Wednesday, March 17, 2010

It is the third study in my Church's Lent series on the parables tonight and I will talking about the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.  It is also our Church AGM this week and I have been busy getting the AGM Reports ready for printing ahead of the meeting.  Anyway they have gone off and should be ready in time!  I will write more about my thoughts on the parable after tonight's study, but for today here is the third in the series about God!

3. The Question of God: The Argument from Experience

So far, in these talks, I have been arguing that believing in God is rational. It is reasonable to believe in God.There are, however, dangers with this approach.  It can begin to sound as if all that matters is the mind, or that human reason on its own is sufficient to lead us to God.  That is certainly not what I am arguing, although I do think that reason is greatly under-valued by many Christians today.  This week, I want us to think about the evidence from experience, and then, next week, as we think about revelation, examine the limits of reason.  What I am arguing is not that reason is a substitute for faith, but that faith is reasonable.  Reason alone may not bring us to faith, but that is not the same as saying that our faith is not reasonable. Indeed, if it is not reasonable, then it is not faith in the Biblical sense of the word.

Some Christians, though, both past and present, have despaired of ever getting anywhere with human reason, and have turned instead to human experience.  One such was Blaise Pascal (1623-1662).  He was a scientist, a mathematician, and a Christian thinker.  You will have probably have used one of his inventions this week: the calculator. Pascal allowed only a limited role for philosophy and reason.  ‘The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing’ is a famous quote.  Also famous is ‘Pascal’s wager’.  When considering whether or not there is God, we need to consider, said Pascal, the stakes.  If we believe in God, we stand to gain much both in this life and the next.  Even if we are wrong, we will lose nothing for we will be dead and never know.  There is nothing to be gained by not believing in God.  It is better, then, to bet your life on God!

As an emotional appeal, I find this very effective, and it has to be remembered that many of the decisions we make in life are based on what we feel to be right for us.  Some people will dismiss emotion when it comes to religion, but when it comes to almost every other decision that they have to make, whether it be whom they marry or which brand of cola they buy, they will let emotion play an important part.  Our emotions are essential to our lives as humans.  Nevertheless, when it comes to God, it has to be admitted that individual spiritual experience is of only limited value
as evidence.  Furthermore, it also has to be conceded that Christians often try to prove too much from their own experience. 

Frequently, Christians will point to things that have happened in their life and experience as proof that there is a God or that Christianity is true.  An appeal will be made to alleged miracles or supernatural occurrences.  Sadly, rarely will these bare the weight that is put on them.  This is not to deny their importance, nor their importance for the person who experiences them, but as evidence they do not carry much conviction.
In the first place, miracles and the like, which Christians often use in an attempt to establish the truth of their faith, are, in fact, often universal phenomena experienced by people of different religions and none.  Secondly, on many occasions, the phenomena are perfectly susceptible to physical explanations.

So does this mean that, in thinking about God, evidence from experience has no value?  I do not think so.  Individual experiences may not count much as evidence, but religious experience taken as a whole may have something important to teach us.  Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) has been very influential in the way people think about religion.  In 1917, he became a professor at Marburg University in Germany.  He is best known for his book, The Idea of the Holy.  He stressed the universality of religious experience.  No matter how much they may differ on just about everything else, what people have in common is what Otto called the numinous. 

To put it plainly, people, wherever they may be, have an innate sense that there is something else out there, something bigger than them that goes beyond their physical senses and experiences.  Human beings want to worship something.  Sometimes what they worship may seem strange, but there can be no doubting their desire to worship.  In this, we are very different to other animals.  However much we may be related to them through the evolutionary process, animals of the non-human type do not go in for worship.  Why are we as humans so religious?

Feuerbach (1804-1872) argued that our worship of God (or whatever) was a projection of our own feelings and emotions.  We have created the sort of being that we wanted to believe in.  Rather than man being created in the image of God, God was created in the image of man.  Feuerbach was followed by Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Sigmund Freud (1865-1939).  Marx saw religion as a drug used by the rich and powerful to keep the oppressed happy with their conditions.  Freud saw religion as an illusion, a crutch for weak people.  We needed a father figure, someone to turn to and to depend on, and so we invented God.  It is a bit like a child with an imaginary friend.  Well, possibly.  As before, that is one interpretation of the evidence.  Again though, is it the most likely or the most reasonable?

The undisputed father of Western Christianity is Saint Augustine (354-430).  Aurelius Augustine was born in Thagaste in Roman North Africa (modern Algeria).  He had a pagan father and a Christian mother, St Monica.  In his student days, at Carthage, he decided to devote himself to a life of philosophy.  He turned away from Christianity finding the Old Testament crude and unspiritual.   He taught in Africa and Rome.  Then, in 384, he became a professor in Milan.  It was here he came under the influence of St Ambrose and, in 386, was converted.  He was press-ganged into becoming a priest in 391, at Hippo, in North Africa, and, in 396, became its bishop.  He remained there until his death.  Augustine wrote extensively.  Sadly, he is not so popular nowadays.  Some of his views are now somewhat politically incorrect.  This does not alter the fact that his influence on the church and western civilization has been immense.  He has been more influential, and still is, than either Marx or Freud.

Augustine said in a famous prayer, ‘you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’.  Augustine’s point is that God made you and I in his image, and we naturally want to worship our maker.  St Paul tells us that while we have turned away from the worship of the one true God, we have not stopped wanting to worship, and have turned instead to the worship of other things.  As has been said, there is a God-shaped hole in all of us.  It is a hole that we are constantly trying to fill, but which only God can.  When in difficulty, often almost as an unconscious reflex, we find ourselves praying, even if we do not normally engage in such superstitious behaviour.  Our desire to worship and to pray strongly suggests the truth of what instinctively we feel: that there is something, someone out there.  

That someone is God.

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