You’ve been fairly warned by the title that I’m going to be saying something about God, and what I take to be shareable experiences of God. (Here are some noteworthy examples to which I’ll refer several times.) But first I’m going to say a great deal about experience.

Nowadays, there’s a a tendency to ignore most of what we experience from one moment to the next and to presume that the only aspects of experience worth talking about are clear and distinct—clear and distinct “sense impressions” or observations, clear and distinct ideas, and, finally, clear, distinct and “testable” combinations of the first two. These are assumed to be the obviously “simple” and “natural” starting point for everything we want to talk about. 

But experience itself demonstrates that these are not “simple” or “natural.” Clear and distinct ideas and sense impressions and testable theories are highly sophisticated abstractions from moment-to-moment experience. That doesn’t make the abstractions unreal. But it does disqualify them from running for the office of a simple or natural starting point.*

Let me show you. Take the present moment you are experiencing right now. Tell me everything you are presently experiencing. 

You can’t. It’s already gone. 

The present moment is already a past moment, and you’re busy trying to reconstruct what was involved in it (and maybe not even noticing this present moment while you focus “through” it on the ever-more-receding past). 

You were reading, “Take the present moment you are experiencing right now.” But by the time you got through reading the sentence and deciding whether to go along with it, that moment was already gone. You weren’t paying 100% attention to what you were reading. You aren’t now either. You were and are aware of all sorts of stuff besides what you were reading—the paper or computer screen. The marks or pixels in front of you. The letters in these sentences. The sentences themselves and their placement in a paragraph. The complex interactions between you and these marks/pixels that makes them letters, then words, then sentences then paragraphs. You. The person you imagine addressing this to you. Your sight. The pressures on you of where you were sitting or standing, what you were wearing. Other stuff that’s been happening and how you were feeling about it. Your concerns about what my agenda might be in trying to get you to read this. The way all this stuff was already receding from you as you noticed it. The overall context or setting in which all this was happening. All of this is stuff you were experiencing, but you weren’t focusing on it. And you’re still experiencing all or most of this stuff right now, but failing to focus on it. And since it’s all receding into the past, you’ll never measure it. It won’t show up again, not exactly as it was. 

You could keep going. In fact, I challenge you to find a stopping point in this virtually endless list of “items” you were and are experiencing as you try to reconstruct all that you experienced in one moment (and all that you experience in trying to reconstruct that moment). 

Also, if you keep enumerating these “items,” notice how you are focusing on what’s repeatable about them. You don’t have a choice. But you know there’s something unrepeatable about all of them. You know that the moment you’re trying to describe keeps receding behind newer moments, and that you’ll never get it all back. You know that even this receding is a repeatable pattern, however differently it gets exemplified. But there’s still something unrepeatable going on here as you focus “through” it on what’s repeatable. The unrepeatable is as real as the repeatable in everyday experience, but it is in principle immeasurable, because only the repeatable can be measured. 

Maybe you’re tempted to reply, “Well, sure, there’s lots of stuff I didn’t focus on then, but I can just shift my focus.” No, you can’t. You’re too late for that. You can shift your focus now, but that was then, and it’s receding further and further from you. If you weren’t focusing on something then you can’t focus on exactly the same thing now. You can focus on what’s repeatable from then to now, but you can’t focus on exactly what was there back then. You can shift your focus to the chair you were sitting in, and you can justifiably point out a continuity between the chair back then and the chair right now. But you are not recapturing the experience you had of the chair back then. You’re abstracting, and failing to notice quite a lot while you’re abstracting.

I could keep going. But this ought to be enough to show you that most of what you experience is neither clear nor distinct, and certainly not measurable. Clarity and distinctness are themselves abstractions from the concrete, vague, vastly unrepeatable flux of experience from one moment to the next. And if you don’t recognize this by now, I don’t know what else to say. I won’t be able to help thinking of you as stubborn or obtuse, because you’re continuing to deny something that seems obviously real once it’s called to anybody’s attention.

By the way, since I’m sure somebody will bring it up, I’m presuming that all of this is embodied experience. It’s perfectly fine with me if a very advanced neurologist tells me what neurons are doing when somebody reads this essay for the first time. I expect there to be a whole variety of repeatable, distinguishable, clarifiable, measurable patterns, stated in the language of particle physics, chemistry, neurology and so on. But those patterns, no matter how many are enumerated, still will not be communicating all that was experienced concretely when this essay was first read. Nor will they capture all that the neurologist experienced (much of which went unnoticed) when measuring somebody else’s neurons, or all that others experience (ditto) when they read the neurologist’s findings. Nobody escapes the concrete, vague, vastly unrepeatable flux of experience from one moment to the next—not neurologists, not chemists, not physicists, nobody.

And one more thing: when I talk like this some people think I’m trying to introduce something “beyond” physics or “beyond” science. That’s not what I would say. I am saying, most definitely, that there are aspects of experience that physics and other natural sciences cannot exhaustively describe. But they’re here, not somewhere else. I’m still talking about aspects of experience. If you wanted to, you could say that these aspects are, in a sense, “beyond” the natural sciences, but they don’t exist independently of the repeatable patterns that natural sciences investigate. They’re immeasurable aspects of the everyday world, not incursions from some spooky realm outside what we call nature. They’re aspects of experience upon which everybody draws, including physicists when they’re doing physics (as well as when they’re, say, trying to get a date). The only beyond here is the what theologian Dietrich Bobhoeffer called the beyond in the midst of life.

But I AM talking about what is immeasurable in everyday experience. You can’t measure the way a moment “recedes” from your present moments as you try to describe what you experienced. You can’t measure precisely when “now” became “then.” Words like “moment,” “now,” “then,” and others like them are meant to function elastically precisely because most of our experience does NOT reduce to fixed quantities. We understand them only by paying attention to the context, and “context” is another elastic word of the same sort. None of this is clear and distinct enough, “countable” enough, to be measurable.

You also can’t step back from most of your experience. Most of it is too much a part of you, something you “attend from” in order to “attend to” a particular object. (“Attending-from” and “attending-to” are expressions coined, as best I can tell, by Michael Polanyi.) It’s like trying to look at your own retina (not, mind you, a reflection or picture of you retina). You become aware of attending-from only when you attend-to something else. (And even attending-to is too much a part of you to examine or measure—we can measure only the attended-to, not attending-to.) 

All I am doing here is a rather sloppy rehash of a number of traditions that refuse to ignore the richness of our moment-by-moment experience. There’s the whole phenomenological tradition, more familiar to Europeans than to Americans. And there’s the original pragmatic tradition epitomized by Peirce, James and Dewey. They knew that experience was always far more than a cluster of sensations or even observations. They knew that our very ability to observe anything was mostly moved by participation. There have also been mystics in practically every enduring religious tradition, no matter how superstitious-looking that tradition may have started out. And there have been modern and, yes, postmodern theologians who have focused on this ever since Schleiermacher’s 1799 On Religion.

Since I’m writing this exploration to get some theological mileage out of it, let me quote some passages from the very influential Catholic theologian Karl Rahner on what is immeasurable but inescapable in everyday experience. Rahner calls it “transcendental” experience, and for the philosophically uninformed I need to point out that here “transcendental” has nothing to do with how the word is used in Transcendental Meditation and other new age fads, unless you think Immanuel Kant was a new-ager. The transcendental tradition in European philosophy maintains, as I’ve been maintaining, that whenever we are directly aware of anything we are also indirectly aware of a number of aspects that are necessarily involved in any awareness whatsoever. Here’s how Rahner says it (I’ve tried to simplify some of the wording):

We shall call transcendental experience the indirect, necessary and unfailing consciousness of the knowing subject that is co-present in every act of knowledge, and the subject’s openness to the unlimited expanse of all possible reality. It is an experience because this knowledge, indirect but ever-present, is a moment within every concrete experience of any and every object. This experience is called transcendental experience because it belongs to the necessary and inalienable structures of the knowing subject itself, and because it consists precisely in the transcendence beyond any particular group of possible objects or categories. Transcendental experience is the experience of transcendence, in which the structure of the subject and therefore also the ultimate structure of every conceivable object of knowledge are present together (Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, trans. by William V. Dych [New York: Seabury Press, 1978], p. 20).

It is in this sort of experience that Rahner finds a shareable experience of God, though it is always indirect and often unrecognized:

There is present in this transcendental experience an indirect and anonymous, as it were, knowledge of God. Hence the original knowledge of God is not the kind of knowledge in which one grasps an object which happens to present itself from outside. It has rather the character of a transcendental experience. … All talk about God always only points to this transcendental experience as such, an experience in which the one whom we call “God” encounters us … as the absolute and the immeasurable, as the term of our transcendence which cannot really be incorporated into any system of coordinates (p. 21)

Rahner is a 20th century Catholic theologian, but here he sounds remarkably like the 13th century Bonaventure. Though Rahner preferred Thomas Aquinas to Bonaventure he still stands in the tradition of Bonaventure, who in turn stands in the tradition of Augustine (354-430), who in turn stands in the tradition of Paul, the earliest New Testament writer who identified God with the one “from whom, through whom and in whom all things are” (Romans 11:36). This is not being trendy, not trying to find something “left-over” to call God in the wake of modern science. It’s as much a premodern and even biblical way to speak of God.

Bonaventure, like Rahner, wanted to claim that we have a shareable, constant, if indirect, experience of God as Being Itself. This is also what Paul Tillich, a 20th century Lutheran theologian, claimed. Tillich claimed that everything we say of God is symbolic or figurative, except to say that God is being itself (Systematic Theology, vol. 1 Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 238). Tillich was roundly criticized for redefining God into terms that might be less offensive to modern people. But he was not redefining or modernizing anything. Bonaventure was not 20th century modernizer, nor was Augustine or Paul (the saint, not Tillich). Tillich was only trying to show that secular 20th century existentialists (and related thinkers) had inadvertently stumbled across what Christian thinkers (and of course other religious thinkers) had known for centuries. Schleiermacher tried to make the same point 200 years ago to the “cultured despisers” of his day.

I said I was trying to get some theological mileage out of this, and so I am. 

Our God-talk arises reasonably, I’m claiming, from the concrete, vague, vastly unrepeatable flux of experience from one moment to the next. We do find ourselves participating in a barely describable sort of wholeness which is too intimate and too encompassing to be turned into an object alongside other objects. People in various cultures have noticed this for centuries: in our everyday existence we can become aware of a more elusive reality that ultimately enables and sustains our everyday existence (however perplexing or threatening it may sometimes seem). 

This seems to be a very common, indeed arguably cross-cultural, experience of the sacred, and I find no reason to apologize to skeptics when I celebrate one version of this in the Christian Mass (and in other ways).

But there’s a trade-off here. The very aspects of experience that make God-talk credible also make it impossible to be dogmatic about our God-talk. If there are immeasurable aspects to everyday experience, then none of the words we use to convey that are going to make it measurable. The underlying, ever-present reality that seems to enable and sustain the rest of our experience remains chronically elusive. Even using words like “underlying,” “ever-present,” “reality,” “enabling,” “sustaining,” etc., involves stretching them beyond their ordinary usage.

My Christian forebears were quick to condemn anybody who didn’t immediately agree with how they spoke of experiencing God. But if they were experiencing anything as elusive as what these writers were trying to convey, the last thing they should have expected was a quick agreement on how to speak about all this. There might be different religious or “spiritual” ways of speaking (as in Taoism or Buddhism), as well as secular ways of speaking, all of which might help us to notice what these Christian writers were trying to convey in Christian language.

John Dewey, for example, could have acknowledged everything Rahner initially says about transcendental experience, but he remained a naturalist through and through:

If experience actually presents esthetic and moral traits, then these traits may also be supposed to reach down into nature, and to testify to something that belongs to nature as truly as does the mechanical structure attributed to it in physical science. To rule out that possibility by some general reasoning is to forget that the very meaning and purport of empirical method is that things are to be studied on their own account, so as to find out what is revealed when they are experienced. The traits possessed by the subject-matters of experience are as genuine as the characteristics of sun and electron. They are found, experienced, and are not to be shoved out of being by some trick of logic. When found, their ideal qualities are as relevant to the philosophic theory of nature as are the traits found by physical inquiry.—John Dewey, Experience and Nature (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1958 [1929]), p. 2

Dewey seems to agree that there are indeed participatory, engaging, “unobjectifialble” aspects to every experience, aspects that physics will never describe because of its self-imposed methodological restrictions. But for Dewey they were all aspects of nature. He didn’t completely object to people using “God” to name those aspects, as long as they didn’t try to turn this into a single already-existing being, but this still came across as basically a condescending concession to people who didn’t want to retire the term altogether. (See his A Common Faith.)

(Sam Harris is another naturalist—a combative one—who recognizes the fundamental importance of “unobjectifiable” experience. But if I wanted to be a secular naturalist, I’d stick with Dewey. Dewey’s better informed and less given to overstatement. His criticisms of theism, while not unanswerable, are more to the point.)

I’m in no position to object to Dewey’s calling this simply another aspect of nature. For him nature was no bare mechanism. It was lively and full of wonder. What’s to dislike about that? I suppose I regret that he would probably have declined to nibble on God with some of us Anglo-Catholic sacramental realists, but what he did find in experience is enough to enrich my understanding of all the complex interactions that are happening when I celebrate Mass. I mustn’t be too choosy in recognizing a friend.

The integrity I recognize in Dewey’s account underscores what I said earlier: the very aspects of experience that make God-talk credible also make it impossible to be dogmatic about our God-talk. Yes, “in our everyday existence we really can become aware of a more elusive reality that ultimately enables and sustains our everyday existence (however perplexing or threatening it may sometimes seem).” It’s not too elusive for me and others to propose and live into a variety of open-ended models, analogies, metaphors, etc. In that sense I most certainly can get theological mileage out of it. But it is too elusive for me to use my own most cherished proposals as excuses to stop listening to others’ open-ended proposals. I can get theological mileage out of this only when I recognize that others can get their own sort of mileage out of it, whether theological, non-theological, or anti-theological, and that I can’t afford to ignore what they can teach me. 

But I would invite my secular naturalist friends and fellow travelers to recognize a complementary truth: the very aspects of experience that make nature-talk wonderful and livable also make it impossible to be too restrictive about nature-talk. If experienced nature is involved with us in the immeasurable and unobjectifiable, there is nothing to forbid others of us from viewing this as involvement with immeasurable, unobjectifiable Being, named by St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Bonaventure, Schleiermacher, Tillich, and Rahner as God.

*An aside: Some would argue that we and our cultural and linguistic conditioning are so actively involved in our experience that we shouldn’t even speak of a “natural” starting point. I acknowledge our involvement, but surely we and our conditioning are a part of nature too. We can still speak cautiously of a natural starting point, or at least an intersection, a way of keeping our thinking “answerable to the world” [John McDowell, Mind and World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. xii]. But that intersection will not be simple or especially clear, because experience just isn’t like that. Clarity and distinctness are themselves abstractions from the concrete, vague, vastly unrepeatable flux of experience from one moment to the next.