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Donovan Overview
‘Can we know God by experience?’ – Peter Donovan
A simple summary (by paragraphs numbers)
The first bit just sets out the question for the essay:
1) Why bother arguing ‘from’ religious experience (inductively) if you just know God’s real
from personal experience / awareness?
2) Claiming to know stuff without having reasons seems risky / wrong: evil dictators have done
terrible things on the basis of misguided beliefs. Maybe it’s even insane. Yet, many believers
think they know God personally by experience.
3) However, there are lots of things we think we ‘just know’ by intuition. It’s perfectly
ordinary to suppose that we know things without further argument.
4) But does that apply to religion too? Do we ‘just know’ about religion through intuition? Do
we have the right to say we know about religion intuitively?
The next bit considers knowledge from intuition:
5) A number of theologians and philosophers have claimed that we can know things about
religion just from intuition. On the one hand, God can be known indirectly through the basic
finite stuff of the world, but that’s only part of the picture (i.e. there could be experience of
God too).
6) Some writers have drawn attention to other things we ‘just know’ through intuition and
have gone on to argue that this can also apply to religious interpretations of our experiences.
Intuition grasps knowledge of God.
7) H.P. Owen claimed that we get a grasp on the material world and other people through
intuition – we ‘just know’ that they are real, conscious, etc. and the same applies to the
believer’s grasp of God:
(a) As we know people through actions, we know God through creation
(b) A person’s inner self can be revealed to us, so too with God in Christ
(c) Actions reveal a person’s self and character, so too God’s character can be seen in
(d) As we can grasp that a person brings about certain effects, so we realise that God
creates certain realities.
8) In all of these cases, intuition has ‘mediated immediacy’ (it feels very real/close but is not
direct knowledge). God would not be the product of reason here, but would be encountered
through other experiences (e.g. experience of his creation).
9) Of course, intellectual reasoning also has a role. It can make things clearer, or supply some
key ideas which help intuition along. However, in religious experience God is really known
through intuition.
[QUOTE: H.P. Owen] The basic form of Christian experience is the apprehension of God to which I
have given the names of ‘intuition’ and ‘faith’. All forms of experience are modes of this one
fundamental form; they are all expressions of this primary awareness.
[Basically …] The basic Christian experience is intuition (‘just knowing’ God). All the other
types of Christian religious experiences are simply different versions of this.
Donovan Overview
10) Having decided that knowledge of God pretty much amounts to intuition, Owen then goes
on to treat all religious experiences as forms of knowledge. (Similarly, given that we assume
that other people exist, we carry on assuming that they’re real when we have dealings with
them and see their bodily actions.)
11) According to Owen, God’s reality underlies all religious experiences, and this arises in
many ways.
[QUOTE: H.P. Owen] The sense of God’s reality can occur in various contexts. It can be produced
by the contemplation of beauty and order in nature, by meditation on the words of Scripture, by
participation in the Church’s liturgy, by some event within our personal existence. Yet it may not have
any assignable cause or channel; it may come uninvited. And although it is more likely to occur in
moods of quiet recollection, it can occur when our minds are troubled by the secular pressures of life.
[Basically …] We get the sense that God exists by looking at beauty in nature, thinking about
the Bible, going to Church, or through personal experiences. Yet, we might not know why we
get such experiences. They might happen when we are quiet and thoughtful, but they can
happen when we’re busy with our daily lives.
12) The idea of knowing God through intuition is attractive to Christians, because it fits with
the Bible. There, God communicates with humanity and is known through nature –
experiences are signs and symbols through which he is known.
[QUOTE: D.H. Baillie] Because nature is God’s and He is its creator, it lends itself to His use, and
He can make its natural elements to speak sacramentally to us; not in the sense of a ‘natural theology’
which can prove the purpose of God from a mere contemplation of nature, but in the sense that God
by His Word can use, and therefore we by our faith can use, natural objects… as sacramental
expressions of His mercy and faithfulness.
[Basically …] Because God made nature, he can communicate through it ‘sacramentally’ (i.e.
through actions which have an inner sacred/spiritual meaning). This is not to say that we can
prove God through studying nature (‘natural theology’) but we can experience God’s mercy
and faithfulness through his natural objects.
13) This idea of intuition of God also fits with the idea of ‘faith’ – human response to God.
Faith is not just belief without evidence; it is an intuitive response to God.
[QUOTE: H.H. Farmer] The essential content of revelation is… God Himself, and not general truths
about God or the universe or immortality or the way of duty; though such truths are implicit in the
divine self-giving, as this is mediated ever more richly to the responsive soul in the changing situations
of life, and are capable of reflective formulation.
And the proper response to revelation is … faith, faith being not an intellectual assent to general
truths, but the decisive commitment of the whole person in active obedience to, and quiet trust in the
divine will apprehended as rightfully sovereign and utterly trustworthy at one and the same time.
[Basically …] Revelation is an encounter with God, not a source of truths about God. Such
truths are however implicit in God’s self-giving presence. The response to that is faith – not
just agreeing to truths about God but committing personally to obeying Him (who is
14) The believer’s knowledge of God is intuitive; it requires no further argument.
Donovan Overview
The next bit discusses feeling certain and being right
15) Despite its popularity among some writers and Christians, the views about intuition of
God expressed above have been criticised by modern philosophers. This isn’t just an antireligious bias, but reflects concerns about appealing to intuition in the case of God.
16) Critics of religious intuition distinguish between psychological certainty (feeling certain) and
rational certainty (being right).
17) Obviously, one can feel certain without being right. If I feel certain of the time, I can still
check that against my watch. However, I can’t check the rightness of my watch against my
feeling of certainty. It’s not the feeling which makes us right, no matter how convinced we are.
18) Being right is not a state of mind (not a way we feel), but has to do with how our beliefs
relate to states of affairs (how things are).
19) The problems of feeling certain also apply to intuitive knowledge. The sense of having an
intuition (‘I just know that …’) may seem clear and direct (‘someone is watching me’).
Sometimes these feelings are right; this tempts us to think that having an intuition amounts to
being right.
20) Question: if you only have intuition to go on, how do you know that your feeling counts as
proper intuition? Perhaps you don’t remember the ‘intuitive feel’ properly. Can you use
intuition to check on intuition?
21) We cannot take for granted the reliability of intuition as a source of knowledge.
Sometimes intuition is right, but that’s just the chance of the situation. Even with the example
of intuitionally ‘just knowing’ other people, that sense of certainty could be wrong.
[QUOTE: Bertrand Russell] One of the most notable examples of intuition is the knowledge people
believe themselves to possess of those with whom they are in love. The wall between different
personalities seems to become transparent, and people think they see into another soul as into their
own. Yet deception in such cases is constantly practised with success; and even where there is no
intentional deception, experience gradually proves, as a rule, that the supposed insight was illusory, and
that the slower more groping methods of the intellect are in the long run more reliable.
[Basically …] People in love think they have an intuitive knowledge of the other person, seeing
his/her soul. Yet partners/spouses often deceive each other and the ‘insight’ was wrong. In the
long run, intellect and evidence is more reliable than intuition.
22) Intuitive religious experience suffers from exactly the same difficulties. Terms like
‘encounter’ assume that the thing encountered (God) is real, but his existence is exactly what
is at issue.
23) Also, it’s not enough to say that we accept what our senses tell us, or that there are other
people, without argument. Our knowledge of the senses is something that we can test. For
our knowledge of other people, we have the analogy that we ourselves exist while being in a
normal and observable body.
24) In other areas where we rely on our intuition (e.g. investing money), it’s difficult to say
whether we’re right. Religion is very diverse and open to disagreement – does that mean that
intuition works better here? (E.g. compare gambling on the stock market). There are so many
different religious intuitions and different people; surely intuition cannot be reliable?
Donovan Overview
25) Just because there are some accepted intuitions (e.g. 2+2=4), it does not follow that there
is a general and accepted intuitive way of knowing. What counts as knowledge of God is
doubted and disputed, so we could not agree what we could work out through intuition, even
if we accept that intuition is sometimes reliable.
26) Of course, Owen and Lewis aren’t arguing that Christianity is true simply because the
believer intuitively ‘just knows’ it. They are trying to describe Christianity as an interpretation of
our human experiences. (E.g. I experience this that and the other, and interpret it as being
God’s presence affecting my life).
27) But the central position given to intuition of God has been criticised by philosophers.
28) Despite the criticisms, it doesn’t mean that experiences of God are illusions. If Christianity
were true, it is likely that people would be directly aware of God’s reality. But how can we
know whether the impression that we’re aware of God can be reliable?
The next bit explores ‘knowledge about’ and ‘experience of’
29) Theologians (people who study God) who argue that God is known by immediate
encounter base their views on ‘person-to-person’ knowledge. There’s a special kind of
knowledge in encountering a conscious person, rather than just an object.
30) Philosopher Martin Buber wrote about this in I and Thou.
[QUOTE: Martin Buber] The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude.
The attitude of man is two fold in accordance with the two basic words he can speak.
The basic words are not single words but word pairs.
One basic word is the pair I-You
The other basic word is the pair I-It.
[Basically …] Humans speak in two basic relationship terms: I-You, and I-It.
31) I-You relationships are person-to-person. They are not based on reason, and are profound
but fragile. ‘It’ refers to objects and reason; without the person side one isn’t fully human.
32) Buber points to the biblical tradition which sees God as personal. If God is personal, we
should think in I-You terms, rather than of ‘It’. So, in theology there can be a great difference
between arguing about God and experiencing God personally.
33) That contrast can be related to Christianity. Faith has often been preferred to speculative
thinking about God.
34) Also with I-You relationships, we often think that a personal encounter can’t be put into
words. This may support the view that God is to be known in an I-You relationship. Why
should a relationship with God be more subject to reasoned argument than person-to-person
knowledge? Indeed, if you attempt to describe/analyse a personal encounter, then the
relationship is broken and the person becomes an ‘It’.
35) Because the idea of encountering God in religious experience is so familiar to Christians,
anyone relying on this needs to be aware of the philosophical problems it raises. This idea of
knowledge through encounter has been strongly criticised. Three points needs to be discussed:
(i) the sense of an encounter might be mistaken, (ii) having ‘experience of’ presupposes
‘knowledge about’, (iii) ‘experience of’ is not knowledge.
Donovan Overview
36) (i) sense of encounter may be mistaken. Like with intuition, the mere impression of
certainty is no guide to whether this is true.
37) Russell reminded us that our intuitions about people can be wrong. The same is true of
the I-You encounter. How do we know that we really have a personal connection with
someone? Is that impression enough to go on?
38) TV and theatre shows us how supposed I-You relationships can be something different
(e.g. a spy trusting a double-agent). Misinterpreted encounters are common.
39) Thus far, the critic’s point is just that ‘you may not be right’, and this won’t bother the
convinced believer. But there’s more to it than that …
40) (ii) having ‘experience of’ presupposes ‘knowledge about’. Preachers and theologians
(people who study God) often point out that the biblical meaning of the word ‘know’ assumes
a rich I-You relationship. Religious knowing is person to person knowing (Adam ‘knew his wife
Eve’ Genesis 4.1).
41) Biblical knowledge is not theoretical, but enters into subjective relations (i.e. it is perceived
personally). This is ‘existential’ knowledge (focused on human existence) rather than ‘scientific’
knowledge (based on theory and testing). [The footnote here attributes this view to the
theologian Alan Richardson].
42) If the believer has a direct experience of God, surely it’s inappropriate to force that
experience into scientific terms.
43) However, just because scientific ‘knowledge about’ is not most important in personal
relationships, that doesn’t mean that it’s irrelevant. E.g. Adam’s knowledge about Eve is
assumed in his relationship with her; he knows that she exists. If he couldn’t be sure, Adam
couldn’t have a relationship with her.
44) So, factual knowledge is important to personal knowledge. People too easily take it for
granted that they can relate to God, as though knowledge about him is not problematic.
45) To the philosopher, knowledge about God is the very thing in question. It is only because
religious experience might give knowledge about God that we investigate it in the first place.
46) That’s not to say that a philosopher can demand definite knowledge about God; a religious
tradition might say that God is not an object (‘it’). But this causes a problem from the
comparison with personal encounters, because people can be investigated.
47) With people, we can have knowledge about them without a personal encounter (I-It and
not I-You), but we cannot have a personal encounter if we know nothing of them. So with
God, the personal encounter assumes a good deal of knowledge about him (creator, etc.)
48) (iii) ‘Experience of’ if not in itself knowledge. Suppose God were experienced first-hand; it
would not follow for certain that this counts as knowledge. We assume that people who have
experienced things for themselves are in a better position for knowing truth, but why? Is firsthand experience actually better than second-hand knowledge?
49) There are situations in which a lack of first-hand experience really doesn’t matter; a male
doctor can know much of pregnancy but never falls pregnant.
50) What if there were two experienced doctors, one male, but one a woman who has
previously been pregnant? She would have extra first-hand experience. However, it isn’t just
Donovan Overview
the additional experience which matters, but the impressions, memories, and information
which comes from it.
51) It is knowledge about pregnancy which comes from being pregnant which gives the woman
doctor an advantage, not just experience of pregnancy. Further, all her other knowledge
(training, shared with male doctors) is necessary for her to learn from her experiences.
52) First-hand experience isn’t important because it is knowledge, but because it enables us to
increase our knowledge. Knowledge isn’t just awareness; it comes from relating our
experiences to the rest of our knowledge/experiences.
53) People might object that this places too much emphasis on learning/ knowledge about.
Our personal encounters do presuppose knowledge of people, but that’s secondary to the
feeling of I-You relationships. The same could be true of God.
54) That may be true; encounters with God/people may have non-intellectual reasons. It’s only
a problem if people claim to know God just on the basis of such encounters. The fact is,
though, that some believers do claim to have knowledge just on this basis; the arguments
above show that this is inadequate.
55) The criticisms haven’t shown that awareness of God is an illusion, just that it cannot itself
alone show that we have good reason to believe in God.
The final bit discusses the sense of knowing God
56) The situations/experiences which lead people to talk of encountering God are crucial for
religion; they keep it going. They give a sense of knowing God.
57) The philosophical difficulties of intuition/encounter/mysticism do not detract from their
importance for religion. Religious people may claim that philosophers have ‘hardened their
hearts’ and refuse to be open to God.
58) That’s a mistake; a fair number of modern philosophers are themselves religious believers.
They wouldn’t want an important experience (God) to be discredited by weak arguments.
59) The chief point in philosophical criticism of ‘knowing God by experience’ is this. Religious
reasoning has taken such experience to be a kind of knowledge, immediately available to those
who have it. But knowledge doesn’t work like that. The sense of knowing isn’t on its own a
complete sign of knowledge.
60) But if the sense of God doesn’t count as knowledge, what then?
61) That doesn’t mean that we discard religious experience. We don’t need to take an ‘all or
nothing’ approach to it, as some critics or believers have.
Answering on Donovan: Strategy and Tips
Firstly, a reminder of some general pointers for paper 4:
In part (a), follow up short quotations/summaries with longer explanation and analysis.
(E.g. Here Donovan argues that knowledge is “not merely a matter of experiences”. By
this he means… [detail follows]).
Donovan Overview
In part (a) always links to other parts of the A Level course, naming scholars and
technical terms. (E.g. When Donovan mentions “arguing from religious experience”, he
refers to… [details from rel. exp. topic – inductive argument, Swinburne, etc.]).
Define all technical terms. (E.g. By ‘intuition’ Donovan means…). Then use these terms
Refer to the wider argument of the text. (E.g. Here Donovan argues that… Later on in
the text he develops this point by…).
In part (b), develop a critical appraisal of the passage. (E.g. The claim that personal
awareness cannot alone provide sufficient reason for believing in God is justified. This
is supported by…).
In part (b), persistently use the phrases ‘the implication of this for religion is…’ or, ‘the
implication of this for human experience is…’. You should draw out the implications of
the passage and the implications of your response to it. What would happen if we
agreed with the author, or if we agreed with you?
Now some specific advice about Donovan:
Be very clear in your own mind what ‘intuition’ is. You will need to use this term over
and again. Any essay should define this and state Donovan’s basic view on this matter.
Be clear on how this direct awareness contrasts with the inductive argument from
religious experience.
It’s probably worth writing separate short summary notes on each of the philosophers
Donovan refers to (Owen, Buber, etc.) and clarifying on these what their arguments
are, how they would agree/disagree with each other, and whether Donovan
agrees/disagrees with them. For instance, it should be obvious that H.H. Farmer and
Bertrand Russell definitely do not agree about intuition.
Work out how direction intuition of God contrasts with some of the indirect logical
reasons for God we have studied (especially arguments). A good answer might point
out how mainstream philosophical ‘proofs’ of God have largely ignored this idea of
Give examples of personal experiences, where relevant. For example, where Donovan
writes of an encounter that “can’t be put into words”, you could give a classic example
like St. Teresa of Avila (and explain).
After looking at Buber, Donovan keeps using the term ‘I-You’. If this comes up, refer it
back to Buber to explain what it means.
You could produce a set of notes on ‘religious experience for Donovan’, picking out
everything from the Paper 3 topic that’s relevant.