The title deliberately evokes Danielou’s classic God and the Ways of Knowing, but I wanted to change the title a little, so that people don’t come in expecting a book review.
How do people relate to God?
- The sense of the sacred. This is the most “democratic” of ways in that most people in societies more advanced than the pygmies seem to experience it. It is, in fact, the only socially relevant religious sense, and societies have been built around it. It involves a sense that the world is divided into sacred and profane realms which must be kept separate, and a sense of one’s own ontological poverty before the sacred. Ours is, I believe, the only advanced society to lose this sense.
- Personal, affective devotion; love of God as one person loves another. This kind of devotion is especially marked in religions like Christianity and Hinduism, in which the god becomes human and can be related to as such. This is the highest level of religious sense that most people are capable of, and perhaps it is only in Incarnational religions that a majority is capable of it. It is not spontaneous, but can be developed through frequent Bible reading and meditation on the life of our Savior, and the like. It can, in times of great enthusiasm, become a social force. More importantly, it can transform individual souls.
- Mysticism, a direct, superconceptual apprehension of God. This is generally agreed to be the highest religious sense, but it is reserved for a small spiritual elite, an Ibn Arabi or a Pseudo-Dionysius. It is socially irrelevant, because it is given to so few and is by its nature incommunicable. Nor does it save many souls, but it does contribute treasures to a religious tradition for those few able to profit by them.
Those wishing to know God should start low and build up. Each stage of ascent must be tested against those below. There is a false devotion to Christ, an easy “Jesus is my boyfriend” familiarity that can be known as false because it offends against our sense of the sacred. The higher forms should never contradict the lower. There is a false mysticism, that of charlatans like Joseph Campbell, that attacks all distinctions between good and evil, between holiness and profanity, and which attacks the (tri)personal God of Christians and Muslims. A heretic may have a mystic vision and blasphemously proclaim his own divinity, while a sounder mystic like al-Ghazali will find in devotion to Allah a fresh zeal for obeying a holiness law.