16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,
Romans 8:16 (ESV)
Religious Experience and the Christian Faith
The mystics of the Counter-Reformation were Ignatius Loyola; the godly Charles Borromeo (1538—84), cardinal and archbishop of Milan; Teresa of Avila (1515-82) and Francis de Sales (1567-1622) of France.1 Saint Teresa of Avila (1515—1582), also referred to as Saint Teresa of Jesus, was a prominent Spanish mystic, Roman Catholic saint, and Carmelite nun. 2 And she wrote about her religious experiences which are considered among the most remarkable in the mystical literature of the Catholic Church.
Can the kind of religious experience that Saint Teresa of Avila had, along with numerous other Christians throughout history, be considered evidence for the truth of Christianity?
There are strong opinions for and against the truth of religious experience. The kind of religious experience that Teresa of Avila had, along with countless other Christians, cannot be used as verifiable external evidence for the veracity of the Christian faith. But Christians, and other theists, believe it is evidence nonetheless. In these religious experiences of God, or Theistic mystical experiences, people encountered a personal presence, and they had an instant impression of its infinite power and goodness. They felt an extraordinary sense of being loved, of peace, and of profound awe.3 Yet, they often have no way to produce any tangible evidence of the experience.
“People don’t ask questions about spiritual matters unless God is at work in their lives. When you see someone seeking God or asking questions about Christianity, you are witnessing God at work.”
― Henry T. Blackaby, Experiencing God
Christians believe that the kind of religious experiences that Teresa of Avila had, along with many other Christians, are not just self-authenticating, subjective religious experiences. But these kinds of experiences are religious experiences that are objective reality of God through the witness of the Holy Spirit.4
Although believers in God know these kinds of experiences to be true, they cannot show these experiences to be true because one cannot readily infer from this kind of internal, subjective type of evidence that God exists.
In fact, there is often no convincing external evidence that would impress someone who does not believe in God. These experiences are perceptual in nature, and do not generally involve sense experience (the perception or feeling of the presence of God is extra-sensory and generally does not directly involve the senses).
So, while these kinds of religious experiences provide the self-authenticating knowledge of the objective reality of God internally, they may only serve as an individual, cumulative claim to show evidence for the veracity of the Christian faith.5
21 And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, 22 and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.
2 Corinthians 1:21-22 (ESV)
Is there a double standard when it comes to religious experience versus sense experience?
There are many who argue that, since one cannot tangibly prove religious experience, it never happens. But is this stance rational?
In the above example, as in real life, the only way to verify sense experience is using sense experience. Likewise, the only way to verify religious experience is through religious experience. And believers argue that to require otherwise is imposing a double-standard in order to dismiss religious experience.
24 Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.
1 John 3:24 (ESV)
William Alston, On Perceiving God
William Alston (1921-2009, professor emeritus of philosophy at Syracuse University, differentiated between sense experience (SE) and experience of God (RE), or religious experience. Many believers in religious experience believe that his argument, On Perceiving God, adds to the validity of Christianity because it identifies objections to religious experience of God based on mere double standards. His argument exposes the double standard of epistemically circular arguments routinely accepted for sense experience but rejected for religious experience of God, similar to the example of Bob and Thomas above.6
We have strong empirical evidence for sense experience by way of sense experience but reject empirical evidence of religious experience by way of religious experience.7 In other words, it is a double standard to accept sense experience as evidence to confirm a reported sense experience but reject religious experience as evidence to confirm a reported religious experience. In both instances we must rely on these perceptions for data because there is no other way to obtain the data because it is not known prior to the experience.8
“There is no peace like the peace of those whose minds are possessed with full assurance that they have known God, and God has known them, and that this relationship guarantees God’s favor to them in life, through death and on for ever.”
― J.I. Packer, Knowing God
Which Religious Experiences are True?
Another way in which believers in God think Alston’s view of the value of personal experiences adds to the validity of Christianity is in his answer to the objection that, due to the variety of incompatible rivals all claiming religious experiences of God, we cannot differentiate the true religious experiences of God.9 In his response to this objection, Alston reveals the standard of objective truth as the barometer by which to differentiate between the variety of incompatible rivals.
While initially accepting each claim of religious experience and its related belief system as prima facie justified, various religious communities have distinct belief systems with various checks and balances to check the acceptability of any particular religious experience of God which Alston calls overrides, or overrider systems.10
Christian Theists believe that Christian Theism is the only worldview that comports with objective reality, and the objective standard by which all religious experiences of God should be assessed are by way of Christianity and the revelation of the Christian God. Hence, Christian Theists maintain that in Christian Theism are the overrider systems by which the acceptability of any particular religious experience of God may be assessed.
Knowing versus Showing
Christians who know religious experiences of God to be true, cannot show these experiences to be true because another person cannot conclude from this kind of internal, subjective evidence that God exists. These kinds of religious experiences cannot be used as verifiable evidence that Christianity is true. So, while these kinds of religious experiences provide the self-authenticating knowledge of the objective reality of God internally for believers, they may only serve as an individual, cumulative claim to show evidence for the veracity of the Christian faith to the skeptic.11
13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
Ephesians 1:13-14 (ESV)
Do you know that God loves you?
1See Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church, Meadville: Christian Faith Publishing, Inc, 2018, 380.
2See Chad Meister, and Khaldoun A. Sweis, Christian Apologetics: An Anthology of Primary Sources, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012, 14.
3 Cf. Stephen C. Layman, Letters to Doubting Thomas: A Case for The Existence of God, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007, 53-55.
4Cf. Romans 8:16; 2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5; 12:2; Ephesians 1:13-14; 1 John 3:24, etc.
5See William Lane Craig, “Classical Apologetics,” in Five Views on Apologetics, edited by Steven B. Cowan (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 28-36.
6 See William Alston, “On Perceiving God,”, in Christian Apologetics: An Anthology of Primary Sources, edited by Chad V. Meister and Khaldoun A. Sweis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 197-198.
10Ibid, 199. An example, noted by Alston, for the overrider system with Christianity is the body of doctrine developed concerning the nature of God, His purposes, and His interactions with mankind, including His appearances to us. If a [perception of God/religious experience of God] contradicts this system that is reason for deeming it false.
11 See William Lane Craig, “Classical Apologetics,” in Five Views on Apologetics, edited by Steven B. Cowan (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 28-36.
Cairns, Earle E. Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church. Meadville: Christian Faith Publishing, Inc, 2018.
Cowan, Steven B. Five Views on Apologetics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.
Layman, Stephen C. Letters to Doubting Thomas: A Case for The Existence of God. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Meister, Chad V. and Khaldoun A. Sweis. Christian Apologetics: An Anthology of Primary Sources. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012.