The role of experience in a thinking faith
Reshaping Christian witness with intellectual arguments within an ethic of love
How do I know that God is real and that Christianity is true? That depends on the day that you ask me.
There are certain days that I look to historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus or philosophical arguments for God creating the universe. On other days, my confidence rests on some dramatic answers to very specific prayers.
There are some people, especially within the Christian apologetics community, who are suspicious of the role of experience. They believe that experience is too subjective and is a slippery slope to theological error.
Different types of evidence
Experience does not need to be so dangerous. C. S. Lewis, one of the most respected apologists of all time, said this when reflecting on his conversion in Surprised by Joy:
“What I like about experience is that it is such an honest thing. You may take any number of wrong turnings; but keep your eyes open and you will not be allowed to go very far before warning signs appear. You may have deceived yourself, but experience is not trying to deceive you. The universe rings true wherever you fairly test it.”
While there are people who respond well to intellectual arguments, there are others who need different types of evidence.
Christianity is not a religion about a distant God who is absent from the created world. Christianity is a faith where it is claimed that the Son of God became a human being and that the Holy Spirit remains active among his people.
The Church has a rich heritage of testimonies of God’s transforming power and those stories need to be shared. But the stories need to be shared thoughtfully.
The role of experience
Understanding that experience can be an effective witness, certain cautions should be acknowledged.
- Theology is not developed from experience. Experience should support biblical teachings, not contradict them.
- There are people who will fake experiences or fool themselves that they experienced something supernatural.
- Some televangelists have made people suspicious of the supernatural within a church context.
Here are some suggestions on how Christian experience can be used to point people toward the living God in a thoughtful manner:
- Share stories that have happened to you or those close to you. It is not convincing that your brother’s teacher’s aunt once heard about a person who was raised from the dead. Personal witness provides more authority.
- Share stories that point to real intervention by God. Praying for and finding a parking spot is not going to convince someone of a miracle. Look for ways that God provided for a serious need in a very specific way.
- Do not share your story as a model for the way God always operates. If your cancer went into remission after prayer, that is not a promise that God will do it for everyone.
- If you do receive a healing, try to get some medical documentation. You do not need to get your doctor to sign off on a miracle, but a report of your condition before and after would be useful.
There are some people who will not believe in God no matter what evidence is presented to them. But there are others, especially those who have rejected the idea that science explains everything, who will find stories of Christian experience to be convincing.
Christian experience shared with good intellectual arguments and a ethic of unconditional love is what this skeptical world needs to discover.
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