor of things about us shuts out the voice of God. Our eyes stop with the surface, the changing world of light and color and form, and fail to look beyond. The press of selfish and sometimes sensual desire leaves little concern for the hunger of the spirit and that which can meet it. We need the quiet hour, that we may, in the parlance of the radio, cut out the static with which our day is filled and tune in on the Infinite that is always waiting to speak to us. Worship gives this quiet, quickens our sensibilities, and makes us aware of God.
3. There is the way of insight. It is one matter to see things, another to see into them. Here is where poets and philosophers, prophets and saints differ from others. All men have sight, not all have insight. Sight gives knowledge, insight gives understanding. What is real and enduring, what is true and meaningful, does not lie on the surface. "I have walked with people whose eyes are full of light" writes Helen Keller, "but who see nothing in wood, sea, or sky, nothing in city streets, nothing in books. Their souls voyage through this enchanted world with a barren stare." Helen Keller, without sight, has won insight. Here is a true way of knowledge for man. It is not imagination or invention; we must look at the real world and not away from it. But we must look away from the piecemeal and see things whole; we must see things in their relations and in their meaning. And when we look deeply enough, when at last we see the meaning and the purpose of the whole, then we see God.
4. We may know God by the way of action. There is a penetrating word in John 7. 17: "If any man willeth to do his will, he shall know of the teaching." A great preacher put the same truth in the phrase, ^obedience the organ of spiritual knowledge." In the broad sense it is true in every field: there is no knowledge without action. The idea that we know just with our minds is a curious mistake; the whole man knows, and he knows with sense and intellect, with heart and will. No one can really know who remains simply an onlooker. Reflection and insight and criticism are necessary—we must think; but unless we enter into life, unless we give ourselves in interest and action, we cannot know.
That is especially true so far as the whole world of moral and spiritual reality is concerned. Men have tried to settle these matters by speculation and debate, or by merely taking over the opinions of others. No man can ever know this world in such a manner. Unless you are willing to be a friend, with all the risk and cost which friendship involves, unless you are willing to give yourself, to trust another, to open your heart, to share your life, you cannot know what friendship means. You cannot know beauty by attending lectures on aesthetics or rushing through art galleries checking off in your guidebook the great paintings that you have "seen." You must give yourself in patience, waiting with open eye and discerning spirit, catching the beauty which the artist dreamed, or with hushed spirit rejoicing in the wonder of that silver line in western sky that marks the new moon.
It is quite plain how this applies to the knowledge of God—not to knowledge about God, but to knowing God. God is not an idea to be entertained, a theory of the universe to be proven, or a fact to be accepted like the statement that two plus two equals four; God is spirit, life, character. He is truth, purity, justice, love, righteousness, beauty, goodness; and "the character of God is known only as it is shared." The knowledge of God is morally conditioned. It makes a demand such as no other kind of knowledge makes. Let us see what it involves.
(1) Singleness of purpose and sincerity of spirit are the first requisites according to Jesus. This is the "higher righteousness" of which he speaks in the Sermon on the Mount. It is well, he says, to be honest, to keep from sexual immorality, to pray, to give to the poor; but more important is the basic attitude of life that lies back of all this. And in two striking words Jesus shows how knowing God depends upon this underlying attitude or spirit of man. "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God." That is, there is no spiritual knowledge without spiritual kinship. An inner life that is impure is a bar to the knowledge of God; so are bitterness, anger, and ill will. The positive side is put in another and more striking figure. "The lamp of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness." There is an eye of the soul, a window turned toward God and truth. If the soul has a supreme, a single desire, if man with all his heart wants what is right and true, then the light of God will come through. A pure and single devotion to what is highest is the first condition of knowing God, and not all clearness of mind can ever make up for its lack. For this inner eye may be evil. A man may have moral strabismus—he may be morally cross-eyed. But to look one way and walk the other, to want the good and yet hang on to the evil, to rationalize and sophisticate until we have made the good evil and the evil good, that is to destroy our one chance of light, to darken the window of the soul until "the light that is in thee is darkness."
(2) Moral obedience is the second way; the single purpose, the high aim, must issue in action. Moral obedience is man's Yes to the highest whenever and wherever it confronts him. Here is where the Hebrew prophets lifted religion once for all to a new level. Men had listened for the voice of God in unusual occurrences in nature, or in dreams and ecstatic experiences. The prophet heard it in the summons to mercy and justice and truth: "Cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow." Such obedience is not merely the act that follows our knowledge of God and his will, it is the way to such knowledge; and it is the way to knowledge because it is the way of fellowship. "God is love, and he that abideth in love abideth in God." Tolstoy put it in a story, Where Love Is, There God is Also. Lowell set it forth in his poem, "The Search." He tells how he sought for Christ in fair nature, in the places of wealth and power (since he was King), and in temples of worship. Then Love came, he writes, "and shared with me his crust," and so he follows Love,
Conscience is not infallible, nor does moral obedience insure correct ideas; but we cannot know the God of love unless we live his life of love, or the God of righteousness unless we seek justice in all our ways.
Here is a way that is open to every man. There are many to whom mysticism does not appeal and who cannot accept the common Christian doctrines. To them comes the challenge of moral obedience: Face honestly your convictions as to what is just and good; be absolutely loyal in action to every ideal, to every least measure of faith that you hold; go just as far as you can. If you do that, you will know God, for this is his voice, here is his presence; and as you move on, the way will open before you. In the words of Novalis: "Moral action is that great and only experiment in which all the riddles of the most manifold appearances explain themselves."
III. THE CERTAINTY OF GOD
But is not this knowledge of God of an inferior kind as compared with the definiteness and certainty of science?
Let us note first that in the end we follow the same way of knowing in all the relations of life, whether we try to know God or nature or our fellow men. In every case we must obey a threefold rule. (1) Live, and see what life brings you. This is the empirical method. You cannot sit still and think and expect to know, nor yet simply accept what others say. Act, try, experiment, observe. (2) Reflect, interpret, try to understand what all this means. Use imagination and insight and reason. Our world is not a madhouse or a chaos; if so, life itself would be impossible. There is order here and meaning, and we must find them. So we have theories, hypotheses, beliefs. (3) Trust, and try all this out. Take your best insights and theories and put them to the test of practice. Science has no exclusive or superior way.
Of course the exact method will differ greatly according to the field in which we apply it, and so will the results. Each field of knowledge has its advantages and its limitations. When we deal with material things, we can measure and secure exactness; and the wonderful exactness of science has made possible the marvels of modern invention and machinery. Yet this advantage is paid for with a price; if you want such exactness, you are limited to what can be measured. I cannot measure the love of a friend, the beauty of a Rembrandt painting, or the goodness of God. Science today, grown modest with its advance, is quick to say that it claims no knowledge of what that final reality is which is within and beneath this visible world. When I come to beauty and truth, to friends and God, when I ask what is back of all and what it all means, then my scales and test tubes are useless. I have no exact formulae and tables to present. I must depend upon insight and faith; I must see what is unseen and value what cannot be weighed and measured. But I do see. I am still in the field of life; indeed, I am dealing with life where it is richest and most meaningful. Here I have found not merely facts but truth, the meaning of life and not its surface appearance, the enduring and not the passing.
And now we raise the final question: Is there certainty in this knowledge? Or must the life of faith be always haunted with doubt and God remain the great Perhaps? The answer to this is twofold.
1. Our certainty of God is moral certainty, the certainty of faith. I cannot see the unseen God or prove him with my logic; indeed, what kind of a God
would it be that I could see and prove? But the invisible is not the unreal. I know love and truth and righteousness; I cannot see or prove them, but they are as real as the visible world and more enduring. And to know them, to know their reality and authority, is to know God. I am certain of him, as I am of them, and I build my life upon this. Studdert-Kennedy speaks of faith as a great wager, but his words show that it is more:
Here is certainty, the certainty that when we meet the highest and holiest, it is real, and more real than trees and rocks and hills and passing years.
2. Certainty comes out of life. In the end, nothing is certain except life; and life itself cannot be proven, it can only be lived. It is life that calls forth faith, life that brings us face to face with the unseen and works conviction within. It is as we act upon faith that faith makes possible the larger, richer life. And then it is this larger life that deepens and confirms our certainty. God too cannot be proven; he must be lived. And that is the final way to the certainty of God. All men are certain of the air, unseen though it is, because it is the very breath of their life. Many are sure of love and truth and justice because this is their life in an even deeper sense. So others still are sure of God. He has spoken and they have answered. They have worshiped and the Presence was there. They have trusted and have not been put to shame. They have depended upon him and he has been their strength and peace. And day by day as their own life has grown richer and stronger, the light of this faith has given meaning to a world that without it would be an enigma.
Let us, however, remember two things. Such certainty does not mean omniscience or dogmatism; it is not assurance as to our ideas, it is certainty as to God. And such certainty is not lightly gained or kept; we gain it by surrender of life, we keep it only as we make life a great adventure and prove our faith day by day in new courage and devotion.
3. All this does not mean anti-intellectualism, the disparagement or doubt of human reason. Such certainty, on the contrary, rests upon the right to trust reason at its highest, not just when it analyzes, or when it asks how physical events are joined, but when it sees the world as a whole and the world at its highest, and finds in it order and meaning and ends which not only have their best explanation in God, but which demand faith in him. To deny this would be to deny reason at the highest. We say then with Walt Whitman in his "Song of the Universal":
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
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