Cathedral Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
No one has ever seen God; if we love one another,
God lives in us,and his love is perfected in us.
1 John 4:12
One of the most important parts of being a faithful pilgrim is learning to reconcile your faith with doubt.
Since humans are such a visual species, many of the doubts that most Christians experience relate to the fact that there are limits to the ways in which we can talk and think about God. Some of the reason for that is that no one has ever seen God, but I think another major reason is that it’s so difficult, if not impossible, to use words to precisely articulate who God is.
However, every Christian has an instinctual understanding of God.
Not that we shouldn’t try – but the fact that you have difficulty verbalizing who God is should not obligate you to feel doubtful or to qualify your faith when you talk about it with other people. In fact, there’s a biological reason that our brains are physically unable to even do this in the first place. The magi were scientists of the stars, and if they were alive today, I think it would be important to them to know and understand the science behind faith.
The neurological basis for why we can’t describe God is called verbal overshadowing, and it’s a result of the fact that the human body has one brain, but two cerebral hemispheres. Malcolm Gladwell explains the way that this phenomenon applies to facial recognition:
“The psychologist Jonathan W. Schooler, who pioneered research on this effect, calls it verbal overshadowing. Your brain has a part (the left hemisphere) that thinks in words, and a part (the right hemisphere) that thinks in pictures, and what happened when you described the face in words was that your actual visual memory was displaced. Your thinking was bumped from the right to the left hemisphere. When you were faced with the lineup the second time around, what you were drawing on was your memory of what you said the waitress looked like, not your memory of what you saw she looked like. And that’s a problem because when it comes to faces, we are an awful lot better at visual recognition than we are at verbal description. If I were to show you a picture of Marilyn Monroe or Albert Einstein, you’d recognize both faces in a fraction of a second. My guess is that right now you can “see” them both almost perfectly in your imagination. But how accurately can you describe them? If you wrote a paragraph on Marilyn Monroe’s face, without telling me whom you were writing about, could I guess who it was? We all have an instinctive memory for faces. But by forcing you to verbalize that memory – to explain yourself – I separate you from those instincts.”
Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
As human beings, we can’t even verbalize a human face. This is fascinating and consoling because it applies to our mental image of God also. Just because I can’t write a compelling written description about my last waiter doesn’t mean that I’m any less certain of his existence. You aren’t any less of a Christian for not being able to do that with an abstract being whom you have only metaphysically experienced.
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