Is “Missing” Something in Communication Merely “Not Hearing”?

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?

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5 Responses to 'Is “Missing” Something in Communication Merely “Not Hearing”?'

  1. […] is at issue is whether God speaks, but the person spoken to somehow "misses it." [See this post for more on "missing it."]  Though this explanation isn't, properly speaking, an essential […]

  2. avatar Richard says:

    This was very insightful. Thank you for your efforts in this series. I think part of the problem for those who object to “hearing God” today along the lines taught by Dallas Willard is a false expectation that if God communicates it must be overtly overwhelming to such an extent that there is no possibility of “not hearing.” Now, of course, God can do that but there is no reason to think that he must always do that. In a recent internet exchange between C. Michael Patton and Sam Storms on the issue of the continuation of the gifts this issue came up. Patton seemed to only be willing to countenance the “thunder and fire” approach in order to grant that God was speaking to him. He even spoke about experiences that were fairly typical of those listening to God but he discounted his own experiences because he felt they we too open to subjectivity. He wanted an experience that was incorrigibly divine without any chance of being wrong. With such a high epistemic standard it is of course easy to dismiss Willard’s ideas of hearing God. Your current series on “hearing God” is helpfully unmasking these false epistemic assumptions. Thanks again!

  3. avatar Timothy Bayless says:

    Thanks for your encouraging words. I agree with you: the “thunder and fire”-only expectation is unwarranted. And incorrigibility sets the bar for knowledge unjustifiably high. It lessens the risk of being wrong, but at too high a cost. Also, I’m familiar with Sam Storms and have read one of his books, but didn’t know of the Storms/Patton exchange. I’ll have to look for that. Where did you find it?

  4. avatar Richard says:

    The Storms/Patton exchange can be found here:

    Patton and Storms are friends and the exchange is not only cordial but manifests a genuine desire for understanding and clarity.

  5. avatar Kiel West says:

    If anyone cares to, I’d love to hear some expansion on that “subjectivity” that listening Christians are so often worried about. I am trying to develop my own ideas about this subject, but I’m still trying to figure out what’s so frightening about getting it wrong.