catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 18 :: 2005.10.07 — 2005.10.20


A great conversation

I love a great conversation. Especially ones that go on and on and seem to plunge the participants further and further into more questions, thus making it necessary to form clearer distinctions and to retrace steps, always starting over again in a better way than the first attempt until the true enormity of the problem and its implications more fully emerge. Such a conversation is sure to grow out of the question: ?Can we know God is real??

The reality of God and our knowledge of Him is a great conversation piece because it forces us to examine our own assumptions about what we consider to be valid knowledge. Clearly, lots of people believe God exists, so there must be something to it. Yet, modern society requires that we bring more evidence?persuasive proofs that give the reality of God more validity than mere opinion. In enlightened society, it?s just not good enough to say that many people experience the reality of God. ?Give me proof, and then I?ll believe? is the order of the day.

But this method will never work, says Roy Clouser, author of Knowing with the Heart. Belief in God can never be justified by proofs. Well, if that?s true, how can such belief be considered valid, then?

And a great conversation begins.

Clouser writes his response to the question, ?How could any educated person in this scientific age still believe in God?? in the form of a clear and penetrating dialogue inviting the reader to follow along. Instead of starting the conversation with arguments for God, though, Clouser says ?Proving is actually an inferior way of coming to know something, a way we resort to when we can?t directly experience what we want to know.? Not only is proof unable to compete with direct experience when it comes to knowledge, proof actually depends on direct experience. No one is born realizing that 1+1=2, Clouser reminds his questioner. A person?s natural skepticism about the truth of such claim must be overcome by the experience that it indeed works. As a person continues to see the efficacy of proof, they start to believe that it is a reliable method of coming to truth. But proof itself does not have immediate validity. It is the experience that proof works that makes proof a valid method for arriving at knowledge.

But proof does not seem to work when it comes to knowledge of God. It seems people need to experience the reality of God themselves. But those who want proof for God, says Clouser, are unwilling to put themselves in a position to experience God as believers do. They demand proof so they don?t have to risk their own belief systems on the God experiment. In fact, holding onto proof as the one valid method of true knowledge is in itself a religious belief of sorts, so it makes sense that such a person would be unwilling to discard their belief in proof for the intuitional experience of God.
Hold on, wait a minute. If loyalty to proof is religious, then what isn?t religious? Are all experiences religious? Clouser?s inquiring alter-ego wants to know.

In response, Clouser distinguishes religious experiencing from other types of awareness by saying that a religious experience is ?any experience by which a religious belief is acquired, deepened or confirmed?. A religious belief is a belief in or about the divine. Everyone believes in some kind of divine, Clouser says, whether it?s a transcendent God (theism), some aspect of nature (paganism), or all of nature (pantheism). All human beings search for first-principles of existence, a reality that is the foundation for all other reality without depending on any other part of reality. For Christians, Jews and Muslims, it is God. For many scientists, it is matter. For pantheists, everything is considered part of the divine. No matter who they are or what cultural background they come from, all human beings hold onto beliefs about a divine reality. Religious experience can be extraordinary or ordinary, accompanied by strange practices and rituals or not, mystical or just an ?aha!? moment while sitting on the toilet. No matter what the specific experience is, it is religious because it comes with a self-evident intuitional certainty concerning the divine.

Clouser?s argument brings a heavy hammer down on the centuries-old assumption that faith=opinion and only rational knowledge has undeniable certainty. The knowledge which modern society has considered ?certain? has historically been scientific knowledge, i.e. hypotheses that have been proven with the help of empirical evidence. But Clouser follows thinkers like John Calvin and Blaise Pascal who suggest that faith is also a kind of knowledge that finds its certainty in the center of the human heart. ?It is as useless and absurd for reason to demand from the heart proofs of her first principles before admitting them, as it would be for the heart to demand from reason an intuition of all demonstrated propositions before accepting them?, says Pascal.

The final chapters of Clouser?s book responds to several popular objections to belief in God and argues for a way of reading the Bible that doesn?t distort its message or intent. In the end, the questioner is left with a challenge to put him/herself in a position to experience God as a believer claims to experience God. Clouser says that if he were to tell a person that the most beautiful painting every painted could be found in a particular museum, that person could not reject such a claim without first going to see the painting. Without going through with the experiment of trying to experience God, one has no intellectual right to be skeptical about such experiences. Refusing to go through with this experiment would affirm Clouser?s main point that the difference between him and the questioner is one of religious belief rather than the inadequacy of the truth-claim, ?God is real?.

Though Clouser?s Knowing with the Heart has recently gone out of print, it is by no means irrelevant to current debates, especially with the ?Intelligent Design vs. Evolution? discussion and recent findings in quantum physics. Many non-believers and even Christian believers struggle with these issues. Even those Christians who have a good handle on their beliefs often find it challenging to communicate to those outside of their faith tradition. For such instances, Clouser?s conversation serves as a helpful guide through the many assumptions and confusing misunderstandings that accompany this great conversation.

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