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At one extreme, atheists and agnostics assert that either God doesn't exist or, at best, He has concealed Himself exceptionally well, rendering Himself imperceptible and undetectable (source). Conversely, at the opposite end of the spectrum, Christian mystics make remarkable claims, such as experiencing guided tours of Heaven or Hell (source; source), being miraculously freed from heavily guarded prisons (source), or being called to a revivalist ministry marked by signs and wonders (source).

Considering these extreme cases (in both directions), it appears that there must be intermediate degrees between these two extremes, forming a spectrum.

Which Christian denominations believe in varying degrees of personal knowledge and experience of God? Among those, which ones believe it is possible to navigate this spectrum, moving from the lowest levels to the highest, and how?

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    This is very poorly researched. The 'sources' are adverts on Amazon for books about outlandish claims being made without any substantiation whatsoever. Personally, I would call that, not real sourcing, but mere 'clickbait'.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Apr 6 at 20:43
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    @NigelJ This can be rebutted in so many ways. For starters, the Bible itself is available on Amazon. Does that automatically render the Bible outlandish and clickbait? Well, an atheist would probably be happy to agree with you on that. Secondly, the Bible itself is full of comparable extraordinary, "outlandish" claims. Thirdly, many Christians take near-death experience (NDE) testimonials seriously (and this video is free, so hopefully you won't complain about adverts and clickbaits with this one).
    – Mark
    Commented Apr 6 at 20:58
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    One has to tread carefully if one investigates the spiritual realm. Discernment is necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Apr 7 at 13:22
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    Jesus himself mentions "little faith", "much faith". "They do not know God, but you do" etc. Paul mentions spiritual gifts that not everyone gets granted in the same degree. Is this the kind of thing you are looking for?
    – kutschkem
    Commented Apr 8 at 13:46
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    @Mark Okay, Mark. I consolidated my comments into an answer which hopefully can give you a taste of the vastness of the pandora box that you have opened 😊 that many Protestants tend to ignore until recently. Commented Apr 15 at 16:20

2 Answers 2

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Those who study the Book of Mormon see a ready "yes" to the question in the OP, as outlined in Alma chapter 32.

In this chapter, Alma compares the word to a seed that is planted in our hearts, and makes an analogy between our growing faith & knowledge and the growth of a tree (see verses 28-43).

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A dash of botany

Growing a tree can take a long time -- my family planted one last year and my kids anxiously want to know when it will be the size of the mature tree across the yard. With the naked eye, the tree looks identical today to its appearance yesterday. It can be discouraging if we want quick results.

Yet I've also had the opportunity to view some of the largest trees on the planet--larger organisms by far than a blue whale--and over their multi-millennia lifespans they have changed dramatically in appearance from the seedlings they once were.

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A false dichotomy

It may be tempting to think of knowledge as an all-or-nothing affair, but it isn't terribly helpful to look at knowledge in this way. This false dichotomy rejects the possibility of incremental learning. If there is no in-between state, where we understand some things but not other things, then there's no way to incrementally improve upon whatever understanding one already has. We'd all be stuck understanding nothing forever.

This position is not only precarious philosophically ("we understand nothing and you should believe us" doesn't sound like a promising sales pitch), but it is rejected theologically by the Savior's instruction to learn (e.g. see Matthew 11:29), with which we can only comply if it is in fact possible to learn.

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A seedling is still a tree

If our knowledge is represented by a tree, it may be helpful to recognize that a seedling is still a tree. A tiny, just-newly-germinated sequoia sempervirens is a genetically complete member of the same species as a mature, 1500 year old sequoia sempervirens:

enter image description here

The difference is not in kind, but in level of development.

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Why is faith the first principal of the Gospel?

The Biblical principal of faith is highly-applicable here. If I am seeking knowledge from God, I don't have to wait until I have a fully-grown tree to start acting on that knowledge. If God impresses upon my mind and heart a small fragment of truth, a little seedling, I can exercise trust in Him and act upon that while waiting for more. At the seedling stage there may still be more uncertainty than certainty (although I'm not certain about that =)), but acting upon what God has already given me will facilitate the flow of additional understanding:

30 For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have. (2 Nephi 28:30)

If I were only willing to exercise trust in Jesus once I had ALL information, I would never get there. It's the trusting in Him that makes getting there possible.

One does not need a full "tree-degree" of knowledge/experience with God in order to start trusting Him. A particle of faith is just fine to start (see Alma 32:27). By trusting enough to act upon the light we've already received, we open the doors to more, and over an interval of time & diligence Alma reports the fruit will come:

And because of your diligence and your faith and your patience with the word in nourishing it, that it may take root in you, behold, by and by ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet...and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst.. (Alma 32:42)

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    This is an excellent answer that contrasts helpfully with binary, all-or-nothing soteriologies. It could be improved further by additional Biblical references that affirm degrees of faithfulness and salvation, for example Matthew 21:31 "Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you." See also Luke 11:31 and Matthew 11:21, which place the people of Sodom and Gomorrah and the pagan Queen of Sheba salvifically above those who personally heard the words of the Savior but did not heed them.
    – pygosceles
    Commented Apr 15 at 16:56
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How to properly answer this survey question

I first want to highlight the difficulties in answering this denominational survey question.

  1. First, we need to distinguish between denominational published teaching (i.e. statement of faith, doctrinal books) vs. practices by adherents that are not officially sanctioned by the denominations (i.e. seen through books on spirituality / mysticism and anthropological/sociological description of actual practice on the ground).

  2. Then we need to identify the various spectrums that the practices use to characterize the journeys. It is extremely important to notice that there is no one way to measure, and some are incompatible with others.

    • Some have cognitive content, embedded in new (private) revelation, but

    • Some only involve non-cognitive knowing, increasing faith, and increasing love.

    • Some can ONLY be initiated by God (where it doesn't matter how hard one tries) but can be helped with the Christian creating a suitable receptive environment just in case God deigns to show Himself, but

    • Some (according to the teaching) presume that God WILL respond to the Christian who makes the petition and who also creates a suitable receptive environment where the knowledge/experience can grow.

    • Some expects progressive spiritual healing (from concupiscence or "power of sin"). In Catholicism this is framed as God's grace infused in virtues, but in Protestant charismatics this is framed as triggered by crises that are often accompanied by semi-miraculous communication of prophetic "words of knowledge" by deliverance / freedom ministries, thus the spiritual healing comes monergistically.

    • Some also expects progressive (and sometimes miraculous) physical healing. But this tends to be associated with the prosperity gospel movement.

  3. A frequent accompanying features in many spectrums are:

    • increasing love for God that some conceptualized as God's giving more grace to enhance the quality of our love

    • increasing awareness of our sins, conceptualized as increasing light being given to see our brokenness but without getting into despair because at the same time we become more aware of the immensity of God's grace for repentant sinners

    • increasing compassion for others, especially to those who are in other parts of the world and to those who are suffering in ways that we are not familiar with

  4. Then for each spectrum, we need to identify the very element of the knowledge / experience that can be distinguished conceptually and measured formally. This is the metaphysically real component within the human psyche. Some samples:

    • the transforming grace of God, resulting in the increase of virtues:
      • increasing love to God and others
      • increasing faith in Christ
      • increasing hope characterized in the increase of abandoning worldly pursuits
    • contemplation through quietness (hesychasm)
    • stages of altered state of consciousness, ecstasy, etc.
    • special experiences as God Himself giving personal revelation (this is attested to many Biblical writers as vision, prophecy, etc.). In this type, the element probably doesn't have much gradation as the experience is given in its entirety by God's own leading
    • growing awareness of the presence of God in worship
    • the 10 steps of the mystic ladder of divine love by St. John of the Cross after preparing the soul. See also another way of structuring the journey grouped under the 3 famous levels:
      • purgative (beginner)
      • illuminative (proficient)
      • unitive (perfect)
    • etc.
  5. Then the "how" of your question, i.e. the technique coupled with the expectation for how God is to join the journey. This is naturally tightly connected to the element that is increasing/decreasing with the materials serving as a journey-guides, workshops, how-to books, etc. each with representative teachers and exemplary saints / "climbers" who have successfully completed (or advancing far enough) in the journeys.

  6. Tightly related to the technique is of course the theory, which is a conceptual description of how all the above elements should work together, serving as a kind of map for the pilgrim. But as pointed out above, most denominations do NOT include that map in their doctrinal teachings, but only offering "sign posts" / principles to guard the pilgrims from heretical excesses that can cause them to fall off a cliff / a deep end:

    • Examples of a map (pictorial map is often included in the book): John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress or C.S. Lewis's The Pilgrim's Regress.
    • Examples of a more conceptual map: C.S. Lewis's The Four Loves where he is humble enough to recognize his limit, leaving further map to established saints.
    • Textbooks in spirituality and mysticism which process recognized pilgrim's journeys (mostly saints) for modern audience. Here, we find modern (as well as ancient) philosophical framework being used to describe the journeys.

The survey itself

As you can see above, to properly answer the question we need lots of careful dispassionate research studying maybe a dozen major practices, each with potentially their own unique spectrums. Maybe the best resource to answer this question would be a textbook on Spirituality / Mysticism, such as Christian Spirituality: An Introduction by Anglican scholar Alister McGrath.

Because I cannot complete the task itself within the allotted bounty time (I'm busy), I can only offer general impressions so far (don't want to promise but it is my desire to complete the survey in the future):

  • Catholics definitely do have spectrums, and there are many common paths such as St. John of the Cross

  • The hermits and ascetics who isolate themselves to the "desert" (not really that far from nearby cities in Egypt or Syria in the 3rd century) offer some paths, some became desert fathers whose writings we have

  • The Eastern Orthodox tradition would tend to use Hesychasm, where the conceptualization is Platonic

  • Protestant charismatics would ask for the gifts of prophecy, speaking in tongues, and word of knowledge and would use praise and worship or sessions of praying in tongue to invite God's presence to be increasingly real in their hearts

  • Evangelicals frequently cite the following authors as guide for spiritual formation:

  • Christian and Missionary Alliance movement often cites a key teacher of the denomination A.W. Tozer, would conceptualize the spectrum in terms of being filled by the Holy Spirit. He writes many books such as How to be Filled with the Holy Spirit, The Pursuit of God, etc. I would think his method is in between Charismatics and Dallas Willard.

  • For LDS, see @HoldtoTheRod's answer

Doctrines vs. Scriptures vs. Experiences

What is common to all the above diverse techniques:

  1. The doctrines are "guardrails" so the journey / experience do not lead the practitioners into holding heretical beliefs. The content of these doctrines are the philosophical processing of the written Scripture, which in turn serves as the cognitive content for the sure knowledge of God (special revelation). In addition there is a relatively subsidiary source of oral tradition in some denominations, with another part of tradition serving as authoritative interpretations / hermeneutical principles.

  2. So it makes sense that a believer's personal quest is yielding mostly non-cognitive increase, or increasing "appreciation" (we can say "knowledge") of general revelation of God in nature. If there is cognitive knowledge obtained, it is at best considered "private revelations" by practically all denominations. The authorities in each denomination then assess the private cognitive content and then issue guidelines for adherents who want to undertake the quest for themselves.

  3. Very rarely the content of these journeys become material for doctrines (Catholics are notorious for this, even so they are very careful). On the other hand, doctrines become the criteria to conceptualize and to interpret the experiences. You may ask "Wait a minute! The cognitive content in the written scripture, weren't those at one time "private revelation" by God to an individual?" All Christian denominations will say "yes" and it was the ancient religious groups who vetted, edited, and "certified" these as Scripture, with the recipients designated as "true" prophets and the written words considered "inspired" (this is part of the Doctrine of Scripture). They will say that there is no new revelation that is binding for all Christians of all time, hence the "canon". The precedent was the resolution of the Montanist Heresy.

  4. Unlike in Buddhism / Hinduism, the Creator-creature distinction is ALWAYS preserved in all streams of Christianity, even though under the most intense unitive experience / ecstasy one can feel a momentary loss of self (I haven't experienced this, only reading about it).

Finally, addressing your concern

You commented:

I see two completely opposite extremes. One extreme has atheist philosophers claiming that God doesn't exist, that God is perfectly hidden if He does, etc. Simultaneously, at the other polar opposite extreme, we have extraordinary stories of God manifesting and moving in extraordinary ways and doing and revealing extraordinary things. So I presume there must be degrees between these two extremes, defining a spectrum. And if so, the possibility of navigating this spectrum. Which denominations would agree with that?

  • What I have described above is mostly journey for the already believer to be closer to God, but some spectrums include the non-believing end of the spectrum (esp. as mapped by C.S. Lewis's Pilgrim's Regress).
  • Some denominations also conceive grace as completing nature instead of as a radical break over nature, which then lends itself to a certain spectrum (possibly those who love much naturally are more disposed to come to faith).
  • A key challenge for you is that in Christianity God is not a static being; He is better likened to a wild animal who is Goodness itself ("He [Aslan] is not tame lion" as Prince Tirian says in C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia) or a hunter (C.S. Lewis's own personal conversion experience characterized it as "being hunted" and allowing himself to be captured reluctantly).
  • As for supernatural stories, they are mostly God's initiative, so as I suggested above there's no spectrum. The only factors that I think can help (which is frequently attested in the stories) is simply keep crying for God to reveal Himself personally to you, which I think all denominations agree.
  • Another aspect: all denominations will not agree that you can force God to do a miracle for you. Biblical and authorized miracles and revelations are intended for a group's benefit, not just for one individual. But in the fringes of gospel penetration, we often DO hear healing miracles associated with conversions (including someone I know!), probably God's way to supplement the lack of community of believers who could have mediated Scriptural knowledge to new converts and testified with their lives. So we often find missionaries in remote areas being used as God's conduit for supernatural powers such as healing (see Craig Keener's 2021 book Miracles Today: The Supernatural Work of God in the Modern World). But still, the new healed convert is usually expected (and would gladly serve) as an evangelist to his/her own group, much like the Samaritan Woman at the Well after encountering Jesus who miraculously displayed "word of knowledge" to the woman when he served as a missionary in the Samaritan area.

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