I recently had a short exchange with a friend who is an atheist over an article I wrote about science and faith. He is intimating familiar with the world of science, his father being a scientist, and he making a living on scientific principles.
He found my article and analysis of atheism and science to be colored by my faith. And, of course it is, just as his view of religion and science is colored by his atheism. We all start with basic assumptions, and they color the world as we see it, the atheist no less than the theist.
He views God as a fiction. I view God as reality, transcending all the reality I think I know. We couldn’t be more opposed in our views of the world, though our different views do not mean we cannot be friends and learn from one another.
I suggested to him that both theism and atheism are rational conclusions, but the conclusions depend on the starting places. These ideas come from philosophy, and specifically from Immanuel Kant and Søren Kierkegaard.
Kant, in particular, set up syllogisms that were logically airtight. One syllogism proved the existence of God, and the other syllogism proved the nonexistence. He showed that both atheism and theism can both by logically “proven”. Syllogisms reaching both conclusions can hold up logically. The only difference is the starting premises.
To put it more simply: if you start with a premise that assumes God, a logical syllogism can be constructed that proves the existence of God. If you start with a premise that assumes no God, a logical syllogism can be constructed that proves the nonexistence of God. This is an oversimplification, but it makes the point.
How, then, does a person resolve the tension between these diametrically opposite conclusions? Logic cannot suggest an answer to this conundrum because logic can only operate on the basis of premises, and the premises with which we start make all the difference.
If we could determine which premise is correct, we would be well on our way, but it turns out that this is easier said than done. What then?
Science doesn’t help us either. Science is, by definition, the study of the natural world. God is, by definition, “other” than (“outside” from) the natural world. Science can take us back to nanoseconds after the Big Bang, but we can peer no further into our past. We can’t see the very beginning, and we can’t see beyond it.
We can’t see through the lens of science and our senses beyond this natural world, and this leads many, like my friend, to conclude that nothing exists beyond the natural world. It’s a fair conclusion, to be frank.
But it’s a bit short sighted. Why we do presume that our mental faculties, finite and limited as they are, have the capability of determining the measure of all reality that we did not create?
How do we know if there is anything beyond the natural world? How do we know if there is a God?
Men of science, atheists and agnostics accuse Christians of taking leaps of faith. The truth is that we are guilty as charged. But that doesn’t mean that a leap of faith is not a valid way of breaking the deadlock left by the limitations of logic and science.
Indeed, the dueling syllogisms of logic establish that logic can’t prove or disprove whether God exists because logic depends on a starting place. How we load our syllogisms will determine the outcomes.
Science is limited to the study of the natural world. We should not expect, then, for science to prove a God who exists outside the natural world. We should not expect science to be able to tell us much of anything “outside” the natural world, whether God exists there or not.
To add a current flair to this thinking, we cannot presume to know much of anything about multiverses that might exist beyond this universe in which we are confined. There are limits to our knowledge that are beyond our ability even to define or describe. We don’t know what we don’t know.
If logic and science are the only ways for humans to know things, then we may be stuck not knowing. But, I submit that there are more ways of knowing than logic and science. Logic and science are ways of testing reality, but they are aren’t the only ways.
This doesn’t mean that we should abandon logic and science. We should hold on to them, but not so tightly that we foreclose other potential ways to measure reality.
There are many ways to “test” the reality of God. Volumes have been written about them. Many of these ways use logic and science in their formulae, but some don’t. One of the “formula” for testing the reality of God is personal experience.
This particular measure is nowhere near as certain or reliable as logic and science. Personal experience also is fraught with dangers like self-deception. Collective experience is more objective but has similar limitations. If we rely on experience too much or to the exclusion of more other bases for testing truth, like, science, logic, philosophy, etc., we may risk error.
Experience, by definition, is subjective, and truth is not subjective, in spite of modern protests to the contrary. But that doesn’t mean that personal and collective experience is of no value at all.
Christians emphasize experience, not necessarily because it proves that God exists, but as a “test” for whether one is a really Christian – whether one has had an “encounter with God”. We colloquially call a summary of such an experience a “testimony”.
It’s possible, of course, for people to make up an experience in order to fit in and be accepted in Christian circles, assuming that fitting into Christian circles is what one wants to do. This wouldn’t be a personal experience, though; it would be a sham.
These personal experiences come in as many varieties as there are people, but they have some common threads. We can find some objectivity in the threads of common or collective experience, especially when the commonality is present despite disparate culture, geography, time, and other differences.
A common theme to the stories is the before and after difference in the “convert”. The experience of faith is typified by deep-seated change. A change characterized by an inside out transformation directly related to and triggered by a revelation or sense of the presence and acknowledgment of the existence of God, and Jesus Christ as the Son of God. It involves some acquiescence, or willingness to concede, that presence.
Christians call this experience being “born again”. The idea comes from the admonition Jesus gave to an inquisitive Jewish leader:
“[U]nless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God…. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. ” (John 3:4, 6)
The idea is one of spiritual birth, which is not something we accomplish; it is something that happens, and we experience it. The stories are legion of people who have had such an experience.
John Newton, the former slave trader described his experience this way: “I once was blind, but now I see.” (Amazing Grace) The metaphor of being blind and then seeing is describing a born again experience. There are dozens of testimonies (summaries of experiences with God) on this site at Journeys of Faith.
A person can certainly believe in God without experiencing God or having a personal testimony, but God is personal, and the experience of God is an important aspect of being Christian. It is a sort of personalized proof.
Could this be a fiction? Of course, it could. Experiences are subjective. People can fool themselves into feeling things or believing that they feel things that aren’t real.
Not many people will be convinced, perhaps, on the power of another person’s experience. When you’ve had such an experience, though, you know it by its intimacy. God reveals Himself in ways that are intimate to you and the issues in your life, your thoughts, your circumstances, and your posture in relation to God.
The proof is in the pudding. If one experiences no change (which may only be noticed in retrospect) and others don’t notice a change, one has to question the experience.
The hallmark of this experience is change that is not the result of one’s own effort. It’s a change in the way one sees the world, a change in desires, a change in attitude toward life, and, above all, a change in attitude toward God, church and people of faith. The “world of faith” comes alive. The Bible comes alive.
The commonality of the change that Christians describe is very much like a light switching on.
I recall meeting a young woman in college. She had come to a Christian coffeehouse we established and ran. I met her right after she had such a born again experience. She was virtually glowing with excitement and could not stop talking about it. She is still talking about today, 36 years later. The change in her was so dramatic that I remember it to this day, and she recalls the anniversary each year.
In truth, finite beings such as ourselves don’t get proof of God, as in mathematical proof. It just doesn’t work that way. But we can have enough proof that helps us in making the “leap of faith”. For the individual, these experiences are part of the proof.
The leap isn’t an abandonment of reason or science. Kierkegaard uses the leap metaphor to mean the “aha experience” of suddenly seeing the point of something, that light bulb experience where it all comes clear. He would say proof of God’s existence doesn’t hinge on our ability to construct a syllogism or piece together a cogent argument, though we can do that. Rather, it hinges on having the light bulb experience that usually follows “taking the leap of faith”.
Science doesn’t get us to the final destination when it comes to God. Neither does reason. Not because they are flawed, they are simply limited.
Francis Collins, the head of the Human Gnome Project, described coming to a point in which he was convinced that reason and science suggested that theism was much more supportable and rational than atheism, but he recognized that this knowledge and understanding was insufficient, by itself.
Collins recognized that he could remain in that fixed position with an intellectual understanding of the probability of God, but something more was needed. If God was more probably true than not, he had a choice to make. He could do nothing. He could walk away and reject the conclusion he made for other reasons, or he could embrace the probability of God and commit himself to it.
Collins chose the later. He made the leap. Another way to look at this it to say that he put the hypothesis to the test by committing himself to it. We might say that he accepted Pascal’s Wager.
Christians would say he was “born again” in that process. Collins would agree. His life changed. He saw the world differently. He entered into relationship with God that continues to this day.
The experience is not anything that overwhelms or sweeps over us, subjecting us to its power. Quite to the contrary. It requires our will, letting go of the resistance and submitting to the possibility, probability or whatever quantum of proof our faith sustains about God. Emotions often follow this process, as in my friend who was born again 36 years ago, but it often isn’t an emotional experience.
A very famous, former atheist describes his experience this way:
You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him of whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation. (Surprised by Joy, by CS Lewis Chapter 14)
(In earlier statements, CS Lewis recalls knowing that he was perfectly capable of quashing the persistent sense of the presence of God, but he chose not to “reject” it in the end.)
Is this just a great fiction? It could be. There might be a “rational” explanation for it. No one will ever prove you are wrong for coming to this conclusion, as in mathematical or scientific proof. On the other hand, go talk with someone who has made the leap and can describe the experience of this change. (You can listen to some of those stories here.) It’s hard to deny that there is something in those stories, and the common threads in those stories from person to person, despite their differences, is striking.
While the stories have common threads, they are as intimately different as people are unique individuals. God is an intimate, personal Being. King David describes how God knows us in Psalm 139:1-4 this way:
O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.