Wednesday, 4 August 2010

A Different Kind of Knowledge

I've been thinking a lot recently about spiritual vs. non-spiritual world-views.

Most atheists - in my experience - are also scientific materialists. This means they believe only in the material world, where "material" means that which is potentially accessible to scientific investigation. If anything non-material exists then either it never interacts with the material world, in which case it is irrelevant, or if it does then we must be able to detect it and thus potentially scientifically analyse it in some way, in which case it is in fact a "material" thing, albeit a different kind of material from anything else we've encountered.

Most non-atheists on the other hand, believe there are (or at least may be) things in life, including for example God, spirituality etc., which may not be open to scientific proof or investigation, but which may be no less real and may significantly impact our lives.

While I have some sympathy with the first position, I nevertheless find myself quite squarely in the second camp. Rather than try too hard to justify this though, I thought I would just tell you my story:

I grew up in an evangelical Christian home and was taught from an early age that God was real and He loved me and that Jesus was God's Son, who died and rose again so that I could be forgiven for my sins.

When I got to the age of about 13 I started to question all this. Deep inside I felt instinctively that it was true, but I was also aware that I was in a minority and that most of the people around me didn't believe this stuff. I wondered whether actually, I only believed it because I'd been taught to, at home and at church, and because I happened to have grown up surrounded by a lot of other Christians who believed it as well.

I didn't have an easy adolescence, for various reasons and at this point was feeling pretty depressed about life. I came to the conclusion that if there was no God and no afterlife then it was basically pointless - you lived, you died. I wasn't enjoying life and I figured death was an easy escape - no more suffering, no more mental or emotional anguish. I knew I'd miss out on a lot of good stuff, but so what - I'd be dead so it wouldn't matter would it?  On the other hand, if there really was a God then perhaps there was something worth living for? - I needed to find out!

I remember going to a prayer meeting where we were all encouraged to pray for a "God encounter". This sounded like something I needed so I joined in fervently. I didn't know what I expected to happen and wasn't really surprised or disappointed when nothing did. Afterwards I walked home on my own, which must've taken about 20 minutes. Half way home, out of nowhere, God descended on me - that's about the only way I can describe it! I had an overwhelming sense of His presence and love which was like nothing I'd ever felt before. I also had an acute sense of my own sinfulness. I suddenly and unexpectedly became aware of all my self-centredness and unpleasant attitudes. As I responded to God's love and forgiveness though, I felt as though I was being cleaned up - like all the bad stuff was being washed out and replaced by God's love and acceptance.

This was the first I can remember of many experiences of God I've had over the years - some subjective and personal, some more external, some quite obviously miraculous and many more subtle and open to interpretation. My purpose is not to list them all here though, or to convince you to believe in God on the basis of my experience.

Later on, at university, I did a science degree. I very much liked (and still do) the scientific way of thinking about things. I recognise that human beings are deeply subjective and that subjectivity often leads to false and sometimes harmful conclusions. I am deeply attracted to the idea of an objective method which can cut through all this confusion and replace it with hard facts.

I have experienced too much and know too much however, to accept that this is all there is to life - and many of my experiences are not open to scientific investigation (although some of them may be open to alternative interpretations). I believe in an all powerful God, who could show Himself in an instant and prove to everyone that He was real if He wanted to. However, since His existence isn't totally and irrefutably obvious, I can only conclude that He doesn't want it to be - in which case no amount of scientific investigation will ever prove irrefutably that He exists.

I know that people believe subjectively in all sorts of things which are patently false. I probably have many false beliefs of my own which I nevertheless defend vigorously! This sometimes makes me feel insecure about reality and truth. I'd like a universe which is always predictable and which - potentially at least - I can explain. I'd like there to be some objective standard - and this is how many see the scientific method - against which all truth claims can be measured and all disputes settled.

In my experience though, God-knowledge is not like this. God-knowledge starts in the heart and not in the head. God makes His truth accessible to those with the right attitude, not to those with the best brain. It is primarily dependent on His revelation, not our investigation. As Jesus once said, "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure."

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