The Slippery Witness of Religious Experience

Can religious experience settle the question of how do we know God is real?

I have a friend who is a scientist. He is also an atheist. He says that he is so because he sees no scientific evidence that there is a God. And scientific evidence is all that counts with him. So he keeps challenging me with the question: How do I know that God is real?

We’ve talked this over many times. I agree that science cannot prove the existence of God–nor does it disprove that existence. Science does raise the question why the universe seems to manifest so much finely tuned order. Can chance alone account for that order? I think not, but my friend thinks it does.

How do we know that God is real? For me, it finally boils down to the fact that I have at times sensed a mysterious, invisible presence making itself known to me. Yes, I have had some experiences that might be described as mystical.

But sometimes that presence is not sensed with any of my senses. I simply have this inner confidence that that presence is here, even though I have no basis I can point to for this confidence. In this sense, I like to say that I sense it intuitively, which may be what we mean when spiritual masters talk about knowing the spiritual spiritually.

What this suggests is that for me the only conclusive answer to the question of how do I know God is real is the answer of religious experience. When we experience God in our lives, we come to believe that a mysterious presence is present in and behind and above the world as we experience it. Theists, like Christians, Jews, and Muslims, call that presence God.

Only the reality of religious experience, I suspect, can account for the persistence of religious belief and practice throughout the ages in a variety of cultures. That persistence does not prove the existence of God, but it does raise the question why religious belief and practice are so pervasive among human beings.

However, religious experience is no more an infallible proof for the existence of God than any of those notorious philosophical proofs. Religious experience can rightly be challenged. There are those who charge that religious experiences are nothing more than psychological delusions. We only experience things that are created by chemical interactions in our brains or created by social and cultural suggestions. Religious experiences are just projections of our own inner needs and compulsions.

So the witness of religious experiences can be slippery. For some persons, the experience seems to confirm our belief that God is real. Other persons, however, may have similar experiences and find them not convincing at all. They discount what has happened to them. So doubt can constantly haunt our most precious religious moments.

A Gospel Testimony to the Mystery of Faith

I think the Bible confirms this. In particular, I am struck by the passage that closes the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 28:16-20). This short segment recounts the final appearance of Jesus to his disciples after his resurrection. In that final encounter Jesus charges his disciples to go out into all the world and make disciples. He also promises to be with them always. Christian preaching has labeled this passage the Great Commission.

It must have been an overwhelming experience for the disciples. Talk about being in the presence of the numinous. These disciples had experienced Jesus’ crucifixion. They had known their master was dead. Then their world had been turned upside down. Their master returned to them alive, fully alive. And now he was instructing them again with this special charge. What could be more supernatural than that?

Most of us would want to fall on our knees in awe. In fact, Matthew tells us the disciples did so there on that mountain top. He says they worshipped Jesus. That makes perfect sense.

But then Matthew adds a bizarre note. He says some of the disciples doubted. Here in the middle of what most of us would expect to be a fully convincing religious experience, we find some are not at all sure. Some of those doubters may have thought they were in fact experiencing some group-induced delusion. Their mental assumptions would have told them that what they were experiencing could not possibly be real.

And so we see how the witness of religious experience can cut two different ways. Some experiencing it fall down in worship; others waver in doubt. Religious experience is not necessarily as conclusive as we might like. A mysterious factor of faith still enters into our judgment upon the experience. Why one person interprets the experience real and another does not remains one of the great mysteries of life.

I find my religious experiences very conclusive in why I believe God is real. I choose to trust my perception and base my life and behavior on it. But I must always be ready to concede that I might just be wrong. Believers step out in faith, not conclusive knowledge, and wait to see what life brings us. For if that divine presence is real, then it will transform our experience of life and our way of living.