Religious Experiences

Douglas Groothuis in his book Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith begins his chapter on the validity of religious experience with some basic principles using the work of philosopher Richard Swineburne: the principle of credulity (unless there is good evidence to the contrary, if person S seems to experience E, S should believe that E probably exists) is key to determining veridicality and the principle of testimony (that testimony is usually reliable). The religious arguments are inference to the best explanation arguments. The author constructs three arguments for religious experience: the argument from emptiness and divine longing, the argument from numinous experience, and the transformational argument. The argument from emptiness and divine longing states that humanity is created with a lingering sense of absence or longing for something that cannot be satisfied from anything in this world. All of humanity has a lingering sense of absence and occasionally “tastes” or feels some sense of transcendence. C.S. Lewis once said in his book Mere Christianity that “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” In The Weight of Glory, the Christian apologist and philosopher also said:

A man’s physical hunger does not prove that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will. A man may love a woman and not win her; but it would be very odd if the phenomenon called “falling in love” occurred in a sexless world.

This God-shaped vacuum within humanity coincides well with the Christian teachings on the image of God, the role of man, and our relationship-potential with our Creator. Thus, this serves as evidence for God’s existence. A numinous experience is one where the subject experiences an object that is outside of the self that causes feelings that are frightening and transfixing. These encounters are usually triadic meaning they have a subject, object, and consciousness. Such divine encounters serve as arguments or evidence for God’s existence. The last arguments are those that are called transformational arguments. These arguments concern themselves with the transformational or moral change within a person’s life because of religious experience. Repentance and religious commitment serve as an apologetic for the validity of the divine encounter.

But if religious experience arguments are acceptable, what about other religious peoples’ experiences. Is the Hindu and Buddhist’s experiences just as viable thus proving their religion’s truthfulness. Douglas Groothuis rejects Buddhist and Hindu claims for religious experience because they are generally require the negation of individuality, personality, and language. Both the experience of Nirvana in Buddhism and Moksha in Hinduism deny the reality of the separate. Because of this, all the qualities that make numinous experiences similar to sense perception experiences vanish. Such experiences are said to be ineffable and, because of that, unable to form the basis of an argument because they lack concepts. If some mystical experience X is ineffable, it is disbarred from the proceedings of logic and evidence. The religious experiences also lack the triadic structure of subject-object-consciousness within numinous experiences. Because of these issues, the author rejects Hindu and Buddhist religious experiences as evidence for their religion.


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