Assurance and the Experience of God – September 2007

Question: I just finished reading the Time cover article about Mother Theresa’s letters to her confessors that are shedding some light on the inner darkness that she experienced for the duration of her ministry. Does Process Theology offer anything to explain why the most beloved person of faith of the 20th century felt such a deep and painful yearning for a sense of connection with the divine? The same question would apply to Jesus’ heart-wrenching “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthanai”. Does Process Theology posit a “blessed assurance” when we are following the Divine Aim?

Publication Month: September 2007

Dr. Cobb’s Response

It is painful to read that persons such as Mother Theresa did not have the inward joy and peace that they sought in their relation to God. She is certainly not alone. As a Methodist it disturbs me that John Wesley sometimes asserted he was not a Christian because his inner state did not correspond with what he himself taught that an authentic believer should experience. Teilhard, I think, also struggled with depression. Christian mystics have written of the dark night of the soul. One of the most moving novels I have ever read is Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest.

I do not want initially to approach this in terms of process metaphysics. We need to consider the phenomenon in itself. It seems to make clear that being a very sincere and active Christian, working effectively in the world, does not guarantee that one will be inwardly satisfied. Authentic virtue does not assure us of authentic happiness. Kant made quite a point of this lack of correspondence.

One response might be to suggest that people of this sort are driven by a hunger or a need of a psychological nature that cannot be satisfied by the method they have chosen of extraordinarily virtuous activity. I suspect that there is some truth to this, but I will not pursue it here. Disparaging psychological analyses of Wesley have much to feed on, but they do not end up explaining what is most important in his life work. No doubt we will be treated to similar analyses of Mother Teresa. Some people like these accounts because they cut truly extraordinary people down to our size, or even less.

A second response might be that the experiences of God that are sought are simply not a reality, that those who claim them are deluded. Hence people of this sort are striving for what cannot be attained, and they are too honest to share in comforting delusions. This is a view held not only by atheists and those who think of God in too impersonal a way to allow for the kind of relationship for which Wesley and Mother Theresa hungered, but also by a good many mainstream Protestants.

For example in the Lutheran tradition a common view is that confident acceptance of God’s forgiveness is the source of assurance. Assurance is, of course, experiential, but it is an experience brought into being by faith, not by a personal experience of God. One believes that this faith is the gift of God. But, again, faith is not an experience of God as such. This teaching, however, does not necessarily depend on supposing that there are no immediate or extraordinary experiences of God. It does assume their occurrence is not to be expected or sought after.

How we place ourselves in regard to the reality and importance of “theistic experiences” is likely to depend on our personal life histories. I have had just one vivid experience of God’s loving presence. In this case, it came unsought, and I do not anticipate any recurrence. Certainly, I have no idea as to anything I might do to bring it back. But because I treasure it; I can not disparage interest in theistic experiences.

On the other hand, if I kept measuring my normal state of being or feeling against those few minutes of ecstatic experience, I would be depressed. That is, if I supposed that as a Christian believer I should continuously have a vivid sense of God’s loving presence, I would certainly question the authenticity of my faith and become depressed. I think that Wesley’s distressing comments about himself arose partly out of this sort of false expectation. Such expectation can also lead to self-deception. I can remember one period when I was about seventeen, when I felt so strongly that as a faithful Christian I should be joyful, that I tried hard to be so and acted more joyful than I really felt. I suspect that expectations of a type of experience that is quite rare and completely uncontrollable led to unnecessary disappointment in both Wesley and Mother Theresa.

Now we will turn to comments about this situation that are grounded in Whitehead’s metaphysics. First, according to Whitehead, we experience (prehend) God all the time. But second, according to Whitehead, consciousness depends on the affirmation-negation contrast. We are conscious of what is sometimes present to us and sometimes absent. Since God is never absent, consciousness of God’s presence is not to be expected.

Because for metaphysics these universal and inescapable, and therefore normally unconscious, aspects of experience are of special importance, Whitehead proposes that we can approach consciousness of them by imagining their absence. Consider one example of this method. Bertrand Russell proposed that nothing in any present experience gives evidence that there has been a past. This argument assumes the idea, widely accepted among philosophers, that all experience originates in sense experience. In Whiteheadian terms, presentational immediacy by itself does not relate us to a past.

We can perform the experiment of trying to experience the given world while not feeling any connection to the past. We find that we can do so only be removing some part of that experience, that is, the sense of the derivation of our present experience from past experiences. Since that sense is part of all experience whatsoever, it is normally not conscious, but when we try to imagine experience lacking any connection to the past, we can bring it to the fringes of consciousness.

We can do something of the same sort with the experience of God. Many nontheistic philosophers, who do not doubt that there is a relation to the past, suppose that everything that happens in the present must derive from that past. This leads them to some kind of determinism. We can try to imagine the experience of being totally constituted by the causal efficacy of the past. When we do, we again recognize that something is omitted, that our actual experience is one of choosing between alternative possibilities, however limited, and however unpalatable all of them may be in some instances. We can dimly discern a relationship to possibilities as well as to the past actualities. For Whiteheadians, this is part of the universal experience of God.

Whitehead’s most explicit discussion is in Religion in the Making, where he goes beyond the sheer presence of alternatives to talk about a rightness in things partly realized and partly missed. Once again we may try to imagine what our experience would be like if it contained no sense of better and worse. The effort to do so may lead us to recognize that there is some grading of value among the possibilities we confront. For Whiteheadians this is also part of the universal experience of God.

This brings us to part of the question. Whitehead thinks we approach the potential rightness more or less closely. He does not discuss the psychological or spiritual consequences of doing so or of missing the mark more drastically, but it is not hard to fill this in quite plausibly. Most of what we mean psychologically by “guilt” and “shame” seems to have more to do with social relationships than the relationship to God. But we can discern the effects of the latter as well.

When one has acted in a way that misses the mark by a wide margin and is viewed as wrong or disgusting by the community whose views matter to one, one may be troubled chiefly by the fear of being found out, and as the danger of that fades, cease to have much feeling about it. On the other hand, if one is found out, one will feel great shame or guilt. But imagine a different situation in which one acts in a way that is viewed as wrong or disgusting by one’s community but which one believes was the best action that could be taken at the time. Some of the psychological feelings will still be the same. One may try to conceal what one has done and be distressed when one is found out. But the conviction that, whatever others may think and say, one did what was best in the circumstances changes the situation considerably. One will not internalize society’s condemnation. There will be an inner assurance even though one understands the barrage of condemnation and may continue to find this emotionally very difficult to deal with.

The sense of being with the rightness in things plays a role even when there is no dramatic conflict with society. There is a sense of wholeness that is not possible when one is aware of frequently missing the mark. The latter condition indicates that there are elements in one’s life that are in tension with the rightness in things, which nevertheless continues to make itself known.

Another consequence of largely conforming to the rightness in things, is that this rightness expresses itself in ever more refined ways. One becomes more sensitive to the feelings and needs of others and responds more spontaneously and appropriately. The rightness in things is never static or constant. What becomes possible as one attains it frequently goes beyond what was possible before, whereas missing the mark keeps lowering the mark for the future. All of this is experience of God.

This is experience of God that occurs whether one understands it as such or not. Often belief in God is an obstacle to this experience, because belief in God is so often bound up with legalism. Too often believers suppress the sense of the rightness in things by identifying God’s will for them with laws supposedly given by God. When atheism is the claim of freedom from such laws, an atheist may be more open to the rightness in things than the theist.

However, our theistic traditions all have a place for hearing God’s call outside of legalistic teaching, and this can overcome and replace the law. Then theism can accent the importance of attuning ourselves to the ever changing rightness in things and increase the sensitivity to that rightness moment by moment. Whitehead’s account should help us to strengthen this dimension of theistic teaching and living. And my answer to the question is that living in harmony with the rightness in things does contribute to experience something that may well be called “assurance.” But this in no way means that one will be free from various sorts of psychological problems.

All the above refers primarily to experience of the primordial nature of God, although in light of the concluding paragraphs of Process and Reality it may well involve the consequent nature as well. In any case, it is God as directing and calling that is involved. What about God’s total empathy for us? Can that be experienced?

Whitehead’s view that all of our experiences are taken up into the consequent nature of God is reassuring. Whitehead was convinced that this offered the assurance of fundamental meaningfulness or “importance” that we all need. Here, too, we can perform a hypothetical experiment of the sort proposed above. Can we believe that what happens totally disappears into nothingness? This would entail, for example, that there is no objective truth and falsity about the past. It is certainly possible to develop theories that have this consequence and even to act upon them. But I, for one, am doubtful that anyone really believes that. If I am right, then, implicitly, people do believe in something like what Whitehead calls the consequent nature of God. Since most of them do not come to such a belief by a process of reasoning, there must be some, generally unconscious, experience of this side of God as well.

It is dangerous to introduce one’s personal experience into a public discussion. Even if it has convincing power for the experiencer, it has no weight in argument for others. In this instance, even for me as experiencer, it did not prevent a subsequent period of thoroughgoing doubt.

I will only say that the experience I mentioned above, although it occurred long before I knew anything about process thought, felt like an experience of God in God’s consequent nature. What was present felt fully actual, and the love that surrounded me was not that of calling me to act in the best possible way but simply accepting me as I was. It seemed to be a matter of prehending God’s loving prehension of me. That was indeed wonderfully assuring.

If we assume that God is prehended unconsciously all the time by everyone, how is it that, from time to time, some aspect of God or of the relation to God becomes vividly conscious? I don’t know. Perhaps there are spiritual disciplines the practice of which makes this more likely, but that certainly had nothing to do with my case. We are free to practice disciplines of all sorts, but the only ones that are really attractive to me are those that heighten sensitivity to God’s call. Disciplines that lead to altered states of consciousness no doubt have their value. They certainly produce interesting and impressive results. But I believe it is better to expect less, rather than more, from all such efforts. And the same applies to virtuous action. Its effects on those to whom it is directed are sufficient reward as is responsive to God’s call in general. Whatever more may happen is pure gift, not to be anticipated in any way.