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Religious Experience: Subjective or Objective

February 03, 2009     Time: 00:22:33
Religious Experience: Subjective or Objective


Conversation with William Lane Craig

Transcript Religious Experience: Subjective or Objective


[Start audio clip from the movie Contact]

Michael: You admit that you have absolutely no physical evidence to back up your story?

Eleanor: Yes.

Michael: You admit that you very well may have hallucinated this whole thing?

Eleanor: Yes.

Michael: You admit that if you were in our position you would respond with exactly the same degree of incredulity and skepticism?

Eleanor: Yes.

Michael: Then why don’t you simply withdraw your testimony and concede that this journey to the center of the galaxy in fact never took place?

Eleanor: Because I can’t. I had an experience. I can’t prove it. I can’t even explain it. But everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am, tells me that it was real. I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever, a vision of the universe that tells us undeniably . . . a vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that we are not – none of us are alone.

[End audio clip from the movie Contact]

Kevin Harris: The inner witness of the Holy Spirit – we’ve talked a lot about this, and it still generates questions to our website, Dr. Craig. So let’s try to expound on it a little more. I think we can start this question by reading a question from a listener who says,

My question is, Dr. Craig, can subjective religious experience (that is, the feeling of the presence of God or an awareness of the voice of the Holy Spirit) serve as good objective evidence showing the truth of the Christian faith? How can religious experience be self-authenticating in the epistemic sense (or in the area of knowledge, what we know). As adherents of different world religions have different religious experience, how can we tell whose religious experience is veritable, or truthful.

Now, that is probably the top on the charts that comes up. The Mormons claim that they have a religious experience, and so on. Take us through these waters.

Dr. Craig: All right. First of all, it is very important to understand that the witness of the Holy Spirit is not just a subjective religious experience. This is an objective reality. It is a witness which God himself bears with our spirit. It is as objective as light rays impinging upon your retina and causing you to see something. This is an objective work and activity of God on the spirit. So this isn’t just some sort of a subjective religious experience that arises from your own emotions and feelings.

Having said that, that does not mean that the witness of the Holy Spirit serves as objective evidence for the Christian faith as the reader seems to think. That is a misunderstanding of what one is talking about here. The witness of the Holy Spirit is not construed as evidence from which you then infer that God exists, as though one infers from this experience that the best explanation of this experience is that there really is a God. There are arguments like that from religious experience. But this is not an argument from religious experience. In fact, it is not an argument at all. It is the claim that you can know that God exists and that Christianity is true wholly apart from arguments simply through the inner testimony of God to your heart. So don’t think of this as an argument from religious experience. Rather, it is the claim that for the person to whom God bears witness by means of this spiritual testimony, such a person can know with confidence that Christianity is true because of the witness that God bears to him.

Now he asks, “How can this be self-authenticating?” Well, I don’t think that is hard to understand. An experience can be so powerful, so enlightening, that it simply bears its own credentials. [1] I think, for example, of the movie Contact where the figure played by Jodie Foster has this experience at the climax of the movie of seeing the secret or the mystery of the universe and all of its majesty and its beauty. She says, “I never knew, I never knew!” Then when she comes back she tries to relate this experience to others and they are skeptical about it. She can’t prove that it really happened and so forth. But for her, herself, she had this experience. She saw it herself. For her, this was like a self-authenticating experience even if she couldn’t prove it to others. Now as it turns out later there were something like 18 minutes missing on the tape or something of that sort that did show she really was having this experience, and that tended to confirm it. But even apart from that, she didn’t need that kind of evidence to know that what she had seen was true and authentic because she had had the experience, and it was so real and overwhelming that she knew it was valid.

So how does this then impact the situation when you are confronted with someone else who claims to have a self-authenticating experience of God, say the Mormon or the Muslim? It seems to me it doesn’t do anything to logically undermine the truth of the claim on the part of someone who really has it. Someone who really has an objective witness of the Holy Spirit in his heart is not given any reason to doubt that claim by the fact that other people falsely claim to have a witness of the Holy Spirit. Whether they do so sincerely and are just mistaken, or whether they do so insincerely and are just making it up, in either case false claims to a witness of the Holy Spirit does nothing logically to undermine the authenticity of someone who has a genuine witness of the Holy Spirit. So it seems to me that this just isn’t problematic at all.

Kevin Harris: Is there an illustration from Plantinga that kind of sheds light on this? Of someone accused of a crime?

Dr. Craig: That’s right.

Kevin Harris: Relate that for us.

Dr. Craig: He gives a wonderful illustration of someone who is trying to get one of his departmental colleagues to write a letter of recommendation for him for a grant. He tries to bribe the colleague to write this glowing letter and the colleague indignantly refuses and tries to report this to the chairman of the department in a letter. But the letter mysteriously disappears from the chairman’s box. The accusation is that I stole it because I didn’t want the chairman to see that I had tried to bribe this person in this underhanded way. So all of the evidence points toward me as the thief. I had the motive. I knew the letter was there. I had the ability, the access to the office. All the evidence points to me as being the one who stole the letter. But, in fact, I didn’t steal the letter. I was on a walk in the woods all alone at the time that the letter disappeared from the chairman’s mailbox. So I know that I am innocent even though all the evidence is against me. But I can’t prove I am innocent. No one was in the woods with me when I was on this solitary stroll. So I can’t prove that I am innocent, and yet clearly I am not obligated to go along with where the evidence points because I know better. I know that I didn’t do it; I was in the woods at the time of the alleged crime. Therefore, I am within my rational rights in believing in my innocence in spite of the evidence against it.

Kevin Harris: This really helps clarify some thinking on this. Our thinking is often that if the evidence points a certain direction then you have to go that way at all costs. But if you are accused of a crime but you know that you didn’t commit it, even if all the evidence pointed – even if they have your DNA – but you know where you were, do you throw up your hands and say, “Well, I guess I did do it?”

Dr. Craig: Obviously, not. This is, I think, a good illustration of why the religious epistemology called theological rationalism (or sometimes called evidentialism) is really incorrect. I think that this is an unbiblical and ultimately untenable way to think about how we know religious truths.

Kevin Harris: Yet you vigorously defend the faith in your career.

Dr. Craig: Yes. This isn’t to say that one couldn’t give evidence in favor of one’s – in this case – innocence, to return to our illustration of the letter. [2] Suppose that a case was mounted against me. Well, I might be able to produce testimony from someone who saw me, say, coming out of the woods at that time and would provide an alibi. I could try to find the real culprit who stole the letter and produce evidence that it was that person. There would be other ways in which one could try to provide evidence to show that what you know to be true is true. That is why I like to distinguish between knowing my faith to be true and showing my faith to be true. The fundamental, ground level way in which I know my faith is true is through this inner self-authenticating witness of God’s Spirit which assures me that I am a child of God. That entails, of course, then, that God exists and the great truths of the Gospel are correct. On the other hand, I can show that this is true to someone else by providing argument and evidence in support of it. So as long as we keep this distinction between knowing and showing clear, I don’t think we’ll become confused about these problems that have been raised by the reader in his question.

Kevin Harris: Knowing versus showing. There is a different. Let me understand you, Bill. If you are alone in the woods and the sunshine is shining on your retina, it is only happening to you but that is an objective experience. The light rays, the photons, are coming onto your receptor cells. So it is an objective experience. In the same way, God’s actual Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit of God, third person of the Trinity, can come upon you in a self-authenticating witness and that is an objective experience. But people often call that a subjective experience.

Dr. Craig: Yes. And I think that is a misunderstanding. It is subjective in the sense that it is interior. It is not something that is in the physical world.

Kevin Harris: It is not a material event.

Dr. Craig: Right. It is not a material event, and so in that sense it is not part of the external physical world. But it is external in another sense in that the Holy Spirit is an external reality that exists outside of me and who is having an impact, a causal effect, upon me. So in that sense it is external. But it produces an interior experience of an awareness of, as I say, the truths of the Gospel, assurance of salvation, conviction of sin, things of this sort. So people will sometimes confuse this with emotional experiences which are produced entirely from within and are merely subjective experiences.

Kevin Harris: You also see kind of the thrust of this question sent in by this listener who is saying, “If you share your religious experience, or your self-authenticating witness of the Spirit, with someone of another faith, and they share theirs with you, you are at a standoff.” They have their experience and you have yours.

Dr. Craig: Worse than that. I think what the listener seems to be implying is that if you confront somebody else who claims to have a self-authenticating religious experience of a counter-Christian claim, that that somehow undermines the rationality of your claim, and that you no longer have the right to claim that you know that Christianity is true or that it is rational for you to believe Christianity to be true just because somebody else makes that sort of a claim, which you would say is false. That seems to me to be crazy. That doesn’t make sense at all. To give an illustration, if we imagine, say, several bottles containing a clear liquid, and they all have a label on them that says H2O. So they have this clear liquid, they are all labeled water, but in fact only one of them has water in it. The rest have poison. Now, is the accuracy and truth of the correctly labeled bottle in any way undermined by the fact that the other bottles have false labels on them? It seems to me obviously not. Despite the existence of falsely labeled bottles, the one that is correctly labeled H2O remains accurate and true. Similarly, the person who does have an objective witness of the Holy Spirit is not undermined or in any way rendered irrational because somebody else falsely claims to have a witness of the Holy Spirit.

Kevin Harris: Let me try this. I’ve personally seen Mount Rushmore. I went there. I saw it. If I am in discussion with someone and they say, “You know what? I went to that location, too, and it wasn’t there. There is no Mount Rushmore.” Would I, therefore, go, “Oh, well, I guess I was wrong.” [3]

Dr. Craig: Or that you no longer have any right to believe that you saw it.

Kevin Harris: Or I can’t ever tell anybody about this experience again because somebody else experienced something different.

Dr. Craig: That would be crazy.

Kevin Harris: It would be crazy. All right.

Dr. Craig: You would just say instead either this other person is nuts, or he was mistaken in some way. He wasn’t really at that location or he’s lying deliberately or something like that. But you wouldn’t come to believe that you, yourself, failed to see Mount Rushmore.

Kevin Harris: Here’s another thing that would come in and perhaps this applies. The evidence would be on my side. I could show the historicity of Mount Rushmore.

Dr. Craig: That would be the other element of showing it.

Kevin Harris: All right. So if a Mormon had a profound experience (and I believe that is a false religious system), if they had a profound religious experience – a burning in the bosom as they call it – and they shared that with me and I shared mine with them, at this time it seems to me that apologetics would come into play because I have the evidence on my side.

Dr. Craig: Exactly. So what you can each do at this point is say we each have our experience but now what is the objective evidence to support the veridicality or the truth of our experience.

Kevin Harris: To show what we know.

Dr. Craig: To show what we know. The hope would be then, in a case like this, since that other person doesn’t really have a self-authenticating witness of the Spirit but merely some sort of a psychological religious experience, that under the weight of the evidence his confidence will crack and he will come to see that in fact he doesn’t have a genuine experience of the Holy Spirit. That, in fact, he was mistaken, and he would change his mind and become a Christian.

Kevin Harris: This is a real crux, this is the bottom line, I think, in a lot of things people ask. So I want to take a step further back. That is, what we are talking about here with the inner witness of the Holy Spirit usually relates to our salvation experience, of God drawing us to Christ, with the authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit, that the Gospel is true? What about further back? God’s revelation to the human hearts of everyone that he is. Now that seems to me just anecdotally, just from my own observation, most people have to talk themselves out of it, Bill. We all have a tendency to gravitate toward the God of the universe but then encounter some kind of an influence that turns us around.

Dr. Craig: There are actually sociological studies that support that, Kevin. That there is a kind of innate tendency to believe in God that then has to be suppressed or one has to be disabused of. So there is support of what you are suggesting. I think that the Scriptures indicate that through the Holy Spirit God seeks to draw persons to a knowledge of himself. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment. Notice here the witness of the Holy Spirit is being described not toward believers but toward the world. The unbeliever who will be convicted of his own sin, of God’ s judgment on the basis of that sin, and of God’s righteousness in doing so. Given that work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the unbeliever, I think that ultimately no one really fails to come to Christ through intellectual doubts or arguments. Ultimately, the reason a person refuses to come is because he willingly ignores or suppresses the work of the Holy Spirit in his heart which is drawing him t God.

Kevin Harris: People suppress the truth and unrighteousness as Paul says.

Dr. Craig: In Romans chapter 1.

Kevin Harris: I guess you’d be accused of argument ad populum to say that something beyond 90% of the population consistently believes in some kind of a supreme being. Now, the majority can be wrong but doesn’t that kind of lend weight to the evidence that there is something going on there innately.

Dr. Craig: This would be, again, an argument from religious experience which is different than what I am talking about, but nevertheless would be something that one could put as part of his cumulative case. So it would have a role to play.

Kevin Harris: OK. Your basis for this scripturally is what Paul says, “His Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.”

Dr. Craig: Yes. In Romans 8 but then also in 1 John. There is quite a bit about the witness of the Spirit and how there are three that bear witness: the Spirit, the water, and the blood. He says if we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater and he who believes has the testimony in himself. [4] So John also has this strong emphasis on the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit which is even greater he says than human testimony like the apostolic witness to the life of Jesus. So I think we have this not only in Paul but also in John and also in the teachings of Jesus as I quoted a moment ago from John’s Gospel.

Kevin Harris: Bill, you’ve said some things along the lines of, “The only time that I feel that the authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit is dampened or suppressed in my life is during the more carnal times.” I think that speaks volumes in a sense as well. We can quench the Holy Spirit.

Dr. Craig: Yes. Paul talks about grieving the Holy Spirit and quenching the Holy Spirit in his epistles. One could imagine that one would grieve the Holy Spirit through sin in one’s life, not being filled with the Holy Spirit, and one could quench the Holy Spirit by refusing the follow his leading in our lives. Perhaps he has a spiritual gift or ministry that he wants you to do and you suppress that and resist it. If this is right, if this religious epistemology is right, this is hugely important for practical Christian living and spiritual formation for our walk with God. It means that we need to be very careful to every day be filled with the Holy Spirit and to not be allowing sin to obstruct the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We need to walk in the Spirit, as Paul says, day by day so that we will have the assurance of our faith that comes from him. [5]