God’s Authority in the World
If there were a universal intelligent force that had created the physical world and was aware of humanity’s individual thoughts and needs, that would be of great interest to us personally. It would be of greater interest if that being, whom we call “God”, had a plan for us that would ensure our ultimate well being. In particular, if God could arrange for us not to be extinguished after death but to continue on in a form that retains our core identity in a happy and peaceful state, we would want to cooperate in every way possible to make that a reality. A father-like figure, God would then be the key to our salvation. We should put ourselves in the hands of this God.
Some people say that such a God exists. Others are not so sure. The fact is that if God is a being like ourselves, with a human capacity to communicate, this being is generally invisible. Neither can one hear God speak as one would hear another person speak. God does not appear in a palpable form in a particular time or place. For most people, God exists by reputation alone. We imagine God to resemble a human being except that he would be endowed with limitless powers and intelligence. God would be able to control each and every event in the universe. But, again, most people have only an idea of this God. Few, if any, have firsthand experience.
Now, of course, religions are built on the claim that some persons have spoken with God and have learned from such conversations what God wants humanity to do. In the third chapter of Exodus, it is written that Moses was tending a flock of sheep near Mount Horeb when he saw a bush that was on fire but was not being consumed. A voice from the bush greeted Moses by name. The voice identified itself saying “I am the God of your forefathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.”
This was the start of a personal relationship between Moses and God which included lengthy conversations. From those conversations came instructions from God to the people of Israel. The best known of these are the Ten Commandments, reportedly inscribed in stone when Moses spoke with God on top of Mount Sinai.
The Bible asserts that Moses had a special relationship with God unlike that of other prophets or priests. When Moses and Aaron argued at Hazeroth, Aaron asked: “Is Moses the only one with whom the Lord has spoken? Has he not spoken with us as well?” In Numbers 12, it is reported that God overheard those remarks. Summoning Aaron and Miriam, God said:
There you have it, in the Bible, the assertion that God, creator and lord of the universe, spoke with Moses as if it were a conversation between two human beings. God spoke with Moses “face to face”. Moses saw “the very form” of God. This is a claim, therefore, that a particular human being, Moses, was able to engage in direct, personal communication with God and learn what God wanted the people of Israel to do.
Is this a sufficient basis for us, more than three thousand years later, to know what God wants us to do? Is it indeed a sufficient basis for knowing that God exists? For the pious, that question would be answered by faith. Of course, what one reads in the Bible is true. God could not have been deceiving so many people for such a long time through reports that were untrue. The divinely inspired words written in the Bible are synonymous with truth. On the other hand, the events that are reported in the Bible happened so many years ago, in circumstances so unlike our own, that one cannot be sure what actually happened.
To look at this situation objectively, one would first have to ask how we know that Moses spoke with God in light of the fact that the Biblical account of their encounters was written down much later. One would have to conclude that our knowledge of the conversations between Moses and God came from Moses’ own testimony. There were no other witnesses to those conversations.
God apparently did not want other witnesses. When Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, God first spoke to him in a peal of thunder: “Go down; warn the people solemnly that they must not force their way through to the Lord to see him, or many of them will perish.” (Exodus 19: 21) While Aaron accompanied Moses to the mountain top, God spoke with Moses alone.
The Bible describes how personal encounters with God made Moses’ face shine. “When Aaron and the Israelites saw how the skin of Moses’ face shone, they were afraid to approach him ... Then Moses put a veil over his face, and whenever he went in before the Lord to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. Then he would go out and tell the Israelites all the commands he had received.” (Exodus 34: 30, 34-35)
If Moses was the only person who participated in those conversations with God, the burden of proof would seem to fall upon him. How honest and trustworthy was Moses? Religious tradition would make him absolutely credible; but across the great gulf in time, one really does not know.
the ability to perform miracles
Our focus of attention has therefore shifted to miracles. Men who said they had spoken with God and who also could perform miracles had greater credibility than those who simply made claims of encounters with God. Presumably God had given the performers of miracles powers that other men lacked. The miracles were a sign from God that the performer possessed divine favor and presumably could be trusted to deliver a true message.
Moses performed many miracles while leading the Hebrew people out of Egypt and back to their ancestral homeland. He turned staffs into snakes, turned the waters of the Nile into blood, filled the land of Egypt with frogs, and then maggots, and then swarms of flies. Then all the first-born of Egyptian families died. When Pharaoh’s armies chased the fleeing Israelites to the banks of the Red Sea, God caused the waters of this sea to part so that the Israelites could cross safely. Then, with a wave of Moses’ hand, the sea waters came back to drown Pharaoh’s armies. Yes, Moses performed miracles.
From a modern perspective, the ability to perform miracles, especially ones so destructive, has no bearing upon whether or not the performer of the miracles has spoken with God or faithfully reported God’s word. But this ability has marked the career of great prophets. The prophet Elijah, for instance, engaged in a contest with the priests of Baal to see whose god was the stronger. He set up one altar in honor of Jehovah. Four hundred and fifty priests of Baal set up another. Elijah called on Jehovah by name and his altar caught fire. Despite the rival priests’ efforts, the other altar did not. This was a miracle attesting to the true religion.
Later prophets such as Jeremiah were able to predict the future course of history. Before Jerusalem fell to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, Jeremiah predicted the event, explaining that God would punish the Hebrew people for a time before restoring David’s kingdom in a grander and purer state. Jesus, too, performed miracles while proclaiming the imminent Kingdom of God. The greatest miracle was Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead.
Why should modern people believe that the words of Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, Jesus, Mohammed, or anyone else represented an authentic revelation from God? Was it because of the miracles? Is it because of faith? We have a body of ancient writings that reports the words and deeds of these illustrious religious figures. While much of this writing was done years after the reported events, it purports to be historically accurate. Then, too, we have religious institutions that were created around those events.
By now, people have been worshiping the God of Moses and Elijah, of Jesus, or of Mohammed for hundreds of years. The question of whether God exists was presumably answered with satisfaction many years ago. Of course, for the followers of Islam, the prophet Mohammed was a true prophet of God. Christians believe that Jesus was the son of God. Could billions of people have been wrong?
The plain fact is, however, is that God is known by reputation. We have bodies of sacred scripture that lay out the historical facts. We have very ancient and immense religious organizations that exist on the assumption of their truth. We have worshippers taught not to question religious teachings but instead to approach them with an attitude of adoration and acceptance. In all this, it’s possible that many of the devout have had no experience of God. They’re just going along with the program.
This is not to say that some persons do not actively seek a more intimate and authentic knowledge of God. Often through a teacher or other intermediary, some have earnestly sought to know God. They have fasted, meditated, prayed, and otherwise prepared themselves to receive communications from God. Some mystics report positive contact. It would be one of humanity’s highest callings to see God in this way.
My own conclusion is that such a life is to be respected. Religions which encourage this search are to be respected. Each of us has a right to choose our own calling. Whether or not someone succeeds in contacting God through meditation or prayer is, however, that person’s business. Only he or she knows for sure what has happened.
Externally, there may be certain signs of an authentic connection with God. True saints live lives of extraordinary kindness and simplicity. Some can subsist on little or no food. Others are able to levitate. These miraculous abilities attest to higher powers given by God. But, again, the basic knowledge remains between the saintly person and God.
a reasonable doubt
What I am getting at here is that a reasonable doubt exists when someone expects us, who do not have personal knowledge of God, to believe and act as if we did. This world contains plenty of individuals who will tell you to your face: “I know that God exists, same as if God were standing in front of me in your place.” He may know whether or not he knows; but you do not. Apparent sincerity of statement is no substitute for knowing the truth. Many a convincing preacher has been caught in bald-faced lies.
This is the problem with invisible Gods. Not everyone can see them. There may be a lucky few who are divinely favored and have direct experience of God. Others may put themselves into this state by their saintly lives. But most people cannot see God. Like Moses’ veil, there is a barrier of knowledge.
Therefore, it is unfair to presume possession of this knowledge among the general public. Knowledge of God is a personal matter. If one has first-hand knowledge of God’s existence, one is truly blessed. If not, it would not be a virtue to testify falsely of this knowledge. The best thing would be to continue searching.
This is the problem with religion entering the realm of politics. It is the problem with state religions. Those who speak and act in the name of God are obligating others who may not know of God’s existence. Should they know? Not unless God has contacted them personally. Should they believe someone who commands them to believe in God, because this person has a convincing manner or has made threats? Absolutely not. There are some who wear God’s authority like a suit of clothes to advance their own purposes.
Jesus did not command anyone to do his earthly bidding. He urged people only to follow him if they would enter the Kingdom of God. He made clear that some things were Caesar’s business and others the business of God. Never would Jesus have punished someone for not following his religion. Likewise, Mohammed did not compel belief in the Islamic religion. The Koran says: “There is no compulsion in religion.” Another verse says: “Oh Prophet! Exhort them, your task is only to exhort; you cannot compel them to believe.” And, if there is no compulsion to believe, there is no fault in failure to believe.
Obviously, Muslims, Christians, and Jews have put non-believers to the sword. They have done so on their own initiative. In the name of their own most precious religion, they have intruded upon the sacred right of individuals to establish their own relationship with God. It would be tempting to call this a sin; but who would believe it? Like a thundering herd of bison, humanity rushes along with organizations. I have no problem in concluding that these organizations can sometimes be wrong.
There is a greater difficulty in concluding that the Bible or other sacred scripture can be wrong. Judaic religion holds that every jot and every title of scripture is the divinely inspired world of God, which cannot be false in any respect. But what if God in the Bible commands genocide? Suppose God gives his blessing to ideas of ethnic or racial supremacy? Must we today go along with those views because they are plainly stated in the Bible? No, let’s ask God what he wants now.
Human knowledge is a matter of continuing revelation. Even if some of humanity’s greatest thinkers once believed that all things were of one substance or that the world was flat, we have no problem today in acknowledging that those conclusions were the product of an incomplete understanding. Continuing human experience brought other truths to the fore. Only in the area of religion do some insist that truth be fixed in a particular scriptural form. How do we know that every word in the Bible is true? Because the Bible says so? Shouldn’t an independent witness be required?
I believe that it is possible to regard the Bible and other sacred scriptures as important artifacts of history, documenting encounters between God and man. However, it’s up to us individually to establish what we believe to be true. No priest or preacher can compel us to believe anything in the name of God. Neither can we compel God to reveal himself to us. While guided by the religious traditions of our upbringing or conversion, we are fundamentally on our own in reaching a decision. It’s an adult world, filled with uncertainties and ambiguities.
What I do believe, however, is that the authenticity of religious conviction may be indicated by the “fruits”. That much I learned from Jesus. He said: “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; you can tell a tree by its fruit ... How can your words be good when you yourselves are evil? For the words that the mouth utters come from the overflowing of the heart.” (Matthew 12: 33-34) Therefore: If his fruits are good, I applaud the man and his religion. If they are bad, I begin to question his motivation whatever religious authority gives it cover.
We are living in an era of horrible fruits. The Israeli settler invades Palestinian lands in the West Bank, claiming this land as his own on the basis of an ancient promise given to Abraham. Palestinian inhabitants of the land are shot as if they were rabbits. Are these righteous fruits? I think not. Then, too, Palestinian boys with explosives strapped to their chests infiltrate crowded places in the cities of Israel. The explosives go off and dozens of innocent people are killed or maimed. Did Allah command this? Again, I think not. These are some of the bad fruits of contemporary religion. We need to ask God to clarify his instructions. Are yesterday’s orders still operative?
There is nothing sacred about bad religion. Just say no; disbelieve. The higher imperative is to seek God’s truth. And if the fruits of religion are any indication of this truth, then clerics of all stripes should be shaking in their boots. How many are seeking worldly empires? Just as many have fallen away from true faith. For the fundamental relationship with God is a relationship which the individual person must establish. No teacher can force his way between another person and that person’s knowledge or perception of God.
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