How to know God?

Basically, we can either claim that God can be known through reason alone (Samuel Clarke, Anthony Collins, Voltaire, Kant, Nyāya, Śaivasiddhānta…) or that S/He can be known through personal insight and/or Sacred Texts (Śrī Vaiṣṇavas after Yāmuna, Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas…).

Arne Niklas Jansson

The first attitude could lead to a rational theology, or even to deism, as it happened during the Enlightenment, since it presupposes that all human beings could equally reach an adequate knowledge of God, if only they were to apply properly their instruments of knowledge. The second attitude suggests that there is no way to prove the existence of God apart from one’s own experience and the (one of others as recorded in) Sacred Texts. Historically, religions tend to explain that one should be suspicious of one’s insight alone, since it might be due to one’s projections of what one would like to see as the ultimate reality, so that the second way is usually at least a mixture of personal experience and its validation through the Sacred Texts. In other words, if you “saw” the Virgin Mary as she is described by other reliable sources, yours could have been a genuine religious experience, whereas if you “saw” a Flying spaghetti monster, you should reconsider your evening meals.
Now, the first attitude may seem appealing to our contemporary and secularised world (csw), since it does not recur to the external authority of Sacred Texts, which is usually hard to accept to members of csw. However, it presupposes a totalitaristic move, since if the existence of God can be rationally proved, then your failure to comply amounts to a cognitive fault. It is the same argument which enabled Soviet Union (etc.) leaders to claim that the ones who were not agreeing with the rationality of Communism needed to be reeducated.

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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5 thoughts on “How to know God?

  1. The Catholic catechism speaks of converging and convincing arguments none of which have the nature of scientific proof. It is a rational confluence whose elements acting on their own would not have an epideictic force. They have a cumulative effect and build to a steady conviction. Some modern Thomists would challenge this with their 5 Ways. Anything else would amount to fideism. If you don’t feel the force of their arguments it’s because you don’t understand them.

    One can see the influence of Cardinal Newman on the Catechism via the 2nd. Vatican Council. I’m thinking of his Grammar of Assent here.

    I often wonder about the Vedantin claim that the Vedas contain truths not known by any other means e.g. existence of God/Brahman. On one level it seems trivially true like ‘only Kant wrote The Critique of Pure Reason’ and on another it seems false as there have been a few broadly similar religious views. But at the same time Sankara offers critiques which although assuming the existence of Brahman/Isvara have stood on their own as arguments for the existence of God. e.g. intelligent design against pradhana and nature/karma against argument from evil. (in B.S.B.)

    • Thanks a lot for your comment, Michael. I will look at Newman’s Grammar of Assent, which I have not read yet. As for the presence of arguments also among (Pūrva or Uttara) Mīmāṃsā authors, it is important to distinguish between arguments aiming at the independent establishment of the existence of God (like in Kant’s understanding of the cosmological argument) and apologetic arguments aiming at justifying one’s belief in God. The latter procedure does not violate the primacy of the Veda (and of mystical experience).

      As for the Catholic approach, I would say that the mainstream idea is that of fides quaerens intellectum, i.e., arguments are needed for apologetic reasons and in order to fortify and deepen one’s faith but cannot substitute it. What do you think?

  2. Perhaps you’ve been following the series of interviews with philosophers on
    I don’t know whether people would be surprised at the idea that philosophers would commit to a religious path on largely non-rational grounds. I know I’m not having done some slight research into the subject. Your CSW people might be surprised, probably would be, because of their resistance to the notion that religion includes reason in that it is larger than it. Darshan and satsang, to put it in Hindu terms, can be more powerful than argument. They can alter our metaphysical context and following on this arguments which were marginal to us previously are now forceful.

    • Thanks, Michael. I agree that satsaṅgha is the other key element, together with śāstra and apart from mystical experience, which cannot be deliberately achieved.