Van Gogh and the divine: Knowing God through many things

God can only be encountered in the world as it exists in this instant. Photo: Vincent van Gogh

MOSCOW, June 10, 2012 – “How can I know that God is real?” people often ask.

Obviously, the best way to know God would be to experience him directly. Even though this may seem like a daunting task reserved for mystics, it actually should not be too difficult given that God is the author of all that exists.

Since God is creator and sustainer of all things, he should be readily perceivable in the here and now. We should be able to detect and encounter him in the world around us as it exists at this very moment.

But the fact is that most of the time we do not perceive God. And when we do, it is usually only for short and fleeting intervals of time.

The question is why? Why do human beings have such a difficult time sensing and perceiving God?

The reason for this is that we do not live in the place where God is to be found – in the here and now, in the world as it exists at this instant. Instead we live in an artificial reality erected by our minds. That reality is made up of our opinions, thoughts, views, memories, emotions and judgments which serve as a screen through we filter our perceptions of the world. What we ultimately perceive is not the world as it is, but the world which is literally fashioned in our own image. Needless to say, this image is deeply distorted and almost invariably false.

The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh. The image conveys Van Gogh’s transcendent vision of reality.

To add to the delusion, the dislocation occurs not only on the level of perception but also on the level of time. Even though life can only unfold in the present moment, we almost never dwell there mentally. Most of the time we are either absorbed in the memories, events, regrets or grievances of the past or the plans, fears, worries, hopes and dreams of the future. And even though we cannot but carry out our actions in the now, psychologically we are rarely fully there. Most of the time we only use the present moment as a means of achieving something else in the future. It is quite common, for instance, for a person to work hard hoping to earn money so that he can be happy at some point in the future. But as for the actual work itself, he may not care at all. He would not, in fact, do it if it were not for the prospect of some future benefit. As a result, he is never – psychologically speaking – fully one with the task and moment at hand.

Because of the way the human psyche works, we rarely experience the fullness of the unfolding moment. That’s why we have such a hard time sensing God, since he can only be perceived in the now. We cannot experience God in the past, because that is already irrevocably behind us. And we cannot experience him in the future, because it is not here yet. We can only experience God in the world as it exists in this instant.

If, however, we overcome the roaming inclinations of our psyche and become engrossed in the here and now, we cannot but experience God: He will reveal himself through what is. Once fully immersed in the present instant, we will begin perceiving the sacredness of all that exists. This holds true even of those things that in our mentally scattered state may appear as ordinary or unattractive.

The great Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh once said that we can know God by loving many things. He was right – once we look at any thing lovingly and carefully we cannot but perceive something of its divine nature. The very fact that it exists is a miracle, since existence itself is something out of this world. It is something that cannot be rationally explained or grasped, because its source ultimately lies beyond this universe.

Vincent van Gogh could perceive the otherworldly wonder of everyday things with extraordinary intensity. In his eyes an ordinary flower, a fish, a pair of old boots, a cypress tree, a pile of hay, a chair and a smoking pipe become objects of staggering beauty. In the quest to convey his vision, he did something that shocked and offended the sensibility of his time – he began using pure colors to capture the throbbing, sacred life of the objects he came into contact with. He achieved a powerful effect indeed, but it was so novel that people mistook it for profanation of artistic convention. But when the world finally caught up with his intention, a revolution was unleashed in western art whose repercussions are felt to this day. That revolution came through the eyes of a man who saw the splendor and divinity of common objects, because he knew how to immerse himself deeply in the moment.

As a young man Vincent tried to become a preacher, but his sermons did not go down too well so he turned to art instead. It turned out to be a rough ride, but we can be thankful that he persisted as long as he did. And even though he did not become a preacher in the traditional sense, he remained one nevertheless, but instead of sermons he preached God through images. He showed us that God is everywhere and in everything and that we can perceive him through things around us him if we only stand still and look carefully and lovingly at what is in the here and now.


Born and raised under communism, Vasko Kohlmayer is a naturalized American citizen. He has lived in several countries under various forms of government, but he still marvels at the goodness of God and the wonder of life.

He has written for a number of newspapers, magazines and internet journals. Vasko currently lives in Europe with his long-suffering wife and two beautiful daughters. He is the founder of The Christian Writers Foundation.

His column “Higher Things” deals with matters pertaining to God. You can read more by clicking on this link.

If you wish to be notified of Vasko’s new articles you can subscribe for updates here


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Vasko Kohlmayer

Born and raised under communism, Vasko Kohlmayer is a naturalized American citizen. He has lived in several countries under various forms of government, but he still marvels at the goodness of God and the wonder of life. He has discovered that no matter how many places you've been, there is always something new to learn wherever you go.

Having started with sciences, he earned degrees in philosophy and literature. He has written for a number of newspapers, magazines and internet journals on subjects ranging from Russian politics to the gold standard. Vasko currently lives in Europe with his long-suffering wife and two beautiful daughters. He is the founder of The Christian Writers Foundation.  

 

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