In some ways, this may be the most difficult bit I’ve written in my whole apologetics series. I’ve wrestled with whether to post it at all, but I feel honesty demands it. If I’m going to talk about why I believe what I do, I can’t ignore the fact that my personal experience of the divine is a big fat nothing. So here goes …
In my last post, I laid out the first of my two principal lines of thought against theism … there is bad stuff in creation for which no theist argument I have encountered provides a compelling response. I actually left out one theory because it leads into my second objection. Perhaps the most interesting explanation of natural evil I have found comes in the Warfare World View articulated most recently by Greg Boyd. It’s worthwhile to go read that article in toto, but the short version is that there are plenty of powers out there in the universe who hate God, and although they will eventually be defeated by him, there’s a war going on and a lot of the bad stuff we see around us is the collateral damage of that war. And maybe this is true. There is certainly support for such a notion in the Bible. If it’s true, “the devil caused the tsunami” removes at least some of the implied guilt behind “why did God let the tsunami happen?”
However my second big objection to theism is observational. I simply don’t understand why, if God exists, he’s so blasted difficult to see. I’m over 50 now, and I can reasonably say that I’ve been a believer in Christianity in some form for most, if not all of my life. I accept the possibility of God’s miraculous intervention in the affairs of humans, and the possibility of God’s communicating with creatures. I just don’t see it. Oh, I’ve known plenty of people who claim various miraculous happenings … some people I respect quite highly. But I can say two things with great confidence: first, that I have never observed direct divine action; and second, that no claim of divine action by anyone I have encountered has me convinced.
It’s not that I haven’t looked for it. I spent my preteen and early teen years surrounded by the charismatic movement in California, and I asked for and prayed for “the baptism of the Holy Spirit” more times than I care to count. I really believed I’d receive it, too … and so did the dozens of people who prayed for me, layed hands on me, etc. Some of them tried to get me to speak in tongues by telling me just to open my mouth and say whatever came, as if somehow if I started faking it the Holy Spirit would take over and make it real. I never went for that … though I was certain of very little, I was (and remain) convinced that if God’s Spirit were actually doing something in me I wouldn’t have to fake it, and I wouldn’t wonder if it was real. Looking back on that time now, I don’t really know if any of what I saw going on around me was genuinely divine. I’m quite sure most of it was illusion or delusion or both (which led in part to this prior post), but I’m not quite prepared to say the entire thing was a fraud. But I am confident that I never encountered God directly, then or since.
Even in the more staid context of non-Charismatic Christians,I’ve encountered lots of claims to answered prayer, miraculous happenings, and the like. Here I apply the criterion of my professional discipline of public health: for something to be accepted as cause of something else, the association between the two must be stronger than one would expect by chance alone. I find no such association, for example, between prayers for healing and actual healing occurrences. By this I mean that the likelihood that one gets better (or not) following prayer for healing appears pretty much equal to the likelihood it’ll happen absent any prayer. Christians don’t tend to live longer or healthier lives than non-Christians, nor theists than atheists. Furthermore, when I look at the biblical accounts of healings in the first century (the gospels and Acts), I see stories of instantaneous, often-dramatic recovery — stuff like a guy who’s never walked a step in 30 years getting up and jumping, or a guy born blind and suddenly seeing. I’ve never seen anything remotely like this, and I’m not about to accept that recuperation over a period of months with modern medicine is in the same “miraculous” category as, for example, John 5:8-9. I cannot point with any confidence to any instance in my own life where I prayed, or others prayed for me, and that prayer was answered.
It seems to me that the wonder of any particular reported miraculous event is inversely proportional to its proximity. The most outrageous claims are represented to have taken place in distant and nearly-unreachable places, where the possibility of verifying or observing them is nil to none. I’ve been to some of those distant places … I’ve served in Africa and Latin America multiple times, and I’ve seen no more signs and wonders there than I have here at home. And here it’s important to add that I’ve seen no more evidence of the present action of evil powers, than I have of God. I’ve seen plenty of evil — don’t misunderstand me here — but that which I’ve seen is quite reasonably explained by human depravity without resorting to the spirit world for support. This is why, to come full-circle on the “Warfare World View” I referred to above: while in some ways it may “let God off the hook” to say that enemy powers cause various evil events, in point of fact I’ve seen no more tangible evidence of those powers than I have of the Holy Spirit (not that I particularly want to … if there are demons at work I’m quite happy not to meet one).
In sum, though, I have to say that my own personal experience does not support the existence of a supernatural realm at all: good, bad, or neutral. This is perhaps more troubling to me given that, as my other writing makes clear, the theological perspective I find most biblically and philosophically compelling (Open Theism) is thoroughly grounded in a relational God. Nor can I rest in the testimony of others on this point. I dearly love and respect some of my Christian brothers and sisters, but in those rare times when I’ve dug into their testimony, I find upon closer examination that one of two biases color their accounts:
(a) Their testimony depends on a choice to interpret events in a supernatural way when, to my view, simpler naturalist explanations are in order … that is, something good happened (whether or not following prayer), and that good is attributed to God’s miraculous work. This isn’t all bad; I am committed to the idea that a life lived in gratitude is superior to one lacking that perspective. But a thankful outlook is not the same as evidence of divine action.
(b) They tend to ascribe positive outcomes to the miraculous while dismissing or ignoring the negatives. That is, when they pray and good things happen they’re (appropriately) thankful to God, but when they pray and good things don’t happen (or bad things do), they either ignore it altogether (at least in public; I wonder what they think at night in the dark alone), or they rationalize that God must have said “no” to their request. This latter in particular rings extremely hollow to me, as I don’t at all equate being ignored with a decisive “no” which, however unpleasant it may be, still requires tangible communication. No answer–silence–and a clear negative are not at all the same thing.
Jesus said in Revelation 3:20 “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” It’s a great image, but one that has proven, in my life, to be false. I’ve never heard the knock. Many times I’ve opened the door anyhow, hoping to find someone on the other side, but nobody’s been out there. I’ve also knocked on the door plenty myself. It’s stayed tight shut. I don’t knock any more.
So where does this leave me? I’ll go into more detail in future posts, but I remind the reader that this post and my previous #11 follow ten in which I have laid out some of the positive evidence I find compelling. As I pointed out in The Belief Matrix, where someone lands in terms of belief is a synthesis of a variety of evidence and other factors. Only a simpleton would assume that all evidence influencing one’s position must point the same direction. It certainly doesn’t for me.