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7.6 Seeing God
According to the Bible, the answer to the question “why do I believe?” must contain references to some kind of personal walking experience, so engaging as to allow us to say: “I believe because I have seen and I see the Lord”, perceiving in the verb “seeing” the most suitable term to express the greatness of the lived experience; we can see what is written in the Gospel in Jn 4:42:
They said to the woman, «We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world»
1 Jn 1:1-3:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched, this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.
In other words, according to the Bible, it is not possible to claim to believe in the Lord if, at the same time, one does not feel able to affirm that he has seen and sees it. Faced with this statement, many will immediately think they have no faith, or that it is impossible for everyone to have this kind of faith; yet the content of the Bible appears quite clear. If the Christian faith is faith in the risen Jesus Christ, we must remember that the Gospels do not tell the resurrection of Jesus, but rather describe the experience of those who saw him alive after his death. The essential thing is seeing Jesus alive.
At this point, to be clear, we must add a discussion on language: that is, we can legitimately ask ourselves what it means when the Gospels tell of people who have seen the Risen. A question of this kind might look like an intention to create confusion and to accommodate the meaning of any word. However, it has already been studied by various theologians. We can read, for example, G. Ghiberti, La risurrezione di Gesù nella problematica attuale, in R. Latourelle – G. O’Collins (edd.), Problemi e prospettive di Teologia Fondamentale, Brescia 19822, p. 279-316. These theologians, on the other hand, show that the doubt that is raised about the meaning of seeing the Risen is not a doubt put without reason at anything the Bible says. For example, when it is clear that the Gospels use a historiographical language, with the possibility of comparisons with other testimonies of the time, nobody can feel authorized to pose unnecessary doubts or suspicions about the truth of what is narrated.
The doubt about the language of seeing the Risen arises in these terms: today we say, to indicate certain events: “I got an experience”; undoubtedly “getting an experience” was also part of the existence of the apostles; however in the Gospels the expression “getting an experience” is never found; we can understand right away the reason: this way of expressing was born recently in our culture, it is quite modern and did not exist at the time of the Gospels. So what did the apostles say when they wanted to say they “got an experience”? They used the phrases that were available at that time, they used the way of thinking and expressing themselves of their time. We can thus hypothesize that, since at the time of the apostles the expression “getting an experience” did not exist, the other expression “seeing the Lord” could have taken its place. This hypothesis is not far-fetched, since it is confirmed that other narratives are also constructed this way, that is, using languages that do not say literally what words mean to us today; that is, the author decides to use a certain language to say something, that we no longer know what exactly it is. Another example is that of the appearance of the angel to Mary, to announce the birth of Jesus, Lk 1, 26-38; if the reader has the patience to make the comparison with the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist, Lk 1, 5-25, and with that of the birth of Samson, Jg 13, 2-7, he will notice the great similarity of language in all three stories. Faced with this similarity, it is useless to claim that the stories are similar because the events that took place were similar: now studies on the languages of the Bible are at a so advanced degree that we can no more carry out a literal interpretation; only people like Jehovah’s Witnesses, who reject any scientific openness, can support a similar way of interpreting the Bible, which is called “fundamentalist”. Even the official documents of the Catholic Church now openly accept, although always with prudence, the interpretation open to the sciences of language. It can therefore be concluded that we no longer know what actually happened either about the announcement of the birth of Samson, nor about that of John the Baptist, nor about that of Jesus; those who wrote these things show that they wanted to use certain schemes of “announcement of birth of an important person”, which had become standards; behind the standard scheme it remains difficult both to recover the author’s personalized intervention and, even more, to understand what the event actually happened was.
Returning to our topic, on the basis of what we have observed, it is no longer possible for us to interpret having seen the risen Jesus, experienced by the apostles, literally. What should we imagine then? We must seek, not being able to catch the happened events, at least to respect the weight of the words as much as possible. So, even if “seeing the Risen” may not necessarily mean phisically seeing, an apparition, the fact remains that the term is very strong, compared to our “getting an experience”, which remains more generic, vague. Then, we can think that the apostles, although we don’t know what their eyes saw, got so an alive experience of the risen Jesus that, according to the evangelist, the most suitable word, to say the full greatness of that experience, was the verb “to see”. We must also observe another aspect of the verb “to see”, compared to our expression “getting an experience”: “to see” means to realize that that experience does not depend on our effort, but rather, we realize that we get a feeling which depends on another source; for example, if I see a flower, it is not because I have focused on it so strongly that I see it: I perceive that even if I do not concentrate I see it all the same; then I deduce that behind that feeling there is something, the flower, whose existence does not depend at all on my efforts to concentrate. Instead, the expression “to experience” can let us think of something that depends very much on the commitment of those who have to live it. Now, if the Gospels use the verb “to see”, about the risen Jesus, we can think that the experience of the apostles, even if not necessarily visual, gave the feeling of depending not on an effort of concentration, but on an existence able to make itself seen even without concentrating on it. This does not mean that the apostles thought they could see the Risen even while telling jokes; the context that is described in the apparitions of the Lord appears however a context of being absorbed; however, it seems that the apostles experienced that seeing the Risen did not depend, as a first source, on their effort to concentrate.
Once we have an idea of what it can mean, about the apparitions of the Risen, the term “to see”, we will have to choose which word to use today in our language; we have already seen that the expression “getting an experience” or “living an experience” does not have the same expressive force as the term “to see”. Then, we can consider it preferable to preserve the term as it is, preserving its strength, rather than translating it into our language which risks being more watered down or ambiguous. Of course, there will be the problem of the misunderstanding that we said at the beginning: if we say that to believe in the Lord we must see it, then people will think that, if this is the case, having faith is something of a few visionaries; so, if I say that I believe because I have seen the Lord, someone will think that I had an apparition; despite these difficulties, we understand that it is better to risk this misunderstanding, rather than letting people understand that faith consists simply in the effort to believe that God exists, as an alternative to being unbelieving.
At this point, we must still reflect on the fact that, compared to that of the apostles, our faith cannot be a second-class faith; that is, we cannot get used to thinking that an experience as strong as that of the apostles, expressed by the verb “to see”, was possible only for them, or even today, but only for a lucky few. Precisely the reflection on the verb “to see” and the reflection on the fact that our faith cannot be condemned to remain second-rate, compared to that of the apostles, must encourage us to think that we too can see the Lord. All the more so as this seeing, as we said above, if it is “seeing”, then does not depend on our efforts. Then we will have to go and look in our lives if it has ever existed and if it still exists in the present the possibility of such an experience, an easy and strong experience such as seeing, about Jesus. Our faith will always be proportionate to the results of this research.
Another note before proceeding further: Jesus’ answer to Thomas, Jn 20: 29: “Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed””, does not show in what the “seeing” of Thomas consisted: it is not necessary that the seeing, which Jesus invites us not to claim, is reduced to the physical vision; any experience that God gives of himself can be considered a gift not to be claimed; not because we must believe without any gift from God, but because it is necessary to let him decide what experiences to give us so that our faith can be considered sufficiently provoked to exist. Nor can we appeal to the “implicit faith”, wanting to affirm that even those belonging to another religion can be considered as people who, in their good faith, adore, for example, the God of Catholics calling him by another name: by reasoning in this way, the meaning of any word would be forced and emptied. Even a Muslim could tell Catholics that they are “anonymous Muslims”, that is Muslims without being aware of it.
But we must warn against the error of making seeing God, or receiving an experience of his love capable of penetrating any resistance, or the principle of the primacy of God and therefore of his absolute initiative in everything, nothing else that a metaphysical object. In short, the claim to recreatein ourselves the experience of seeing God, according to the meaning we have clarified now, can hide nothing more than the claim to experience God as a metaphysical entity, that is, as a subject able to make himself convincingly perceived as outside of us. Faced with the impossibility of achieving this experience, frustrations may arise, or fanaticism, in the event that we convince ourselves of having found it. Consequently, these things and their implications will have to be re-expressed.
An effective way to touch the crux of the matter could be facing the problem of talking to God: in order to start this action, should we first expect an objective experience, which is actually metaphysical? Obviously no; therefore we will have to base our speaking to God on our choice, which is an evaluation of our inner experience. We will therefore not have to wait for experiences from outside. It is a bit like the gospels themselves often give the impression of not letting anything concrete touch, so that they appear elusive; or in the same way as the Bible seems to ultimately refer to itself. We immediately realize that this choice of evaluation of the inner experience, that is to say, whether something we are experiencing is a sign of God that speaks to us, presupposes in itself a first forecast on the vital implementation modalities consequent to this acceptance. It will be precisely this prefiguration that determines choice or rejection. An inner experience could already be accepted simply for the human spirit of intelligent openness to any experience that promises to be constructive. Perhaps then all the restraints and hesitations to each call are due to a metaphysical misunderstanding? How then can we interpret God’s idea of initiative? What can be the experience of God’s initiative? It comes down to an interpretation of an inner experience. Why call it an experience of God’s initiative? Not, therefore, to declare faith in an external world that has made itself known, but to say that the experience of a dialogue was born and was accepted; also the poetic one is a dialogue born and accepted, but in the case of faith we accept to presuppose in the interlocutor the characteristic of person, in the likeness of human persons. Is it the perception of an external will? No, but rather the definition of a relationship in terms that, in another language, would presuppose this fact. Then, what is what we call the perception of an external will? It is definition of a relationship different from that implemented with objects: for example, acceptance of providing for a greater number of initiatives, disagreements or confirmations. Don’t we say that an object seems alive when it opposes us too much? So being opposed is the basis for perceiving otherness? Yes, if in this we include the experience of something unexpected. Everything therefore would be based on the extent of the unexpected: we see an unexpected in us and we can decide to treat it as a you, within our spiritual life. This also applies to the other “you”, that is, objects and human persons. The interesting thing to appreciate in all this is therefore the inner spiritual experience of relationship. Our relationship begins with perceptions of which we ignore the precise origin, but then realizes itself facing with the internal experiences born from these perceptions. From all this it also follows that we cannot expect to be able to live any spiritual experience that does not require the active use of our conscience and our intelligence; that is, in the tiredness of the evening, when we would like a spiritual experience of consolation that does not require intellectual commitment and maybe we turn on the TV, this expectation is, actually, still a search for a metaphysical object or subject as something other and capable of penetrate beyond our tiredness. Spiritual experience cannot be lived without recourse to conscience and intelligence.
We will thus be in dialogue with our instinct which, without any effort, precisely because it is an instinct, captures the unexpected of existence and automatically interprets it as a moment of dialogue, grasping the aspects of harmony. Our part to be added will be to insert, in this experience of dialogic relationship, the hermeneutical abilities that come to us from our mind or, more globally, from the whole of our spiritual abilities. Furthermore we can also understand that we can act upstream: managing our concrete experiences so as to put our instinct to dialogue in the most positively stimulating, favorable, inviting situations to the best growths. Another component that guides the instinct to dialogue, which is upstream and that we can manage, in addition to concrete events, is mental attitudes. All this, however, should be done while avoiding falling into a technicality that would lead to a total separation from reality (in this language reality has no metaphysical meaning, but is constituted by the appreciation of what we perceive as not directly deriving from our productivity).
I believe that what we have said so far about the relationship with God can make us relate to the discourse on physiognomy: if the universe is a physiognomy, it will not be difficult to trace in our instinct the willingness to identify in this physiognomy the existence of a physiognomy that has originated it. As if to say that all that is physiognomy suggests a personal being; this is why a poet can also feel led to speak with a stone. In this push of the universe to be a physiognomy there is the possibility of recognizing the sign of a personal otherness, capable of relating to us in a physiognomic manner as well; a bit like sometimes, looking at some strange sign, we are led to think that it could be a coded message sent to us by some martian. In this sense even God himself does not exist except in his physiognomic particularities, inseparable from the particularities that derive from our knowing him.