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

All the above rests on at least two assumptions:

[A] that God communicates to us from another dimension. Most who hold this view, or some variation of it, will speak in some sense of the "supernatural". This seems to be a world, or reality, or universe utterly different and removed from ours;

[B] that God "wants" to communicate with us, and that we need this information because without it we can't properly manage our world and our lives. Conversely, of course, if we know God's will, then we should be able to manage our lives better. God's will is that part of God's original intention for the universe which has previously been withheld from us. It therefore can't be discovered only by reference to the nature of God's created universe - that is, it can't be known by reflecting on the way things work.

For example, we can suppose that God wants us all to live the natural span of our lives. This is because premature pain and death is something resisted automatically and fiercely by each one of us instinctively and without thinking about it. This is just the way we are made. But, presumably, God may wish a special few to give up their lives prematurely for some greater purpose. In that case I suppose the person concerned would need to know that self-sacrifice is God's will for him or her at a particular point in time.

We all receive masses of new information each day. Even the most so-called "primitive" backwoods villager is constantly taking in information from his or her environment. We are at the top of the food chain in part because we deal with that information in a way other living beings can't.

Those who propose that information is received by us from time-to-time from a supernatural dimension are, I think, faced with an insurmountable difficulty. If I am to believe their claims, they must be able to tell me how to distinguish God-communications from all others.

If I receive the information that "Divorce is an offence in God's eyes," for example, what characteristics of that communication will enable me to tell that this information has come from God and not merely from somewhere in my environment? How do I know it's a message from God and not someone's opinion, or perhaps a social value derived from some previous age? What are the criteria for telling one kind of information from the other?

I have found nobody who can give me a satisfactory answer. Indeed, I have not found anyone else even asking this kind of question.

Many will tell me that this (or any other information) is God's will "because it's in the Bible." But, as I've pointed out above, saying this merely puts the question back one step. By what criteria, I ask, does Bible-based information about marriage, for example, qualify as God's will? What characteristics (apart from being included in the Bible) reveal biblical texts as communications from God, in contrast with other information about the rights and wrongs of marriage?

Of course, until that question is answered I can only assume that God doesn't want to communicate with us. At any rate, God's messages to us, if God sends any, must be wholly mysterious in nature if we can't distinguish them in some way from non-God information. And if they are mysterious in this way, I have to ask how do we know they exist at all?

The question then becomes, "If there's no way of telling the difference between God-information and other information, how might we know what God's will for us is?"

One response of last resort to this question must be dealt with here. A large majority will, I suspect, sidestep any difficulties with a response something like, "Knowing God's will is a matter of faith. We can't know for certain that anything is God's will. All we can do is accept in faith that it is, and go from there."

All I can say is that I object to it on two grounds:

(a) First, it is an invulnerable position. Its holder puts himself or herself beyond question - which, in my book, is the same as saying that some answers are beyond reason. If a truth is beyond reason then I return to the same question: "How do you know that?" Many will respond, "By experience!" End of discussion. Any information derived from a non-rational source comes to us, I suppose, by a process usually called revelation. That sort of information can't be refuted.

(b) Second, "faith" becomes a requirement for being right with God, since there is no other way of knowing God's will. Perhaps I read the core of Christianity wrongly. But if I do then my assertion (based on what we know of Jesus as good history) that everyone can be right with God, be accepted by God without precondition, is incorrect. 

If that is the case, then those who use the "faith" argument are obliged to point out to me exactly how to "get faith", since being right with God now depends on it. It's only fair to those who are not "right with God" (though how one identifies them, I'm not sure) are told by those who are "right with God" how to know God's will. Would anyone refuse the offer of a sure-fire way of knowing what God wants of him or her?

To sum up:

  • If there is a God, knowing God's will is all-important.
  • Traditional ways of knowing God's will don't stand up to examination.
  • There is no way of distinguishing between information which purports to convey God's will, and any other information.
  • Attributing knowledge of God's will to an intervening source is not a complete explanation.
  • Any claim to know God's will through "faith" is a rationally invulnerable position.

Nothing above establishes, however, either that God can't or doesn't communicate his or her will to humanity - if "God" is that which is "other than the universe". But I think it does call to question any claim that we can know God's will in traditional terms.

Perhaps the following suggestions may make the possibility of knowing God's will a feasible option for some.

The discussion so far has, of course, meant something only to those who accept God as that which is other than the universe. For those who interpret reality in this way, it follows that the universe must have been created. To all intents and purposes "the universe" is the planet on which we all live. We do know more about the universe than just this planet. But our world is all that, for the moment, we interact with to any great degree. The earth is our backyard, our sphere of influence and responsibility.

God may go to work in our backyard, putting things right, planting new seeds and setting up new features. If so, we should be able to identify which are his works and which are ours. That is, a similar argument applies to God's supposed interventions as to information purported to convey God's will.

I have yet to discover the criteria for identifying God-work, apart from those discussed and dismissed above.

I think it's fair to conclude that if God is the Creator and if any interventions or information from a supernatural God are outside our awareness, then our only source of information about God's will lies in the creation itself.

Some implications of this position might be:

  • To know the creation is to know God - at least as long as we are part of the space-time continuum we call our universe. To relate to the created is to relate to the Creator.

  • Any expanding human awareness and knowledge of the universe appears to equate, for the time being, with greater knowledge of God.

  • Evolution of the human species over aeons is part of God's intention - though particular outcomes of that evolution may not be known even to God. It seems likely that creation has the built-in potential - of which we are an example - of giving rise to beings who, in both a social and a personal sense, can grow in their knowledge of God's will. This occurs insofar as they grow and mature in their relationship to each other and their environment.

  • The more we work out how the world operates - not just physically, but as a total system - and our part as its custodians, the more we become aware of God's will for us.

There are no doubt many more implications of this suggestion. But it's not my intention to them explore further here. Suffice it to say that this approach makes more sense to me than the traditional one.

Knowing God's will using this model becomes a process supported by both traditional approaches:

[1] Prayer, meditation, reading the Bible and similar activities are, according to this idea, means of loosening, widening and deepening our perceptions of the situation in which we need to know God's will.

For example, I might have thought through the pros and cons of a problem extremely effectively. The one piece of information not readily available in my case might be how I feel emotionally about the various factors. In such a case the process of stilling and directing my thoughts in a quiet time might be all I need to access my emotional orientation.

That is, only when I am fully integrated in my awareness am I able to do God's will. Rather than something communicated to me from "outside", God's will becomes something embedded and therefore discoverable in the situation itself.

[2] Consulting an "oracle" in the form of another person takes on a different cast given this perception of God's will as embedded in the situation. I suppose that nothing in the last resort takes the place of the above process. But there's no reason against, and perhaps every reason for, attempting to find out what (to use shorthand) the tradition has to contribute.

In consulting tradition, or tradition in the form of a person, one is surely gathering up past human experience to be used, if possible, in the situation in which God's will is to be discovered. An advisor's experience, or the accumulated experience enshrined in tradition, thus becomes additional data to be considered.

So if a friend or Christian teaching pronounces that "Divorce is wrong" it should be possible to take the pronouncement as something other than a judgement. The friend's experience isn't, of course, necessarily going to be mine. God's will for me, in my situation, may be that to get divorced is the right thing to do. 

Tradition has, in my opinion, kept past experience alive in the form of a variety of Christian "rules of life". But such rules can only be absolute if the traditional "hotline to God" version of knowing God's will is operating. These rules of life can't be in any sense definitive unless those who make them are in fact (that is, not just claiming to be) constantly open to and obeying God's will.

To sum up: while the traditional, supernaturally-oriented theory of knowing God's will still operates in theory for many, it appears to me to have ceased to make good sense to the modern mind. 

My conclusion is that we can know God's will because it is embedded in the universe. Life in all its startling forms is part of a great, coherent system. Some, like me, will make more sense out of the universe by concluding that it is created. Others will not need even that assumption.

Everyone can do God's will by living in a way which harmonises with how things are or, as some would put it, being part of the way God does things - or, stated in traditional terms , the kingdom of God.

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