19 November 2007
Case Study 3 – Experiencing God
The stairs were only another fifteen feet away, and I knew that if I could reach the top of the stairs I would be home free. The quick walk from my car to the quiet of my office on the second floor of the academic building involved the game of dodge-student. Not that I minded speaking with students who came up to ask me this or that odd question about their homework assignment. It was more that I liked so much starting my day quietly and simply. I walked faster. A new student of mine stepped out of the school café. I glanced at her and knew that my quick pace would not outdo the look of hope that was in her face. She turned and walked my way, intercepting my path to the stairs. She wore a blue-hooded sweatshirt with blue pajama pants and looked tired and disheveled.
“Professor Salmeier?” she said, “Hey, so you know Case Study 3? And do you remember how I didn’t turn it in on Monday?”
“Well, funny thing. I wrote it and intended to stick it under your door on Friday afternoon, but just as I was almost finished, I had to leave my room. So I saved the document again and x’d out of the Word window. Then I realized I never hit “save as…” When I x’d out of the Word window, the file got erased.”
“I am sorry to hear that about your paper.” I smiled at her, but she looked like she had more to say. My game of dodge-student was over, so I motioned her to stand to my left. “Would you like to follow me to my office,” I asked and finished, “I just arrived, and I have a class in an hour, but we can talk about this until then if you would like.”
“Thanks Professor Salmeier. That would be great.”
The two of us climbed the stairs and entered the little hallway that lead to my office. Between the bottom of the stairs and the top of the stairs, she explained how her paper was erased again. Her voice sounded high pitched and tense. She called the event of her paper being erased an “academic trauma” from which she would not soon recover. I chuckled at that. She assured me that the paper had been excellent and creative. We reached my office door. The wad of keys the school gave to me contained at least a dozen similar-looking brass keys. The key to my office door was subtly etched with an ‘A-217’ and was, as usual, the last key I looked at after having looked at all the others. I unlocked the door, but left the sickly fluorescent lights off. It was better to open the window blinds than to shock myself with the annoying buzz of the light bulbs and the slight flickering common to all fluorescent lighting. The chair in front of the desk was pushed in, so I pulled it on its wheels across the plastic desk mat that hides the carpet and motioned her to sit down.
“So, Noelle, when you wrote your paper the first time, how did it go?”
“It was so great. It was the first time I tried to write a paper for Theology as a philosophical conversation rather than a step by step academic paper. I felt I was capturing the concerns of ‘Samantha’ and her annoying friend, I named him ‘Joe,’ as well as a representation of a real-life conversation.” She stared out the window while she spoke with a savory look in her eyes like she could still see the lost essay in her periphery.
“Well tell me about your dialogue,” I said. I hoped that by talking about it she could regain the confidence to write the paper again. She took a deep breath and paused a moment. She looked at her hands and wiggled her fingers like she was typing something. Then, she opened her mouth and began talking. The tone of her voice sounded more relaxed as she began to explain her lost paper to me.
“Ok. I set the scene in the coffee shop. Samantha and Joe asked their questions, and I invited them to sit down at my table with me. In the dialogue, I had just finished a one-pump mocha, one-pump almond, soy caffé misto with cinnamon powder on top. I wrote that Samantha knocked my empty cup over, so I picked it up and weighed it in my hand. I started the conversation by saying, ‘I wonder if I could build a cup too heavy for me to lift. I think your friend’s questions are very interesting and worth answering. I think we should discuss each question (the rock, the shutting of one’s mouth, and the way we experience God’s power) because each question is tied directly to the others.” She had moved her hand to simulate the picking up of an empty cup. Her description of the scene was filled with warmth and I could tell she regarded her characters, Samantha and Joe, as seriously as she would real people. I did not interrupt her but waved my hand for more.
“Then, we all talked about how it was possible for each of us to build a cup too heavy to lift. We talked about how there are certain limitations to being human. Then I asked Samantha to tell me what God must be like in comparison to human beings. I assumed that her character would have said something like, ‘God is the most perfect, perfect being imaginable because he is everything I am not.’ I thought that was a great way to introduce the concept that God, being infinite, is essentially different from his finite creations. I remember discussing that in class last Monday. So from there, I wrote more about how God’s infiniteness is different that human finiteness. I thought that the idea of the ‘cup too heavy to lift’ was like the idea of the ‘rock too heavy to lift,’ so from there I explained how the question was perhaps an appropriate test of human power and ability but that the question was self-contradictory when applied to God because the question requires an illogical and impossible combination of ‘things’ (Mavrodes 280). I understood Mavrodes argument about the square-circle as a smaller model for the impossible reconciliation of God’s infinity with a finite rock. Either God would become less immaterial and omnipotent in order to not lift the rock, which is impossible since he is essentially infinite in power and divinity, or the rock would become less material and finite in order for it to outweigh God’s omnipotent power to lift, which is impossible since the rock is essentially material and finite. This led to a discussion of what it meant for God to have omnipotent power. I pointed out, again because of Mavrodes and our discussion in class, that omnipotent power is equivalent at all times, meaning that certain expressions of God’s power are proportionate to others. I explained how God’s power to lift is not greater or less than his power to create since to be omnipotent is to be simultaneously and equally powerful in all ways (281).
“In the dialogue, Samantha seemed ready to accept this explanation of omnipotence, but Joe still wanted to push the topic further with his ‘shutting-mouth’ test for God’s omnipotence. So I conflated the topic of Joe’s ‘shutting-mouth’ mouth question with the underlying and most important question of them all, being ‘Does God express his power in ways that humans can experience and understand and so have belief in God?’” Noelle’s voice had risen excitedly at this point and she paused to look directly at me.
I said, “Yes, that does seem to be the key question of the case study. It’s important that you noted that people desire to experience and understand how God expresses his power because this lays a foundation for all further beliefs about who God is.”
“Yeah!” she said. “That’s what I was going for because it seems like ‘Joe’ and ‘Samantha’s’ questions were merely screening a deep-seated desire to know and understand God but they were afraid and rightfully concerned if they couldn’t see a tangible proof-by-experience of God expressing his power. Then they would necessarily be able to conclude that God is not omnipotent and further, that God might not even be God in that perfect and infinite sense.
“So I gave them biblical examples from Acts 7 and 9 about the stories of Stephen and Saul, explaining that the former displayed a case where it looked like God should have acted but didn’t and the latter displayed a case where God should have acted and did. If I were Stephen, I would have hoped that God would save me, but instead, God does not ‘show up to save the day,’ so to speak. Even so, Stephen expresses his belief in God’s power to act to his last breath, saying, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them!’ (7:60). The narrative denotes that a man named Saul is standing by while Stephen is martyred, looking approvingly upon the scene. Stephen’s dying request of God is for God to show his mercy to those that sinned by participating in his murder. It’s not that Stephen exercised any control over God, affecting what would happen next, but the case seems to be that while God did not rescue Stephen, God chose to express his power in another way. Chapter 9 of the Acts of the Apostles returns to Saul’s narrative and provides a case where God expresses his power and mercy by stopping Saul as he journeyed in search of more Christians to persecute. The narrative says that a ‘light from heaven flashed around him…and he fell to the ground and heard a voice’ (9:3,4). The voice identifies itself as ‘Jesus whom you [Saul] are persecuting’ and tells Saul to enter
“That’s ok. I think you used the biblical examples well, but while you were writing did you begin to think about the implications of the difference between the human and divine perspectives? The human perspective of interaction is usually this: when I don’t interact with people I am usually ignorant of their existence, apathetic towards their existence, or purposely ignoring the fact of their existence. When I choose to interact with people it’s usually because I value their existence as being pertinent to my current needs. For example, if Sally walks into a room, I can choose to greet her or not. My decision to greet Sally depends upon whether or not I achieve an end to some means by greeting her. Perhaps that’s why God’s interactions with humans can leave you and characters like ‘Samantha’ and ‘Joe’ feeling unsettled. Did you come across this as you wrote your paper?”
“Yes, except that when I thought about it further, it’s not simply a question about how God chooses to interact with people. I think it’s actually a question of whether God has the power to interact with his creation at all,” she hesitated then said, “right?”
“Yes, right. The focus needs to stay on God’s power.”
“But I do believe that God has the power to interact with his creations in an experiential way. And that’s why in my paper I started to describe the accounts of experiencing God’s power that I discovered when I interviewed my three people.”
“Oh, who did you interview?” I said.
“I interviewed my quad-mate Melissa Crowe, Ginny Drews, and Professor Cassandra.”
“And what did you decide about God’s power to interact with his creation?”
“Well, it’s not like God’s interactions are predictable in content or context, but they do conform to some kind of thematic pattern.”
“What kind of theme did you find?”
“Well it seems like no matter what kind of experience my sources had, their experiences pointed to God’s omnipotence being active in their lives and that his omnipotent actions specifically addressed the needs of each person, even if the way in which each person’s needs were addressed was unexpected. I also discerned certain levels of interaction, from implicit spiritual feelings to explicit demonstrations of God’s power. For example, when Cynthia Cassandra was a little girl, and before she was saved, she would often go and sit in a Catholic parish during lunchtime. She was young and should have been afraid of the darkness of the room and the mysteriousness of all the images of saints and Mary and Jesus, but she felt an overwhelming sense of peace. My friend Melissa felt intense emotion when she committed her life to Christ. She remembers feeling so empty and lost and sad, but when she accepted Jesus as her Savior, she was overcome by an inexplicable sense of love that surrounded her and filled her emptiness inside. Both experiences of God’s power present two distinct cases: a case where God’s power was felt by a non-Christian and a case where God’s power was felt in the conversion from unbelief to new belief as a Christian. Ginny Drews experienced God’s power more on the explicit level of interaction. Sometime after becoming a Christian, Ginny wanted to go on a mission trip to
“I had the idea that ‘Joe’ would then help bring my paper to a close by becoming frustrated that he had never experienced God’s power like my three friends in his life before,” she stopped and let out a deep breath.
I waited for a few seconds, then asked, “Did you develop a compassionate response to ‘Joe’s’ dilemma?”
“Well, I guess I did. I wrote that God’s seeming lack of power in ‘Joe’s’ life did not reflect an imperfection in God’s omnipotence. I addressed this to ‘Samantha’ as well since she was thinking that a lack of experiencing God’s power makes a belief in God less true. People often miss God’s displays of power. Again, I returned to ideas about God’s perfection, infinite essence, and omnipotent ability to create. The dialogue in the paper here turned into a consideration of further evidence of God’s creative power. ‘Joe’ and ‘Samantha’ had agreed with me that an infinite and divine conception of God includes his omnipotent power to create. I gently asked, or wrote how I asked, ‘Joe’ if he had ever admired a sunrise or enjoyed the stars at night. ‘Joe’ answered yes in the paper. Then I gently explained, ‘Joe,’ that means you have experienced God’s creative power, but there is so much more to God than his power to create and maintain the universe and everything in it.’ He asked me how he was supposed to experience more, and I wrote, ‘You need to have a personal relationship with him. You need to invite him to have more power in and through and over your life.’ I left the dialogue at that. I guess I wanted to imply that ‘Joe’ and ‘Samantha’ could either begin to consider the idea of a relationship with God or decide to reject the idea.”
“Well do you think you can rewrite that for me, by say, next Monday?”
“Yes, but I just wish you could have read the first one,” she said as she got up to leave.