Thursday, April 29, 2010

What Can We Say?

In our previous conversation, we discussed seeking to understand those who have no belief in God. If you read that post, please take a moment to also read the comments. They offer some clarifications and additional information that you might find helpful.

In regards to how we might respond to those who don’t believe, there are quite a few popular approaches. There is the ontological argument, the cosmological argument and the teleological argument, among many others.

These more well known arguments make many good points, but to me, they are more problematic than helpful. They are structured for intellectual debates, not dialogues seeking understanding. Besides that, speaking personally, they do not really touch on the primary reasons I’m a believer.

The challenges from atheists I’ve encountered in our conversations about God have been cause for me to honestly question many of my assumptions. Over time, it felt like those conversations slowly peeled away the outer layers of my beliefs, until not much was left. Not much, but still something. Here’s two of the things I found under all those layers.

I believe in God because of my personal experiences. Throughout my life, I have had encounters with God, and many of them have been transformational. There is little doubt, to me, that those encounters have “saved” me from giving in to some of my more antisocial inclinations. Beyond that, to borrow from Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets, my experiences of God have “made me want to be a better man.” Because of the grace, the unmerited favor, I have experienced in my life, I have a desire to be a conduit of that grace in the lives of others.

There is a formal argument that uses this approach. It is called The Argument from Religious Experience (ARE). Here is what Keith Ward, until recently Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford, has to say about this approach:

…There are personal experiences, known to all of us in a direct and natural way, that do not fall within the domain of the natural sciences. The scientific domain is that of publicly observable objects in shared public space. Since science does not deal with personal experiences, it cannot itself give an account of what they are, or of how they relate to objects in physical space. Science itself cannot provide a comprehensive world-view, because there are aspects of reality with which it does not deal. The most obvious aspects of this sort are personal experiences, and it is precisely in such experiences that such notions as value and purpose have their home…
In his book The Case for Religion, Ward also argues that since experience is beyond the confines of empirical evidence, it should not be subjected to the same demands we expect of physical evidence. I’m not so sure I agree with that point.

I would suggest that personal experience is indeed evidence, but not as the term is used in the scientific method. Instead, it seems to me that personal experience is indeed convincing evidence, if it is compared to the evidence often found in a courtroom. In other words, our personal experience is our testimony.

Now, one of the challenges to ARE is that it is too subjective to be of value. This is a valid criticism. However, in our day to day lives, we accept many subjective perceptions as true, without testing them every time. Richard Swinburne calls this the principle of credulity. If someone tells us that they saw a tree, unless we have strong reasons to question their perceptions, we usually accept that as a true statement. When God experiences are challenged, and other experiences are not, it suggests a bias on the part of the challenger.

These personal experiences do not stand by themselves. We have the “testimonies” of millions throughout history who speak of similar experiences. It is at this point that I want to return to the bible (which I promised I’d get back to eventually in the last post).

The stories in the bible can be viewed as further “testimonies” of experiences of God. Of course the ways these experiences are described was influenced by the time frame and cultural setting in which the authors lived. Consequently, there is much in their stories that we view as not just primitive, but even repulsive. For me, the fact that those “ugly bits” still remain, and have not been edited out, gives these stories more authenticity. I would imagine that my stories of experiences of God will be equally repulsive to future generations. Referring to the comment in the last post, I do not find value in the bible because it is an instruction manual. The scriptures are of value to me because they offer testimonies of God’s presence in the lives of those who lived in ancient times.

So, we have the testimony from scripture, the testimony from the historical tradition, and the testimony of those who experience God in our own day. Subjective or not, unless one believes that the millions of people who have had these experiences are all delusional, I consider these testimonies to be fairly strong evidence for God.

Beyond the subjective nature of religious experience, another criticism of this approach is that the various religious traditions can’t agree on the meaning of these experiences. As a matter of fact, there are divisions within the traditions themselves regarding how such experiences might be appropriately expressed. Although the ways religious experiences are articulated are quite diverse, I think most of those differences can be attributed to cultural and language variations more than anything else.

If you consider the mystics of the different traditions, you find very little variation in the experiences they describe, regardless as to if they are Jewish, Sufi, Buddhist or Christian. The mystic has stripped away the layers, and stands naked before this “Something More” that my tradition calls God. Usually such experiences are beyond words or thoughts. But, in order to communicate to others the content of such experiences, the mystic is forced to use the symbols and words of the religious tradition that they know best, which is often a matter of their cultural setting rather than a choice of “right beliefs” over “wrong beliefs.” So, the mystic is often very conservative, in that they affirm the tradition in which they dwell. But at the same time, most mystics are also rebels, pushing the boundaries of those same traditions. My reason for bringing up the mystics is that I think it is their tradition that most clearly suggests that the various faith traditions are actually struggling to find a way to put into words very similar religious experiences. I don’t think the fact that many of the official teachings of the various traditions contradict one another is a good enough reason to reject the strong possibility that the experiences from which those teachings have sprung have much in common.

Now, there are certainly some “religious experiences” that need to be challenged, especially those which cause harm to others. That is why that even though I personally give a high priority to the evidence from religious experience, I don’t think, by itself, it is enough.

Which leads me to the second reason I am a God believer. This one does not engage science or philosophy. It is really not even open for scrutiny by either logic or reason. I am a believer because I long to be in relationship, not only with God, but with other people, who often become, for me, “God with skin on.”

I was struck by a line in last week’s Gospel lesson from John. Jesus is being questioned, and a group is demanding that he speak plainly, and tell them if he is the messiah or not. Jesus responded by saying “You do not believe because you do not belong…” We usually think that you believe, and then join a community of like-minded believers. Jesus turned that around. It is because we belong that we believe. The beliefs spring from being in community…in “communion”…with others.

That has certainly been my experience. It is from being forced to go against my natural inclination to be a bit of a hermit, and engage the larger community, that I have grown in my understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Beyond that, once I came to understand that it wasn’t enough for me to function in that community as a servant, but realized the need for me to allow others to serve me, that I began to see evidence for God in the faces of those all around me.

Also, it is through belonging to such a community that my experiences are given a very necessary check and balance. As I share what I have understood the meaning to be of a particular experience, the community, who has also had such experiences, can either offer words of encouragement or caution. Their collective insight can rein in the individual who might do something foolish or harmful because they understood that “God told me to do it.”

Experiences of God, both in the mystical experience and the community experience, are first and foremost about relationships, not right beliefs.

It's about relationships. It's about belonging.

I wonder how well our communities welcome everyone, regardless of their beliefs, or lack thereof, and make an effort to let them know that they belong, and are valued? Or, do we, perhaps unconsciously, have a hierarchy of belonging, with only those with the right beliefs (which usually means “beliefs that agree with me”) allowed into the inner circle? Something to think about.

Experience and belonging. Those are the keys to my belief in God. Now enough from me. Tell me why you believe, or disbelieve in God?


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