EVIDENCE FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD FROM EXPERIENCE
Evidence for the existence of God from experience isn’t the same as evidence from philosophy or reason. The evidence from philosophy depends on what can be deduced from reason beginning with our experience of the world around us. We see that the world is contingent, ordered, etc … and are able to conclude reasonably from this to the existence of a God Who is responsible for that existence, order, etc …
Evidence for God from experience is much more subjective. It’s based on the experiences of God that individuals or groups of people have had. This subjective nature is the primary criticism of this sort of evidence for God’s existence. How can we move from a subjective experience of God to the existence of God without making the error of relying too much on the authority of the one claiming the experience? In a word, we can’t. But, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. As an argument for the existence of God, the experience of a particular individual, or even of a somewhat larger group, is hardly reliable. But, that’s not the human experience at all. Rather, the human experience is filled to overflowing with the experience of God. In every age, in every culture, from the earliest cave drawings to the loftiest cathedrals, people have testified to their experience of the divine. Indeed, one could argue reasonably that the experience of God is part and parcel with the experience of being human.
We seem to have an innate understanding that we don’t give ultimate meaning to our individual lives, much less to our shared human experience. Yes, we can strive to find meaning in our lives, and even to give meaning to our lives in the work that we do, the communities we build, the projects to which we contribute. Even with all of this, however, there’s a sense that the meaning of our lives extends beyond the boundaries of this temporal globe, that there is more to life than what this world has to offer. This understanding, this foundational intuition, you could even call it a teleological intuition, of the human experience is so pervasive that it seems unreasonable to conclude that it’s nothing more than a holdover from our evolutionary progress toward the survival of our species, or the false hopes or, worse, malignant wishful thinking of the great majority of us. To dismiss it so easily is to deny the palpable power, even the transformative power, of this teleological intuition. It’s our universally shared experience. We can deny it, but we can’t escape it, for to try to do so would be tantamount to trying to escape what it is that makes us human.
The criticism that experiences of God are subjective comes up against another wall, as well. If you think about it, all experience is subjective. No one can share my experience of life from my perspective, for no other person shares my personhood without distinction. Neither can I experience another’s life, or share another’s experience on the very same level as he or she.
In other words, if we dismiss experiences of God because they’re subjective, we would be equally required to dismiss every other experience, since all experience is, ultimately, subjective: that is, dependent on our particular experience of whatever it is we’re experiencing. Thanks, Descartes! We can’t claim that our experience of everything else is objective, but our experience of God is subjective. Even if we claim, as some do, that we’re able to measure with objective tools other experiences, our experience of those tools is chained to our subjectivity. This criticism is based on the assumption that God doesn’t exist because He can’t be measured. But, the notion that the only things that exist are those that are physical and can be measured is an assumption, not a proven conclusion. How would we begin to measure a non-physical Being that exists outside the physical universe by the tools of the physical universe, anyway? It’s important to remember that experiences of God are offered as evidence from personal experience. They contribute to our confidence in God’s existence because they testify to His presence and movement in our lives. They are, as such, subject to legitimate inquiry and investigation. Disproving the reality or reasonableness of a particular experience of God, however, is far from disproving the very existence of God because, as Thomas Aquinas has demonstrated, the existence of God is not predicated on experiences of God. Finally, research in the field of “neuro-theology” challenges the notion that experiences of the divine can’t be measured by the tools of modern science. More on that later.
A second criticism of the experience of God as evidence for God’s existence is the likelihood that such experiences are artificial, the result of one’s too active imagination or the manipulation of scam artists. People have claimed all sorts of experiences that strike rational, mentally healthy people as strange or even outrageous, so that no one could reasonably expect another to believe them. People have claimed to have seen UFOs, to have been captured by aliens and returned to Earth, to have spied monsters, ghosts or fairies, to have powers of telepathy, to have communicated with the dead, to be able to read the minds of others, or any number of other bizarre claims. Many of these people are entirely sincere. But, there are also scammers. There is no shortage of people willing and eager to convince others of their paranormal or supernatural experiences for the purpose of gaining fame or wealth. What’s so different about the claim to have had an experience of God? Why not simply chalk up such claims to those who are sincere but ill or deceived, either by themselves or by others?
What sets the experience of God apart? First, just as in response to the criticism of subjectivity, there is the universality of such experience. There is not a human culture or era in human history that does not include the experience of something or Someone greater than we are, of the sense that there must be a reason for everything, that nothing comes from nothing. Second, there’s the reliability of the witnesses. Whether sincere in their claim or not, not everyone is reliable, so there’s a need to vet these claims. Unreliable claims are usually inconsistent and arbitrary, varying in detail from one person to another or even in accounts given by the same person at different times. There’s also the question of mental illness, and those vetting claims by such persons need to be especially circumspect and gentle in the process, even if unsympathetic in their conclusions.
But, what of those people who’s accounts are compelling and consistent, even remarkably so, given their youth, lack of education and inexperience? What of those who not only demonstrate no sign of mental illness, but demonstrate, instead, exceptional mental stability and the capacity to continue achieving success in their lives and chosen professions? It’s easy enough to dismiss the claims of kooks and criminals, but what of the sound, the innocent or the otherwise reliable? Like it or not, it’s not so easy to dismiss these claims. Finally, the falsity of some claims doesn’t speak necessarily to the veracity of others. The fact that some women have lied about being raped hardly disproves that others have been. The fact that an identify thief purchased materials in John Doe’s name, or that a mentally ill person sincerely believes he is George Washington hardly disproves the existence of either Doe or Washington. The fact that some claims are false doesn’t prove that all are false. It only proves that our vetting process needs to be reliable.
Another criticism of the evidence of God from experience is that, while people experience God in a variety of ways, most often they do so according to their cultural and educational background. Critics claim that this fact proves that these so-called experiences of God are really outgrowths of a person’s culture. It would be more impressive, they seem to say, if God revealed Himself in a way that was outside the expectations of the culture of the person experiencing the divine. But, when we try to communicate with people of other cultures, is it wise or effective to insist that they understand us according to our way of thinking? Wouldn’t we have more success in getting our message across if we accommodated their language and culture by communicating to them according to their cultural and linguistic experiences and expectations? In other words, it does me no good to go to a non-English speaking culture, where men with beards are distrusted, and insist that they trust my bearded face and learn my language in order to understand me. In other words, when God speaks or reveals Himself to someone, He does so in a way that that person will understand. If you’re going to speak to me, you had better speak English, because I don’t speak Spanish, or French. It would make no sense at all for God, or anyone else for that matter, to speak to me or reveal Himself to me in a way I couldn’t understand. Rather than an argument against true experiences of God, many believers find it remarkable that God is able to communicate so effectively to people of a variety of cultures, as the history of such experiences attests.
In their book, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, Dr. Peter Kreeft and Fr. Ronald K. Tacelli, SJ, identify three factors in evaluating claims of an experience of God: Are the accounts consistent? Are the details consistent in the numerous re-tellings and consistent with what else we know to be true? Are the people reliable? Have they proven themselves otherwise honest and trustworthy? Has the experience made an impact on their lives? Are they more loving, more committed to the good of others, or more an example of moral uprightness? In the following articles, I’ll offer arguments for God’s existence from human experience, both universal and personal, both sublime and miraculous, but never mundane. The experience of the divine testified to by members of the human community over the ages is compelling.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.