Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Knowing God's Will

Nestling quietly in the background of traditional God-talk is a fundamental assumption often referred to, but seldom questioned. It is that Christians are - or should be - committed to carrying out God's will on this planet. But is it as simple as that? Is it possible to know God's will at all, and if so, how?

The practice of testing people for whether or not they know God's will is almost universal in the Christian tradition.

Searching questions are asked at baptism, for example. "Do you renounce the devil and all his works? Will you constantly believe God's holy Word? Will you obediently keep his commandments? Do you promise obedience to God's holy will?" - these reflect the kind of test usually made. Even so important a matter as becoming a Christian isn't therefore necessarily simply a matter of conducting the right rituals. Nor is it only a matter of a candidate's desire.

Similarly when a person claims that he or she is called to serve in an ordained ministry, all the Church's major parties routinely accept that such a calling must be tested. If a person persists and successfully jumps the various hurdles erected by ecclesiastical authority, a final question is usually asked of the candidate: "Do you think in your heart that you are truly called according to God's will ...?"

The Church, it seems, places great emphasis on an ability to know God's will. If any teaching is universal in Christianity it is that everyone without exception should know and then do God's will. Anyone proclaiming the opposite would without a doubt be regarded as on the wrong track.

In a search of an online bookshop for "God's will" I discovered no fewer than 230 titles which one way or another addressed the subject. A Google search on the other hand  gave 33 million  results for "How to know God's will". In a small sample of library books, knowing God's will was usually dealt with only in passing or in relation to problems of biblical scholarship. The vast majority of websites appear to refer the enquirer to the Bible as the instrument for revealing God's will. Catholic sites also refer primarily to the Bible, but supplement this source with "Church teaching".

I have found no-one wondering why God should have made it less-than-easy to know what God's will is.

Let's assume that traditional assertions are correct, that [a] God's will is knowable and [b] we should spend time and energy discovering it. If so, and if Church and other Christian leaders do know God's will, it's obviously most important that their conclusions be broadcast as quickly and as widely as possible. If God's will on the multitude of problems which plague the world can be known, we should all be told what it is.

This is because by definition God's will is the will of that which is greater than all that is. (Note that talking about God can be difficult.) God's will is by definition always consistent. For example, if it's God's will that we never use nuclear weapons whatever the situation, then it must always be wrong to use them unless God changes his mind (to use a human metaphor).

So if you or I think we have discovered God's will with respect to nuclear weapons, we have a duty to [1] tell others about it, and [2] let others know how we've discovered God's will so that they can verify it for themselves.

This is not merely a facetious or disputatious suggestion. True, it begs the question that there is a God whose will we can know. It also assumes that God is interested enough in our small affairs to have a will for them at all. Given that there is a God with whom we can have some sort of personal relationship, however, it follows that knowing God's will is all-important.

God's will is by definition the right thing to do in all circumstances. We may not always carry out God's will. But unless we know it, we can't be blamed for doing the wrong thing - that is, for doing what's not God's will, what traditional doctrine calls "sin".

I intend for the moment to treat "God's will" as information passed to us from God "out there" (which applies also for God as the "ground of our being," to use Paul Tillich's phrase). That is, a human being is at one time unaware of God's will and at another time aware because there has been communication between God and the human. This is essentially the same as me not knowing what you want for breakfast until you tell me. (You may not get what you want, but that's another story.)

As far as I've been able to discover, there are two main traditional ways of learning God's will.

[1] We learn God's will direct, that is, at first hand.

So, for example, I have come across publicity for workshops for discovering God's will via a direct hotline. One proposal is that God "speaks" to us through our dreams. In an activity called "dreamwork," the group leader claims to enable participants to recall and interpret dreams effectively. Through their dreams they can know what God is saying to them and thus what God wants them to do. They can discover God's will for them.

Very similar in my view are the many books, workshops, quiet days and retreats aimed at prayer and meditation. They usually claim to present activities which will enable us to improve our perceptions of, and relationship with, God (to use metaphors for "knowing" the unknowable). Many also claim that prayer and meditation are, in addition, an effective mechanism for knowing God's will.

If these claims for prayer and meditation have substance, it seems to me that practitioners know God's will through two main devices:

[i] The strengthening and focusing of human consciousness through meditation and prayer somehow allows an individual to become aware of God's will at a level not usually accessed or not otherwise accessible. The information we need in order to know God's will may therefore reside normally in all of us, waiting only for us to learn how to get to it, to dig deep enough (to use a metaphor) and discover it.

[ii] The practice of prayer - and perhaps certain methods of prayer, if some manuals are to be believed - may enable us to somehow "tune in" (to use another metaphor) on information about God's will which he is constantly broadcasting, as it were, on all frequencies. We're normally plagued by static and other interference. As a result we can't hear what God is saying over the spiritual airwaves. 

Once in the right frame of mind or in the right place and doing the right things, however, our usual deafness is relieved and we can hear God's voice, not literally (though this reportedly happens sometimes) but in a manner of speaking. I'm here as deliberately as vague about the mode of communication as those who write and speak about it appear to be.

I have not come across anyone who claims to be able to demonstrate the physical mechanisms for either of these ways of knowing God's will.

If we suppose that in prayer and meditation we're, as it were, digging deep to discover what's there already, it seems that no present theory about how the human brain works will suffice to explain how God communicates with us. We don't know if God-information is preserved in the brain in the same way that memories are retained (and more often not retained), for example. Can one sub-consciously know God's will at one time and have forgotten it at another?

In essence, this possibility merely pushes any explanation back one step. We still have to ask how the information about God's will got into the brain in the first place. Is it there as part of our genetic coding? Or does God implant it when we're born. Or it is downloaded by God (to use yet another metaphor) when we need it and not otherwise?

In a sense the digging metaphor isn't useful. The underlying question is how God communicates with us. How do we know what God's will is? Does God speak to us using the airwaves, as with ordinary speech? Or does God use some other method? Or is his way of communicating with us mysterious and there's no point in asking about it?

If God intervenes in the physical processes of the universe, then there is every reason to expect and hope that God can excite or stimulate our neural processes to communicate with us. If God doesn't intervene in the physical universe then, of course, a probable conclusion is that we can know God's will only by some other means than God-to-person communication.

[2] The second traditional means of knowing God's will is by consulting another person or group, or by observing and interpreting some physical omen.

Some sites of the Internet, for example, claim to have information about what God is saying to us through an activity called "prophecy". As far as I can tell, this information is received from God by individuals who have some sort of ecstatic experience. Presumably the experience is both mental and emotional in its dimensions. At any rate, normal modes of communication are apparently superceded and the individual somehow hears or knows what God is saying to us.

Others claim to be able to "read" or interpret an individual's situation on the basis of an account given either verbally or in writing. From there it's apparently but a short step to being able to explain what God's will is in the given situation. It seems that such "spiritual counsellors" are able somehow to know God's will - though I've yet to come across a coherent account of how exactly that works.

A more venerable version of the modern Internet comes in the form of consulting a Church authority. (I am reminded of the Greek Oracle of Delphi.) This source of information about God's will can be the Roman Catholic Pope, or a bishop, or an ordained person. Such authorities seem to often depend on a host of other sources for their information - the Bible, official meetings such as synods or Councils, or tradition - rather than on direct access to God.

I have also come across a number of versions of authority as a source of God's will in the form of consulting or praying to a holy person such as St Francis or Saint Therese of Lisieux.

But the most frequently quoted source of information about God's will is undoubtedly the Bible. It is supposed to contain information which comes from God through those who wrote its various parts. 

Quite often this information is thought to be infallible, in the sense that it's literally true. If literally true, the Bible presumably therefore presents an absolute version of God's will. But more often the information apparently needs to be interpreted for ordinary people either by a Church authority, specialist scholars, preachers, or someone who claims the ability to do interpretation.

There are no doubt many variations of the above supposed sources of information about God's will. One would be, for example, the sermons preached to tens of thousands of congregations every week. Few preachers would, I think, not assert that in some sense they aim to put across to their hearers an aspect of God's will.

While I think the division of knowing God's will into two sources - one direct and the other through someone else - is a fair one to make, I should point out that the latter is essentially the same as the former. That is, someone has discovered God's will and then communicated it by some means to other people. The Bible authors, the Internet, and the Pope must all have had some communication from God in the first place to be able to tell us about God's will.  

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