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.