God as Self-Evident

“I don’t believe in God; I know.” (Carl Jung)

My growing interest in religious and mystical experiences has led me to consider the optimal approach to determine whether God really is real or not. To do this, I’ve re-read a book by Roy Clouser called “Knowing with the Heart.”

Clouser begins the book by acknowledging that arguments for or against the existence of God always are inconclusive. Rather, he argues that belief in God comes through direct experience. As he states:

“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. . . But genuine belief in God doesn’t regard God as a hypothesis, and it doesn’t need proof. It’s a belief that is both acquired and justified by experience.”

Clouser goes on to discuss three different kinds of religious experiences.

First is the kind that involves the faculties of sense perception (for example, seeing and hearing). Visions and voices would fall into this category, as would perceptions of many miracles. As an example, Cloiser discusses the experience of a village chief of the Apinaye tribe of Eastern Brazil:

“I was hunting near the sources of the Botica creek. All along the journey I had been agitated and was constantly startled without knowing why. Suddenly I saw him standing under the branches of a big steppe tree. . . I recognized at once that it was he. Then I lost all courage. My hair stood on end, and on my knees were trembling. . . When I had grown somewhat calmer, I raised my head. . . I pulled myself together and walked several steps toward him, then I could not go farther because my knees gave way.”

The second type of religious experience that Clouser mentions does not involve sensory perception. As an example, he reports information gained from an interview he conducted:

“I was alone for the evening and decided to try reading the Gospel of John as you had suggested, convinced it could make no difference to my skepticism about God. I’d picked up the Bible and turned to John, when suddenly I was overwhelmed by a presence that filled the room. I was startled and jumped up, closing the book at the same time. It seemed to be gone, so I decided my mind was playing tricks on me; I’d get a shower, calm down and try again. Refreshed by the shower, I was surprised at the way I’d let the simple suggestion of reading the Bible spook me. ‘It’s just a book!’ I said, laughing at myself. But when I opened the Bible again, the presence was far more overpowering than the first time. Although it was not threatening – and in fact was powerfully loving – I was really scared. I threw the Bible across the room and yelled, ‘Go away and leave me alone! I like my life the way it is!’ But it persisted; it would not let me go. Now in tears, I picked up the book again and began to read John chapter 1, and suddenly it all looked undeniably true.”

William James, also quoted by Clouser, also describes this kind of experience when he wrote:

“I remember the night, and almost the very spot on the hilltop, where my soul opened out, as it were, into the Infinite. . . I stood alone with Him who had made me, and all the beauty of the world, and love, and sorrow, and even temptation. . . The darkness held a presence that was all the more felt because it was not seen. I could not have any more doubted that He was there than that I was. Indeed, I felt myself to be, if possible, the less real of the two.”

Finally, Clouser mentions mystical experiences, originally described by James as a kind of trancelike state, which I have written about previously.

In reflecting on these kinds of experiences, Clouser notes that all bring a sense of certainty to them. That is, those who have religious and mystical experiences often can not doubt any more because they had a personal encounter that they cannot deny.

Clouser’s major thesis in the book is that these kinds of intuitive experiences provide the best evidence for the existence of God because they show that God is self-evident (at least to many people). He refers to other prominent Christians who believed similarly. For instance, Calvin stated:

“Scripture bears upon the face of it as clear evidence of its truth, as white and black do of their color, sweet and bitter of their taste. . . Scripture, carrying its own evidence along with it, deigns not to submit to proofs and arguments, but owes the full conviction with which we ought to receive it to the testimony of the Spirit.”

Similarly, Pascal held that “belief in God is knowledge because it is grounded on the same sort of intuitive self-evidency that scientific first principles are.”

This reminds me of the well-known Christian philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, and his ideas about the self-evidency of God. For more information on these ideas, see my blog post that follows:

http://thequestforagoodlife.wordpress.com/2008/12/10/plantingas-arguments-about-god-being-self-evident/

I find these arguments about an intuitive way to believe increasingly interesting. In fact, it generally seems to be the case that individuals intuit what they want to believe, and then find reasons later that allow their beliefs to be maintained. That is, not many people come to believe or not believe in God because of intellectual reasons. However, I can’t help but wonder why God, then, is not self-evident to some people. Is it that other matters of the heart – pride, anger, or confusion – get in the way sometimes?

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One Response to God as Self-Evident

  1. Ian Ridgway says:

    ‘However, I can’t help but wonder why God, then, is not self-evident to some people.’

    Clouser does answer that question in a lecture I heard him give by saying (as a Calvinist) that we don’t come to God by reason of our choice alone but by reason of God’s enabling grace.

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