To Believe or to Know?

That is the question, isn’t it? What is the core of Christianity? Where is the heart of religion? Did Jesus come to establish a religion?

I find looking back on my religious/spiritual life that I have been very gradually moving from belief to experience. “Very gradually,” although sometimes in huge leaps, other times enduring long dry plateaus. “Gradually” is the overall view provided by the long look back over time!

On a recently-watched video of a BBC interview* with Carl Jung he was asked about his belief in God. He stated he had some trouble with that word, “believe”. “I know, I don’t need to believe. I know,” he replied. If someone knows God, if someone has experienced the Divine, has experienced the Spirit realm, there is no need to believe in it, or him. There is direct knowledge. This statement from one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century helped clear things up for me. It went a long way to explaining my own path, my current position.

Early Church experiences in the 1970’s (see Chapter 2, Out of Winkler, for example) had started me on the journey of experiencing God, as opposed to only a rational belief in him. Gradually I began realizing how limiting dogma is. Don’t get me wrong. I think, at the beginning of one’s walk, that doctrine, scripture, etc, are a help along the way. I certainly value highly my own biblical training. It still informs me. I have not rejected previous training and experiences; rather, I have built on them, and continue to build on them. However, increasingly I realize, as Jung says, “Religion is a defense against religious experience.” (Carl Jung: Wounded Healer of the Soul, Claire Dunne, p 152). In a letter to a friend, Jung says, “People speak of belief when they have lost knowledge. Belief and disbelief in God are mere surrogates.” (Wounded Healer, p 153).

More and more I am encountering this idea: that experience and direct knowledge supersedes belief. For example, in my recently-reviewed book by Anita Moorjani, I find the following quotes: “Instead, letting go of attachment to any way of believing or thinking has made me feel more expanded and almost transparent so that universal energy can just flow through me.” (p 160.) “So these days, I don’t follow any established methodology, order, ritual, dogma, or doctrine. . . . For me, life is a spiritual experience, and I’m changing and evolving all the time.” (p 154). “To advocate any option or doctrine as being the one true way would only serve to limit who we are and what we’ve come here to be.” (p 155).

Again, from another recent review: “At last, I understood what religion was really all about. Or at least was supposed to be about. I didn’t just believe in God; I knew God.” (Proof of Heaven, Eben Alexander, p 147).

It is almost precisely two years ago that I had my own profound experience of the Divine. I had my first soul regression session, and was gently ushered into the Spirit realm. (See especially, Chapter 15 in Out of Winkler). I experienced what every other person who has been there has experienced: unconditional love, complete lack of judgement, affirmation of who I was and what I was doing on earth during this lifetime, encouragement that I had what it takes to do what I needed to do and to be who I am. So I know. I know who I am in God. I know what the afterlife is like. I know God better for this experience. I no longer need to merely believe. As Jung says, “‘God-awful legalistic religion’ and over-reliance on faith [gets] in the way of gnosis, or direct knowledge of God.”  (Wounded Healer, p 152).

If there is a God you must see him;

If there is a soul we must perceive it;

Otherwise it’s better not to believe;

It’s better to be an outspoken atheist than a hypocrite. (source unknown)

__________                                                                                                                       BBC interview: “Matter of Heart”, conducted in the late 1950’s, when Jung would’ve been in his early 80’s.

3 thoughts on “To Believe or to Know?

  1. Philosophers define knowledge as “true, justified belief.” Your belief must both accord with reality, and you must have reasonable justification for that belief, in order for it to be considered knowledge. Thus, to claim to have knowledge instead of belief is to set up a false dichotomy. If you have knowledge you have belief, simple as that; the one is merely a sub-category of the other.

    With respect to how you contrast the experience of God with doctrines about God, this I find fascinating. The idea here seems to be that God is more concerned about our experience of him than he is about any doctrines we hold of him. This idea that experience is of greater importance to the spiritual life than doctrine is, it would seem, is a statement about the nature, character and priorities of God.

    But that is a doctrine! That is theology! That is a dogma that you hold about God! Basically what you are doing is insisting that people ought to accept your dogma about God (i.e. he is not overly concerned about dogma) instead of somebody else’s dogma about God (i.e. that God considers dogma important). Rather than replacing all the different denominations out there you have simply added to them by introducing, yet another, competing view of the person of God. Instead of moving beyond dogma you have merely accepted a new dogma.

    You speak of your experience of “unconditional love, complete lack of judgement, affirmation of who I was…” All of that provides a picture of the nature of God. It is dogma, through and through. Nobody ever goes beyond dogma; our every experience in life is the North pole of the magnet and our dogma is the South pole. You cannot have the one without the other. You might as well become a sprinter and start speaking of how your legs were helpful earlier on in your career, but now you consider them limiting with respect to your full potential as a sprinter. Sprinting, by its very nature, involves legs and religious experience (indeed any experience of any kind) involves, by its very nature, an intellectual understanding of the reality that we are experiencing.

    If I’m going to accept any dogma then I think it only makes sense to accept a dogma that begins by understanding that it is a dogma instead of dressing itself up as “anti-dogma” and hoping nobody notices. At least those who claim that theology, scripture, doctrine and dogma (we might call this package deal “religion”) are the Siamese twin of religious experience are being self-consistent.

    Nothing in my reply should be understood to speak against religious experience, but I hope it is clear that a religious experience without a dogma is not logically possible. Legalism kills the life of the Church, but ungrounded “experiences” leave the Church drifting aimlessly at sea. Iceberg ahead!

  2. Ah-h-h-h!! But the question still remains: where do you begin? What is your starting point?

    When I entered seminary in the 1980’s I heard that the “Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary” was a “biblical” seminary, not a “theological” seminary. Thus, the beginning, the basis, of all our study was the scriptures. From that “experience” of God came our thinking (yes, our theology!). When you begin with theology, you come at God, the scriptures, with a preconceived notion, and this too often colours our perception.

    It is that same line of thinking I am using when describing my own experience of God. I begin with what I have just experienced, and compare that to what I have previously believed or experienced. And my experience grows and grows. It does not really change direction so much as continue in an upward learning curve.

    I in no way, as I said in my post, decry my earlier beliefs, theology or experiences. I do not negate them or deny them. That is what I believed then. I have now received more revelation of God and his working. I don’t so much believe differently as believe more! It is a building process, not a tearing down and beginning over.

    Also, in my deep respect for people, I listen with an open mind to what they are experiencing, and reflect on that. I try not to judge what they say they have experienced, but rather see if there is something from God in their experience for me to learn from.

    You, Paul, have recently experienced God in a very profound way. Now, I presume, before your wife’s episode you had a strong theology of the healing power of God and his care and love for us, that he always knows what’s best for us and will work toward that end. I would like to hear from you how that experience has informed or perhaps even changed your previous beliefs. Perhaps this experience confirmed and strengthened your faith in God. And these sorts of extreme experiences are often a point where new things are learned. Are you able and willing to reflect on that in this space? I would welcome that.

  3. I have written several reflective articles about my wife’s experience at our group’s blog – Folks can poke around there to read about the convergence of the experience and the theology. Some articles include:

    A grounded hope
    Why bother with prayer
    Some perspective on the problem of pain
    Evil and suffering in a morally good world

    (I’m not sure about adding links, just visit the site and either search for them or go through the history; they are somewhat recent)

    The relationship between experiences and theology cannot be one-way. Experience should never have carte blanche freedom to inform our theology. Our theology must also inform our understanding of our experience. One person who suffers will conclude that God simply does not exist. Another who suffers will conclude that God is a horrible monster. Another who suffers will conclude that God is the source of strength. Experiences alone cannot reliably guide us to theological truth if people can reach such divergent opinions based only on experiences. A major role of theology has always been to make sure that our understanding of reality corresponds with reality itself, and extreme life experiences (both positive and negative) are prime opportunities to have our understanding skewed. If theology has no role in interpreting our experiences – if, instead, our experiences have unchecked freedom to re-interpret our theology – then we are at risk of falling prey to precisely the kinds of “new gospels” that are described, and refuted, in Galatians. This is why we are admonished to “test the spirits,” as John tells us, instead of merely accepting the experiences they provide and modifying our theology to suit them.

    I find it deplorable when people’s theology will absolutely not bend, even slightly, to the practical realities of life experiences. I have seen this in action, especially with the whole “God will heal you if you have enough faith” crowd. Somebody with too narrow an understanding of Scripture responds in a less-than-gracious manner to another person’s situation without allowing their theology to be questioned. Their rigid dogmatism is frankly offensive to God and the proper handling of Scripture.

    The problem is that the exact opposite is also the case. It is equally tragic when a person’s experiences are considered authoritative and their theology must bend, infinitely, to accommodate their experiences. When they never use their theology to ask, “could my understanding of this situation be flawed?” this opens the door to demonic influence as a person simply accepts “the spirit” regardless of what that alleged messenger from God is telling them.

    We cannot allow too much authority to our interpretations of the Bible, and we would be equally foolish to allow too much authority to our experiences without challenging them, questioning them and analyzing them through the lens of Scripture. We are naïve if we think the only spiritual beings out there are all good and want what’s best for us. We would never be foolish enough to think that about our fellow humans, why would we think that about the spiritual realm?

    As you point out, of course, we must ask “where do you begin?” The reason we begin with the Bible is because it has proven itself reliable theologically, philosophically, historically, literarily, and in many other relevant categories. If you can find another source of claimed authority with the same, or better, track record then I’m all ears. Until then, though, the Bible should be our starting point and we need to ensure that our experiences and theology are consistent with what is taught in there, not merely consistent with a handful of verses here or there that “spirit brought to my attention” as I described in a previous comment at another article. We need to properly handle God’s word in order to ensure we have a robust paradigm through which we can evaluate life’s experiences in order to ensure we do not get duped by “angels from heaven” with a new gospel.

    And I have a strong suspicion that if you were to go back to your seminary and describe your new beliefs to the faculty there, they would adamantly declare that you have not merely added new beliefs, you have flatly contradicted and discarded many of the foundational beliefs they worked hard to teach you.

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