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Religious Experience of God’s Existence, a Lecture by Dr. Peter Krey

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Religious Experience of God’s Existence

Lecture for the Philosophy of Religion by Dr. Peter Krey

Diablo Valley College, Pleasant Hill, California

In a classic biography of St. Augustine, Peter Brown writes about “a long contemplation of the Logos, whose existence can be ‘hinted at by innumerable rational proofs’”[1] We have been honoring reason by going through some of these proofs that attempt to approach the Infinite and Ineffable. There are the cosmological proofs of St. Thomas Aquinas, the more modern ones of William Lane Craig, Samuel Clarke, as well as the Islamic proof called the Kalam Argument. Then we covered the teleological argument of William Paley, the ontological arguments of St. Anselm as well as the modal one by Alvin Plantinga, and there are many others, whose truths are supported by “sparkling little chains of [reasoning]” to use a phrase of Plotinus.[2]

Religious Experience

Now we turn away from rationalism and toward empiricist justifications of God’s existence. Experience is much more akin to our modern scientific and inductive way of thinking. A central thesis from our Philosophy of Religion text reads:

Ultimate reality is recognized as sacred in relation

to when persons enter a transformative process.[3]

As a transition from rationalism to religious experience, listen to the experience of St. Augustine conversing with his mother, Monica as related by Peter Brown from Augustine’s ninth book in his Confessions:

There we talked together, she and I alone in deep joy….and while we were thus talking of His Wisdom and panting for it, with all the effort of our heart we did for one instant attain to touch it; then sighing and leaving the first fruits of our spirit bound to it, we returned to the sound of our own tongue, in which words must have a beginning and end….What we said is this: “If to any man the tumult of the flesh grew silent, silent the images of the earth, sea, and air, and if the heavens grew silent, and the very soul grew silent to herself, and, by not thinking of self, mounted beyond self; if all dreams and images grew silent, and every tongue and every symbol – everything that passes away…and in their silence He alone spoke to us, not by them but by Himself: so that we should hear His Word, not by any tongue of the flesh, not in the voice of an angel, not in the sound of thunder, not in the darkness of a parable – but that we should hear Himself . . .should hear Himself and not them.[4]

They entered up in a spiritual rapture that went into the infinite. Then they heard the sound of their own tongue again, in which words must have a beginning and ending. That means they were back in the finite world of experience. With paltry words Augustine tries to recapitulate how they might hear God speaking to them.

Thus they may not have been able to traverse the Infinite, but they experienced a foretaste, a preview of it.

What kind of an event is a religious experience? In our Peterson’s text religious experience is classified in the following ways:

1. as a feeling of dread or awe, one of utter dependence, or a feeling of longing for the transcendent being, who fascinates us.[5]

2. as a type of religious perception, perhaps not a

common perception, but like a sensory one.

3. as an interpretative account of experience,

one described as transcendent (pages 5-6).

We already mentioned the ecstatic experience of St. Thomas, where in a realization of all his theology he had something like a beatific vision, which caused him to cease writing. In the face of that experience, he said that all his words were like straw.[6]

We can also remember the experience of St. Augustine when he heard the sing-song voice of a child say, “Take and read!”[7]

Martin Luther of old (1483-1546) had a transformative experience while overcoming the medieval wrathful and vengeful judging God in the sky with a loving sweet and forgiving God. Before he experienced the language event which we call his being justified by faith, he hated God’s righteousness and raged,

As if, indeed, it is not enough that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the Decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath.[8]

Luther was trying to understand what St. Paul meant by Romans 1:17. “In the [Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith, as it is written, ‘the one who through faith is righteous shall live.’” Luther meditated on this place in Scripture ardently desiring “to know what St. Paul wanted.”

At last by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘he who through faith is righteous shall live.’” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself again through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scripture from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.

And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word “righteousness of God.” Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise.[9]

Often some theologians interpret this place in Luther’s life as if it merely had doctrinal significance. But it was an transformative experience that not only made a very different person of Luther, but brought about the sixteenth century renewal of the Christian Church, called the Reformation.

Pojman mentions the theophanies of Moses before the burning bush, Isaiah experiencing God in the temple, and Saul becoming transformed into Paul on the road to Damascus.[10]

Some Definitions from our Introduction (Peterson, p. 1-3):

Philosophy of Religion is the critical examination of basic religious concepts and beliefs. As a philosophical activity, it tries to be as objective and rigorous as possible analyzing the major ideas of religion and theology (e.g., God, miracles, evil), to synthesize them into a coherent point of view, and to assess the reasons that thoughtful people have offered for or against religious belief.

Theology is the discipline of questioning key beliefs and doctrines inside of a religion for their conceptual development and systematization.

Natural theology deals with what all human beings can know through reason and revealed theology, with what can be known only through revealed scripture.

Religion, difficult to define according to our text, is a set of beliefs, actions, and experiences, both individual and collective, organized around some sacred idea of Ultimate Reality in relation to which persons can become transformed.

Ultimate Reality is a unity or plurality, personal or non-personal, divine or not, differing from religion to religion.

Classical theism is the belief that a transcendent spiritual being exists, who is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good. Because “theism” is a term that derives from Greek philosophy, some have argued that the God of the Jews and Christians is non-philosophical and thus one could be an atheist and still believe in the God of the Bible.

Theodicy tries to square the divine attributes of God (omnipotence, holiness, and perfection) with the problem of evil.

Philosophy endeavors to analyze and critically evaluate our most basic concepts and beliefs.

Analytic approach to philosophy is concerned with meaning, consistency, coherence, reasonableness, justification and truth of our beliefs. It emphasizes crucial concepts and the structure and soundness of the arguments used to justify them.

The Logical Positivists of the Vienna Circle (1920’s) argued that religious language had no cognitive content, using Wittgenstein’s verifiability principle, which was a modern version of David Hume’s analytic/ synthetic scissor.

The verifiability principle criterion of meaning states that 1) a factual statement has cognitive meaning only if sense experience can provide evidence for its truth and 2) the experiences that would demonstrate its truth are identical to its meaning.[11] This principle became problematic when many scientific statements could not meet this criterion and Wittgenstein turned the principle upon itself and showed that it was not verifiable in itself. W. V. O Quine argued that statements in isolation could not be verified, because they presented themselves corporately: some statements could be falsified at the periphery of one’s core beliefs, but observations and experiments would be challenged if core beliefs became contradicted. Thomas Kuhn used Quine’s ideas to speak about the nature of scientific revolutions, where a paradigm was not changed, despite experiments and evidence to the contrary, until a new paradigm was ready to explain the new evidence and everything the old one had explained.

This turn of philosophical theories brought much more respect for the integrity of religious rationality and experience, and that many philosophers have become religious themselves, adds to exciting new developments in the philosophy of religion.

Religious Experience

An elderly man, who was a friend of mine, is under a tree before daylight contemplating suicide. His new wife is an abusive alcoholic. His former wife had committed suicide, for which he feels guilty. As the daylight begins to dawn, suddenly the whole tree becomes alive with birds singing their songs as if they would burst. The old man looks up to the heavens, the sun is rising, and he thanks God for speaking to him, loving him so much, and saving his life through the songbirds in that tree.

He felt that he had had a religious experience through which God interceded and saved his life. It assured him that God still loved him no matter what he was going through.

This person felt that in this religious experience heaven had touched his soul and he had been healed. Was it an experience as described by William James or Rudolph Otto? Not exactly: dread, utter dependence, trembling, tremendous fascination, and longing for the transcendent being as feelings do not seem to hit the mark. Not mysticism of total absorption into God or the secondary experience of trance, glossolalia (speaking in tongues), automatic writing, etc. either. They do not seem to fit.

Following William Alston, we could say that it was religious perception. To interpret Alston somewhat through Origen’s spiritual sense (See hand-out), perceptions do not take place only through the five physical senses. They can also take place through the spiritual senses, the perception of the soul. One can see through the eyes of the heart, hear with the ears of the inmost self, and be touched at the heart. When Alston notes that this is not a sensory or common experience of a perception, although it is analogous with a sensory perception, he might be searching for Origen’s insight (see page 22).

Thomas Aquinas felt that all the physical senses internalized and integrated were the intellect. For him the intellect was like an invisible hand that could grasp and comprehend consciousness, concepts or perceptions. Because they were made out of the mind and made for the mind they were abstract. The hand touches and feels. The internal senses could also focus more on spiritual sight or a more intense and concentrated spiritual sense of hearing.

Thus when Alston speaks of “generalizing from sense perception, that we acquire a wider concept of perception” (page 22), certainly reminds of Origen. Thus if we have the perception of a cat, then we assume there is a cat present that has given us the perception. In the same way when we have had a perception involved in a religious experience, then God became present, appeared, or was somehow given, for that religious perception to have taken place. He thus argues that religious perception provides a strong justification of the existence of God.

Vocabulary: “doxastic” (on page 24 top) giving rise to beliefs and therefore teachings and doctrine.

In Alston’e perceptual model to mystical experience, he argues that if God exists, then mystical experience is quite properly thought of as mystical perception (page 24). There can certainly be delusional perceptions as well as real ones, but that is true for the sensory and the spiritual variety of perceptions and experiences and thus mystical or religious perceptions are not disqualified and some can also be real (veridical).

By indirect experiences of God, Alston refers to becoming aware of God through beauties of nature, the words of the bible or a sermon, or other natural phenomena (page 21). In contrast by direct religious experience of God, Alston refers to presentations of God to the individual in somewhat the way in which physical objects are presented to sense perception (page 21).

It is questionable whether or not the religious experience under the songbird tree was indirect or direct perception. I do not feel it was the beauty of nature that stirred the man, but the very surprising fact that the tree was full of songbirds that all burst into song at the same time speaking the love of God to him. This experience convinced him that God was present and the elderly man perceived it through the songbird-tree experience.

Can religious experience be used to justify religious beliefs, e.g., that God exists. Such an approach is far more consonant with our modern mentality than all the rational proofs. Thus William James argues that “religious experience is the root of religion” (the title of his article, page 10). We are much more experiential today than purely rational and experience and observation are more convincing to us. So religious experience as a type of perception points to its source, the way the visual experience does to the presence of a cat.

Pojman’s critique of all the variety and diversity of religious experience can be answered to an extent by those who argue for its being an interpretation of experience. Here the Ultimate Reality becomes present and the religious experience, the primary feeling, is interpreted in the religion and tradition of the particular believer involved. That would account for all the diversity in religious experience.

Pojman’s critiques of religious experience are that

1) they are so amorphous and varied, 2) their justification is often circular: the premises are as questionable as the conclusion, and 3) they are non-verifiable.

William James argues that to discern diabolical mysticism from good mysticism the experience must be sifted and tested, and it must run the gauntlet of the total context of experience, just like what comes from the outer world of sense (page 17-18). It is important to be cognizant of this evil kind of experience as well, because the spiritual comes in good and evil varieties. In the Scripture the prophets sometimes heard the voice of God. Elijah hiding in the cave for instance (e.g., 1 Kings 19:13). But a very disturbed woman was hearing voices and I asked her what they said. “They are telling me to throw you off this balcony.” She said. Voices are sometimes heard from the fragments of a person’s ego and considered to come from the outside. These kinds of voices can be very destructive. Thus the spirits have to be discerned for being good or evil, and all spirituality should not be assumed to be good.

[1] Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: a Biography, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), p. 153.

[2] Ibid., p. 155.

[3] The pages we will be referring to in this lecture come from the textbook for our course: Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger, editors, Philosophy of Religion, Second Edition, (Oxford University Press, 2001). This reference is on page 1. (The authors put out a third edition in 2007.)

[4] Peter Brown, Augustine, page 129.

[5] Rudolph Otto can be remembered here with his work: The Idea of the Holy. Louis Pojman divides this category into mystical experience, in which the believer is absorbed into God, becomes one with God, and secondly, religious experience, which does not conflate the subject and object, but is nominal (Divine) experience of the presence of God or an angel or Christ or the Holy Spirit (if we refer only the Christian tradition) (Louis P. Pojman, Philosophy of Religion, (New York: McGraw Hill, 2001), pages 53-54).

[6] Donald Palmer, Looking at Philosophy, Fourth Edition, (New York: McGraw Hill, 2006), page 136.

[7] Peter Brown, Augustine, p. 108.

[8] Lewis W. Spitz and Helmut Lehmann, editors, Luther’s Works, vol. 34, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960), pages 336-337.

[9] Ibid., page 337.

[10] Pojman, Philosophy of Religion, page 51-52.

[11] Lawhead, Voyage of Discovery, Second Edition, (Belmont, California: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2002), page 579.


Written by peterkrey

May 28, 2008 at 8:23 am

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