Two Gods: Experiential vs. Doctrinal

I truly believe that many people have a personal experience of God. I did. I am talking about a direct, unfiltered experience of the Divine. But not everyone has an direct experience of God. I have heard some ex-Christians explain that their main reason for leaving Christianity is because they did not have the direct personal experiences of God that they expected.  They said they felt empty compared to the wonderful experiences attested to by many of their fellow believers. They felt disappointed and then disillusioned. Similarly, many Atheists have never experienced God — they have been atheists forever: “natural atheists”.  To them, “experiencing God” is pure nonsense.

But experiencing God is not nonsense.  God is felt by many people of almost all faiths.  This fact is difficult for many Christians to explain.  Christians differ widely on how they explain people from other religions who claim to have direct experiences with God. Some Christians may dismiss the Divine experience of those outside their faith by saying things like:

  • “Satan deceives them.”
  • “Their experience is self-deception.”
  • “They are only partially experiencing God.”

Each fundamentalist religion is claiming this about each other.  Most believers feel only their group truly experiences God.  But such exclusivism seems to come only after doctrinal instruction.  Of course we can debate what this “God” is that they experience, but that is not the point of this post. Instead, I am emphasizing two ways of knowing God: through direct experience and through teachings (doctrinal).

Believers experience of God comes in two flavors: inner and outer; experiential and doctrinal.  People know God in two ways — with two different epistemologies.  Each religion has outer doctrinal teachings to help believers interpret and explain their subjective, inner experiences.  Their faith then teaches them how to package their inner experiences. Believers are taught doctrine through sermons, readings, group meetings and more. Some doctrinal dogmas tells believers to censor, suppress or ignore their experiences.  A good believer must force fit their inner God into the orthodox interpretations approved by their adopted faith.

Thus believers have two gods: a personal god and a doctrinal god. As believers “grow in their faith”, these two become one and the same god. It is difficult for a long-time believer to remember when they were different.  A mature believer barely remembers that there was any tension.  A deeply-committed believer truly feels that their experiences match their doctrines.  Thus believers of different faiths slowly grow apart and are unable share their inner common feelings because they have been distorted by doctrine.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

14 responses to “Two Gods: Experiential vs. Doctrinal

  1. Excellent post, Sabio. The divine experience is something else, let me tell you, but I never had it as strongly as most Pentecostals.

    I like how you describe the inner and outer becoming one, thus pushing others away. Very astute. Would be great for a poem.😉

  2. Boz

    Sabio, I just realised that your avatar is of the deathly hallows.

  3. Doug B

    Great post! (Deceptive title, however.) I think you exactly describe the problem in explaining that there are “two ways of knowing God: through direct experience and through teachings (doctrinal).” And also when you explain that each religion “has outer doctrinal teachings to help believers interpret and explain their subjective, inner experiences. ”

    Of course there are also those who have a problem with the G-word, and they look at their feelings in a non-divine manner. And that is fine, too.

    Living as I do in the Bible Belt of the United States, the approach you describe allows me to build bridges with Christians around me, especially family and friends.

  4. @ myrthryn,
    So, the question is, if you had the divine experience as strongly as others, would you have stayed? For me, it was not enough. But I think for some, it is.

    Shhhhhh, least the fate of the Peverell’s be ours, we should not be to public or proud of the time we have with the Deathly Hallows.

    (I had to look that one up — good pattern recognition, mate)

    Now, back to the OP. If I remember correctly, you are a “natural Atheist”, no? So the Divine experience may be pure nonsense to thee. Or …. ?

    @ DougB,
    Pray tell, how was the title “deceptive”?
    I am glad the post offers a tool to discussions with your fellow Georgians.
    Tell us, being an ex-pentacostal, did you experience the Divine as strongly as the hand-waving, miracle-bragging folks around you? Did you feel the theology slowly supplant any mystical senses of the Divine? Do you remember any of that?

  5. Mike

    Interesting stuff, Sabio. Can you explain what ‘a direct, unfiltered experience of the Divine’ is? Would this be the same as experiencing God as he is in himself? Do you think such a thing is possible for a created being?

    A Catholic author I’ve been reading claims that anyone who thinks it is possible to experience God in this way simply doesn’t understand what God is. I must say I thought he had a point, but then I am one of the damned.

  6. @ Mike,
    “A question. For many eons, I have awaited a question.” (Star Trek, of course)

    Introspected, subjective experience is what I mean by “direct, unfiltered”.

    Let’s say “God” is some real entity, then it would be like me experiencing you in on-line chat, Skype, f2f meetings and such and gathering my opinions about you from that rather than reading other bloggers opinions about you.

    Let’s say “God” is a creation of the mind — then it would be by direct introspection of simple experiences (coming in future post) BEFORE some apologist or preacher tells you what those inner experiences should be and how to express them.

    Is that clear?

  7. Doug B

    I just meant that it seems to me to be two way of approaching an understanding of God rather than two Gods. But that isn’t a biggie, I suppose.

    I did have some rather strong personal experiences back in my Pentecostal days. One as a teenager driving alone at night while praying intensely about something that was troubling me. There is no way for me to adequately express the feeling that suddenly swept over me – one exactly like I had never experienced before or since. I felt as if I needed to pull over to the side of the road. I also felt as if I was about to start speaking in tongues (or lapse into an ecstatic fit). But I stifiled it. Of course there were the feelings of warmth, peace, love, assurance and so forth that go along with such things. And at the time the only way I had of making sense of the incident was through the doctrinal understanding that had been instilled in me. I view things differently now, of course, but still have moments when I can obtain a certain sense of peace and contentment that eludes me under normal circumstances.

    Yes, as time went on the “miraculous” aspects of Pentecostal theology seemed to clash with the common sense natural view of things. This led me away from “special” revelation and into the Deist camp (and I kept moving over the years). Well, I’m running long in this response, but was just trying to anwer your question.

  8. @ DougB,
    That is a great story — thanx.
    Ah, I see what you mean as ‘deceptive’. But if we create a god out of our subjective experiences and another one out of doctrines — then those two gods conflict. So it wouldn’t be “two ways of knowing God” but “two ways of creating gods.” With that in mind, perhaps you can see how it would not be deceptive.

  9. After intensive meditation practice I had repeated blissful experiences involving perception of light and sensation, normally involving the ‘third eye’ point. At first this happened in a Buddhist meditation retreat, later it often happened while watching movies or doing other activities which turned down the active language part of my brain. Sometimes it coincided with spontaneous erections (this is mentioned in some Taoist works, I later found out). I struggled with how to attach meaning to this, and considered becoming a Buddhist but ended up pursuing a less dogmatic Taoist path for a while. As I researched, it seemed likely that there was likely some connection with the pineal gland and possibly production of DMT (Dimethyl-tryptamine). Other reading suggests that the temporal lobe is likely involved, and there may be similarities to brain states of some types of epileptics.
    I know it would have been really easy for me to decide that it was due to whatever religious teaching I was working with at the time (i.e. if it happened in a Christian church, I could have taken it as proof that the Bible is accurate) and thereby attach a huge number of doctrinal beliefs to that experience (reincarnation, karma, etc.).
    It seems to me that this is how many people are converted through meditation retreats. If one sits still and focusses long enough, strange things happen. Many people will then accept the model they are presented which explains these things. Others want the experience which is alluded to in the doctrine, so they accept the doctrine first hoping to have the experience later…

  10. Great examples, Kevin. Many people just discuss atheism in terms of Christians, but it is clear that the same phenomena happen across all ideologies and worldviews. Our minds are hungry to create meaningful stories — to hell with reason. Thanx for the story — even if X-rated.😉

  11. The “spiritual experience” is one of the huge factors that should be more discussed by skeptics/atheists, IMHO. Many religious believers have had some variety of spiritual experience (or believe what others have told them about theirs), and this trumps most rational discussions about religious history, etc. My ‘third eye’ and other experiences were incredibly blissful. If this is like what happens with a Near Death Experience, I can see why it excites people so much. Since there is so much overlap in these types of experiences with drug experiences (DMT, ketamine, LSD, etc.), the factors of social and research taboo quickly come into play.
    I suspect this mix of Eastern Spirituality and Psychedelics is responsible for a huge number of (aging) hippies who adamantly believe in reincarnation, levitating Tibetan monks, energy healing, etc. It is clearly at play in the cases of Andrew Weil, Deepak Chopra, etc. Mistrust of the government (and thus FDA/AMA) from the Vietnam War era and War on Drugs has greatly strengthened the doctrines of counterculturalists from their experiences in decades past.

  12. @ Keving: Yep, I largely agree.

  13. TWF

    Indeed, well said. I would add or clarify that sometimes the Doctrinal God comes first, as in the case of being raised in a particular faith. Then the Experiential God comes in during some life event, and, in turn, ossifies the faith in the Doctrinal God. I suspect that for most people in that situation, it falls under the cliche:

    “If you hang out long enough in a barber shop, you’re going to get a hair cut.”

    Similarly, if you hang out in a community of believers of a Doctrinal God long enough, you are going to have some experience which makes that God real.

  14. @ TWF,
    Thanx. Loved the Barber analogy !! (never heard that saying before — always learning)

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