|Kitty Hawk, NC|
A non-discursive experience is an experience that is felt and "known" as real, but which cannot be captured in the steel nets of literal language. One has such experiences, but cannot discourse about them. (On religious experiences that "I know that I know that I know" but cannot speak of, see James K.A. Smith, Thinking in Tongues.)
I experience God in a variety of ways, many of which are non-discursive. This is how it should be, right? None of us has epistemic access to the being of God. We have no clue about what it's like to be all-knowing, or all-loving, or all-powerful.
The expression of a non-discursive experience is confessional and testimonial. There is a sense in which it cannot be refuted. What does this mean? Say, for example, that I now feel joy. I make the statement, “Now I feel joy.” It would be odd, in a Wittgensteinian-kind of way, for someone to say “You’re wrong.” That would be leaving the language-game I’m now playing. (Wittgensteinian “playing” is what I have here in mind.)
Consider the statement, “I felt God close to me today.” Even a philosophical materialist could not doubt that today I had some kind of numinous experience which I describe as God being with me. They could and would doubt that what caused my experience was “God.” I understand this. But their doubt has no real effect on my experience and the interpretation of it. Their doubt does not make me a doubter, precisely because I am not a philosophical materialist. I see no reason to disbelieve my experiences because others do not have them. This relates, I think, to Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne's "principle of credulity."
At this point I’m influenced by theistic philosophers Alvin Plantinga and William P. Alston. For them, belief in God is properly basic if the noetic framework of Christian theism is true. Plantinga’s work on “warranted belief” and Alston’s work on the “experiential basis of theism” is helpful here. Alston writes: “the relatively abstract belief that God exists is constitutive of the doxastic practice of forming particular beliefs about God's presence and activity in our lives on the basis of theistic experience.” I realize that sentence may need a lot of unpacking. Suffice it to say here that, for Alston, experiential support for theism is analogous to experiential support for belief in the physical world.
Alston explains what he means by “theistic experience.” He writes:
I “mean it to range over all experiences that are taken by the experiencer to be an awareness of God (where God is thought of theistically). I impose no restrictions on its phenomenal quality. It could be a rapturous loss of conscious self-identity in the mystical unity with God; it could involve "visions and voices"; it could be an awareness of God through the experience of nature, the words of the Bible, or the interaction with other persons; it could be a background sense of the presence of God, sustaining one in one's ongoing activities. Thus the category is demarcated by what cognitive significance the subject takes it to have, rather than by any distinctive phenomenal feel.”
For Plantinga, if the noetic framework of Christian theism is true, then I can expect to experience God. On this noetic framework God exists, has made us in his image, has placed a moral consciousness within us, has revealed himself in the creation, and desires for us to know him. Plantinga, of course, believes this noetic framework is true. As do I. One then expects experiential encounters with God. They come to us, as Alston says, like sense-experiences.
This is to argue for the rationality of theistic experiences. One can have “warrant” for the belief that such experiences are from God. But these experiences do not function as “proofs” of God’s existence.
Non-discursive experiences, and experiences in general, cannot be caught in the steel nets of literal language. “Experience” qua experience has what French philosopher Paul Ricoeur has called a “surplus of meaning.” “Words” never capture all of experience. Never. All experiencing has a non-discursive quality. Here the relationship, if any, of words to experiencing leads to volumes of discussion in areas such as linguistic semantics and philosophy of language.
Even a sentence as seemingly simple as “I see a tree” is, phenomenally, incomplete. Consider this experience: sitting on an ocean beach watching the sun set with the person you are falling in love with. Ricoeur called such experiences “limit-experiences”; viz., experiences that arise outside the limits of thought and language. But people want to express, in words, these events. For that, Ricoeur says a “limit-language” is needed, such as metaphorical expression. So-called “literal language” cannot express limit-experiences.
Every person has limit-experiences that move into the arena of non-discursiveness.
I believe that experience, not theory, breeds conviction. Theorizing either for or against God is not as convincing as the sense of the presence of God or the sense of the absence of God. This is precisely why, in spite of all my previous and ongoing theoretical studies about God, I keep returning to my “conversion experience.”
Among the God-experiences I consistently have are:
- A sense that God is with me
- Numinous experiences of awe and wonder (not mere “Einsteinian wonder”)
- God speaking to me
- God leading me
- God comforting me
- God’s love expressed towards me
- God’s Spirit convicting me
- God directing me
- Overwhelming experience of God
- God revealing more of himself to me
These experiences are mediated through:
-Solitary times of prayer
-Study of the Christian scriptures
-Observing the creation
-In difficult and testing situations
And sometimes I have experienced God in an unmediated way.
I discern and judge such things to be experiences of God because:
-I spend many hours a week praying
-I have heavily invested myself in prayer and meditation for the past 40 years
-I saturate myself in the Christian scriptures
-I have studied the history of Christian spirituality
-I keep a spiritual journal and, over the past 3 years, have 3000+ pages of journal entries having to do with God experiences and the voice of God to me
-I hang out with a lot of people who do all of the above
- I've taught and yet teach this stuff in various seminaries, at conferences, in the United States & elsewhere around the world. Thus I've gained a multi-ethnic perspective on the subject of experiencing God.
All the above seem to me to increase one’s diacritical ability (dia-krisis; “discernment”; lit. “to cut through”). Spiritual diacritical ability is mostly acquired. Discernment is in direct proportion to familiarity.
My book on prayer is Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God.
My book Leading the Presence-Driven Church will be published this summer.