To review, here’s the question posed in part I:
C. Marshall: Many Christians invoke their direct experience of Christ as their primary reason for belief in the veracity of Christianity. Yet religious experiences appear to be nearly universal across geography and time. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, animists, et alia all claim that they experience deep connections to the divine. But if other religions are incorrect, in whole or in part, why do they grant believers a deep sense of meaning and the impression of supernatural interaction?
I can think of three primary ways of accounting for the diversity of religious experience while maintaining the significance of a Christian’s experience of Christ’s love:
1. Reduce the other religious experiences. Explain them in terms of their social construction and/or neurological and psychological mechanisms. Then, you don’t need to invoke the transcendence of a foreign tradition to account for the ecstasies of its adherents. But if you take this route, I would like to see a very good account of why I should trust the experiences of the world’s Christians (or my own experience, if God grants me a vision).
2. Other people are being fooled by Satanic temptation. Islam really is of the devil. People quaking before their gods are, unbeknownst to them, worshiping demons. If something’s true, I don’t care if it’s horribly offensive, so take this tack if you’d like. But then I’d like to hear how we know we’re not being misled by demons into believing Christianity when we should be Muslims. And then I’d like to hear you say that at an interfaith conference.
3. Believers are experiencing God, just in a different way. This would seem to contradict universal claims of Christianity’s truth. It also seems like it would be deceptive of God to reward people for their false beliefs.
In sum: I am dissatisfied with all of my own poorly-articulated straw-man formulations of the ways a Christians can hold to Christianity’s unique truth and account for widespread religious experience. It seems more elegant to me to explain all religions in a reductionist fashion, in terms of their social/psychological/neurological bases. Help me out here!
My response is a combination of 1 and 3.
One thing that we know is that the Christian God is one who works through processes (a long process of redemption for Israel, a lengthy process of evolution, etc.). God also works through his creation, often through
naturalistic processes. So the reason that Christianity gives people a sense of meaning can be explained by describing the nature of things. For example, altruism is known to have health and psychological benefits.
If God is love, then it makes sense that someone who is actively living a life of love for one’s neighbor would experience a deep sense of meaning even without Christ being an active part of their life. Many other faiths, like Judaism and Islam, have a highly altruistic component, so it is no surprise that they could provide someone with a sense of meaning. Christ claimed “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” If Christ truly is “the way,” then people will be closer or farther from Christ based upon the way they live their lives. A Christian who goes to church every Sunday but lives nothing like Christ is probably farther from Christ than a devout Muslim who gives half of his income in alms to the poor. A Christian who has become jaded with the world may be less connected to the divine than an avid nature enthusiast who revels in God’s creation without recognizing the Creator.
This psychological explanation is not, however, a sufficient reason to reject God’s active presence in the process. As William James points out:
“The question, What are the religious propensities? and the question, What is their philosophic significance? are two entirely different orders of question from the logical point of view… In recent books on logic, distinction is made between two orders of inquiry concerning anything. First, what is the nature of it? How did it come about? what is its constitution, origin, and history? And second, What is its importance, meaning, or significance, now that it is once here? The answer to the one question is given in an existential judgment or proposition. The answer to the other is a proposition of value, what the Germans call a Werthurtheil, or what we may, if we like, denominate a spiritual judgment. Neither judgment can be deduced immediately from the other.”
James later goes so far as to say that, “the theologian’s contention that the religious man is moved by an external power is vindicated, for it is one of the peculiarities of invasions from the subconscious region to take on objective appearances, and to suggest to the Subject an external control.”
I would propose that actively living out the life described by Christ would be the most fulfilling experience one could possess. Of course, as sinful humans, we will never be capable of doing this perfectly. It makes sense that God would make following the lifestyle He has ordained to be the most psychologically fulfilling.
As for claiming to have personal interaction with the divine, I assume this means a sense of having answered prayers. I am not sure how exactly to answer this, for I certainly have never heard God’s voice or seen His presence. (I am quite the opposite – I connect most with God in his utter and most bleak absence). Yet many Christians profess to have had such experiences and it seems that some must be veridical, considering their presence in the Bible.
The Christian faith seems to rely primarily on scripture and experience (with some tradition and reason thrown in for good measure). Jesus proved his authenticity as the Son of God both by performing miracles (John 14:11, John 10:37-38) and also by fulfilling the prophecies in the Scriptures of the Old Testament. Yet when it comes to how we decide today what is from God, 1 John 4 provides some answers:
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.”
I would answer that if a revelation reveals Jesus Christ or something true about God, then it is probably from God, whereas if it affirms Mohammed or Joseph Smith as a prophet, or denies God’s existence, then it is necessarily not from God. I would ground this assertion in the validity of Scripture rather than in some strict conditions for what is obviously demonic, inspired, or naturalistic.
That being said, I think there is only one miracle that we really ought to concern ourselves with: the resurrection. If the resurrection occurred, then we can know that Christianity is true even if every single other miracle could be accounted for purely naturalistically. If the resurrection did not occur, then Christianity would be false even if every single other miracle were proven to be divine. The Christian gospel is primarily about Christ’s nature as the Son of God and the resurrection as proof of this fact.
Granted, the obvious question is: how can we know that the resurrection really occurred? Why should we believe in this miracle and not, say, the ascent of Mohammed? I would answer that the resurrection is one of the most historically well-documented accounts of a miracle, with supporting documents written within 50 years of its occurrence by numerous individuals.
Note that this sort of argument would not preclude the possibility of an unbeliever having a veridical interaction with God. I think it’s entirely possible that God would choose to interact with an unbeliever to reveal truths about Himself or about His creation. But the only way to know that it is from God is to test it against the standard He has provided: the Holy Scripture. Any other experiences must be the case of pure delusion or illusion.
We’ll take another look at this topic next week, because C. Marshall wants to respond more thoroughly. Stay tuned for his criticism of this response!