Monday, June 30th, 2008

On 6/27/08, the Presbyterian Church USA made several moves to sanction the ordination of homosexual clergy at their General Assembly. Now the measures go the 173 presbyteries for vote. It is expected that the will pass. See Albert Mohler’s discussion of this historic and lamentable event.

When people ask Christians how we know Christianity is true, it is common for us to respond with something like, “Because I feel Jesus in my heart” or “Because I have experienced the risen Christ.” While I think faith is rational even apart from rational evidences/arguments, this sort of justification for Christian belief seems inadequate. It can always be asked how we know it was Jesus we encountered, as opposed to some other deity. Did Jesus appear to us? No. We merely had an experience that seemed undeniably supernatural in nature. So why think it was an experience with Jesus, then?

I would venture to say that we claim to have encountered Jesus because of the context in which our supernatural encounter occurred. We encountered the supernatural after having heard and believed the message of Jesus’ resurrection, and then interpret the encounter to be the result of such a belief, and confirmation that the belief is true. Hence, we say we felt Jesus in our heart, or experienced the risen Christ.

The problem is that a wide variety of religions, each with competing truth claims, profess to experience the divine. They also interpret their experience in light of the religious teaching they have been taught. They conclude that they have experienced God X, and that such an experience vindicates the truth of their religious tradition.

A religious pluralist might argue that no group experiences the deity they claim to have experienced (Jesus, Allah, Brahman, etc.). They might argue they had a genuine experience with the unknowable God, but mistakenly tried to identify Him with the God as described by their faith tradition. So when a Christian encounters God, he thinks he has encountered Jesus, and this is proof that Christianity is true. When a Muslim encounters God, he thinks he has encountered Allah, and this is proof that Islam is true. How do we respond to such an interpretation?

On one level, I agree with the religious pluralist. His explanation makes sense of the variegated inter-religious claims to have encountered with God. People actually do encounter God as he reaches out for them, but they misidentify Him because they interpret their experience of Him in light of their false religious tradition. Where I think the pluralist is mistaken is that he applies his interpretation to all religious traditions, not holding out the possibility that one faith tradition may have properly identified the God whom they have encountered.

If it is possible that one religious tradition properly identifies the God people experience, how would we know which religious tradition it was? What has been said already should highlight the problem of using religious experience as a proof for one religious tradition over another. Something more than an experience is needed to adjudicate competing religious traditions, otherwise we are left arguing in a circle. So how can we know that our interpretation of the divine is the correct one, as opposed to theirs? I would argue that we must test the various faith traditions using our rational faculties. Are they philosophically viable? Are they internally consistent? Are they confirmed/contradicted by scientific or historical data? And the list goes on. When various faith traditions are subjected to such tests, I think Christianity comes out on top as being the most viable, and that is good reason to believe the God we encountered in our experience is indeed the risen Christ.