#167

June 27, 2010

Counterfeit Claims to the Witness of the Spirit

In your podcast “Religious Experience: Subjective Or Objective”, you say that since the Mormon does not have a “real” witness of the Holy Spirit, that eventually, under the weight of other objective verifiable evidence, his confidence will crack. Eventually coming to see he was mistaken.

I think I follow your logic that at this point the conflict between the Christian and the Mormon must hinge upon these “other evidences” that are unmistakably positive of the Christian World-view, and detrimental to the view of the Mormon.

However, I am still having trouble making this work with your stance on allowing a witness of the Spirit to trump objective evidence as mentioned in your response to Question #68. I understand that “available evidence” changes from place to place and time to time, but while this allows the Christian to remain Christian in light of “available evidence” to the contrary, doesn’t it, in turn, allow Mormons to honestly remain Mormons by citing the same philosophy?

So if evidentialism isn’t necessary, which I would agree that is isn’t; Then how can a Christian and a Mormon gain any ground one way or another? Both would believe their Spiritual Witness to be authentic, and both would claim that since we only see in part, Evidence cannot possibly rule their experience out. In the aforementioned podcast, you gave an analogy of bottles labeled as water. You said that if only one of the bottles is water, and the rest is poison, that the truth of the correctly labeled bottle is in no way lessened because of the mislabeling of the others. But how can the person with the poison (false witness) know what he has isn’t water if he won’t listen to evidence based on his experience? In turn how can the person with the H2O (Real Holy Spirit) know they don’t have a mislabeled Bottle? Is the true bottle of water unmistakable when experienced? If so, then must I conclude that the Mormon claiming the true witness is lying or simply mistaken? Can’t this argument also be used by the Mormon against a Christian who is certain of their own experience of the correctly labeled bottle or water? I understand that just because an argument is reversible doesn’t cancel the truthfulness of correct application, but wouldn’t it rule out the usefulness of such application?

Thank you for all you do,

Paul

Communicating my understanding of the proper basicality of certain Christian beliefs grounded by the Spirit’s witness has proven to be extraordinarily difficult. Your question concerns a Christian who enjoys the witness of God’s Holy Spirit and is confronted with a Mormon who claims to have a similar self-authenticating experience of God (a “burning in the bosom”) in favor of Mormonism. In addressing this question, Paul, it’s important to distinguish between knowing Christianity is true and showing Christianity is true.

With respect to knowing Christianity is true, I have written,

But how is the fact that other persons claim to experience a selfauthenticating witness of God’s Spirit relevant to my knowing the truth of Christianity via the Spirit’s witness? The existence of an authentic and unique witness of the Spirit does not exclude the existence of false claims to such a witness. How, then, does the existence of false claims of the Spirit’s witness to the truth of a nonChristian religion do anything logically to undermine the fact that the Christian believer does possess the genuine witness of the Spirit? Why should I be robbed of my joy and assurance of salvation simply because someone else falsely pretends, sincerely or insincerely, to the Spirit’s witness? If a Mormon or Muslim falsely claims to experience the witness of God’s Spirit in his heart, that does nothing to undermine the veridicality of my experience (Reasonable Faith, p. 49).

The analogy of the bottles all labeled H2O, but only one of which really contains water, is relevant to this point. The falsity of the other labels does nothing whatsoever to undercut the truth of the label on the bottle really containing the water. You ask, “how can the person with the H2O (Real Holy Spirit) know they don’t have a mislabeled Bottle? Is the true bottle of water unmistakable when experienced? If so, then must I conclude that the Mormon claiming the true witness is lying or simply mistaken?” The answer is that the witness of the Holy Spirit is unmistakable (though not indubitable) for him who has it and attends to it. He who has it should, indeed, conclude, that the Mormon is lying or, more charitably, sincerely mistaken. The Mormon has probably been misled by a counterfeit experience, and the non-veridicality of his experience shouldn’t lead you to doubt the veridicality of your experience.

You ask, “Can’t this argument also be used by the Mormon against a Christian who is certain of their own experience of the correctly labeled bottle or water?” Of course, the Mormon can say this; he can use any argument he wants. But that doesn’t make his experience veridical or give me any reason to doubt mine. I think you grasp this, for you then say, “I understand that just because an argument is reversible doesn’t cancel the truthfulness of correct application.” “But,” you add, “wouldn’t it rule out the usefulness of such application?” Ah, useful for what? Showing him that Christianity is true? That is a matter of showing your faith to be true, not knowing your faith to be true. So let’s turn to that subject.

With respect to showing your faith to be true, I’ve written,

Even if I myself know personally on the basis of the Spirit’s witness that Christianity is true, how can I demonstrate to somebody else that what I believe is true?

Consider again the case of the Christian confronted with an adherent of some other world religion who also claims to have a self-authenticating experience of God. William Alston points out that this situation taken in isolation results in an epistemic standoff.i For neither person knows how to convince the other that he alone has a veridical, rather than delusory, experience. This standoff does not undermine the rationality of the Christian’s belief, for even if his process of forming his belief is as reliable as can be, there’s no way he can give a noncircular proof of this fact. Thus his inability to provide such a proof does not nullify the rationality of his belief. But although he is rational in retaining his Christian belief, the Christian in such circumstances is at a complete loss as to how to show his non-Christian friend that he is correct and that his friend is wrong in his respective beliefs.

How is one to break this deadlock? Alston answers that the Christian should do whatever he can to search for common ground on which to adjudicate the crucial differences between their competing views, seeking to show in a noncircular way which of them is correct. If, by proceeding on the basis of considerations that are common to both parties, such as sense perception, rational selfevidence, and common modes of reasoning, the Christian can show that his own beliefs are true and those of his non-Christian friend false, then he will have succeeded in showing that the Christian is in the better epistemic position for discerning the truth about these matters. Once apologetics is allowed to enter the picture, the objective difference between their epistemic situations becomes crucial, for since the non-Christian only thinks he has a self-authenticating experience of God, when in fact he does not, the power of the evidence and argument may, by God’s grace, crack his false assurance of the truth of his faith and persuade him to place his faith in Christ (Reasonable Faith, p. 51).

Notice my wording: the argument and evidence you present may (not will) crack his false assurance of Mormonism’s truth.

You ask how this position is consistent with my “allowing a witness of the Spirit to trump objective evidence.” It’s right in line with it, when you realize that you’re reverting back to the question of how I know Christianity is true. My knowledge of Christianity’s truth, while supported by strong arguments, is not ultimately based on those arguments but on the witness of God Himself. If, therefore, I find myself confronted with a well-prepared and articulate Mormon who blows away my arguments and presents a case for Mormonism that I can’t answer, I should not apostatize, since I have the witness of the Holy Spirit to Christianity’s truth and so realize that although I’ve lost the argument, Christianity is nonetheless the truth (and I need to be better prepared next time!).

You respond, “while this allows the Christian to remain Christian in light of ‘available evidence’ to the contrary, doesn’t it, in turn, allow Mormons to honestly remain Mormons by citing the same philosophy?” The right word here is “justifiably” (or more accurately, “warrantedly”), not “honestly,” since we’re not impugning the Mormon’s sincerity. And the answer is, No, he can’t justifiably remain Mormon by appealing to his experience, since he doesn’t really have a genuine witness of the Holy Spirit, but only a counterfeit experience. Of course, he may not realize that and so appeal to his experience as a grounds for resisting your evidence (indeed, this is, in fact, what typically does happen with Mormons!), but your hope and prayer should be that the evidence will cause him to doubt and so be open to the genuine witness of the Holy Spirit.

So “how,” you ask, “can a Christian and a Mormon gain any ground one way or another? Both would believe their Spiritual Witness to be authentic, and both would claim that since we only see in part, Evidence cannot possibly rule their experience out.” Yes, they both make those claims; but the Mormon’s claims are false, he has no self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit in favor of Mormonism’s truth, and therefore, under the force of the evidence he may begin to doubt and to seek. Thereby, progress will be made.


Notes

i William Alston, “Religious Diversity and Perceptual Knowledge of God,” Faith and Philosophy 5, no. 4 (1988): 44243.