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What it feels like to believe

17 January 2020

Richard Harries argues in the last in his series that, in a sceptical age, an appeal to personal experience remains paramount

ALAMY

“Come and see . . .” A mid-fourth-century fresco of Christ and the Woman of Samaria from Roman catacombs

“Come and see . . .” A mid-fourth-century fresco of Christ and the Woman of Samaria from Roman catacombs

O taste and see that the Lord is good

Psalm 34.8

A REPORT to the General Synod last year from the Evangelism Task Group emphasised the need for lay people to become “more con­fident in the sharing of the Good News of Jesus Christ in their every­day lives” (News, 8 February 2019). This raises questions about how this can be done with sensitivity, and what training might be required. But it also raises a fundamental question about what part the appeal to per­sonal experience should play.

What should and should not be expected when talking about one’s faith to a sceptical enquirer? That is the question which I wish to address here. I deliberately talk about per­sonal rather than religious experi­ence, because the latter can create all kinds of false expectations. It might conjure up the idea of visions, or voices, or alleged answers to prayer. These may, indeed, be part of a person’s experience, but the phe­nom­enon I am concerned with goes wider than that, and may be of a much less dramatic kind.

When listening to a religious person talking about his or her faith, the sceptical mind is likely to make two responses. First, they may argue that what is being described are cer­tain feelings or states of mind, which can be perfectly well under­stood in psychological terms. They have no evidential value for anyone other than the person who has ex­­peri­enced them.

Second, granting that what has been experienced might be fulfilling and desirable, that is no evidence that the beliefs with which it is as­­sociated are true. It could be argued that other beliefs — say, forms of meditation rooted in another faith, or no belief at all — would have similar effects in terms of personal well-being. Indeed, that is just the case today, when different forms of meditation or mindfulness are being conceived and practised in secular terms.

All the sceptical mind can do is listen respectfully to an account of a person’s Christian experience and note that that this is, indeed, how they see and feel about things. It proves nothing.

 

THAT having been said, the appeal to personal experience remains cru­cial to any Christian defence of belief in God. This is for the reasons outlined last week on how we come to know God at all (Fea­­tures, 10 January). I argued there that all knowing is interactive and evalu­ative, and this applies no less to know­ing God than it does in know­ing human persons. We can know God only by personal engage­ment, and, moreover, personal engagement with one who is, by definition, our true and everlasting good. The in­­vitation expressed to the enquirer is to engage with their supreme and surpassing good, and, if that is accepted, goodness will follow them all the days of their life, to echo Psalm 23.

It is important to note, however, that this appeal to personal experi­ence should not be put forward as evidence for the reality of the truths as claimed. For the reasons set out above, this is unlikely to be convin­cing. The personal experience of a religious believer will be set out not as a proof, but as a description of what it means to believe.

If we can know God only by personal interaction with one who, by definition, makes a total differ­ence to how we understand life, then the believer will draw on his or her experience to describe the nature of this difference. They will describe what it is to believe, how they see life differently, and the blessings they receive from it. The purpose is quite clear: simply to let the other person know what it is to believe, what it feels like from inside. What it actu­ally means.

We are told “Be ready at any time to give a quiet and reverent answer to anyone who wants a reason for the hope that you have within you” (1 Peter 3.15). That reason is not a philosophical one: it is a personal one. It is a testimony: a description of the life of faith which may well include a description of how they came to faith in the first place. It will not be a series of rational argu­ments, although rational considera­tions may be part of the experience that is described.

The believer, for example, might describe how, from their point of view, life has a given meaning and purpose, in which we are invited to share. They will show how both the experiences of moral duty and of beauty now make sense, because these experiences have their origin and rationale in a reality that St Augustine addressed as “O Thou beauty most ancient and withal so fresh”, and whose supreme goodness comes to us not just with an allure, but a moral imperative.

They will say how this God comes close to us in Christ, saving us from our own self-destruction and giving us each day as a gift and an invitation to follow him in doing his will. In the light of this, everything falls into place. The universe seems a rational place, the product of a wise and good purpose. The different aspects of life fit together in a coherent and consistent way. The great challenge to this is, of course, the existence of evil and so much suffering in the world, which never goes away, and for which there is no final answer. But a Christian lives with this on the basis of life in Christ crucified, risen, and coming in glory.

Everyone’s experience will be told in a different way.

 

SUCH a description might or might not make any impact on the sceptical mind, but the point is that the enquirer will have been given an insight into what it is to believe in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The bare phrase “faith in God” will have been filled out and given some substance.

Whether they come to believe is not within our power. It can happen only as the Holy Spirit touches their heart, and as their heart is open to being so touched. Faith is, in the end, a gift.

In my first article (Features, 3 January), I highlighted the difficult, highly sceptical culture in which we live, and in which Christians are called on to witness. I argued that every Christian utterance — ser­mons, talks, conversations — must bear this in mind, and seek in subtle ways actually to address rather than circumvent the real questions that exist in people’s minds. This does not mean heavy apologetics, al­­though there is a place for that, but simply being sensitive to where we are as a culture.

In my second article, I suggested that exchanging allegedly rational arguments with believers misses the point. All such arguments leave the issue open. We can and should re­­move misunderstandings, but the real way forward is by engaging in discussions about how we know anyone. I suggested that all knowing of other persons is interactive and evaluative, and, from this evaluation, claims arise. This applies to God as much as to humans. And this pushes us to the part played by personal experience that I have explored here.

”Taste and see that the Lord is good,” the Psalmist says. The part played by an appeal to the ex­­peri­ence of the believer is to try to de­­scribe what that means, what it is to believe. This is to give a reason for the hope that is in us. In the light of that hope, we can describe how things fit into place and make sense; how we are sustained and nourished and blessed.

 

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford. His latest book, Haunted by Christ: Modern writers and the struggle for faith, is published by SPCK at £9.99 (CT Bookshop price £8.99).

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