To answer that question, I must first digress to explore how we know anything. All of our so-called "knowledge" involves an act of faith. I trust what my senses tell me, at the basic information-gathering level and at higher interpretive levels as well. Although my closeted brain has assembled an inner image of each person I have met, I realize that the image involves a large measure of trust. I trust that Tom is not wearing a costume, and that he indeed works for UPS and is not a burglar scouting my house.
I think I know him, but how can I be sure: Perhaps Tom is an identical twin who job shares with his brother. So many times people have surprised and misled me. I have learned that one of my best friends had a secret life of sexual addiction, that another was abused by her father for 15 years. I thought I "knew" these friends, only to find I was missing vital information about them. All human relationships involve a kind of approximation. It preserves "otherness." We always fall short in knowing another.
Nevertheless, at the most basic level I trust that these friends actually exist as individual persons much like myself. How can I know for sure? The problem of "other minds" poses a major puzzle that has exercised philosophers for many years. I know that I exist, and I think I know my own mind. But how do I know your mind? I believe, by analogy, that when you shut a car door on your finger, something inside your brain happens that closely resembles what I experience when I slam a car door on my own finger. Yet I can never know for sure, because I can't get inside your mind. I must take your word for it when you tell me how much it hurts.
How do you know that I exist? Perhaps Philip Yancey is a pseudonym. Perhaps this is being written by a committee, or by a programmer at Fuller Seminary who cleverly devised software to crank out popular theology. If you try to contact me on the Internet, you will never know for sure whether it is I responding, or simply a concocted screen name. To me, I am an I; to you, I am a you, and that distinction introduces a powerful strain of uncertainty.
Admittedly, most people don't go around questioning whether other minds and persons exist. We take it for granted, without giving it much thought. Yet as we encounter other people, every one of us assembles a different composite of that person. Think of the authors of the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were each struck by different aspects of Jesus' personality and life. As they reflected on what they knew about him, different words and scenes came to mind. Or consider the disciples: 12 of them followed Jesus around for three years, but what different conclusions Judas and Peter drew about him! Later, a Pharisee named Saul of Tarsus thought he had Jesus figured out, until a personal encounter radically changed his opinion, and altered the direction of his life.
If it's difficult to know other people, how can we know God?
Perhaps what I have learned about the process of knowing other people can shed light on questions about knowing God.
First, I recognize that knowing other minds involves an act of faith, whether I am speaking of other persons or of God. We know other minds indirectly, not directly. I assume you exist, and have an outlook on the world somewhat like mine, but I can never be certain. Alvin Plantinga applied this problem to the question of the existence of God. I cannot be certain of God's existence, he acknowledges; I cannot prove it. Yet I can't be certain of anyone else's existence either. I believe I am not alone in the universe, but because I cannot perceive any other person's mental state, I must accept this belief by analogy—or by faith. In fact, I have as much evidence for believing in God as I do for believing in other people. Although both lie beyond proof, I accept both as a basic, foundational assumption.
In addition, I also recognize that my senses never give me a complete representation of another person. I can learn a lot about you through watching you, listening to you, touching you. Yet there always remains a part of you inaccessible to me, the person inside your body, the real "you." In George Steiner's words, our comprehension "most particularly when it deepens into intimacy, will remain partial, fragmentary, subject to error and to revaluation. But this knowledge does not induce us to presume that the presence before us is one of spectral vacancy or falsehood." I trust that you are really there.
I learn this best from disabled people, who have lost the close connection between mind and body which healthy people enjoy. I had a wonderful friend with cerebral palsy who was mistakenly confined to a home for the mentally disabled for years. Her arms flailed about spastically, she could not walk, and she drooled and made grunting sounds instead of words. Most who met her—tragically, even her own family—assumed she was mentally disabled.
In time, though, professionals recognized that Carolyn had a fine mind locked inside that uncooperative body. She moved to a more appropriate home, attended high school, and then college. Eventually she became a writer. Once, at her college, a friend read a chapel address Carolyn had written. Students sat in total silence and listened to Carolyn's eloquent words as she slumped in a wheelchair onstage beside her friend at the microphone. (She had chosen as her text, "We have this treasure in jars of clay.") All had seen her wheelchair on campus, and some had even made cruel jokes at her expense. Few had made the effort to get to know the remarkable mind at work inside Carolyn's twisted body.
Another friend, Don, has a degenerative nerve disease like ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease). I knew Don as a rugged outdoorsman who ran a horse ranch and led white-water canoeing expeditions. When I last visited him, though, he sat in a wheelchair. Though he could still talk, the nerves controlling voice and language could not keep up with his mental instructions. He stumbled over words, and the simplest phrases stumped him. He preferred to type his thoughts into a laptop computer which would then speak for him in a weird Darth Vader-type voice. Anyone walking into a room with Don would see a man sitting very still, saying nothing, with a gentle smile at times crossing his face. But the disembodied words that came out of the computer, and the lucid e-mail messages I get from Don prove that inside that placid exterior a lively and witty mind endures.
I am very thankful that modern technology allows both Don and Carolyn to communicate even when they lose the bodily functions that allow speech. Yet even if these people lost all ability to communicate, through total paralysis or a stroke-induced aphasia, I would assume that somewhere inside them the mind would live on. It would be truly tragic if they reached such a point of decline that no one else could access their minds, for we must inevitably rely on other people's bodies to convey to us their minds.
Can we have "direct" knowledge of God?
Which brings up an interesting theological question. Since God has no body, how can we perceive him? How can we communicate with him? Could it be that we possess the capacity for "direct" knowledge of God, meaning without reliance on the body and its senses? If so, our knowledge of God would operate at a different level than our knowledge of other persons. We would not need for God to appear before us in material form. And God, a spirit, could use a kind of direct intuition in communicating with us. Different rules would apply to communication with God, for God doesn't "need" our bodies to access our minds. As Tennyson wrote in a poem, "Closer is he than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet."
Every animal on earth has a set of correspondences with the environment around it, and some of those correspondences far exceed ours. Humans can perceive only 30 percent of the range of the sun's light and 1/70th of the spectrum of electromagnetic energy. Many animals exceed our abilities. Bats detect insects by sonar; pigeons navigate by magnetic fields; bloodhounds perceive a world of smell unavailable to us. Perhaps the spiritual or "unseen" world requires an inbuilt set of correspondences activated only through some sort of spiritual quickening. "No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above," said Jesus. "The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned," said Paul. Both expressions point to a different level of correspondence available only to a person spiritually alive.
"Now this is eternal life," said Jesus: "that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent." The highest correspondence, reserved only for the creature made in God's image, even organic death is powerless to arrest. No material event, not even death, Paul insists in Romans 8, can separate us from God's love; God keeps alive that which he loves.
As the key to access the unseen world, the Bible presents faith, which Hebrews defines as "being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." Jesus clearly hinted that after his death, something new would happen, a new way of knowing: not the normal process of an isolated brain forming pictures of reality, but an internal and direct path of knowledge. "When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me," Jesus said. "But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth …. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you."
According to the Bible, the greatest distinction between human beings is not based on race, intelligence, income, or talent. It is a distinction based on correspondence with the unseen world. The "children of light" have that correspondence; the "children of darkness" do not. One day our correspondence with that world will be complete, not partial. As John said, "Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is."
Philip Yancey is the author of many books, including Reaching for the Invisible God (Zondervan), from which this article is adapted.
Adapted from "Seeing the Invisible God" by Philip Yancey, Books & Culture. Click here to read the original article in its entirety and for reprint information.
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