I've been reading things on phenomena such as near‑death‑experiences and hypnotic regression to previous lifetimes and experiences between incarnations that suggest that there may be SOME evidence for survival of bodily death. It's not quite enough to convince me yet, but at least it's something that lends itself to further investigation.
You have spoken elsewhere about depending on personal experience of the supernatural as a critical component in your accepting the existence of the 'supernatural', but I must strongly warn you to re-consider this.
There is a massive amount of data to support the existence and interaction of invisible spirits with our world, but a large majority of that data occurs in situations of maleficent action (e.g. demonic aggression). And much of the remaining data is too easily understood as deliberate deception on the part of less-than-friendly spiritual entities.
[I can only summarize this here--I intend to write up the details of my recent studies on this and place on the Tank later in the year (hopefully).]
Almost a century ago, William James, the American psychologist, summarized his findings on this area:
... other intelligences than our own appear on an enormous scale in the historic mass of material which Myers first brought together under the title Automatisms The refusal of modern 'enlightenment' to treat possession as an hypothesis to be spoken of as even possible, in spite of the mass of human tradition based on concrete experience in its favor, has always seemed to me to be a curious example of the power of fashion in things scientific. That the demon-theory will have its innings again is to my mind absolutely certain. One has to be 'scientific' indeed to be blind and ignorant enough to suspect no such possibility.
The field-documented data testifying to the existence of some discrete extra-sensory or extra-perceptual intelligences/agents can be categorized roughly thus:
1. Cases of demon-possession/influence (in which obvious 'impossible' traits are manifested)
2. Cases of institutionalized spirit-interactions and possessions, such as shamanism and New Age channeling (occurs in almost all ancient AND modern cultures)
The data testifying to the existence of a supra-sensory/sub-sensory 'layer' of forces, fields, or relationships:
1. Transpersonal memory (e.g., 'past lives' data, action-at-a-distance events, 'collective unconscious' data)
2. Pan-cultural "access methods" to Altered States of Consciousness and Trance states
4. Unified group experiences in psychoactive drug events (e.g. rituals, experiments)
The latter category is notoriously difficult for humans to interpret, and the former data evidences a very high risk of malevolent activity on the part of the spirit.
The central problem--and the grounds for my caution, and the grounds for biblical prohibitions against spirit interaction--is our inability to 'defend' ourselves against these intelligences at any level. If, as biblical and even traditional religions have always maintained, these 'spirits' have more powers than we do (and clearly have more 'knowledge' of reality than we do), then in a fair fight we don't stand a chance…
If a malignant intelligence wanted to deceive me into believing something, I would be putty in their hands. They could convince me that they were gods, that dolphins were gods, that I was a god…Humans just don’t have the epistemic apparatus and critical evaluation skills to play in this 'higher' realm. The ASCs in the Old Testament (Altered States of Consciousness), for example, all involve a temporary 'suspension' of some built-in sensory or epistemic filter. God 'opens the eyes' of Elisha's servant to see the mountain of flaming chariots; God gives temporary visions to Isaiah and Ezekiel; Peter, James, and John see Jesus transfigured on the Mount. But the blinders come back on, as humans return to the world in which we are supposed to live and to rule and to develop.
This danger only makes sense. If there is something "higher on the epistemic and ontic chain" than us, we may be at risk of manipulation without any awareness on our part. People teach dogs to wear clown suits, or to sing Jingle Bells. The dogs have no idea of those…Humans have been known to teach other humans to do horrible war-camp atrocities, in which they eventually had no conscious awareness of the sheer evil of their actions…Kids have been taught--via systematic delusion by an entire culture(!)--not to find it odd that a red-suited dude visits every house by flying sled on one night of the year…What chance would we have against higher spirits, if they were malicious or capricious?!
Not only are we hopelessly ill-equipped to evaluate any 'teachings' of said entities, but we apparently also have the capability to voluntarily give up our personal freedom to them. We literally can ask them for help (not knowing at all what we will actually get, given our inability to discern their intentions, duplicity, irrationality, etc), and ask for their agency to begin operating from within our consciousness and lives. We can literally 'ask a demon into our life' and somehow the interlocking 'dimensions' allow that transaction to occur. The vast majority of documented demon-possession cases start exactly this way--enlisting the involvement of an invisible spirit in a specific arena of our life, and once in, they are exceptionally difficult to 'reject'--we are simply outgunned again.
Now, this largely-negative field observation data helps me understand better the biblical worldview. The biblical worldview admits the existence and operation of very malignant intelligences, all human-hating, community-hating, and God-hating. It describes these spirits as focused on deception (leading to various forms of influence and enslavement), and destruction. They are known to "disguise" themselves as beneficent agents (cf. New Age 'guides', Satan disguised as an 'angel of light', false teachers as 'super apostles') for purposes of deception. As spiritual beings--with the apparent ability to generate energy fields or local movements in energy--they can exert force on our spirits, giving rise to 'self-authenticating' experiences that are false. In other words, openness to, invocation of, or involuntary influence from these spirits COULD produce a powerful delusion that "beyond a doubt--because I have felt it"--dolphins are gods or aliens. If you think it's hard to validate the biblical worldview, try coming up with a method for adequately testing this one, friend:
"The Dolphin Society Church trains persons in out-of-body traveling with dolphin and whale spiritual liberators. Jerry Doran of Wilmington, California, relates an out-of-body experience in which he encountered 'five blue skinned dolphins floating inside [a] starship.' The dolphins identified themselves as part of the Stellar Community of Enlightened Ecosystems, which is directing human evolution toward attainment of a 'Group Mind which includes the animals and plants of Earth, the Earth itself, the Sun and similar enlightened star systems throughout the Cosmos'" [WR:NAMBW:181]
Let's assume--just for the moment--that the biblical message about God, and Jesus, and moral failure, and the Cross, and death, and final judgment were really, really true. Do you think that somebody with a vivid experience like this Jerry Doran reports could EVER believe something so 'ordinary' or 'down to earth' as the biblical message of simple honesty, faith, community-focus, and love--after such a vivid and overpowering experience? Slim chance. There is simply no way to guard oneself against being 'programmed' against taking Jesus seriously so effectively by a malicious spirit, if one goes 'looking for ' some alternative experience like this…
“It can therefore be observed that altered states of consciousness are either a passageway to reality or a passageway to delusion, but they are hardly a neutral phenomenon to which one can repeatedly subject oneself while retaining a detached, ‘scientific’ frame of mind. Their impact on the psyche is too powerful, producing a subjective entanglement in the dynamics inherent to the experience…Although New Agers do not generally repudiate normal reasoning processes, they do believe that they have experienced something that transcends them. Thus it is very difficult for rational arguments (such as arguments concerning the dangers of subjectivism) to penetrate their mind-set: they simply assume that those challenging the experience have not had it—or they would ‘know’.” [WR:NAMBW:57]
The nature of this interaction is so colored by our expectations--it’s a perfect 'disguise'. We have the ability to literally create these spirit-interaction episodes (as is done officially in shamanistic religions), and these experiences (generally ASC's but not always so--"possession" is not an ASC phenomena, actually) are always culturally defined or delimited. Anthropologists know that there is something 'clearly Other' involved, but this Other always seems to take on culturally-defined or culturally-expected forms.
Anthropologist Bruce Malina, citing some of the research by Felicitas Goodman and Roger Walsh, points out that the content of ASCs are filled in from the culture and reinforce the culture's worldview (for good or ill):
"The event perceived in the experience of the alternate reality is sketched out very hazily; hence the experience must be filled in with elements provided by the general cultural story as well as by any specific story to appreciate a particular experience (Goodman 1990: passim, summarized by Pilch 1994). Goodman has, in fact, demonstrated that it is not difficult to teach individuals how to access ASC states; she has done so in public with rather incredulous Western subjects (graduating German medical students). But persons from social systems where ASCs are not institutionalized find their experiences to be vacuous, contentless. It seems the reason for this is that they bring no culturally significant and expected scenarios to the experience (1990: 17). In other words, as Walsh likewise notes, "[ASC] experiences are consistent with the world view and ontocosmology of the tradition. This suggests that there is an intriguing complementarity between a tradition's world view and its technology of transcendence such that an effective technology (set of practices) elicits experiences consistent with and supportive of the world-view" [NT:AAJ:357, emphasis mine]
And the more ambiguous data about an 'upper layer' or transpersonal realities is just as dangerous to use as data. Not only would your conclusions be exceptionally questionable (this is one of the places where human ignorance WARRANTS your 'there might be some other possible explanation' approach), but you might be at the mercy of epistemic manipulation of spirits--we simply do not have adequate spiritual 'measurement devices' to stay safe in such an area…
And, indeed, the biblical worldview not only warns us to 'stay away' from those dangerous agents, it explicitly tries to get us to focus on the 'ordinary' aspects of our world.
The original design for the world was surprisingly non-supernatural. We were supposed to live lives in warm interaction with other humans, working together in cooperation and joy and trust of one another to 'fill the earth and make it robust'. We were supposed to be 'masters' of our own experience, with the only interaction with spirits to be non-invasive ones with our God. He, in His commitment to our growth in skills, experience, depth, and self-control, was intending to interact solely as a "Eldest Elder" in the community, sharing wisdom and insight and learning, as we asked for teaching and help. The original design was for 'self-control'--not 'being controlled by Spirits' or even 'being unconsciously controlled by God'. God's 'control' over us was to be directional and instructive. He would tell us how the universe and relationships worked, and we would pay attention, learn, and experience the joy of seeing that produce delicious fruit and experience in our lives. There was to be no coercion--by anyone--on one another. No exploitation, no deception, no enslavement, no power elite. There was to be no need for miracles or 'spot interventions', and the orderly law-like behavior of our environment was necessary for us to calmly and joyfully build a civilization, material culture, and predictable (i.e., our physical environment could be 'trusted') world.
God would be among us, speaking in very human-like communication, without the terrifying aspects of the supernatural that we experience today and without the supernatural 'evidences' necessary later to get our attention amongst the historical 'noise' in our lives. We would all be interacting--at a personal level of trust, openness, and intimacy--and our choices would be completely free…We were "gloriously natural" souls, "optimized" for interpersonal communications between humans, and between us and a Lord who 'restricted' Himself to periodic human-like communication with us.
Then something happened, and we were estranged from the environment in which it was 'safe' to experience God. We developed fear of God, and it became part of what we are now…Human history became co-terminus with human fear of God and spirits…From the moment we scribbled on cave walls, we drew pictures of powerful and often fearful spirits…and when we first began to write, we described powerful and often fearful spirits…
Israel was given a written Law from God, and told that if they only paid attention, trusted God's goodness and wisdom--by taking His law seriously, and focused on community love, then they would not experience the terror of the supernatural. Only those with malice and viciousness toward them would experience divine intervention. Israel was not to attempt to 'do business with' the chaotic, uncontrollable, and dangerous world of the spirits--unlike her neighbors who worshipped and feared everything that moved…
And Israel--even her finest men and women--were overwhelmed by the experience of God. The nation begged Moses to go alone up to the mountain, so terrified were they of the Voice. Everybody believed that to see the face of God was to surely die, and even the purest prophets of Israel experienced terror at the visions of the Lord. The "word of the Lord" which came to prophets was likened unto a raging fire in one's heart, unable to be contained or managed. The fierceness of the experience was experienced by those with whom He spoke, whenever the prophet's response was noted.
Only in dreams--the normal, but infrequent, means of invasive communications--were God's words bearable. Miraculous communications were infrequent, but always terrifying and overwhelming when experienced.
Even appearances by spirits (either angelic, demonic, or ancestral) were typically associated with human fear and trembling. We just were not built to experience post-Eden spirit contact…and as a consequence, our 'drawing nigh to God' could be somewhat of a terrifying prospect.
In the New Testament, however, in fulfillment of a promise to Israel for a New Covenant with an 'inner law', things changed, and God's intimate friends and followers were given a new, internal means of sensing God's presence, intentions, and perspectives in situations of life they experienced. Consequently, New Testament believers could have "milder" experiences of God's communication--without the terrifying physical phenomena normally concomitant with access to God's audible voice. This way, the believer could sense God's direction and/or presence and/or pleasure/grief at some internal choice or attitude, without having to go through some 'discernment algorithm' about some audible voice. [Audible voices, of course, had a level of ambiguity to them as well, for the source of the voice could always be questioned. And the possibility of an evil intelligence masquerading as an 'good one' makes even mild-sounding audible 'evidences' problematic.]
So, by God transforming His intense personal communication into humanlike, written format (not very terrifying except at perhaps a moral level) or to inner "sensing" (not very terrifying since it comes in our 'own idiom', filtered through our personal categories), He avoids 'training us' to pay attention to external 'voices', which in the vast majority of the cases, would be destructive and deceptive. [God's intent, remember, was to give us the guidelines for success and for us to apply them--without us having to the 'controlled by bit and bridle' by Him. The amount of interventions by God in biblical history are directly related to our failure to do just that! We didn't leverage His wisdom and 'instruction manual' and so He had to use the (unfortunately) terrifying external communication to 'get our attention'. The goal was STILL to get us back to the written (and non-scary) communication, so we could get on with peaceful, warm, and joyful leverage of that.
I realize that this is a bit terse, but I did want to try to explain that, from a biblical point of view--and I am only talking about how to know THAT God--investigating supernatural experience yourself may 'burn' or 'turn' you in a direction that will inhibit your ever becoming able to experience and enjoy the Living God. You and I simply do not have the wherewithal to dabble in that without major risk of irreversible error.
Colin Wilson, in his book \After Life\, said something to the effect that it seems strange, and perhaps intended, that there is always enough evidence to convince those who are already believers that they are right, and never enough evidence to convince those who are not believers that they are wrong. If there IS a deity, and this playing with the evidence is intentional, I think it's damned cruel.
With all due respects to Wilson, I think his rather colorful (if not melodramatic) expression doesn't describe all of the actual options…
1. Those who already believe, don't use evidence to 'convince' themselves--they are already convinced. They use such evidence to strengthen their beliefs (the psychological 'confidence' aspect). This is a well-known phenomena in Cognitive Science (see Epistemology and Cognition, by Alvin J. Goldman on this, if you are curious).
2. The category of 'those who are not believers' is just too broad for this statement to stand. In this category are AT LEAST two distinct categories: (a) those who are not convinced yet, because they haven’t worked through the issue yet; and (b) those who are positively convinced that the belief is not true, on the basis of previous analysis of the evidence. EACH of these two categories will have two sub-categories: those that will CHANGE their mind, and those that WON'T. But this essentially, of course, dilutes his statement to the point of no-big-deal…
3. Typically, these kinds of statements are rhetorical devices, designed to get 'skeptics' to open their minds…(smile)…it's just like a professor telling a class that they aren't smart enough to learn the material--that they are close-minded and lazy…why does he do that? To get them riled up, that's why…So, recognize Wilson's statement for what it probably is--a rhetorical device to stir somebody up to reading/thinking more critically…and NOT as a statistical statement about belief-modification experiment results!
4. The whole issue of MAJOR shifts in perspectives is a topic in Philosophy of Science (a la paradigm shifts) and in Psychology (conversion theory). People DO make major shifts all the time, on the basis of varying amounts of data (sometimes a shift can occur without ANY new data, as in re-thinking the explanatory 'grid)', and these academic fields would provide more descriptive information that this single, colorful statement by Wilson.
So, don’t sweat this statement--which you should have questioned further anyway (remember, apply your critical mind to BOTH sides)--and certainly don’t use such a casual remark to ground a moral denunciation of God!
In your piece, "Why Doesn't God Give Us Proof?" you said:
"If one of my kids had, at the wise age of two years, somehow communicated to me that she or he would only consider one‑syllable words, in flat‑intonation, in face‑to‑face contexts, without background noise to be THE ONLY REAL COMMUNICATION, I would have had quite a chuckle. The reality of communication is that it is incredibly diverse and robust and fluid and self‑correcting and versatile. For us to narrowly define 'visually‑accompanied and audibly‑sensible' communication as the ONLY (or even the most important) means of 'true' communication is not only Procrustean, but amusingly toddler‑style! (Although I have no doubt done this ‑‑ esp. in those times I asked God to 'show me' something I needed to know, but I restricted the MEDIA that He could use. He seemed to go 'out of His way' to teach me not to "box Him in" with such requests ‑‑ often getting me in position providentially to 'see' the answer in a completely different medium that I 'allowed' as legitimate (or efficient or whatever I used as the criteria of the day!).)
In response, I must ask: why would not a good and loving parent, if in receipt of such a statement from a toddler ‑‑ perhaps the toddler managed to communicate that he/she was most comfortable receiving such communication forms, or was at that elementary level of learning communication, or found those communication forms most trustworthy, or whatever ‑‑ accommodate the child's request? It sounds to me like a simple and harmless thing to ask and grant. I see nothing wonderful or remarkable about having such a request refused ‑‑ I see only yet another excuse for an incomprehensible god that is nothing more than the creation of people who want such a thing to be.
A couple of responses to your comment/questions:
First, you changed the child's request from my example. My example had a semi-arrogance issue in it, and had the child trying to order me around and trying to "force me" into his/her categories. Under such a situation, I might need to take a different action altogether, to avoid setting a precedent of them being able to manipulate me; and to avoid teaching them to 'close their minds' in this way. They wont be able to make restrictive demands on the world around them--which I am preparing them to live in--so they need to learn early that such 'demands' are not the way to do things. There are other, better ways to get the environment to respond to legitimate needs than by manipulation and coercion. The example I used was one in which to grant their request would have been detrimental to them, instead of constructive.
Secondly, YOUR example has a different set of issues in it altogether. In the conditions you specify, that type of communication is already being done that way. My conversations with my toddlers were always geared to their understanding level, were never at a fearful volume level, and were not delivered in a way to make them uncomfortable. But there's much more to it than that…When they were babies, I didn't have a way to communicate in 'verbal' terms to them, except my tone and facial expression and touch. I had to use language that they couldn't understand, so they COULD LEARN to understand it. When they cried, I took care of the need, and they learned 'by pattern of experience' that their cries provoked different types of responses from me. Their first 'language' was of facial expressions, types of cries and noises, tone of voice, and my practical actions--NO WORDS AT ALL. They could get the desired operational response out of me, but I couldn't get one out of them until they 'learned' the language. And I couldn’t teach them the language by not speaking it! I had to say things totally incomprehensible to them, for them to begin to learn. And, even when they began to learn the language, I continually 'stretched them' by using bigger words, more difficult constructions, etc--simply to help them grow. I was ever mindful of their developmental status, and always sensitive to situational-needs (e.g., when they needed calming words or singing instead of 'challenging' ones), but I could not retard their development by only speaking in the vocabulary and grammar of a two year old. Again, it would have been destructive for them.
Also, and perhaps closer to the terrifying nature of actual audible communication in the OT, would be the example of adults who scared my kids by their very voice or appearance. I literally had to be a 'go between' between my little ones and certain adults. The experience--even though these adults were wonderful people and cared deeply for my kids--was too 'painful' for the kids. Accordingly, direct communication between the adult and the little one was impossible (except through me as a 'go between') until something in the situation changed. So there may be elements of this in play as well, in God shielding us from certain types of His direct, forceful communication.
So, the situations are too different for you to draw your surprisingly 'strong' negative conclusion from. And I doubt you actually limited your conversation this way with YOUR kid. Plus, the method of language acquisition of children necessitates talking 'ahead of them', and this is the core of my response to that question--God speaks 'wider' than we, to expand our perceptual capabilities to see more of His patterns in history, the bible, our lives, etc…
Face it ‑‑ such a god can't lose. If someone prays and gets what he/she asks for, God is good and wise and kind and endlessly merciful and loving. If he/she doesn't get what he/she asks for, God has said, "Wait," or "No," all for the better good in the long run, of course, but we, being limited, can't see that long run yet . . . . Just how is such a god different from no god at all?
This would be a GREAT place for you to start practicing being SELF-critical…SURELY you can see the holes in this "representation" of the Christian position, friend, if you look closely enough…maybe I can 'help' you think through this YOURSELF, by asking 'leading questions' (don’t worry, we aren’t going to derive the Pythagorean Theorem…smile):
Hopefully, these questions will get you past the stereotype of 'God, the Dispenser'…
You've also said elsewhere:
"The interesting thing about this discussion for me, is how 'strange' the question seems to me now. My waking life is spent in vivid awareness of God's consciousness in my life. I am never aware of being away from Him ‑‑ even in those occasional moment when I wish to 'flee from Him' ‑‑ Psalm 139! I live in an incessant stream of in‑audible dialogue with Him, in which His responses are increasingly obvious over time, and in which my sensitivity to His patterns of disclosure grows. I am not at all sure how this transpires, but I know that my invisible "Room‑mate" is constantly leaving messages coded ONLY for my eyes: Love notes, work assignments, instructions, moral comments, encouragement, rebukes, 'directed readings'.
Isn't it quite possible that you're doing all the talking, and that you're also creating all the responses from your god? I can't help thinking of an atheist bumper sticker I once saw: "Jesus Christ: Imaginary Friend to Millions of Adults". While it's rude, it does, in my opinion, sum up what I perceive to be reality quite succinctly.
Several comments here:
1. I have always assumed it to be true that I am "creating" some of the "replies" (without an actual response being in the pattern I am attempting to interpret), but am constantly doing so deliberately--in my attempts to pay attention to the patterns of His movement in my life. You HAVE TO stay searching for data in this important relationship, just as you have to continually read non-verbal messages in human interactions (with or without language, obviously) and patterns of behavior in friends and groups. Some of my 'creations' (construals) later seem mistaken, but many evidence accuracy over time. [And, as I get to know His heart better, I get better at recognizing His handiwork.]
2. After 30 years, I don’t think it is at all possible that ALL of the responses are self-created. I have prayer lists (of the gimme/gimme/gimme kind) from 20 years ago, and I have "Thanks" lists for ten years. Many of the 'yes' answers have enough ambiguity in them to be attributed to human agency (but, remember, this is one of His 'design goals' for the system! Low supernatural visibility) However, even a sharp-eyes, critical review of those lists will reveal things that I had NO agency-control over, things I have NO skill sets for; and situations which I am TOO STUPID to even visualize what is actually NEEDED or BEST in a given problem:
· Answers that could not have been remotely attributed to my agency or suggestion (out-of-the-blue solutions)
· Answers to needs BEFORE I even became aware of them ('things crossing in the mail')
· Insights from bible reading only DAYS/HOURS before that information was needed by someone else
· Changes in attitudes of others/authorities toward me, from less-than-favorable to 'flexible' in a given need-situation
· Good Resolution to situations I prayed about, in which I had NO CLUE as to what to even ask for (too dumb to even visualize a solution, much less make it happen)
· Very vivid emotional experiences (e.g. comfort in bereavement, encouragement in deep depression), requested from God in times of abject pain/grief/darkness, that are not experienced by the majority of humans--except when they pray to God.
3. The above list was of responses (largely answered prayer) to my verbal petitions, but there is a large category of providential circumstances that have an 'intelligent design' feel to them. I understand them to be initiatives of God ('unsolicited'), since there are so many of them and they are closely correlated to my spiritual and personal growth. These are typically often triggered by macro-events WAY beyond my individual influence (and since these are NOT items of prayer requests, they cannot be correlated with ANY 'unconscious manipulation' of my environment to have them 'wish fulfilled') and/or triggered by the personal choices of remote individuals (without ANY possibility of suggestion by me), they carry special significance for me. I REALLY pay attention to the actions of others that 'invade' my life. I always try to ask the question of "What is THIS all about, Lord? Is there something 'big' here I need to look for?", at every new contact I make, every complex question I receive (including yours, friend), every change in my circumstances of life. Many, many times there's "nothing" there--from the perspective of a long term, structural change for my life--other than just the import of a new idea, a chance to learn/teach someone, or a simple broadening of my appreciation for God's love for diversity. But in some cases, the significance of the event becomes quite obvious, as the impact of it becomes more pervasive and structural. Types of situations here would include (from my life):
· The most vivid, currently, to me are those historical circumstances involved with the death of my daughter. I have mentioned some of them in a personal letter on the Tank.
· The church home I have finally found was a result of a casual email that I followed up on, and a result of an invitation that I refused for almost two years to consider.
· The various work-assignments I have had (the last two years) have typically come from the most oblique of opportunities--NONE of which I have personally known about and sought after.
· There has been Tank e-feedback (encouragement, abuse, rebuke, questions, suggestions, etc) that came at the MOST felicitous times (to the extent of being 'bizarre' to me), ranging from humbling questions that brought me "back to earth", to quiet words of appreciation that brought me out of the pit of discouragement, to particularly striking questions that changed the plan/schedule of the ThinkTank, and guided its direction.
· There have been moments of VERY strong inner-witness of 'correction'. I remember very vividly putting some remark up in a personal letter on the Tank a month or so ago, and having to (under the influence of an intense internal sense of 'His displeasure') excise that self-aggrandizing remark within 10 minutes of posting it! I knew BEFORE I posted it that it was a little 'off', but I recall being semi-bitter about something, and not facing up to the questionable motivation of my remark. The FTP upload was scarcely finished before the internal 'alarm' went off…The prophets referred to it as an 'intense fire'--and I have experienced that more than once in my little stubborn life (smile)…and, although I could not communicate the difference to you--as in the winetasting example--I can testify that there is a HUGE difference between that feeling and the 'tame' one of internally-generated guilt!
· And, I have had my share of 'numinous' experiences in settings of worship. These are infrequent, but very intense, and have no cognitive content. It's simply the experience/sensation of the presence of some incredible power or energy. Others who describe similar experiences use the same words to describe it: intense, feels like you are about to explode, elation, transcendence, prophet-level trembling. There are not too many of these--in keeping with the 'mostly natural' design goal--but they are nonetheless quite noticeable in my life.
4. It is absolutely true that I have misconstrued events in my life as specific 'messages' or 'directives' from my Lord, just as I have misunderstood human speakers, incorrectly understood material I have read, misjudged another person's intentions (construed from the pattern of their actions--NOT from the 'stated position'), misread body language and nonverbal cues, and missed my projections of what a group of people were going to do (based on patterns in the past). But I have also been correct in all of those things, too. I have made predictions that God was going to 'open this door' for someone, based on what I knew about His heart and character. I have correctly construed messages of "don’t go there", and avoided situations that ended up disastrous. (I have also correctly understood such messages, and 'went there' anyway in stubbornness or selfishness, and discovered WHY I wasn’t supposed to 'go there'…these are typically quite painful memories, even now.)
At this point, honestly, it's a little like the existence of my mother again--there's just too much detailed, incidental, structural, cohesive, patterned data points to even take seriously the question that I "manufactured" her, her behavior, her character, my memories of growing up with her, the lessons she taught me, etc.
I remember an illustration I read somewhere--but I cannot for the life of me find it now--about a simple Christian farmer who went to some famous Atheist lecture. He had an atheist friend who begged and begged the farmer to go hear this Atheist speaker (I think the speaker was Ingersoll?). He agreed, and they both rode to the event from their town together in a car. After the lecture, as they were riding back home, the young atheist friend asked his thoughtful Christian farmer buddy what He thought of the speaker and speech. His reply was something like this:
"Well, he was a good speaker, but I guess I just heard his lecture thirty years too late.
When the young atheist asked him what he meant by that, the old man said:
"Well, if I would have heard the lecture 30 years ago, I probably would have believed him. But now, over the last 30 years God has done for me all the things this man said He couldn’t do: he has answered my prayers, changed my character for good, and gotten me through the sorrows and difficulties of life without me going bad or bitter."
That has been my experience as well…
I know that I sometimes over-interpret my experience, friend, and I look for 'signs' everywhere (although less so each year, btw)--and I also know I am not SUPPOSED to do this over-analysis…I am supposed to 'walk by faith, not by sight'. I am supposed to trust my good-hearted and omni-competent Lord to enable me to live warmly, freely, and with self-determination in the vast majority of details of my life. I am NOT supposed to be like the horse who has to be "led about with bit and bridle"…I am not supposed to ask for constant "what color socks to wear today" level of direction, but rather entrust my choices to Him and live by His directives of love, other-centeredness, loyalty, and integrity. But even with me seeing some "things that are not there", a very large portion of my experience STILL falls into that category described by the anthropologists, psychiatrists, and historians--the "unexplained residue that remains"…and that which "resists Western attempts at explanation"…
[BTW, these patterns are very distinctly different from the Imaginary Friend "beliefs" of young children (e.g., the amount of literalness of the actions--invisible Mr. Tubbs actually occupies space in the chair at the dinner table, Miss Maude needs a real Band-Aid for the scrape on her knee, and Whiskers the cat speaks perfect French loud enough for anyone who is really paying attention to hear.) , and are also quite different from psychotic states in which imaginary persons are present (internal or external).]
You probably wonder, why am I writing to you? I envy your relative security and peace and sense of closure on these issues. I wish I had it.
Well, it IS available to you, but your first steps toward it are not likely to immediately yield the intensity of feeling you seek (although I admit that it DOES often happen this way…but God may have a different road for you to travel, a different order of 'lessons' to fulfill your potential, to create your 'story' of His liberating interaction in your life and heart). Remember, confidence is a 'slider' and it grows with experience and wisdom.
Your first experience might be the mixture of belief/doubt of the man in Mark 9:
So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth. 21 Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?” “From childhood,” he answered. 22 “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” 23 ”‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for him who believes.” 24 Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
Here was a person confronted with the mystery of God in human form and with the intractable, hopeless condition of his son. His soul was tormented with the conflicts of belief and unbelief…He had--like perhaps you have had(?)--gotten his hopes up by the disciples, only to have his sprouting faith brutally crushed by their failure to help…Unlike the clear-headed and calm-hearted faith of the Centurion in Capernaum, this soul knew no peace. Your experience may be like this. YOU may have a difficult mixture of belief/unbelief for a while. But if you have the slightest inner conviction (however small) of the reality of the existence of the biblical God, I recommend you begin praying that man's prayer daily: "I do believe in you, Lord…but help me overcome my unbelief"
It is critical at this juncture to make sure you have a correct understanding of 'faith'. Faith is too commonly misunderstood as "wishful thinking, repeated often enough and loudly enough that it eventually numbs the speaker to no longer ask the 'is it true?' question" It commonly is equated with 'blind faith', or a faith that (a) doesn’t even see the evidence supporting it--much less USING that evidence to increase 'peace of mind'!; and/or (b) ignores all the contrary data.
The faith I am talking about is 'trust'--confidence in the character of the living God. It implies a belief in the God's existence, but this is inadequate by itself. To believe in the existence of a God who is NOT good-hearted, fair-minded, gracious, and wise, would be sheer terror. Hebrews 11 states the obvious: "He that comes to God must believe that He exists (obviously) and that He rewards those who earnestly/honestly seek Him" The reality is that no one would seek God, if they believed Him to be an Ogre…
To see God's existence--through His power--would NOT convey His good-hearted character. You would only be left with terror (assuming you could tell the difference--with our human dullness in this area--between the manifestation of God and some other spirit). The approach Jesus gave was opposite--you START with looking for/at the heart of God. And, only if there are problems in that approach, do you 'fall back' to evidential approaches, such as miracles.
Jesus lived His life of love in open display. It manifested compassion, servanthood for others, focus on helping others become their best, gracious acceptance of others' failures and shortcomings, resistance to arrogance and hypocrisy, and practical acts of service and relief. His life was an open book--and deliberately so. He constantly held himself up as an 'do as I do' example.
Yet, on the night before He died (another example for us to follow, btw) He made this shocking statement (John 14.7ff):
If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.
To see the heart and servant-work of God, all you have to do is look closely at the heart and servant-work of Jesus…
God's best (and preferred) way for us to 'get in' is to goodheartedly trust the testimony of others about the work/heart of Jesus. This would (in a modern context) mean accepting the basic portrayal of Jesus by the NT authors (believing them to be good men, faithful to the facts, men of integrity and love, and men whose lives KNEW the reality of this Life-in-Flesh), and responding with your heart to the Jesus of the Gospels (with some of the clarifications of the Epistles, perhaps). It MIGHT also include some trusting the testimony of others who have experienced His reality over long periods of time, as corroborating evidence.
Notice that this primary approach is NOT about evidence in the traditional sense, but about the character of the witnesses. Are these witnesses to Jesus "51% or more" trustworthy in their description of His life, how it affected their lives, and what He said about how it could affect YOUR life? Is there reason to accept that their human propensities to 'mess the story up' were dwarfed/over-ridden by the sheer amount, intensity, and vividness of the data of their experience those three-plus years? Does their testimony not only reveal a surprisingly 'humble' God (one least likely to 'created' by a suppressed people in the Roman Empire?!), but does it give us reason to believe that their experience of the Divine in their midst was SO comprehensive, transforming, pervasive, and overwhelming--as opposed to the "one-miracle wonders" all around--that their narrative accounts of that experience could ONLY be a product MOSTLY of the data, instead of "one piece of data, with a LOT of other fluff filled in around it"?
The reason this is the primary approach (over against looking at miracles and evidence) is that it gets you to psychological wholeness, confidence, peace of mind, and truth so much faster. The entire Christian experience will be one of 'listening' to God and learning. To start the process, believing the best about the witnesses (not blindly of course, as I have pointed out) and trusting their character, is to create an initial mindset of openness and respect for one another that will allow personal growth to proceed at a much faster clip than for Doubting Thomas's. Evil in the world creates mistrust and distance. Trust begins the reversal process…Trust of someone--as an expression of respect and expectation of integrity--creates strong motivations in others to faithfulness and truth. It brings out the best in us. We rise to higher levels of integrity and truthfulness, when a peer trusts our goodness and capabilities. Thus, trust of this type, is the healing salve and glue of the New Community. It will rebuild cooperative communities and create relationships without fear of treachery. It will expedite learning, since we will have no reason to fear deception and manipulation.
It is a step toward beauty, joy, and freedom, and hence God wants us to start our spiritual journey there…and when the trusted information proves to be true, the warm and sincere expression of gratitude and appreciation, between sharer and "sharee", further solidifies and grows the beautiful bonds of affection and respect…
But some enter more slowly…through the route of 'evidence'…It is acceptable (as long as the attitude is not one of arrogance, negotiation, manipulation, or tantrum-like demands), but is not preferred:
In John 20, "Doubting Thomas" is welcomed by Jesus, but Jesus still points out that the one who accepts testimony (as an other-oriented starting point) instead of needing 'sight' (as a self-oriented starting point), is much better off and will experience greater richness:
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
And even in the passage we saw earlier, involving Philip, the same 'concession' was there:
Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. 11 Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves
In other words, He left regular evidence (the divine character and servant-heart of Jesus, and the sanity-exuding and truth-exuding lives of the earliest followers) but He also left 'extraordinary' evidence behind, for those of us who needed to start in 'the slower group' (chuckle)…But interestingly enough, the miracles were not really a witness to His terrifying power, but rather still to the presence of the Father in Him…notice that verse again above--it was about us being able to SEE the Father in the works of compassion, teaching, and revelation done by our Lord on earth. (John 5.36 shows again that the miracles were about showing the source of Jesus works and life: "For the very work that the Father has given me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent me. ")
It is here that your search needs to really focus, friend, after you have 'balanced the scales' of all the mass of arguments about all this, and after you have ensured that your attitude/heart is clean/clear for this task.
I want to make sure I haven't missed anything. I want to push back on some of the answers you've given to others that I find insufficient or unsatisfactory. I'm hoping (although with less and less hope each year) that maybe I'm NOT stuck with answers I don't like. And, you did say to that other writer, "forget the Christianity 'offered by most'...find those who live it purely and ferociously and ask them" ‑‑ so I am. (:‑) In the past few years I've had my face rubbed in the fact of my own mortality many times and in very unpleasant ways. Accordingly, the older I get, the more urgent the question seems. Am I missing something, or am I at a point where I and Christians simply have to "agree to disagree", and I have to learn to make peace with what I believe to be the stark, unpleasant truth? Maybe I should be considering religions like Hinduism more seriously? I'd greatly appreciate any comments and feedback you could provide.
1. First of all, Hinduism isn’t gonna work for you for a couple of reasons:
2. I don’t know which of my articles you are referring to, so I cannot know how 'contributory' that exercise might be for you. But my guess right now--after spending well over 120 hours on this letter, and countless hours pondering these questions over the past year--is that a more important prior step would be for you to train your guns on your OWN 'answers' and try to chop THEM down to size. You can argue and discuss and quibble and object forever and ever (IMO), but my sense is that your issue is more methodological than content-based at this point (although you DEFINITELY have to jettison your current misunderstandings of God's moral "deficiencies"!)
3. I think, given the discussion so far, that I might recommend the following process:
A. Start by MAKING SURE any superiority/arrogance issues are not operative. This is tough, tough, tough, but important, important, important. Go through the steps mentioned above. [If you feel you can do it without a massive breach of conscience--that is, if you have even the slightest sense that God really IS there, then ask God to 'show you' if this is a problem that is keeping you back from finding Him and from beginning an experience with Him.]
B. Suspend judgment on your negative moral 'conclusions' about God's ethics. There is enough data in our discussion above to give you 'pause' before accusing God of moral turpitude. You need to get back to a 'restart' view of God's goodness. Make sure you are AT LEAST back to zero, and out of the negative numbers! You will hopefully be filling in the ethical aspects of His character in the next step. But be sure you don’t start this exercise with a presumption that God is "morally inferior" to you. (You can probably imagine what YOU would feel like if someone approached YOU with an obvious attitude of moral superiority to YOU…)…also, I would recommend you NOT engage your daughter in arguments about these, at this point…
C. Once you feel that you are making some progress in that (although you will have to repeat that process often--if you are anything like me and the rest of the world of humans…smile), then try to 'see' Jesus clearly. Read the Singer and the Beggar King. Do inductive studies on the character of Jesus in the Gospels and how His followers understood Him in the epistles. Don't get hung up on minutia! Issues of chronology, how synoptic passages 'mesh' together, how to reconcile various perspectives and emphases between the various NT authors--are not germane to this part of the task. Go through the maxims of the Lord, especially the expressions of His love and His purpose in coming to Earth. You might try taking character 'templates' in the epistles and finding the events/words of Jesus that map to/reveal those (e.g., I Cor 13:4-7; and Gal 5.22-23). But as you do this, remember His words: He who has seen me, has seen the Father. The heart you discover in a comprehensive and balanced (use ALL the data, remember--not just some) portrait of Jesus, is the Heart who can become your closest and most intimate Companion. The beauty of that Heart--alone--is the single most powerful evidence of the reality of the good-hearted God. It is the character of God-in-Jesus (and then Jesus-in-Us) that is and has been the central inducement to trusting Him.
In the article I recently updated on CopyCat Saviors, I quoted the historian Ferguson:
"Wherein then lay the appeal of Christianity? It was first in the personality of the founder. This has been doubted, because it is not stressed by the apologists. It is not stressed because it was taken for granted: no need to repeat in the second century what was in the gospels. That the person of Christ was central is seen in the critiques of Celsus and Porphyry, in the exaltation of Apollonius by Philostratus and Hierocles as a counterblast, in the heroic witness of a Polycarp: 'I have been his servant for eighty-six years and he has done me no wrong; how can I blaspheme my King who saved me? It was secondly in the way of love revealed, in the witness of community (koinonia), in a fellowship which took in Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women, and whose solid practicality in their care for the needy won the admiration even of Lucian. 'How these Christians love one another!' was a respectful affirmation. There was a curious gaiety about the Christians; years later it was this warmth which attracted Augustine. The women were a particular power: Mithras, for example, did not admit them. It was thirdly in the very strength of conviction, in the simple directness which cut through the multitudinous choices offered by the ancient world, above all in the courage which faced martyrdom without flinching and wrung a grudging recognition from Celsus and Marcus Aurelius, and secured the conversion of Justin and Tertullian. It was finally in a message of hope for all, for from the first resurrection of Christ had meant for his followers a certainty of victory over death. As Nock put it pungently, ‘it was left to Christianity to democratize mystery’” [RRE:125ff]
But here again, don't try to boil the ocean. Don’t try to de-obscure obscure passages (smile). Stay with the clear ones. Focus on writing your OWN summary portrait of the heart of Jesus. Be careful how you 'weight' the various passages. Be fair in how you balance the meekness/gentleness ones with the earnest warnings of judgment on the treacherous and arrogant religious elite. Balance His rejection of the establishment with His acceptance of the marginalized. Do your best to be fair here…it will NOT be easy, as the history of NT scholarship has shown.
You may not even need to go past this step. The vision of God in the face of Jesus may be clear enough and influential enough for you to take action on.
D. But, if your heart really needs some grounding for this portrait [remember, it can testify against you, if you really already have some belief on the basis of the above step], assess the credibility of the gospel writers. Be fair here. Take the arguments you probably ALREADY have against them, and train your guns on them. Be ruthless in your self-criticism. Try to find where and how the arguments as to "why you should not trust these men" are weak, fail, or are (probably) irrelevant to this case…Again, stay focused on the goal: making a fair assessment, or coming up with 'slightly better' [remember the 51% thing] arguments for than against' accepting your portrait of God's heart (in Jesus)--which was based on the NT documents--as being an adequate description of the real God. Focus specifically upon the motives, character, and subsequent lifestyles of these authors. "By their fruits you will know them", He said. Are their lives and words 'extraordinary' (or even just 'adequate') evidence for their honesty, adequacy, and basic trustworthiness in this matter?
E. Failing that, the next fallback is to 'toggle down' to the miracles level, and ask the same questions of the above step, to the resurrection and ascension accounts. Be sure not to let naturalistic presuppositions stop you! There are enough 'holes' in this universe today (pointed out above) to be open-minded about the transcendent world--especially in the case of Jesus of Nazareth. This is a historical exercise (with some literary aspects), not a philosophical one. Again, shoot down your OWN counter-Jesus objections. [Remember not to use the 'a better answer is coming soon--I can FEEL it' gambit we discussed first in this paper.] Surface all the positive evidence for trusting these men, their capabilities, their motives, and their sufficiency in recording these events at adequate levels of precision and truthfulness. They don’t have to be perfect, they don’t have to be 'inerrant' for this exercise--they just have to have experienced His Risen person 'in their face' enough to get the basics right for us. They could be clumsy, or too general, or too vague in some of the details--but the core of the supernatural experience could be VERY, VERY intact. Be sure you can account--thoroughly--for their beliefs and their descriptions about this, and then for their subsequent lives, which they claimed were based firmly on that reality.
I don’t think philosophical apologetics will be useful to you--given your writings here--so I cannot recommend you spend time on 'Arguments for the Existence of God', etc. There is enough historical data now to document the existence of the 'spirit world', and when coupled with the basics of the NT documents, I think it provides you ample warrant for believing in the existence of God…but your challenge is to come to peace with Him, to meet that very legitimate need about mortality.
As you get into this journey, take advantage of every incremental growth in faith by praying to God for help in the process, for increasing openness/honesty (I pray for this DAILY for me), for less spiritual 'dullness' (I pray for this for me, several times a day…!). You may begin to build your own 'audit trail of success' with the good-hearted God in the very first steps of this journey…
I cannot encourage you enough to not give up hope of finding 'better answers'…do NOT 'settle for less' than joyous and warm immortality…do not settle for anything less that a fulfilling, transforming, perfecting interrelationship with the God of Life and Love and Learning…
In The Singer, the Singer character looks out over a camp of humanity and makes an observation that has stayed with me for 20 years:
"He pitied them for their emptiness, but resented their contentment in it"
You have the motivation, you are a learner, so don’t give up…but move forward into seeking the character of God, and finding His beauty and approachability…and His willingness to accept all who approach in need and in honesty…Many others like you, with hearts of low-hope and with minds filled with 'argument hurricanes' have found Him, and known the peace of mind and peace of heart they longed for…
As I mentioned to you a while back, I have prayed daily for you, that you would find God without having to compromise your conscience or sense of intellectual integrity…I will continue to do so, friend…and maybe one day, you'll write a letter like this to someone yourself…