Positive Apologetics: A Critique (Part III)
February 9, 2014 D.J. Clark

Positive Apologetics: A Critique (Part III)

Posted in Forum Post

Continuing from my previous post…

I was telling a story about myself. I told of losing the reasons, the grounds, upon which I believed that my Christian belief rested. A troubling experience. And a strange one, because, despite this loss, I still found myself believing. So I went sniffing around, introspectively as it were, in search of the source of my continued Christian belief. Was this belief the product of wishful thinking or self-deception or a mental dysfunction? Or was this belief actually justified? And if the latter — well, what was justifying it?

I said that I eventually decided that my best route to finding the answers to these questions was the following: to pay attention to those situations in which I felt that distinct “ring of truth” regarding the rationality and/or truth of the Christian Way. So this is what I did. And I gradually (very gradually) realized that these felt experiences were not occurring in response to my observing and comprehending some apologetic argument. They occurred, most often, in situations in which I wasn’t making any conscious inferences at all.

I remember reading The Brothers Karamazov during this time – in particular the story of Father Zossima. I wish I could better recall the experience and the precise character of what I felt, but I remember both the “ring of truth” and the potency of this ring: I remember the tears (of joy, of sadness?… of both joy and sadness) I cried over my dog who was beside me. There are perhaps hundreds of other experiences I could point to where I have felt this ring. But I mention the Brothers Karamazov in particular for two reasons. One, because (and I don’t know why) this experience has stuck in my head better than most; and, two, because I have retroactively come to find the Brothers Karamazov full of interesting connections to what I now perceive as the main reasons for my Christian belief and commitment. The book, at times, has seemed to me a mirror. Let me simply quote some large and scattered portions of that book. I’ll draw from each of these quotes in a moment, but for now I just want to share. I want to share from passages that still dash me against the rocks. (Perhaps alone and out of context they will have that effect on no one, but I am not sharing them for the sake of trying to trigger this same response in others; I simply want to share.)

We stayed one night on the bank of a great navigable river with some fishermen. A good looking peasant lad, about eighteen, joined us; he had to hurry back next morning to pull a merchant’s barge along the bank. I noticed him looking straight before him with clear and tender eyes. It was a bright, warm, still, July night, a cool mist rose from the broad river, we could hear the plash of a fish, the birds were still, all was hushed and beautiful, everything praying to God. Only we two were not sleeping, the lad and I, and we talked of the beauty of this world of God’s and of the great mystery of it. Every blade of grass, every insect, ant, and golden bee, all so marvelously know their path, though they have not intelligence, they bear witness to the mystery of God and continually accomplish it themselves. I saw the dear lad’s heart was moved. He told me that he loved the forest and the forest birds. He was a bird-catcher, knew the note of each of them, could call each bird. ‘I know nothing better than to be in the forest,’ said he, ‘though all things are good.’

 

***

 

Brothers, have no fear of men’s sin. Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love. Love the animals: God has given them the rudiments of thought and joy untroubled. Do not trouble it, don’t harass them, don’t deprive them of their happiness, don’t work against God’s intent. Man, do not pride yourself on superiority to the animals; they are without sin, and you, with your greatness, defile the earth by your appearance on it, and leave the traces of your foulness after you–alas, it is true of almost every one of us! Love children especially, for they too are sinless like the angels; they live to soften and purify our hearts and as it were to guide us. Woe to him who offends a child! Father Anfim taught me to love children. The kind, silent man used often on our wanderings to spend the farthings given us on sweets and cakes for the children. He could not pass by a child without emotion. That’s the nature of the man.

 

***

 

But even before I learned to read, I remember first being moved to devotional feeling at eight years old. My mother took me alone to mass (I don’t remember where my brother was at the time) on the Monday before Easter. It was a fine day, and I remember to-day, as though I saw it now, how the incense rose from the censer and softly floated upwards and, overhead in the cupola, mingled in rising waves with the sunlight that streamed in at the little window. I was stirred by the sight, and for the first time in my life I consciously received the seed of God’s word in my heart. A youth came out into the middle of the church carrying a big book, so large that at the time I fancied he could scarcely carry it. He laid it on the reading desk, opened it, and began reading, and suddenly for the first time I understood something read in the church of God… Fathers and teachers, forgive my tears now, for all my childhood rises up again before me, and I breathe now as I breathed then, with the breast of a little child of eight, and I feel as I did then, awe and wonder and gladness.

 

***

 

And I say to myself, ‘What if I’ve been believing all my life, and when I come to die there’s nothing but the burdocks growing on my grave?’ as I read in some author. It’s awful! How–how can I get back my faith? But I only believed when I was a little child, mechanically, without thinking of anything. How, how is one to prove it? I have come now to lay my soul before you and to ask you about it. If I let this chance slip, no one all my life will answer me. How can I prove it? How can I convince myself? Oh, how unhappy I am! I stand and look about me and see that scarcely any one else cares; no one troubles his head about it, and I’m the only one who can’t stand it. It’s deadly–deadly!’

 

‘No doubt. But there’s no proving it, though you can be convinced of it.’

 

‘How?’

 

‘By the experience of active love. Strive to love your neighbor actively and indefatigably. In as far as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul. If you attain to perfect self-forgetfulness in the love of your neighbor, then you will believe without doubt, and no doubt can possibly enter your soul. This has been tried. This is certain.’

 

***

I am not interested in analyzing these passages per se. I am more interested in using them as illustrations, as helpful ways of pointing at the various reasons I have come to discover lay behind my own Christian belief and commitment.

Here I will simply go ahead and compile a (very incomplete) list. This is a list of various phenomena which I have found to produce in me the experience of confidence in the truth and/or rationality of the Christian Way. The experiences – and the responses – have been very different. I’d like to go into depth on each one, but this would then become a monograph, not an essay. Perhaps I can devote later posts to some of these particular phenomena and their accompanying response.

But for now, a list:

  • Nostalgia. “Fathers and teachers, forgive my tears now, for all my childhood rises up again before me, and I breathe now as I breathed then, with the breast of a little child of eight, and I feel as I did then, awe and wonder and gladness.”
  • Encountering a quality akin to the quality of Jesus (as described in the gospels) in particular people (to include even fictional characters — Father Zossima, Jean Valjean).
  • Encountering beauty. For some reason, it is almost always ecological beauty that has this effect on me — “He told me that he loved the forest and the forest birds… ‘I know nothing better than to be in the forest,’ said he.” But the beauty encountered in good story often has this effect on me as well. The Brothers Karamazov, for instance, produced in me the “ring of truth”, not just in the quality of particular characters, but also in the quality of the narrative as a whole.
  • Active love. “By the experience of active love. Strive to love your neighbor actively and indefatigably. In as far as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul.” This passage describes the experience of the practice of regular, self-giving benevolence as providing a vision of God. I would add to the practice of such benevolence, the reception of such benevolence. Even the mere observation of such benevolence can provide a vision of God. I think especially of certain acts of compassion and forgiveness that I have seen/received that have evoked in me the “ring of truth”. Or even just watching my wife hold my baby daughter — “He could not pass by a child without emotion…” — or feeling the tidal wave of compassion (which is always intermixed with hope) in the sight of great suffering. This may sound paradoxical, but very often when I am with the mentally handicapped, I am convinced there is the Christian God.
  • Sports. This is perhaps the one I understand the least. In athletic competition, from time to time, (and usually in moments of high adrenaline and intense physical exertion) I have been overcome with an intensity of emotion that is hard to describe. So hard that I won’t even try. But among this intensity of emotion have been senses, not of God directly, but of some human longing and some human home which supersedes the present state of affairs.
  • Good work. Especially work that involves a mix of physical exertion, creativity, problem solving, and camaraderie; and the product of which is a meaningful and valuable and beautiful artifact.
  • Liturgical practice. Sometimes in the private of setting of prayer, but more often in communal, liturgical worship. Very rarely is the sense, in liturgical situations, a sense of the presence of God. I wish it were, but it’s not. More often the sense is one that what we are doing in the liturgy is a symbolic partaking and a symbolic proclamation of great significance. But this is still a sense which testifies to the truth and/or rationality of the Christian Way. “My mother took me alone to mass on the Monday before Easter. It was a fine day, and I remember to-day, as though I saw it now, how the incense rose from the censer and softly floated upwards and, overhead in the cupola, mingled in rising waves with the sunlight that streamed in at the little window. I was stirred by the sight, and for the first time in my life I consciously received the seed of God’s word in my heart.”
  • Longing. Space doesn’t permit me to say anything that wouldn’t sound silly here. I’ll save a fuller discussion for another time. At this time, let me just quote C.S. Lewis who touches on the profoundness of the experience of longing (a discussion of the epistemic significance of this profound experience for Christian belief must wait):

In speaking of this desire for our own faroff country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

 

I have offered this list merely to illustrate the sort of experiences that I have come to think are functioning as reasons for my own Christian belief and commitment. It is experiences like these, moreover, that I believe function as the primary reasons for my Christian belief and commitment. Apologetic arguments can probably be formed from many of these experiences and their accompanying responses – and these arguments very well might provide me with some additional reason for belief – but it is not arguments which are providing me with these reasons for following Jesus; it is the experiences themselves. They are experiences which are analogical to perceptual experiences: the very experience of “seeing” a tree is sufficient to form and warrant my belief that ‘There is a tree’. I don’t hold this belief because I run through some argument about the reliability of my senses, and then infer that ‘There is a tree’. I just find myself believing it. So too with most of the experiences I have described. Little or no inference involved (and certainly no conscious inference).
Actually that last statement needs some qualification. Only some of these experiences are, strictly speaking, experiences which provide immediate reason for Christian belief; some are, rather, experiences which only provide mediate reason for Christian belief by way of immediate reason for some sort of vague theistic belief, or supernatural belief, or teleological belief. But even in these latter cases, it is rarely inference that is making the leap for me from theistic/supernatural/teleological belief to Christian belief: more often it is simply the fact that these experiences are interpreted by me “Christianly”. What I mean is that, although I can sit in this armchair and acknowledge that, in some sense, the “content” of the experience of athletic competition does not contain anything explicitly Christian, I cannot deny that, in the moment, the experience feels like a Christian experience. This is, no doubt, because any experiential reason for something theistic is immediately construed by me as something Christian. I simply move throughout the world with a Christian lens. And this doesn’t seem to me weird or irrational. It seems quite natural. A tree analogy might help to make my point again. Suppose I had never seen or heard of the sea, but I was very, very well acquainted with trees (perhaps I had lived as an isolated, landlocked woodsman my entire life). And then you come along one sunny day and present me with an underwater picture of seaweed or a tall, living coral reef without telling me what I am looking at. The image would, in some objective, “strictly speaking” sense, not contain a tree in it. But because I have experienced trees all my life, it is perfectly natural that I would construe the image as a tree. Again, it is not an inference or an argument I am making; it is simply that, while the image (in itself) contains no tree, my experience is one in which I experience the seaweed “treely”.
That is really all I have to tell of my story. Nothing terribly exciting. No prophetic experiences, or dreams of Jesus, or voices on the wind. No “religious experience” in the usual sense, the extraordinary sense. In fact, my experiences are all pretty ordinary. Which is why I think that, although these reasons are “private” (see the earliest parts of this series for what I mean by that term), they are not all that unique to me. And the fact that these reasons are not all that unique is the reason I still think there are prospects for the project of positive apologetics — and this despite my downplaying the importance of natural theology proper. But, again, I must postpone my discussion. I’ve already gone far too long in this post, and if you made it to read this sentence, you are probably in a very small minority…

Comments (14)

  1. Author
    David Clark 4 years ago

    The formatting on this site hates me…

  2. schorah.mail@virgin.net

    Thanks for sharing these personal thoughts on why you believe DJ. Good experiential testimony is encouraging for Christians. I’m a great believer in perceptions of God for building up the faith of believers. But whilst what you describe is positive apologetics, it’s not very robust, except for the recipient. In most, if not all, of your examples there could be emotional/psychological/natural triggers for the experience. Nothing wrong with God using these to encourage faith, to build father/child relationships. I think it’s great He does and I believe most Christians have them.
    However, the sceptic can easily dismiss them as phenomena that are simply products of our neurology, our psychology or even our psychiatry, without there being any input from God. She would just say that your psychological make-up or your upbringing or even your genes just makes you see things ‘Christianly’. Now that doesn’t diminish the experience for the recipient, as you have found, the encounters can be why you believe. But it doesn’t have the same power for other parties.
    What we need for positive apologetics are encounters with God that have no natural explanations or triggers as far as can be seen; perceptions of the Almighty that actually run counter to what we’d expect from the material world. Experiences of God that challenge our nurture and nature: things that suddenly change us to make us think Christianly, where before we never thought that way at all.
    And we have such examples. They’re encounters that take place without abnormal brain stimulation, either experimentally or pathologically. Unlike the customs in some other faiths, they occur without the need for intense meditative procedures, physical deprivations or the use of drugs or detailed rituals. They often take place in unemotional settings and when they are not anticipated and happen to people who are known to be entirely rational. Many produce experiences which were not expected, sometimes against what was believed or wished for. Sometimes the experiences occur to many or last for hours (Blaise Pascal) or even days (me) and then disappear never to return so dramatically. They are not uncommon close to conversion, before the recipient hears that such things are part of the faith, ruling out self-induction through wishful thinking.
    Now some of your numinous experiences could have these unexplainable features. But to travel beyond Christian communities as an effective apologetic they would need to be couched in terms which showed that they had, that they could not easily be explained away as natural phenomena.

  3. todd.moody@gmail.com
    Todd 4 years ago

    I’ve been teaching and writing analytic philosophy for over 30 years, most of that time resolutely secular in my thinking. Through all that time, however, I’ve understood that there’s no such thing as “compelling” argument for any interesting position. Whether the subject is a theory of knowledge, mind-body dualism, the existence of God, the resurrection of Jesus, or whatever, there are always reasons to believe P and reasons to believe not-P. This doesn’t make me a relativist, since I believe there is a fact of the matter of all these questions, but I also believe the positions we settle for are always underdetermined by the evidence. I don’t see this as a reason to not take a position, however. But it is a reason to be open to more than arguments and propositional evidence.

    Some atheists disparage faith as “pretending to know what you don’t know.” If knowledge requires the possession of *decisive* evidence, they are not wrong, but they are also equally entangled in faith commitments.

    In philosophy in general, and apologetics in particular, the dialectic often follows the disjunctive syllogism form of “Holmes’s dictum”: Once you have elminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.

    Examples:
    1. It’s unthinkable (impossible) that God created life, so no matter how utterly impossible “chemical evolution” may seem, it must have happened.
    2. It’s unthinkable (impossible) that the basic physical constants could be as fine-tuned as they appear to be without having been so arranged by a being with a plan, so no matter how incredible the existence of such a being may be, he must exist.

    As a general thing it’s easier to make the other side’s position look “unthinkable” than it is to produce independent positive evidence and arguments, so most of the action tends to be on the negative side. This is vividly apparent in the mind-body debate. Physicalists tend to dismiss dualism as incoherent, so no matter how hard the Hard Problems of consciousness may be, there’s no reason to consider dualism. Dualists make the same move, in the other direction. The Hard Problems of consciousness, Intentionality, etc. are just so hard we have every reason to reject physicalism and turn to dualism.

    I’m a theist, and a dualist, so it’s not that I think there’s no position worth taking, but I can’t pretend that my reasons are sufficient to satisfy any inquirer. This is the point where one can choose to remain frozen in agnosticism or try to be open to other things, beyond arguments: literature, experiences of nature, and other experiences of transcendence.

    In college, I read Lewis’s That Hideous Strength in a course, some years before I studied utilitarianism, or even knew what it was. When I did learn about utilitarianism, I couldn’t help having the sense that what Lewis described is what you get if you take utilitarianism seriously. I couldn’t produce any very serious argument for this position, but it’s a conviction that wouldn’t go away. I think this is an example the effect of what Holly Ordway calls “literary apologetics.”

    I haven’t had any numinous experiences, but I’ve read about them, in both Christian and non-Christian contexts. It’s the nature of such things to be powerful to the experiencer but not so much to the person who hears about it. If a case can be made that Christian experiences of this sort are unique in being more spontaneous and less “induced” than those of other traditions, I’d like to know more about it. My general sense of the matter is that arguments from religious experience tend to lead toward general supernaturalism but away from Christian exclusivism.

  4. Author
    David Clark 4 years ago

    @ Chris. “What we need for positive apologetics are encounters with God that have no natural explanations or triggers as far as can be seen; perceptions of the Almighty that actually run counter to what we’d expect from the material world. Experiences of God that challenge our nurture and nature: things that suddenly change us to make us think Christianly, where before we never thought that way at all.”

    Such experiences would be very nice to have. I agree that one could use their own experiences, or the experiences of another, as premises in a positive argument for Christianity/the Christian God if they could demonstrate that (i) their testimony of these experiences is reliable and accurate, (ii) that these experiences are very hard to explain on non-supernatural grounds, and (iii) that these experiences give us good reason to believe in the truth of Christianity or in the existence of the Christian God. But that is a very, very tall order, especially in a public and non-intimate setting like this one. Perhaps arguments from experience would hold some weight between friends, over beer, beside a campfire. But I don’t have much hope for them in the world of public apologetics. Not in our deeply pluralistic world.

    “But whilst what you describe is positive apologetics, it’s not very robust, except for the recipient.”

    I didn’t mean to offer these experiences or any sort of argument from these experiences as a positive apologetic (see my comments to Todd below). But I agree: had I offered them as a positive apologetic, they would not be very robust for anyone other than myself.

    @ Todd.

    “…I’ve understood that there’s no such thing as “compelling” argument for any interesting position.” “…the positions we settle for are always underdetermined by the evidence.”

    I agree that there is no such thing as an argument for any interesting position that is compelling in the sense that all (or most) rational people would agree with one conclusion or another. But I disagree that the positions we settle for are always underdetermined by the evidence. Perhaps they are underdetermined by that evidence which is shared by everyone, but the positions I settle for are not always underdetermined by the evidence I have, nor are the positions you settle for always underdetermined by the evidence you have. Take the materialism-dualism debate. There are some folks for whom materialism, on the available evidence (which includes their prior beliefs and commitments), seems obviously true. And for whom materialism continues to seem obviously true even after they are encountered with the presence of peer disagreement and dualistic arguments. For someone like this, I don’t think we would want to say that they “settled” for materialism; they certainly didn’t have to turn to things like, say, experience in order for this belief in materialism to be rational.

    “If a case can be made that Christian experiences of this sort are unique in being more spontaneous and less “induced” than those of other traditions, I’d like to know more about it. My general sense of the matter is that arguments from religious experience tend to lead toward general supernaturalism but away from Christian exclusivism.”

    I’m not sure I would try to make an argument for the conclusion that experiential evidence of the sort I have described is “more spontaneous” and “less induced” than those experiences of other traditions. The main reason being that I don’t know what the experiences of those of other religious traditions are like. I don’t have anything to compare to. Perhaps if I did know what the experiences of these others was like, and I knew that their experiences were phenomenologically analogous to mine, then I would have a defeater for the beliefs I have formed on the basis of my own experiences. Perhaps. (This defeater could be made all the stronger if I also had a plausible non-religious/non-supernatural explanation for why we were all having these sorts of quasi-perceptual experiences.)

    “My general sense of the matter is that arguments from religious experience tend to lead toward general supernaturalism but away from Christian exclusivism.”

    I agree with you here, at least I think I do. I would have disagreed (somewhat) had you said that religious experience tends to lead towards general supernaturalism but away from Christian exclusivism. I would have said that some religious experience tends to lead towards general supernaturalism but away from Christian exclusivism (e.g. the experiences of some Jewish friends), that some religious experience tends to lead towards general supernaturalism but not away from Christian exclusivism (e.g.the sorts of experiences I have sometimes had during athletic competition), and that some religious experience tend to lead towards general supernaturalism and towards Christian exclusivism (e.g. my experience of encountering the character of Jesus in the gospel stories, or my experience during Christian liturgical practice).

    But, as you well know, these are experiences, not arguments from experience. When it comes to “arguments from experience”, I don’t think I could make much of a case to anybody on the basis of these experiences of mine. The only weight they might have would be testimonial weight — and that only with folks who know me very well and trust me very well. In most public contexts, and especially in most public contexts in our age of religious (and non-religious) pluralism, this sort of testimony means jack. Let me qualify that: It means jack if I am trying to convince anybody of the truth of specifically Christianity on the basis of experience, because for every testimony of Christian experience, we can find testimony of Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or etc. experience. It probably means more than jack if you are arguing for some sort of general supernaturalism. In fact, I think it means a great deal. I find the sheer volume of religious and quasi-religious experience to provide good (but defeasible of course) reason to think that there is something supernatural behind these experiences.

    When I offered my autobiographical bit, I did not offer it as an argument. I offered it as an examination of the grounds beneath my own Christian belief and commitment. That sounds narcissistic. I should say that I didn’t offer this examination just to talk about me. Part of why I pointed out these experiential, quasi-perceptual grounds of my own belief was simply to illustrate the sort of grounds that I think are really operating behind the beliefs of many religious people (contrary to self-images of believing on the basis of things like argument). I didn’t argue much for this point; besides pointing to my own story and saying, “Hey, I was just like you and look what I found; maybe this is what you’d find too…” And I was making this claim about the “real” grounds of religious belief in most people as a part of a larger claim that natural theology is not the most important and effective sort of positive apologetic. But I have not yet offered an alternative positive apologetic to take its stead. I certainly do not mean to offer an argument from my own experience as such an alternative positive apologetic!

  5. todd.moody@gmail.com
    Todd 4 years ago

    @D.J. Clark,
    Yes, I appreciate that you weren’t offering your experiences as an argument, or as evidence, although the “argument from religious experience” is certainly out there in circulation. But personally I have found even the third-person accounts of such experiences to be powerful in some non-inferential way. Even at the most atheistic times of my life I have felt unable to ignore these accounts. Obviously the accounts weren’t as powerful to me as the experiences were to those who had them. They didn’t produce any sudden conversion in me, but I couldn’t quite dismiss them as delusional or otherwise pathological either.

    Some of, especially of a more academic or intellectual bent, have minds that are effectively locked down. The naturalistic worldview seems so obviously true that we are content to respond to challenges to it with superficial dismissals. Flippancy is a great intellectual vice. Wasn’t that in Screwtape? Another vice that afflicts just about everybody, not just intellectuals, is the willingness to hold strong opinions on things they know little or nothing about.

    Anyway, the thing that your interesting reflections have reminded me of is this: Maybe the best that apologetics, positive and negative, can do is to unlock the locked-down mind. They may not *convince* but they create a space in which other influences can operate. These other influences can include the numinous at second hand, the “ring of truth” in things one might otherwise ignore, and even the power of faith glimpsed in a literary work.

  6. Author
    David Clark 4 years ago

    Todd,
    Very insightful: “Maybe the best that apologetics, positive and negative, can do is to unlock the locked-down mind.”

    Love that. Thank you.

  7. todd.moody@gmail.com
    Todd 4 years ago

    @D.J. Clark,
    A few weeks ago, I was listening to Justin Brierley’s “Unbelievable”? podcast–I don’t even remember which episode it was–and Justin read an email from an atheist who asked, “If the apologetic arguments are as strong as the Christians seem to think, why don’t we see people converted by them?” That was my paraphrase, but that was the gist of the question. I thought it was a good question. C.S. Lewis described his conversion to theism in a way that sounds a bit like being moved by arguments, but I’m not sure that was the whole story. Antony Flew’s conversion sounds very much like a “logical” conversion, but such accounts are admittedly rare. I think conversions are more typically experiential, in various ways. But as I say, I think apologetics can help to unlock the mind to what the heart is looking for.

    On the same point, I think most *anti-conversions* are not the result of the cool appraisal of evidence and arguments either. Bart Ehrman concedes that his own anti-conversion was not the result of his studies of the Bible; it was the problem of evil that did it. Plenty of people lose their faith from a confrontation with suffering, I think. And I’m pretty sure some are just disillusioned by other Christians and the Church itself. Heartbreak and disillusionment are as powerful in their own way as experiences of the numinous. But I think I’m indulging the very vice I mentioned before: Forming opinions about matters that I really know almost nothing about.

  8. schorah.mail@virgin.net

    In response to both DJ and Todd
    God encounters that are apologetically robust, in that they do not have a natural explanation, are unusual but not very very rare. We could consider that Pentecost, the conversion of Saul and Blaise Pascal’s experience would qualify. I became a Christian through an entirely unexpected God-encounter that lasted for three days. Subsequently, I’ve met a number of Christians with similar conversion experiences.
    A problem is that published studies of such things don’t include information which allows us to analyse them for their effectiveness as a Christian apologetic. Whilst it’s true that many of these studies show that the majority lead to development/enhancement of a Christian spirituality, because they’re mostly undertaken where the background culture is Christian, this is what you’d expect naturally
    However, I think we can be positive and say that numinous experiences of God do generally produce awakening/enhancing of the Christian faith rather than just a general increased spiritual awareness.
    Why?
    • We see it in the amazing growth of the first 300 years of the Church achieved through doubting, frightened, unconnected and uneducated Jews following the death of their leader, using a counter-intuitive message of enemy-loving and sacrificial care and peace to all men. The growth occurred without the support of political power, economic largesse or military might. Further it was completely against the views of the ruling authorities and the pluralist culture of the time and, as a result, suffered periods of intense persecution. No other religion with such limitations and disadvantages has succeeded so quickly and effectively and spread so ubiquitously. The only satisfactory explanation for this is that it was through encounters with God’s Spirit coming into the lives of individual Christians as some of them they relate in the NT.
    • We see it in the testimonies of Christians down the ages and today.
    • We see it in the accounts of Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa coming to a Christian faith following visions and dreams of Jesus.
    • In contrast to this we see a relative lack of recorded God encounters leading to either general increases in spirituality (other than through intense physical or meditative deprivations/practices) or conversion to non-Christian faiths. I know that this is open to question for it may simply reflect underreporting.
    • Underpinning all this is the fact that divine encounters through God’s Spirit for all Christians are repeatedly promised in and central to the NT message. No other faith has this at the heart of its scriptures.
    This all strongly points to God encounters being predominantly Christian in nature and outcome. The accumulated evidence, as it currently stands (which is far from complete), I believe suggests that experiences of God tends to lead to Christian exclusivism and away from general supernaturalism and conversion to other faiths. I know from my own experience that they can have a tremendous impact on the partially open mind. From my debates with atheists, I’m less convinced that they can release the ‘locked-down mind’. But let’s keep trying.

  9. todd.moody@gmail.com
    Todd 4 years ago

    @Chris,
    ” In contrast to this we see a relative lack of recorded God encounters leading to either general increases in spirituality (other than through intense physical or meditative deprivations/practices) or conversion to non-Christian faiths. I know that this is open to question for it may simply reflect underreporting.”

    Yes, I’m not at all confident about this one. R.M. Bucke, William James, and Rudolf Otto all studied numinous experiences beyond the Christian tradition, and found no shortage of material to work with. More recently, John Hick has also written on this subject, and of course Ken Wilber has made a career of it. If such experiences are going to serve as part of a distinctively Christian apologetic, it’ll be necessary to *document* the claim that numinous experiences of the Christian kind pose a special challenge to naturalism.

    In fact, I’d go so far as to say that one reason for the decline of Christianity in the last 100 years or so–albeit probably a minor reason–is wider awareness of the numinous. A consequence of that wider awareness is the perception of Christianity as one among many, rather than in a class by itself. Within Christianity and outside it, there appear to be both cultivated and spontaneous numinous experiences.

  10. schorah.mail@virgin.net

    Thanks Todd
    I’m sure that many unexpected numinous experiences of God, which have confirmed or lead to Christian belief, do pose a challenge to naturalism and have added confirmation and validity to the promises and teachings in the NT accounts. They support a basic foundation of Christian scripture, theology and practice in a way that they don’t in other faiths whose scriptures:- are largely devoid of the promise of such experiences (e.g. Islam); do not claim that they can be experienced in an everyday non-mythical (historical) settings without intensive meditation or deprivation (Eastern religions).
    I also think it’s true that the evidence shows spontaneous perceptions of God tend to lead to Christian belief in a largely Judeo-Christian setting (refs quoted in a previous discussion we had)
    I do agree, however, that it is unclear whether spontaneous numinous experiences tend to lead to Christian belief in a non-Christian environment.
    I’ve often found Hicks pluralistic views unconvincing and Ken Wilber seems very theoretical/hypothetical. I’ve not read the others. Perhaps, if you have a moment Todd you could direct me to a web page, book, article (or even give me a summary) where a good evidenced based argument is made that, in some situations, non-self-induced numinous experiences lead away from Christianity towards other faiths or general spiritual awareness. Thanks in advance for any help here.

  11. todd.moody@gmail.com
    Todd 4 years ago

    Hi Steve,
    I don’t know whether I’d say that spontaneous numinous experiences lead *away* from Christianity; I suspect they may tend to lead people in whatever supernatural direction they may already be vaguely pointing toward.

    In the context of at least some Eastern religions, notably Zen Buddhism, spontaneous satori experience is unusual, but not impossible. It’s certainly not ruled out by Buddhist teaching. Within Christianity itself, the “norm” for such experiences has historically been self-induction, via prayer, fasting, isolation, etc., but of course there are the spontaneous cases. My point was simply that the pattern in both Christianity and Buddhism (to mention the tradition that I’m a bit more familiar with than, say Hinduism or Taoism) is similar: The “norm” is self-induction but spontaneous cases exist. I suspect, however, that they are so rare that it’s hard to generalize about them.

    Hick’s basic position is to infer similar causes from similar effects. He argues that, at their best, all the great religions of the world produce similar personal transformations in those who fully commit to them. These transformations include numinous experiences, sanctification, liberation from fear and resentment. He argues that this suggests that they are all tapping into the same supernatural source. For Hick, these transformations are what “salvation” comes to, which is obviously different from the orthodox Christian view. I think Wilber’s and Otto’s views are very similar on these points, if not the details.

    Here’s an interesting Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kensh%C5%8D#Spontaneous_kensh.C5.8D

    For apologetic purposes, you’d have to argue that either (a) those people who respond to spontaneous numinous experiences by committing to non-Christian religions have made a mistake, or (b) their experiences were in some sense not authentic. I doubt that either approach would get very far.

  12. schorah.mail@virgin.net

    Thanks for the Wikipedia ref. Todd. I accept and understand that spontaneous experiences of God occur in other faiths but, as you say, they’re rare in Buddhism and, as I know, also in Islam. Indeed, recent anecdotal accounts indicate that unprompted perceptions of Jesus, with resultant conversion to Christianity, appear to be much more common in Islam than experiences that leave the recipient more convinced of Islam. And so the heart of my point is that, unlike what appears to be the case in other faiths, dramatic spontaneous experiences are not rare in and in association with Christianity and it’s not unusual for them to lead towards Jesus and away from the recipients previous supernatural direction.
    Where does this leave us apologetically with regard to perceptions of God?
    First, their unexplainable spontaneous occurrence in any faith is evidence for God’s existence. I would never argue that they’re not genuine because they haven’t occurred within Christianity.
    Secondly, the centrality of experiential features within Christian scripture, history and belief (as I’ve described in these posts) is good evidence for the uniqueness and transcendence of the faith in this respect. To rebut this Hick and others would need to show that other faiths are equivalent in such things. I don’t believe they’ve even come close. Yes, there are some commonalities: the concept of an all-powerful creator God or knowing is present in almost all faiths including the ancient primal beliefs. Yes, as we agree, unprompted experiences of God can occur in all faiths and none. But if God is the relational deity that is revealed in Christianity, this is what you’d expect. However, because God comes to us so centrally, frequently, personally and powerfully in Christianity, without us having to work towards Him through the law, ceremonies, rituals, meditations and deprivations, it can be argued that the clearest, most intimate and effective revelation of God always comes through Jesus, whether it’s recognized or not.

  13. todd.moody@gmail.com
    Todd 4 years ago

    Chris, I think we may be talking past each other. Experiences of the numinous are one thing, and I suspect they are rare in all religious traditions. What you’re calling “unprompted perceptions of Jesus” are something else, more in line with what have traditionally (and Biblically) been called “visions”. I don’t know how rare such visions are but, as you say, they do seem to be out there. I also can’t think of any case of a spontaneous vision of, say, Krishna to a non-Hindu.

    I’d have to do a bit of checking, but I think there have been instances of visions of Mary to non-Catholics and even non-Christians. Ah, here’s one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie-Alphonse_Ratisbonne#Religious_conversion I realize this raises denominational issues, but if we’re going to discuss visions as evidence for anything, I don’t see how Marian visions, which are not uncommon, can be excluded.

  14. schorah.mail@virgin.net

    Sorry it’s been so long in replying. I don’t really have much in the way of denominational issues when it comes to the basics of our faith, so I could go along with Marian visions as ‘Christian’ perceptions in the sense of God providing people with encounters that encourage them on from where they are. I, like you, need to keep looking into these things.

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