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The Question of God (A Transcendent Experience) – An Alternate Sabbath School Lesson Series (2 of 11)

Is there really a universal human longing for transcendence? Augustine famously wrote “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee”. But is he right? Is there really a ‘Hound of Heaven’ in pursuit or might any such perceptions, if they exist at all, be better explained as naturalistically grounded in physiology or psychology?

C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, argued that if there is a human drive toward something – such as food or sex – then it would be counter-intuitive for there to be nothing real with which to satisfy such a drive. He then postulates that we all have this Augustinian-like drive toward – what? Lewis suggests that what we really seek is God. We were made that way and separation from God, with the accompanying consequences of angst and despair, is universally felt by mankind, although often misunderstood.

Believers are understandably attracted to this argument and use it often in an attempt to buttress the case for God’s existence. And not surprisingly, unbelievers (often following Freud’s reasoning) reject the premise and/or conclusion.

Let me suggest that we first back up and attempt to get our bearings. It has been my experience that disagreement can be classified into two different yet fairly obvious categories – semantic and substantive. Semantic disagreement means that we understand the definition of a word or idea differently (perhaps radically differently). And if you think we are discussing some X while I think we’re instead talking about Y we could actually be in substantive agreement but spend much unproductive time in futile semantic argumentation. So obviously it is quite helpful to first clarify definitions and at least try to segregate these two types of disagreement so that we might minimize semantic issues and concentrate on substantive ones.

So let’s begin by trying to look more carefully at the idea of knowledge. We all think there are things we know, but this supposed ‘knowledge’ can, at minimum be segregated into two obvious and quite different categories. First there is what I will label ‘Know How’, and secondly, there is ‘Know That’.

Know How is pragmatic. If you or I were parachuted into the Borneo jungle we would hope to be discovered by friendly natives with good Know How – i.e. what things are safe to eat, how to find shelter, what direction is ‘civilization’, etc. And ditto if they were parachuted into some (what we might arrogantly label) First-World country. We know about supermarkets, bank accounts, driving cars, etc. They don’t. These sorts of things are mostly pragmatic. Further they have little to do with what constitutes a life ‘well lived’. For this end we need Know That, i.e. understanding of more universal matters such as: what is justice, wisdom, defensible ethics, etc. So, while it’s easy to see that we all need Know How for survival, Know That is by far the more central concept.

In philosophy there is an attempt to better define Know That. I like to use the memory-aid acronym TJB (in my era this also stood for Tijuana Brass). But the idea here is that T.J.B. stands for True Justified Belief. So let’s set aside the pragmatic Know How and concentrate on unpacking T.J.B.

True Justified Belief

True: First note the difference between Truth and Knowledge. Truth is out there. That is, something is true or false whether I or anyone else knows it, or is even able to know it. It is external reality. So I obviously can never have real knowledge about something that turns out to be false. But recognize also that for me to have knowledge that some X is true then its truth or falsity must be also be inherently knowable to humans.

Some things are trivial to determine their truth or falsity. For example, if there is a jar filled with jellybeans and I say there are 1459 beans in the jar – all we have to do is count to determine whether I am right or wrong.

Other things may never actually be determined for certain by humans but they are within the realm of possible human knowledge, given adequate technology. So if I tell you there is a 1 cm. iron rock orbiting Jupiter’s moon Ganymede, we presently cannot decide if I am right but would agree that the potential exists for reaching a conclusive decision. We would ‘merely’ have to expend the necessary resources to mount a space mission to decide the question.

Also there are things potentially knowable to humans but might always be hidden from us. Consider whether the angel Gabriel has red hair. If we are never allowed access to this angel (assuming you believe such a being even exists) we will never learn the answer. But it is still clear that the answer is inherently knowable by humans. But this human knowability is not the case for everything. And we will consider that issue shortly.

Belief: This is the easiest of the three components to understand. I cannot know something if I don’t believe it. Conversely I could believe something – even with great confidence – that turns out to be mistaken. Then I would just think I know something but simply be wrong.

Justified: Suppose, for example, I passionately believe that the earth is flat or that your body is made out of silly putty. Such beliefs – irrespectively of the intensity in which they are held – are worthless if not justifiable in light of some appropriate evidence. Let’s revisit my jellybean example. Suppose, for whatever reason, that I am totally persuaded that this jar contains exactly 1459 jellybeans. So we count and, sure enough, I am right! Would you then conclude that I knew how many beans there were in the jar? I seriously doubt it. You’d likely think it was just a lucky guess. You see, I hope, that this criteria of justification is the crucial component – and the most difficult to establish. People believe a lot of things that may turn out to be true. But that doesn’t mean that they really know they are true. And really knowing is very difficult to define, understand and establish. In fact there is a seminal 1963 philosophical paper by Edmund Gettier[1] entitled Is Justified True Belief Knowledge where the difficulty of establishing this criteria is explored. So this T.J.B. is tough – mostly the ‘J’ part.

At this point let me introduce a weakly-drawn sketch (I’m no artist) that attempts to help illuminate this problem:

Limits of Perspective and Knowledge:

Figure 2

Here you see two stick figures on a mountainous landscape – and an eyeball above everything. The eyeball is intended to represent the possibility of a ‘God’s-eye view’ – a position where one might survey everything and thus have a perspective that does not miss any crucial data. Then there is you and me – let’s say we’re represented by the stick-figure on the right-hand side. I placed us there to show that – while our perspective is still limited (our full view is cut off by some of the mountain peaks) we have a better vantage point than the stick figure I’ve placed on the left-hand-side. Perhaps this individual represents someone isolated from First-World ‘civilization’, like a person living in the mountains of New Guinea. You see I’ve tried to show (with radiating lines) the range of vision afforded by the ‘elevation’ of this right-hand-side person. But there is still much that cannot be seen by either person.

Now any of these potential stick figures – wherever positioned – have their own crucial Know How but we (right-hand-side figures) likely have a better perspective on Know That (I expect some might contest this assumption). But if we r.h.s. people do have greater Know That it is likely due to multiple advantages such as education, adequate health care, etc. Still, the point I would make here is that we are much more like each other than we are to the God’s-eye view perspective I’ve drawn. And sometimes this crucial point is deeply underappreciated. We Christians recite a Biblical-doctrinal story in support of our Know That and the risk is that we might trade important humility for an almost Gnostic-like hubris based on an over-exhaled view of the supposed knowledge we have – due to our fortunate elevation. Almost as if we had the God’s-eye view because of the information we possess.

But whatever elevational advantages we might have this is not a God’s Eye view. Our ‘knowledge’ is limited in both experience and capacity. Now note at this point the weakness of my above drawing/metaphor. I have God’s 'eye’ looking down – which might represent the potential scope of human knowledge. In theory you and I, with enough time and genetic fortune, could approach this more expansive viewpoint. But God, as we would expect Him to be defined, ought to also have an entire realm of knowledge we can never access. Knowledge available to him because of His nature that we are inherently (because of our natures) unable to understand. Perhaps I should have drawn a layer of clouds at His eye-level with a second eye looking upward into a realm we cannot penetrate. We could use the word transcendence to define this inaccessible region. And this is the issue being addressed this week by Armand Nicholi in the DVD dialog.

The primary meaning of transcendence, then, denotes God’s knowledge/capability compared to the scope of potential human knowledge. There are aspects of His being and character that are forever unreachable (and consequently unknowable) by mere mortals. No surprise there. Otherwise God would just be a ‘superman’ to whom the human race might some day catch-up to or surpass. But such a reasonable definition still carries with it great difficulties that can cause problems for God-seeking people. We are ‘inside’ the system, with limiting boundaries. But God is in part outside of anything we are capable of experiencing and any communication with us must ultimately involve His breaking in to our limited world for us to have any knowledge of this realm.

Now since I am a visually-oriented guy, let me propose another diagram to try and illustrate this:

Figure 3

Here I show a series of Venn diagrams with the outermost one labeled All Possible Beliefs and a vertical line bisecting true and false beliefs. The sets are not intended to be drawn to scale. In fact one would presume the set excluding All Human Beliefs would be huge, maybe infinite. This outermost set would represent God’s knowledge as He only holds true beliefs, but is aware of all beliefs (both true and false) and is also able to properly distinguish between error and truth. Next there is the subset labeled All Human Beliefs indicating the limits of human understanding. Finally there are my (or your) beliefs – again with part truth and part error. Note I have made the subsets of false belief greater than the true, suggesting that there are a whole lot more false beliefs than true ones. For me then to improve my knowledge involves increasing the size of my total beliefs and shrinking the size of my false beliefs. Note also that some of my (or your) beliefs meet the line right on the edge of what humans can possibly know. It is at this intersection that God may attempt to convey the most sublime truths – those closest to transcendence. And it is here that God would need to try and find ways to communicate this transcendence using methods (e.g. metaphor) that lie within what humans can understand. Christ’s incarnation comes to mind here, for example.

I also would point out that if you are an atheist then you would not believe there is any such thing as transcendence so All Possible Beliefs would be the same as All Human Beliefs.

Finally, although I didn’t diagram it, let me note that some true beliefs have much less of what I will call epistemological distance from God’s transcendence than others. Gravity, for example, is something I’m pretty sure I have a clear handle on. It is as close to our daily experience as anything you could conceive (minimal epistemological distance) and conversely would also be as far from that border with transcendence as possible. But a concept like the Trinity might even straddle that transcendent ‘line’.

As we consider that zone near the edge of our human capabilities and consequently also near where God’s transcendence begins, dealing with the issue of belief justification (the ‘J’ part of T.J.B.) is hardest. This is where agnosticism is more understandable and even plausible. How can I know about that which is beyond my capability to know? The example I like to use here is teaching my cat quadratic equations. I strongly suspect that math is, for cats, out there in some feline transcendent zone. (However, if you’re game to try and have success, I suspect there’s a Nobel Prize lurking for you). But quadratic equations are knowable for humans (although considering my math grades, one might wonder).

Some have recognized the theoretical existence of this transcendence but mostly dismissed it. Famously, Bertrand Russell once quipped:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

Conversely, philosopher Huston Smith was dismissive of such Russellian moves, complaining in a chapter entitled The Tunnel as Such in his book Why Religion Matters [2], that too many people were unwilling to think outside of a naturalistic ‘box’ to consider the possibility of genuine transcendence with appropriate seriousness.

Let me sum up. To consider the question of transcendence is to first ask what is knowable and what knowledge entails. It is helpful, I proposed, to segregate practical knowledge (know how) from moral/ethical/religious knowledge (know that). And while we casually think there are many things we truly know, breaking knowledge down into its T.J.B. components helps differentiate real knowledge from mere opinion and can help us better appreciate the difficulties associated with justifying belief. This is especially true when the knowledge-object might straddle the border of what humans are capable of knowing, i.e. be transcendent. The ‘Question of God’ – does He exist and what He is like – involves 'knowing' something, inferentially, that otherwise transcends our capacity. We are dealing then with a question that is not amenable to analysis by the sort of methods science might employ. If we have had genuine encounters with God the evidence is personal. You can’t do a double-blind study on it.

On the DVD Nicholi begins exploring this issue by asking whether his conversation partners have ever felt an instinctive drive for a creator-relationship, and if so, what was that like? All could relate to the awe experienced in the natural world, but conclusions, as one might expect, varied from attributing this to some ‘hound of heaven’ vs. a naturalistically-grounded cause. They could agree, though, that much more was at stake here than some reductionist, naturally-grounded rationale. So, now read the transcript and then consider the questions below.

The Video Conversation [8 minutes, 13 seconds] – Transcript

Handout Material for Week 2

Some Questions to Consider:

Q: How does a Theistic or Atheistic world-view come to be ‘in us’ initially? Is it just that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree? But if so, where do radical world-view paradigm shifts ever come from?

Q: What are the practical consequences of belief or disbelief in God’s existence? And is it valid to even by considering this question pragmatically?

Q: Is belief in Transcendence in any way rational?

Q: Is belief in Transcendence necessarily personal?


1 Gettier, Edmund, “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”, Analysis, v.23, available online at:
2 Smith, Huston, “The Tunnel as Such”, Why Religion Matters, pp. 42-58 (Harper Collins, 2001).

Links to the other essays in this series:

1) Introduction

2) A Transcendent Experience

3) Science or Revelation

4) The Exalted Father

5) Why Believe?

6) Miracles

7) Moral Law – Part A

8) Moral Law – Part B

9) Love Thy Neighbor

10) The Human Condition

11) Suffering and Death

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