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.


How Did You Receive the Spirit?

A vivid religious experience lies underneath one of Paul’s strong debate points

Scripture text: Galatians 3:1-5
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so many things in vain? — if it really is in vain. Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? (RSV)

In his letter to the Galatian churches, we find Paul employing a number of rhetorical tools to support his argument that Gentile Christians do not need to adopt Jewish practices to establish their Christian identity. Those tools include personal invective as well as rabbinic and Hellenistic approaches to interpreting the Old Testament.

But I find the most curious argument he makes in Chapter 3, verses 1-5 (see quotation above). In this argument, he appeals to the Galatians’ religious experience. How did they receive the Holy Spirit? By practicing the Jewish law or by hearing the gospel with faith?

What is curious about this argument is his assumption that his hearers will know exactly what he is talking about. His argument would carry no water if his hearers had scratched their heads at this point and asked: What do you mean about receiving the Spirit?

Apparently these Galatian Christians had had some powerful religious experience that they knew without question was an experience of the Holy Spirit. What we modern readers would like to know is just exactly how had they experienced the Spirit.

Did they experience the Spirit in the kind of emotional phenomena that today we associate with the Pentecostal tradition? Did they experience the Spirit in terms of dramatically changed lives, maybe in terms of dramatically changed consciousness or dramatically changed behavior?

Or did they experience the Spirit in terms of witnessing miracles in their midst, possibly dramatic healings? In verse five, Paul makes a reference to miracles. Is that how they had experienced the Spirit?

I don’t think the text makes at all clear just how the Galatians had experienced the Spirit. But that they had had some kind of vivid experience of the Spirit is certain. Otherwise Paul could never have used this argument in his debate with them.

I’m fascinated by Paul’s rhetorical turn in these verses because I question that this kind of argument would work with most Christians in churches today. I suspect that most Christians today (unless they came out of a Pentecostal environment) would have no idea what Paul was talking about. The Holy Spirit is simply not a vivid experience for many believers today.

Is that because our churches have done a very effective job at quenching the Holy Spirit? Or is it that we have so identified the Spirit’s presence with highly emotional phenomena like speaking in tongues that we completely miss the Spirit’s presence in other ways? Or is it that we have done such a poor job of teaching about the Spirit that we cannot recognize the Spirit’s presence in our midst?

I ask these questions during this week that follows Pentecost Sunday. I ask them because I wonder what it would be like in our churches if we had such a vivid experience of the Spirit in our individual lives and in our congregational life that we could respond with clarity, conviction, and enthusiasm if Paul stood in our midst and asked: How did you receive the Spirit?

Belief in God: A House of Cards?

Note: This posting continues my discussion on the pervasive experience of doubt in the Christian’s spiritual journey that began in my last two postings.  You may want to read them first for context.

Bible text: Psalm 27:7-9

            Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud,

                        be gracious to me and answer me!

            “Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”

                        Your face, LORD, do I seek.

                        Do not hide your face from me.

Another thing I want to say about intellectual doubt (see my last posting) is that our doubts are often premised on the assumption that intellectual rationality is the only criterion for the truth. If something does not convince us by rational intellectual persuasion, then it cannot be true.

As I grow older and reflect on my experience in life, I find myself challenging this assumption. Intellectual rationality, I am coming to believe, is not the only and sole criterion for what is true. Life is more complex that intellectual reason alone can grasp.

For example, I have begun to believe there is something that I might call emotional rationality, if that phrase is not an oxymoron. Something may not make sense to our mind, but it may make convincing sense to our heart. We are foolish to discount it because it is emotional rather than intellectual in character.

Instead of emotional rationality, it might be more accurate to say intuitional rationality. Something within us seems to perceive something as true even though we have used no intellectual processes to get to it. Or maybe it works another way. Rather something without us has made itself known to us by its own initiative, not by ours working through the tools of human reason.

I think this is very important is dealing with the question many doubters ask: Does God exist? Philosophers and theologians have devised many philosophical proofs for the existence of God, but those proofs have not banished atheism as a viable philosophical stance.

In fact, I have come to believe there is no ultimately conclusive rational proof that God exists beyond a shadow of a doubt, nor any proof that God does not exist. There is no such thing as intellectual certainty in answering the question.

Instead the compelling reason for believing God exists may prove to be an intuitional one, a reason in some way grounded in religious experience. We believe God exists because in some way that God has made God’s own self known to us.

At least that is how it has happened for me. I grew up in an intensely religious family. My father was a Baptist minister. But throughout my youth and early adulthood, I was troubled by doubts about the reality of God. Was what my religious education had taught me just a verbal house of cards in the end, or was there some divine reality that those words pointed to?

Intellectual study of theology did not resolve the doubts. I’m convinced today that it can never do so. Still I am a believer in God, so much so that I serve as a pastor. What turned things around for me?

One night about 25 years ago, I sat down to pray. But instead of my normal pious prayers, I simply said to God, “God, I’m tired of trying to get in touch with you. I’ve done everything I can, but nothing seems to work. From now on, I’m just going to sit here in silence. If you are real, you are going to have to get through to me rather than the other way around.” And so when before I would have sat down to pray, I just sat in silence, saying and doing nothing.

Well, I had no mystical experiences that night or over the coming months. But what did happen was that gradually, ever so gradually, a convincing sense of God’s reality and his presence with me seemed to grow within me. It has remained with me every since.

Intellectual argument had nothing to do with that conviction. I am not sure I would even call it a religious experience, certainly not an emotional one. It was not exactly emotional. It has the character of mystery. But something very real—or rather someone very real—seemed to win over my confidence anyway. I was coming to know someone who was making his/her presence real to me.

In some mysterious way, it was an experience of coming to know the holy, as Rudolf Otto described it some 100 years ago in his book The Idea of the Holy. A mysterium tremendum et fascinans (a fearsome and fascinating mystery) was making itself known to me. The psalmist was describing something of the same reality when in Psalm 27 he hears his heart saying, “Come, seek his [God’s] face.”

I am very aware of how troubling this may be to someone who is confident that a rigorous intellectual rationality is our only protection against sliding into superstition and emotional prejudice. I am indeed aware of how easy it is easy to equate intuitional knowing with culturally based assumptions and conventional conditioning. (I was after all raised in a religious environment.) We need the tools of rational debate to test what we may feel we know by intuition or emotional experience.

But I am also convinced that the search for rational certainty is a foolish search, whether it is Christians doing it or secular scientists. Human beings are never given the gift of certainty.

That is why the saving virtue of the Christian life is trust, not certainty. We hear the gospel preached. We hear its message that God loves us. And we hear its challenge to seek God’s kingdom and its justice above all things, with its promise that whatever happens to us in our life of discipleship, God will be with us always.

Can I prove that message to be true beyond any ability of doubt to assail us? No. All I can do is what the apostles did–call you and me to test this good news by living it. As we do, we have the testimony of faithful Christians through the centuries that indeed Christ’s promise proves true: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age,” (Matthew 28:20).