How Can Divine Presence Be Perceived? (Part 1)

During the past few sessions, I have suggested that we shift our focus away from information to an understanding of the Gospel as a person, that is, the person of Christ. If you accept that idea, then it becomes clear that evangelism has more to do with introducing that person than it does with transmitting information. But the challenge is that we are then expected to introduce a person who is no longer physically present but is “only” spiritually with us. How is that to be done? We get some indication by observing that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist and in the lives of mature believers. But that still leaves us with the puzzle of just how human beings are able to apprehend or perceive such spiritual realities and how that experience can vindicate whatever conclusions they draw or what relationships they enter. These questions could, of course, be asked of any perceptual experience, spiritual or otherwise and this is what some call the problem of perception, simply put: “[H]ow are our perceptual capacities capable of enabling reality itself to inform and justify what we think, say, and do?…”.[1] For our purposes let me work toward an answer by asking several questions: 1) What is perception?; 2) what can be perceived?; 3) what is it to perceive God?; and 4) how does this impact inviting other to meet Christ?

What Do We Mean by Perception (of the Divine or Anything Else for That Matter)?

Broadly construed, perceptual experiences are just states or episodes in which some mind-independent reality (a) impresses itself on us, (b) enables our intentional directedness upon it in thought, word, or deed, and (c) is capable of determining whether or not the intentions grounded by such impressions are correct.”[2]

So, if I am faced with a book-shaped item that appears to be red, I should be able to conclude that it is, in fact, a red book, or in other words, that it actually exists as a red book. This common sense, some would say naive, approach differs from those subjective theories that suggest that it is what is already in my mind (conditioned by language, culture, politics, etc.) that determines the color, the shape, the existence of the things I think I see.

However, the approach I am proposing is a simple “direct realist” understanding of sense perception. William Alston summarizes this by saying, “[O]ne will be inclined to hold not that internal facts about sense experience provide one with premises for an effective argument to the existence of external physical objects, but rather that in enjoying sense experience one thereby perceives external physical objects and comes to have various justified beliefs about them, without the necessity of exhibiting those beliefs (or their propositional contents) as the conclusion of any sort of argument”.[3] In other words, what “ we assert to be true of realities that are what they are regardless of what we or other human beings believe of them, and regardless of the “conceptual scheme” we apply to them (except, of course, when what we are talking about is our thought, belief, or concepts).”[4]

What Kinds of Things Can Be Perceived?

What classes of things can be apprehended by the human senses? At the very least this group of objects would have to include all inanimate, animate, and non-personal entities. These things can be apprehended via their physical properties; that is, they can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched. We could expand the pool of objects by adding personal beings. In this case the basic contours of perception remain fundamentally unchanged in that we can safely draw conclusions on the basis of external attributes. However, there are other dimensions of personal being that are not based entirely on physical characteristics and do not yield easily to our natural senses. Here I am thinking of things like love, loyalty, friendship, compassion, and so on. So, are we to look to some additional, perhaps hidden, set of senses that can pick up on these non-physical aspects of personal reality? Or should we simply concluded that there is nothing mysterious here and that all of these supposed non-physical characteristics can be read from the corresponding physical evidence (smiles, laughter, eye contact, etc.)? Well, it may be a bit more complicated than that. In human beings, we not only have non-physical characteristics to deal with but a non-finite dimension as well. This is rooted in the fact that we have been created by God with a composite, that is, with a finite/infinite makeup.

This has to do with the unique nature of creation. If we say that before creation the only thing that existed was God and that outside Him there was nothing, then creation out of “nothing” has to mean, in one way or the other, creation out of God. In other words, creation must arise out of God as an act of self-actualization or self-revelation of His nature. As a result, creation is released into an existence of its own from the depths of God’s own being, and it carries in it something of the infinite and the personal character of God.[5] Accordingly, “the Being of God includes and penetrates the whole universe, so that every part of it exists in God and (as against pantheism) that God’s being is more than, and is not exhausted by, the universe.”[6] For this reason we can be sure that our perception of the world, of persons, and, in particular, of God includes the capability of apprehending these non-physical and non-finite dimensions. That is the way we have been made.

Before I take up the possibility of perceiving divinity, let me mention one other wrinkle that comes with including personal beings in the pool of the perceptible. Since personal beings are possessed of a (free) will, we also have to factor into our understanding of perception the idea of intention. If I introduce myself or someone else, that move is obviously intentional and will undertake to make sure that that person is duly apprehended by another person and that certain conclusions are reached. So rather than a random or passive encounter with a red book (or a human body), which may, I suppose, be said to impress itself on us but does not intend anything in particular. I am now dealing with a situation that has been contrived to make sure the encounter takes place. In other words, the person being introduced is being deliberately projected onto my awareness to some particular end. That, of necessity, changes the intensity, nature, and outcome of the encounter by adding to it the aspect of and expected outcome or decision.

[1] Yadav, S. (2015). The problem of perception and the experience of God : toward a theological empiricism. Minneapolis, MN, Fortress Press.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Alston, W. P. (1991). Perceiving God : the epistemology of religious experience. Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bulgakov, S. N. (2002). The bride of the Lamb. Grand Rapids, W.B. Eerdmans.

[6] This line of thinking has been characterized as a form of panentheism, but definitely not pantheism according to which everything is God. See Peacocke, A. R. and P. Clayton (2007). All that is: a naturalistic faith for the twenty-first century : a theological proposal with responses from leading thinkers in the religion-science dialogue. Minneapolis, Fortress Press.

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