The Christian’s Appeal To Religious Experience -- By: Douglas E. Chismar

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 16:0 (NA 1983)
Article: The Christian’s Appeal To Religious Experience
Author: Douglas E. Chismar

The Christian’s Appeal To Religious Experience

Douglas E. Chismar

It is odd that in recent years the defenders of Christianity have been so willing to join the secular critics in downplaying the importance of the Christian’s experience of God. This seems strange, inasmuch as Paul appealed readily and often to his conversion experience as an argument for the faith (see, for example, Acts 22:1–21). He was also not averse to calling the attention of his readers to their own personal experiences (Gal. 3:2–5).1 To appeal to one’s relationship with Christ seems the most natural place to start when testifying to others about God. Highly sophisticated and abstract philosophical arguments pale when contrasted with the concrete, real-life power of a personal testimony. Why are Christian apologists so concerned to exclude the appeal to religious experience from the domain of Christian apologetics?

The answer to this question is simple: appeals to personal experience are subjective.2 The task of providing objective and valid reasons for accepting claims about God is not furthered by appeal to something which is itself in need of defense. Subjective claims are simply not reliable. To answer the question, “why should I believe in God?” with, “because I do!” doesn’t take things much farther down the road. In a culture already beset with narcissism, the last thing needed from the believer is more mushy talk about “my personal experiences.”

Yet, there surely is a place for communicating to the unbeliever that God still touches individual lives. Before embracing scholasticism for fear of subjectivism, it might do to seek a closer analysis of the problems surrounding the appeal to religious experience. In this article, we will review these alleged difficulties, suggesting that they have been overstated. With Paul, we can proclaim our encounter with the risen Lord, without fear that we are babbling in subjectivistic irrelevance.

Gleaning from the literature devoted to religious experience arguments, it is possible to analyze the charge of “subjectivism” into four distinct objections.3 There may be other problems with religious experience appeals, but these are the most talked about. The four objections are:

  1. The problem of ineffability
  2. The problem of verifiability
  3. The problem of reliability
  4. The problem of alternative interpretations

We will treat each of th...

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