Does Experience Shape Our Understanding of God?

Eleanor GoetzDecember 29, 2016The God IssueThe Big Question
Does Experience Shape Our Understanding of God?

The idea of God is different for everyone and is possibly many things even to one person. We all have different ideas of what and who God is.

Some people do not believe in God at all, while others believe in many gods. Others believe that God infinitely shapes their lives and their afterlives. Others look to themselves to be shaped. There are a variety of different religions, and as many as 22 major religions in the world today.

Christians, as well as other monotheistic religions, such as Judaism and Islam, view God as an all-knowing ruler. The followers of these religions study religious texts, such as the Bible, to guide their lives. They also believe that God is the creator of everything. Polytheistic religions have many gods, such as a god of water, that rule over part of the world. Buddhists do not believe in a god but search for a way to end suffering by ending all self-desires. Through the teachings of these religions many ideas of God materialize. How we view God privately is personal and varied. Our personal concept of God is ever-changing because we change and the world we live in changes.

The belief in a higher power became possible when primitive humans developed the ability to distinguish their thoughts and selves from others. Some early peoples believed that souls exist in everything and there is no separation between spirits and the physical world. When early civilizations developed, deities were used to explain the mysteries of the physical world, such as having a god for thunder, rain, death, and creation. Changes in secular circumstances, religious power, and cultural diffusion changed how early peoples saw God. As people’s concept of God changed, old ideas were either incorporated into new religions or dropped completely.

Gods have been viewed in a fearsome way at times in history. For example, the Aztecs believed that in order to keep peace with the gods, they must give offerings including human sacrifices. In early Mesopotamia, people believed in a dark afterlife, always living in fear of the gods. In early monotheistic religions God was feared. God in the Old Testament of the Bible was angrier and less forgiving than when portrayed later in the New Testament. Jesus changed this idea, explaining that we should not fear God and that God is forgiving. This allowed Christians to live less in fear and more in gratitude.

Generally we might say that contemporary humans live less in fear of deities because the need for God has diminished. We know more about the world we live in. We have less to fear and science explains the unknown. Death is not looming around every corner. Our lives are longer and many live to see our grandchildren and great grandchildren. In our modern world we are free to think and contemplate our conception of God.

"In our modern world we are free to think and contemplate our conception of God."

In our modern world extreme experiences, whether they are good or bad, often cause believers to look to God for answers, comfort, or to share joy or give thanks. My friend Liz says, “Without a belief in God, I would have a hole in my life.” In extremely bad situations such as war, death, or illness, we can rely on a concept of God to guide and comfort us. God is something that we can look to and have faith in to carry us through bad times. Therefore, if we become sick we are likely to develop a deeper relationship with God because we need faith and hope to get through this experience. Near-death experiences also become a way to validate one’s faith in God as people report meeting their God and visiting heaven or a heaven-like place. This can strengthen an individual’s faith and news of it can strengthen other’s faith. When I asked my great aunt what experiences shaped her concept of God, she explained that she had been in a car crash and her friends got out of the car miraculously alive, claiming that angels had helped.

But she says, “It’s not just one experience [that shapes our understanding of God], it’s a combination of things from when you are born to when you die.”

I consider myself a Catholic because that is how I have been brought up. My beliefs have been shaped mostly by my family and also influenced by modern culture and my peers. My formal beliefs about God were found at Catechism. My view of God changed when I visited a Jesuit retreat center on Staten Island. Before that I thought of God as being distant and religion as being very disciplined but after talking with one of the priests I now believe that God is all around us, not just in heaven. This made me feel that God has been near me all my life.

My little brother appeared to have been born with a belief in God and acquired some knowledge of God through questions of his own. At an early age he had strong convictions about God’s hand in death. When he was three, his guinea pig died and he was very angry at God. As he ranted in his car seat, he asked, “Why does God put us on this Earth for a short time, then make us die and go to heaven?” This anger at God continued for a year or two and as a result, he refused to set foot in a church. God was the force that made death happen. Later, when he was six, he left his beloved (and therapeutic) glasses on a beach in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The tide was coming in as we were leaving the beach. When we got back to the house he noticed his glasses were missing and we raced back to the beach to find that the tide had come in. We ran over to the spot where we had been sitting and it was covered with water and a feeling of hopelessness settled in. My mother saw something in the waves and reached down and picked up the glasses. On the ride back in the car, my brother said, “I prayed to God that we would find my glasses and we did.” And he thought that whatever he prayed for came to be. God had become the magic force that made the impossible happen.

In the future the concept of God will continue to change as humanity changes, just as it has in the past. These changes will shape the collective understanding of God. Perhaps in the future, different religious ideologies that clash today will form a peaceful clump with a new way to look at God. Or children will read about today’s Gods in books similar to those we read about ancient Greek deities. Or perhaps our concepts of God will completely die out and be replaced with new ideas. But only God knows for sure.

Eleanor Goetz lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her family and attends LaGuardia High School in Manhattan. Her major is in visual art, and she works part-time at the American Museum of Natural History, in the genomics laboratory of the entomology department. She hopes to combine her love of art and science in her work in the future.