On Religious Experience: The use of it as proof for the existence of God.

On Religious Experience: The use of it as proof for the existence of God.

Part 1.

Religious experience is, I think, the basis for a very powerful argument, but only powerful upon people that have had such an experience. (This is a complicated claim that I will expand upon a little later.) With my theological background flowing from the Reformed tradition, I would say that all people have such an experience whether or not they are willing to admit it. I’m taking “religious experience” here, which could mean almost anything, to include almost anything that anyone would want to throw into it.

It’s become strangely common for people to think that when they talk about religion, it’s ok to call a foul when someone wants to bring in their religious experience as a source of their religious understanding. As if there were some kind of cheating involved in drawing personal experience into the debate on God, the world, and everything. In fact, the Christian should not have the slightest caution in using their experiences as part of the content to be considered, and more than this, useful in expressing to other people what they think and why they think it. It’s doubtful that we can even talk about these things intelligibly without doing so. But as popular as the tactic of making an artificial rule against it is, and as beneficial for those that take a negative position on the existence of God, there doesn’t seem to be any obvious rational problem with using religious experience as a proof for the existence of God.

Modern theologies might want to narrow it down to some kind of direct existential euphoria, or an outbreak of tongue speaking, or a vision of angels but none of this kind of thing seems essential to claims of religious experience. First, because the vast majority of religious peoples have never claimed to have those kinds of experiences. Second, because the traditional theologies tend to hold the innate knowledge of God as primary and the ground of any subsequent experience. It’s not the flavor of religious experience itself that implies the existence of God but the mere fact of it’s presence in the experiencing person.

Counter to many, I would say that not only do all people have some such experience but that for some the level of knowing can rise to the level of certainty. “Certainty” is considered a dirty word in current theological and philosophical circles. Any claim of certainty is accompanied by that accusation of Cartesian rationalism, Foundationalism, Modernism and any number of other crimes against humanity. To say “I know”, is immediately followed by the question of “How so?” And answering the ‘how so’ for the ‘I know’ is notoriously difficult.

But this is a necessary Christian claim that I’m not willing to part with, even in light of the arguments raised against it by well meaning Christians and obnoxious aggressors. Christian theology by its very nature, and as an implication of the Christian claims of having received Special Revelation, includes the possibility of certainty (as opposed to only probability or mere psychological persuasion). It also includes what the theologians have called “assurance” as the normal state of a person’s faith, but that’s a different subject. For the Christian to say that it is impossible to know with certainty that God exists or to know with certainty that they are reconciled to a loving relationship with Him, instead of it simply being rare or un-provable to others seems to import some limitations and definitions of “knowing” that are irreconcilable with a solidly Christian understanding of these things.

That “You will know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free”, seems by all reasonable accounts to presume the idea of really, and not just probably or possibly, knowing the Truth. To take it as saying that “The truth will probably set you free” or “what is probably true could possibly set you free” just doesn’t carry the same desperate magnitude of importance implied by the statement. The tragic attempts to dismiss the idea of really knowing the truth as the effect of a Modernist or “Cartesian” influence in theology are not only weakly argued in the studies on the subject but also against the grain of historical theology (Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, etc). Something being un-provable to others does not imply that it is not known, and does not imply that it is not known with certainty. It simply means that it is un-provable in a way that is philosophically justifiable for others who do not know it. But theology is not dependant upon philosophy; philosophy is dependant upon theology.

Part 2.

The confusion seems to come in when religious experience is used as a Public instead of a Private claim. The distinction between Public and Private claims to knowledge is sometimes insufferably difficult, but there is no avoiding the fact that if one person has had an experience that they cannot communicate publicly, it does nothing to undermine their personal use of said experience as a source of their own knowledge and understanding of themselves and their place in the world. Public examination is not only unnecessary to such knowing but in some cases might be practically impossible.

I can imagine Einstein telling me, “I just had the experience of thinking the equation E=mc2. I’ve solved the general problem of relativity in time/space relationships.” And I would say, “Yeah… sure.” And he would say, “No, really… Just look at these equations.” And as he sprawled out page after page of calculations my comprehension would grow increasingly dim until I would need to decide that he were either 1) insane, 2) a genius, or 3) just saying things that I have no ability to understand within the limited purview of my own experience.

Now I, of course, might have my own experiential content that Einstein could never understand, but without more insight into his personal experience that depending upon many factors, like the fact that I failed calculus, might bar me from such an understanding, his lack of insight into my human experience should in no way be viewed by me as an argument against my experience.

It might sound like this kind of argument could justify almost any absurd claim but it is really not meant to have that kind of broad an applicability. There are many things that should be counted by me as an argument against the veracity and intelligibility of my own experience against myself. But self interpretation being the most needful kind, and the logic and philosophy books being stuffed with information on this kind of thing, I’ll bypass the subject to stay in focus.

But if I know that I have had a religious experience, and I have no rational basis for doubting such an experience, then I would actually be irrational to not believe that I’ve had such an experience. It is an act against myself. It would be an act against interest. It would be a crime against reason. This seems easier than it is because I am not really defining said experience, but in general, this applies to most of our everyday experiences and is not amazingly different. People that doubt their own personal experiences should need very persuasive evidence to the contrary in order to be considered reasonable people. How could someone intelligibly live that way? Doubting themselves at every turn? It’s one thing to say that we have not experienced something so we don’t accept it but entirely another to say that we have experienced something in which we do not believe. The world needs to be something like what we experience it to be or everything becomes incoherent. The strange thing is not when people understand that having a religious experience entails something real that must be correspondent to the experience, but when against sound reason they convince themselves to accept an understanding of the world that makes the experience they had impossible to have had.

To simply presuppose that people really don’t have such experiences seems to be begging the question. How do you know that they don’t? By having had experiences of people not having such experiences? We could ask which one seems more likely… that someone would have an experience of God or that they would be crazy? Well, if we aren’t being irrational by guessing before we begin thinking about the issue that people don’t have such experiences, it would seem they are equally likely. Let me explain. There are not really any a priori (prior to experience) odds on people being crazy. It’s an empirically observable phenomena that we measure by certain chosen criteria. If the basic criteria include a measurement of some standard that we will call “normal” then anything outside of normal could be considered crazy.

So then you need to decide whether or not you are crazy, which is very difficult. First because crazy people are rarely coherent enough to understand that they are crazy. And second, because there doesn’t seem to be any rational basis for saying that crazy people can’t have experiences of God (maybe they are better at it?). You could be crazy as a loon and really have a religious experience. They don’t seem to be mutually exclusive and this makes the distinction unhelpful.

Someone could say that anyone that has a religious experience is crazy and so simply define it into the abnormal category, but since most of the people that have ever lived seem to have had one (on an almost universal scale and this includes the claims of many current atheists), and since crazy seems to be judged by normal and abnormal psychological functioning based loosely upon what the majority judges the abnormal case to be, this would seem to imply that anyone that hasn’t, or at least claims to have not had a religious experience is crazy. And we wouldn’t want to say that. I don’t really think that those who say they have never had any kind of religious experience are crazy, and not only that but I would be glad to say that many of them are stable productive members of society in spite of their deficiency. But if you rule out crazy and have no overwhelming reason to doubt your own personal experience, then you seem to be stuck with the fact that you have had a religious experience, whether you like it or not.

So one either needs to show why there is religious experience without religion, which seems incoherent, or why we should be inclined to deny what for some of us includes the vast majority of our experiences, or why they should be taken as false in the light of some one else’s claimed non-experience? Atheists commonly claim their only problem with Theism is a lack of perceived evidence that shows that we should not believe in God. But it is very confusing to say that someone else’s Private absence of experience, without any Public proof to the contrary that would cause us to doubt our Private experience, should be taken as proof of the falsehood our own experience. In a court room, for example, the first hand testimony is always preferred to the testimony of someone who didn’t see anything. This would be like having a murder trial and allowing the defense to bring in witnesses that weren’t there to give testimony that they didn’t see anything. The courts don’t even allow that kind of testimony; they call it “irrelevant” and ban it from the proceedings. An experience outweighs a non-experience in the measurement of evidences. What someone does not see is simply not as persuasive as what someone does.

Part 3.

This is a proof of the truth of the Christian religion, but a Private proof. I’m not saying that there might not be many kinds of observable public effects from such a thing happening, but the thing itself, is not publicly producible. You can’t show it to somebody or take it into a laboratory for testing. That doesn’t mean that you can’t tell people about it, and for some people, depending upon many factors about you, the kind of person you are, and the kind of experience that you claim to have had, some people might actually take your testimony as evidence for the truth of your claim. But it in itself is not Public.

Now, Christians make a great deal of their Publicly producible evidences. There are the historical manuscripts, the witnesses, testimony of the kind we still use in courts today, distinguished and time honored philosophical arguments, the shown self-contradictions and incoherence of worldviews contrary to the Christian one, the verification and falsifications from the hard sciences in the light of current evidence (as changeable as scientific theories might be), the necessity of beginning with certain apparently theistic axioms in order to escape skepticism and nonsense, the unintelligibility of non-theistic moral systems and the claims rooted in them, the unthinkable consequences of materialism and nihilism as ways of being, the existential necessity and psychological need as indicative of theism being most obvious to the kind of thing we find ourselves to be, and whatever other things philosophers and theologians have used as public evidence for and refutation of the denial of Christian claims. And all of these have their place but without specifically Christian religious experience they might rise to the level of making it more probable than not that Christianity is true, which is sufficient for belief and rationally persuasive, but religious experience is what brings all of these facts into focus in the category of “knowing”. In fact, the work of faith in the heart of the Christian by the Spirit of God seems to be the reason that we spend so much time producing evidences in defense of the faith. We already know; now what we know needs to be protected from the belligerent and the confused.

I’ve had a conversation with a professional Christian philosopher who is known for giving arguments for the existence of God. I asked him if he was certain that God exists. He said that we can’t have apodictic certainty about anything but that he is quite persuaded that it is so. So I of course asked if that was because he thought it was impossible to be certain because of some problem inherent in the process of knowing or because he thought that the Christian religion taught this. He said that he didn’t understand the question. So we went over all of the places in the Scriptures where people seemed to be much more than rationally persuaded or that their understanding did not seem to be that it was just more probable than not that God existed: Adam in the Garden, Job in conversation with God, Moses who spoke with God face to face, Elisha with the resurrections of the dead, Paul who was taken up into Heaven, Jesus in his perfect humanity, and this implies certain things about our final state, of how we will be in the communal presence of God Himself. This doesn’t seem to imply that we can by nature only have a very probable belief that God exists, and leaves open the door for God Himself to bring our knowledge to the level of Certainty.

He said that while that might be so, we can’t presume the theological data as a ground for the interpretation of the philosophical data. We would need to prove such from philosophy alone and then if the answer is more probable than not, we can use the Bible from there. So I explained that even if he only believed the Scriptures were true by the rational obligation flowing from it being more probable than not (which I consider to be a poor position to take), then if the Scriptures are taken as true and they teach that God can give someone certainty, then to tell people that they can’t be certain that there is a God stands against what he had just said as to the rational necessity of believing what is most probable. To use a shorthanded argument, if we are compelled to believe there is a God, and belief in God compels one to believe that the Scriptures are true, and the Scriptures teach that it is possible to know that God exists with certainty, then we are rationally compelled to believe that it is possible to be certain that there is a God. Which implies that the beginning premise that we cannot know anything beyond the level of probability is incoherent when applied to Christian theology, because if it is true, it is probably false, and according to his own criteria, what is probably false cannot be reasonably believed.

It is really the method that holds all of the problems. The exclusion of one aspect of human experience in favor of another lesser aspect instead of taking religious experience as just as reasonably part of the whole is an exclusion that lacks a rational basis. In adopting insufficient principles for the interpretation of human experience, be they scientific, or philosophical, or even theological, we can easily bind ourselves in epistemological or metaphysical confusions that in order to reconcile our understanding of ourselves and the world in a coherent way, we are trapped saying things that in a further analysis don’t make any sense. We simply have no compelling reasons to deny the possibility that an all-powerful, infinitely wise God, cannot bring our recognition of His existence to the level of Certainty if He chooses to do so.

Part 4.

This leads us to the most powerful refutation for religious experience that the Christian contends with, as it is a refutation not of the religious experience itself, which we claim as universal, but as to the veracity of the Content. There is no religious experience without content, of course, because an experience without content is self contradiction. An experience must by definition be an experience of something. Which is proven by the fact that if we say that we had an experience of nothing it doesn’t seem to mean anything. For any claimed religious experience the Christian has certain external controls on what might be claimed and what is to be forcefully denied to be true content. In other words, it is not all reducible to personal experience and claimed to be true simply because it has been experienced. Christian religious experience is measured carefully by a common Special Revelation (the Bible; the Holy Scriptures) which is held out as an objective source of measurement for claims of religious experience.

The Apostle Paul wrote this on the universality of religious experience…

“Since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools” Romans chapter 1:19-22

And so, though we take a bare religious experience to be universal, we do not at all take all religious experience to imply either a good nature in the person having the experience or a good effect arising from the experience. At least within the context of historic Christian theology, universality of religious experience, here spoken of as a universal knowledge of God’s existence and His attributes, doesn’t work out as always bringing a great deal of benefit. There is no 1:1 correlation between the experience and a positive response from those who have the experience. As a matter of fact, some seem even worse off for the fact of their religious experience.

“Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity.” Romans 1:28-29.

Paul even goes so far as to warn the Christians in ancient Galatia, that if an “Angel from Heaven” seems to be bringing them a different message that the one that they first heard, that they have a duty to disregard the message…

“I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed.” Galatians 1:6-8.

In the histories of Israel found in the scriptures the common theme was for the nations around them to be flush with religious experience, and with a variety of gods as the distorted consequence of the fact, and in this to express a remarkable capacity for doing evil, including even the sacrifice of their own children to their gods in exchange for power and favor. The way these things are measured within historic Christian orthodoxy is that the fact of religious experience is not equatable with the truthfulness of religious claims framed within the context of that religious experience. Christian theology validates the fact of religious experience but not the truthfulness or goodness of the religious experience itself, nor the effect that seems to be caused by the experience.

And so, Christians are slow to deny religious experience to the Hindu, the Buddhist, the Muslim, and whoever else we might have in mind, but that shouldn’t be misunderstood as a validation of either their faith or practice following from the given experience.

Religious experiences, it seems, are not created equal, and neither are the reactions that a person might have to them. Is this in concession to the common claim that religion produces many of the world’s greatest evils? No, the evil is already there. Religion in general can be an obvious vehicle for the expression of such evils because bad men will find ways to do bad things even through the very best of things. Religion is the greatest opportunity for good, and so when corrupted, or twisted, or used for power and selfish gain, carries within itself the greatest opportunities for evil. So I guess I do and do not agree. If it is accepted that True religion is the greatest source of good then I also accept that bad religion is the greatest source of evil.

Part 5.

On whether or not accepting the prima facie acceptability of religious experience as a Private proof of the existence of God is submitting to irrationality, it should be said that there is nothing irrational about taking religious experience as it is. Rational, does not mean “provable” by deduction from some pre-existing of premises ala Sherlock Holmes. That’s a common misunderstanding. The person that says “I don’t believe in anything I can’t prove” is ultimately immune to believing anything. You need to believe things before you can prove other things (Augustine). Otherwise the laws of logic and deduction itself would be called irrational, because we cannot prove them to be logical without using them as the measurement of what is rational. Basic human experiences are the resistant to any kind of measurement and among the least provable, if for no other reason than that we need to be having experiences before we can analyze them, which is kind of circular in a way. And yet it is universally considered unreasonable to disregard them as untrue even though they cannot be proven from some pre-existing platform of previous truths so that we can say with authority that we are having experiences.

How do we usually use these in an argument? We simply appeal to the assumption that everyone else is having the same kind of experiences of the same kind of a world that we are, and hold each other accountable for attempted variations with stiff social penalties. Mocking is the usual answer followed dutifully by the exclusion from the conversation of anyone with the gall to question the accepted universe as the one that exists. We demand, in order to begin the discussion, that everyone involved will take as a “given” the things that none of us can even come close to proving but that all of us need to assent to “knowing” with little if any evidence other than social consensus. And this is never viewed as being irrational, because it is basic personal experience and we don’t have any other way to do this thing.

And back to the point…

There is no necessity in a religious experience being Publicly verifiable in order for it to be a clearly reasonable Proof for those to whom it has been given as a Proof. Others might doubt it, but they can’t really say. What the Christian needs to do is be firm in their own mind as to what they know, and Whom they have known. The Christian can have a great confidence in this, unassailable by the tricks and philosophical trinkets that the world offers to replace a much firmer foundation found in Christ. As for Publicly available “proofs”, and arguments, and debates, and experiences, there seems to be more than enough of those to go around. But the combination of Public evidences and Private religious experience? That seems to be a lock that only irrational people can deny.

Christopher Neiswonger

Subsidiary reference:
The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1.

IV. The authority of the holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or Church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the Author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.

V. We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the holy Scripture; and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God; yet, notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.

VI. The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word; and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and the government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

3 thoughts on “On Religious Experience: The use of it as proof for the existence of God.

  1. As I read Paul’s account of his experience, I am inclined to write this brief comment regarding “On Religious Experience: The use of it as proof for the existence of God”.
    Firstly; let me say that experiences are of different types, for example;
    Life’s experience of temptations found in 1 Corinthians 10 verse 13; “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (Situational Ethics).
    Also; Romans 5 verses 1 to 4 “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope”: (Everyday Christian Living).
    In 2 Corinthians chap. 12 verses 1 to 10.(Divine Revelation)
    “It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord. I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.
    And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. Of such an one will I glory: yet of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities.
    For though I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth: but now I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me. (Paul’s truth was the unadulterated preaching and teaching of the Scriptures).
    And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.
    And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
    Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. (Divine Revelation in the midst’s of Christian living, this truth is an awesome experience, not many want it).
    Christopher, before the departure of Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones our conversation entered into this discussion; his advice to me was to trust in the Holy Spirit to guide me into all Truth. Experience is a good teacher, however it is also very personal; ask the Apostle Paul.

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