How Can We Know If It’s God?

Sand Dunes at Sunset
Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1885

How Can We Know If It’s God?

Are we making a big mistake?  Couldn’t it be Tom, Dick, or Susie instead?  Well, no.  Those three friends are all palpable, visible, leave imprints when they sit on the couch, chat about familiar topics, and seldom sound oracular.

God is invisible and doesn’t leave a mark on the furniture.  Let’s canvass the invisible, impalpable communicators: radios, smartphones, earplugs, intercoms, loudspeakers.  Like our friends, these too would be routinely identifiable and don’t speak with authority — not even when they compel attention or distraction.

What about messages from one’s unconscious, projecting repressed wishes or fears?  Here we have likelier candidates for a source purporting to carry messages from The Unseen Divine — but actually carrying no such thing.  “Believe not every spirit,” cautions the apostle Paul, and he’s surely right about that.

Of course, if you know that a message can’t come from God because “God” is not found in your inventory of the contents of any possible world, then — though the question might still be an intriguing one to puzzle out conceptually — it cannot grip you personally.

That said, for a lot of people — among whom I’m numbered — there is no shutting down of the question: is that God on the line or someone or something else?

There’ve been people, saints perhaps, who’ve reported feeling flooded with the overwhelming certainty that God was envelopingly present.  Their rapture surpassed any other kind of joy and could not be captured in words.

In my teens, I longed very much to undergo such a divine visitation — maybe because it would explain what I was doing sitting home on Prom night.

That said, nowadays I do describe myself as living a prayer-guided life.  What can I possibly mean by that, and how can I tell that it’s meaningful even to talk that way?

Our ways of contacting the divine may vary with our acculturation.  I have a relation to God that’s essentially Jewish.  That doesn’t mean that you have to be Jewish to have this particular relation to the divine, or that Jews generally would recognize as their own a relation to God that’s not embedded in the Jewish calendar.  A Jewishly observant lawyer friend once told me that I have “the Jewish essence — but not Jewish existence.”  

Oh well.  As Willie Nelson would say, There’s nuthin’ I can do about it now.

What do I take the Jewish essence to be?  It’s the effort to face directly into the problematic of history insofar as it confronts the seeker in linear time, his or her actual culture and concrete situations, while being continuously open to God’s help and direction.  It resists escapist flight into an ideal world but tries to realize who and what one is and how rightly to assess one’s circumstances.

This is not to deny that people can have rapturous unions with the divine.  Only that experiences of that type figure as tangential where the most consequential interactions with God are concerned.

In the last chapter of my book, A Good Look at Evil, I report a dramatic example of that kind of God-and-Abigail relationship in my life.  I’d been fired from my job as assistant professor of philosophy after a closely contested departmental election where I voted for the losing candidate.  My fight to regain my position had been going on for six years, during which I’d be reinstated and promptly fired again.  It was a hot June day.  I was walking down the concrete slope to the Headquarters where one more hearing was scheduled, weighted down with a satchel full of documents.  I felt hopeless and alone.  

At that moment, I sensed a row of bearded, semi-transparent figures behind me, walking or floating on a path that was finer than the sidewalk under my shoes.  Their path wound higher than a foot above the street.  This finer path ended like a parabola at the door of the administrative Headquarters.  Behind me, the same path stretched back and back to a beginning point in time: Ur of the Chaldees, where Jewish time begins.  The angelic beings conveyed a message, not audible but clear: I had been on a pilgrimage; it had been divinely witnessed; it was a single effort in linear time; it was over. 

Being all out of ideas, I was inclined to take this message literally, at face value.  So I was shocked to the point of tears when, a few weeks later, a call came from the faculty union that represented me at Headquarters, to the effect that I was being returned to the college — but only for another tormenting year of “evaluation” by my adversaries.  Had the angels lied to me?

I returned duly to the college and lived through the miserably predictable fall and spring terms that followed.  Finally, that academic year was over.  It was June, a full year after I’d seen the angels when the union telephoned again.  I was being returned to the college …

with tenure

retroactive to the preceding June.

So they hadn’t lied to me.  It had been over just when they said it was.  As befits angels, they’d been praeternaturally precise as to timing.

Now, none of this would convince anyone for whom God was not in the inventory of possible beings.  He or she would put my vision down to a distressed mental condition and assign the retroactive tenure to delightful coincidence.  A good story, the skeptic would say, but surely not evidence of providential messaging.

Is there any way to resolve this disagreement?  Well, it depends how you live.  I live in linear time, doing the best I can to be present to the circumstances that confront me, neither veiling experience with escapist fantasies nor stamping it with rigid concepts, however derived.

If, in the uncertainties of day-to-day life, I get a message that seems as if it comes from God — has that kind of authority and relevance — and if it makes more sense of my life than the available alternatives, I try it.  I’m never absolutely certain.  I risk it.  The confirmations have been retroactive.  The mistakes have been instructive.  If you live on the timeline, that’s where God can be found.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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4 Responses to How Can We Know If It’s God?

  1. Judy says:

    Serious Wow. And a resounding Yes…where else would God be for us other than Here and Now on the timeline! Thanks for the reminder!

    • Abigail says:

      Hi Judy. Just picking this up as we are back from California. Yes, I used to think God should be elsewhere, some remote or very high place more befitting His dignity. Now I don’t think that any more.

  2. castaway5555 says:

    So wonderfully honest and thoughtful … and the “Jewish essence” – profound sensitivity to the spiritual elements of life. We have to pay attention. Love the image of the long line behind you … a procession of love. All’s well that ends well … and then, some risk … some daring … to “see” it.

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