It’s been a while since our last My Questions For a Bible School Student. Today, we look at the factor I find most-influential to people of faith — personal experience.
Question From Me
How can an outsider know the difference between claims of personal experience of the Holy Spirit, nearly identical claims of personal experience of other faiths, and commonly observed psychological processes like apophenia or confirmation bias?
Answer From Student (with my commentary)
“This is actually a very valid question.”
Finally, I did it!
“Honestly, you just have to take things back to Scripture and see whether or not they line up with it.”
Uh oh. I knew it was too good to be true. It appears that I was not careful enough in the formulation of my question. My intention in using the word outsider was to convey the kind of person who is fully neutral to the claims of any religion or holy book. I take full responsibility for this opacity and will rephrase below for posterity.
One cannot use scripture to validate personal experience while, at the same time, using personal experience to validate scripture. (This thought continued below.)
“As an example, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints claim to hold to both the Bible as well as their extra-biblical writings and have the same sort of experience with the Holy Spirit. They affectionately call it a “burning in the bosom.””
It is interesting that some religions are built on top of others. Each subsequent religion is, from a purely statistical and probability science perspective, less likely to be true than a new religion built from scratch. For Islam or Christianity to be true, Judaism must be true, and are therefore less probable to be true than Judaism. For Mormonism to be true, both Christianity and Judaism must be true, and so on.
“However, when looking at the fruit of their work and what they preach, it does not line up with what the Bible teaches. Their gospel, their salvation and their experience with the Holy Spirit is by grace, “after all [they] can do” (2 Nephi. 25:23). It is not by faith and grace solely, but by works.
I would interject here that among the thousands of Christian denominations, and even among the earliest Christ followers and New Testament writers, there is no consensus view on the role of faith, grace and works. Whatever your position on this (or nearly any doctrine), there are equally passionate, researched and well-intentioned believers who disagree with you.
You may say that those who disagree with you are missing the point, or are not true Christians. (Possibly treading closely to the “No True Scotsman” logical fallacy.) And you may be right. I certainly would have agreed with you in my past.
However, the point is that 100 people could honestly and reverently approach the Bible looking for confirmation or condemnation of something, and come away with 100 different answers. It is a pity that the will of God could not be made more clear. Perhaps that’s why so many make an appeal to the personal experiences that prompted my question.
When looking and discerning if someone has had a genuine personal experience of the Holy Spirit, just take it to what the Bible says and see whether or not they are seeking this experience for their own gain or interest. Examine the fruit. Matthew 7:16 says that it is by the fruit that people will be recognized.”
Long after senility has robbed me of my children’s names, I will probably still be able to rattle off Galatians 5:22-23… “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”
But here’s the thing… Christianity does not have a monopoly on these things. Obviously, I know many Christians who exemplify these qualities — perhaps my father more than anyone. But at the same time, if I had to give you a top 10 of people I know who most closely match this description — the majority would NOT be Christians. I know first hand that it is entirely possible to achieve this ideal without the Holy Spirit. Anecdotally, I might even argue one is more likely to achieve it without God.
Are you saying that the reaction of the person having the experience is a factor in the genuine nature of the experience? Would you argue that every encounter with Holy Spirit is 100% successful in producing fruit? Does that mean that the Holy Spirit has never spoken to a non-believer?
When I have discussions with Christians about why they believe what they believe, it rarely comes down to evidence or logic or reason. With those who have been willing to talk it through with me, the faith is held ultimately due to some variation of personal experience. Something purely internal. Something felt.
Allow me to rephrase the question to perhaps get to a more pointed answer…
Adherents of all religions around the world claim internal, emotional personal experiences as part of the confirmation for their faith. By what means can you assertain that your encounters with the Holy Spirit are any more genuine than those equally vigorously claimed by a non-Christian, or are something more than commonly observed psychological processes like apophenia and confirmation bias?
Unfortunately, emotions and feelings are not a way to know something. Research in fields like psychology and neurology tell us how the brain is influenced by factors of environment, fatigue, emotions and specific stimuli to produce conditions of intense personal impact. Combine this with apophenia — the human tendancy to apply patterns and meaning to random data — and we have a delicious recipe for feeding our own delusions.
When I was a Christian, there were many times when I felt the presence of God, or God speaking to me. Looking back, those most vivid were all associated with times of emotional vulnerability (camps and youth retreats — over-sugared, under-slept, strange environments, new experiences, intense interpersonal circumstances), programattical manipulation (the well-known psychology of crowds, rallies, music and charismatic speakers) or extreme stress. Those experiences were real enough that I’m reliving them just typing this… but rationally, I cannot differentiate any of them from purely natural responses.
The tricks of emotional manipulation are well known and practiced by movie makers, speech writers, sales people and church leaders. (Just imagine if car salesmen could convince you to fast as few days before walking on to the lot.)
I cannot and would not say that anyone’s personal experiences are not real and sufficient for them, but they are meaningless to anyone other than you. Personal experience cannot be transfered. I would ask you this… if a Muslem (or Jew or Mormon or Buddhist or Satanist) tried to convince you of the validity of their faith based on the convictions of their personal experiences, would that be good enough for you to convert? If not, why not?
How would you have answered this question? How would you have responded to the answer? Where did I go wrong, or too far, or not far enough? Or miss the point? Let me know in the comments below.
Stay tuned for the final question in the series.