Many religious people report vivid or otherwise memorable religious experiences, which they regard as compelling reasons to believe. But why assume God is actually at the other end of the experience? Harold A. Netland, a professor of philosophy of religion and intercultural studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, explores this question in his new book Religious Experience and the Knowledge of God: The Evidential Force of Divine Encounters. Travis Dickinson, professor of philosophy at Dallas Baptist University, spoke with Netland about religious experience and how divine encounters may justify our Christian beliefs.
You are a unique scholar because of your work in both philosophy and intercultural and religious studies. You also have a unique background. How do these things motivate and inform the book?
I grew up in Japan, where my parents were missionaries. So I had that cross-cultural experience early on. I eventually ended up doing doctoral studies at Claremont Graduate University with a scholar named John Hick, who by that time had completely rejected historic orthodox Christianity for pluralism. For Hick, justification of our religious convictions is based upon our experiences.
Then I spent 10 years as a missionary in Japan and became increasingly interested in Buddhism and its experiential component. And finally, as I spoke with fellow Christians, I came to see the significant role that personal experience plays in their commitments. There are important philosophical issues involved in basing our commitments on religious experiences, although not many evangelicals have been addressing these issues.
What makes an experience a religious experience?
My first two chapters try to unpack that question, because the concept of a religious experience is ambiguous. As I define it, a religious experience is an experience that someone takes to be religious or to have religious significance. But this of course pushes the question back, because we have to ask, “What is religion?”
The concepts of both religion and religious experience are modern concepts. People were religious prior to the modern era, but these concepts were shaped during the transformations of the past several centuries. In any case, we can understand a religious experience as an experience which is taken to be of powers, beings, spirits, or forces that transcend the space-time world. Or an experience that provokes someone to interpret things religiously or discern some form of spiritual significance. Some experiences are clearly religious, while others are more ambiguous. For example, at the birth of one’s first child, even very secular people can suddenly sound very spiritual. This can be understood as a religious experience.
Since religious experiences involve interpretation, many people caution against using them to confirm and support our religious beliefs. What do you say in response?
It’s clear to me that interpretation figures into our religious experiences, but there are degrees of interpretation. It’s important to understand that even with ordinary nonreligious experience, we interpret things in light of a wide array of prior beliefs, assumptions, values, and experiences. Determining whether a given experience is trustworthy will depend in part on the background beliefs one brings to it.
In the case of a more ambiguous experience, there is a weaker sense of rationality, such that one can reasonably believe it to be a genuine experience of God even though someone else, with different background beliefs, might reasonably conclude otherwise. So we cannot really address the authenticity of a particular experience without also examining the background beliefs that shape one’s judgment.
One important concept in your book is the critical-trust approach. Can you explain this concept?
On this approach, it’s reasonable to accept what appears to be the case unless there are compelling reasons not to do so. This is how we normally live. We take what appears to be the case as actually being the case unless there is reason not to. I’m arguing that we can adopt this general approach, which is widely used in ordinary life, and apply it to religious experience. I’m suggesting that it’s rational to accept what seems to be the case unless there is reason to think something else is going on.
Is it possible to arrive at Christian belief through religious experience alone?
Ultimately, of course, it is the Holy Spirit who brings about Christian commitments. Experience, all by itself, will not produce Christian belief. But I think there are cases in which a person who has a particular experience can be justified in believing certain things even without being able to provide compelling reasons.
I come back to the blind man healed by Jesus (John 9). It’s a beautiful story. The Pharisees are after him, saying, This man Jesus is a sinner. And the blind man comes back and says, Hey, whether he’s a sinner or not, I don’t know. All I know is that once I was blind, and now I see. And so, in certain circumstances it’s entirely appropriate for someone to say, “I don’t know about all of these philosophical issues. All I know is that I was a sinner. I was forgiven by Jesus, and he has given me peace. And I’m happy.”
Such a person may not lack adequate reasons for belief—only the ability to articulate them. But for most people, since experiences are often misleading, it is important to place the experience within a broader context, which provides reasons for accepting it as valid.
How common are religious experiences? Would you say that every Christian has them?
Not everyone has dramatic religious experiences. But if we understand the term more broadly, I think that many people—including those who are not explicitly religious—have experiences that can be seen as religious. And there are a surprising number of people, including the nonreligious, who report having experiences in which Jesus appears to them.
There are many objections raised about religious claims based on the vast disagreements among religious traditions. But you tend to place more weight on what those beliefs have in common. Why is this?
My argument here draws from the work of a philosopher named Linda Zagzebski, especially her discussion of what is called the consensus gentium argument for God’s existence. Briefly, this argument treats the fact that many people throughout history and in many cultures have had what they take to be experiences of God as providing some modest support for God’s existence. This is best seen not as a standalone argument but rather as a significant fact requiring explanation, which makes it an important part of a broader case for Christian theism. It’s not, by itself, decisive, but this consensus lends some positive evidential force to a given claim that God is really being experienced.
What is the value of religious experience for the church?
Experience of God is of course vital for spiritual growth and maturity. But that is not the focus of this book, which is mainly concerned with the evidential value of religious experiences. Even so, our experience of God can also have great value in our Christian witness. The realities of religious experience, and especially Christian theistic experience, are rich and provide fruitful potential for the broader justification of Christian beliefs and commitments. They are not the main thing, but they play an important role. Especially in today’s cultural climate, which places such high value on personal experience, we should take the claims of experience seriously.
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