April 2, 2012
Communication, whether divine or human, is valuable to life. We live in a "communicating cosmos," as Dallas Willard has said in his book Hearing God. Yet, we often "miss" some instance of communication, even beyond just mis-interpreting communication. In the instance of divine-human communication, sometimes it is argued that to "miss" God's communication means that we are "not hearing."
But I want to suggest in this post (related to this series) that there's more to "missing it" than just "not hearing." This isn't an exhaustive list of the possibilities, but it shows that there are a lot of distinctions that need to be made in order to describe the phenomenon accurately.
Suppose that God communicates something to some person, P. The following are possible ways P could miss it:
A. P's experience when God speaks is indistinguishable from an otherwise exactly similar experience in which God doesn't speak. (For example, P fails to notice God's speech in the same way one fails to notice the many features of one's room when asleep.) [You might think this is just a failure to have any experience at all, but it's a way of P's missing it if P freely causes that state of affairs—causes his being asleep, as it were].
B. Unlike A, above, God speaks, and P notices the relevant feature of his experience but fails to recognize the experience as being of God, and perhaps further, fails to form the belief that it's of God. (For example, P believes he's merely had a stray thought).
C. Unlike A and B, above, P recognizes and believes the relevant features of his experience to be of God, but does not understand the content of the communication. (For instance, if the content is propositional, but unfamiliar, or if it's non-propositional, for example, a mental image, bodily sensation, or a word, phrase, or proper name).
D. Unlike A-C, above, P believes the relevant features of his experience to be of God, and understands the content, but only partially (For example, that he should pray for someone in a certain group of people at that table over there in the restaurant, but does not know who).
You could add further variation still. For example, you could make reference to the strength of P's beliefs about any of the features of his experience—degrees on a scale ranging from agnosticism to utter certainty. In such cases, P’s “missing it” could be a dismissal of his experience that results, say, from his being somewhere close to agnostic about features of that experience (its origin or content, for example). Or it could result from the combination of (1) being less than certain in the beliefs he holds about his experience (a normal occurrence) and (2) wrongly believing that certainty is necessary for knowledge (it isn’t).
Prudence and discernment are important for detecting the difference between "hearing" and "listening." How much more so in the context of divine-human communication?