“It’s all feelings…how can you be sure?”
On the Evidential Role of Religious Experience
“It’s all feelings…how can you be sure?” Most Christians who have come to spiritual conversion and profound faith have heard this objection many times over. No matter what the Christian’s background (philosophical seeker? scientist? doubter?) it is often assumed by others that they must be gullible, mistaking mere feelings for knowledge, incapable of distinguishing what is objective, from what is merely subjective. On the other hand, perhaps the objection is fair, for it is hard to find a good account of how any private religious experience could ever guarantee for the recipient an objective transcendent source. How does God confirm, to a subject, that apparent divine encounter is indeed from him, and not a mistaken attribution?
We are in the realm of the evidential role of religious experience, and, in particular, an epistemology of the “Holy Spirit”, that mysterious agent that Christians call a hard fact of reality, and sceptics say is just “feelings”.
The problem exists because of a perceived gap between subjective certitude and objective certainty. This arises because “divine encounters” are partly ineffable, which is to say, an important dimension of them escapes the grasp of ordinary words and concepts. Thus, this aspect cannot easily enter into a propositional argument.
So, how does God confirm his reality to us, if such encounters are too deep for words, always shrouded in mystery? How can we be sure that the obscure “light of faith” that imparts certitude is sound, and not a haze of confusion instead?
It is not unexpected that a finite mind encountering the infinite “Mind”, would experience mystery. However, if the infinite Mind is truly our Creator, the One of perfect Wisdom, who willed us into being, then he would know our doubts and reservations, our need for something secure. Surely, he would reveal sufficient signs, so that at encounter, we would know for sure – at a rational level – that we are not mistaken? What form could such signs possibly take?
“How and when…?”
Philosopher Anthony Flew approached this question with scientific clarity:
How and when would we be justified in making inferences from the facts of the occurrence of religious experience, considered as a purely psychological phenomenon, to conclusions about the supposed objective religious truths?
Flew’s question can be applied by both the person experiencing “divine encounter”, and by those hearing such testimony. I am primarily concerned with the former, the first-person perspective. What phenomenological “facts” of experience could lead the recipient to justified conclusion that the cause is indeed objective, transcendent, divine?
I attempt to give one answer to this vital question. It is only a sketch, and I wish to emphasise that there are other ways that God may confirm his message.
What Jesus Teaches
In contrast to sceptical assumptions, it is not mere “feelings”, but “knowledge” and “truth” that Jesus says his disciples will encounter. “[Y]ou will know the truth” Jesus says, and, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 8:32; 16:13). Jesus’ language is of revealing and knowing, of being led, taught, and shown, intentionally. Jesus frames all this by recalling the words of Prophet Isaiah “they shall all be taught by God” (John 6:45; Isaiah 54:13). Jesus then teaches directly on the nature of the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of truth”, and its cognitive operations:
I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you….you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you….I will love them and reveal myself to them…the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. (John 14:16-17, 20–21, 26; my bold )
This profound teaching conveys a mysterious interpenetration of personhood, “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you”. It tells of an intentional agent, the “Advocate”, who abides within, or beside, our own agency, and who reveals, teaches, and reminds, secretly.
Of course, to one who is yet to receive conversion, who does not believe the Gospel message, then this is simply not credible. I am not sharing these words of Jesus in order to persuade my reader, but rather to set the scene for how different discipleship experience is to mere “feelings”. The root of Christian belief is much deeper.
We have more than the past words of Jesus. Repeated testimony (ongoing) over 2000 years, shows that those who encounter “Christ and the Holy Spirit” do indeed report something utterly new within, previously unknown – an interior agency – who guides, prompts and reveals. Those who love Jesus and follow him, report that they are led intentionally, step-by-step to knowledge of the truth, just as Jesus and Isaiah had foretold (John 16:13; Isaiah 54:13). If no Christians experience this, then the whole of Christianity is a farce, for this is at the very centre of discipleship teaching.
We may still ask, however, how the recipient may know they are not mistaken in noticing supposed prompts and helps of an interior agent? My answer here (and not the only answer) to this important question concerns the phenomenon of intentional agency towards an exceptional goal. Let me introduce this concept by way of an analogy involving two playful lovers.
The Lover’s Intent
Imagine two young lovers who agreed to meet by the entrance to a wood. The young man arrives but the young woman appears not to be there. However, the man notices a bottle of his lover’s favourite drink, an unusual drink, sitting on the entrance post. Immediately, he thinks of his lover and wonders if she is in the wood already, though he is not sure. He decides to follow the clue, taking steps into the wood, whereupon he sees another item on the ground, again something closely associated with his lover. Again, he trusts, and takes that path instead of another, but not knowing for sure if it is really a sign meant for him. It leads him in a particular direction, whereupon he finds other clues at specific junctions of a similar kind, each one uncertain in significance. Nevertheless, he trusts each one, leading him deeper into the wood, along a particular trail, to a location. Then, suddenly, his lover appears from behind the tree in front of him. She embraces him, kisses him, and they unite in laughter and joy.
The young man reflects on how he got to that particular tree, the very tree that his lover was hiding behind, the very tree that brought him to joyful union.
It was by noticing possible signs, and trusting those signs, even though each was uncertain on its own. He co-operated in trust, entering the dark wood, reaching a point he would never have come to had it not been for those signs. Then, having reached the goal – union with his lover – he looked back and saw that the trail of clues was indeed intended for him to notice and follow.
Even though each sign was initially ambiguous, at the moment of union – the goal – the young man knew that the trail had been laid out intentionally by his lover. He knew immediately that such a trail, leading to the exceptional result, was too specific and precise to be there by chance. He recognised that no single sign was certain, but on seeing the trail as whole, he knew that it revealed intentionality towards the goal.
Intentionality Towards an Exceptional Goal
Intentionality is the hallmark of mind. When we see a pattern like this leading to a very particular and exceptional goal, we rightly infer a mind behind it. There are two parts to such an argument, (i) the intentional, directional pattern; and (ii) the exceptional goal that it leads to.
Such an argument has something in common with the argument from cosmological fine-tuning. Not only does the universe appear fine-tuned (the particular pattern), but the product of this fine-tuning is something absolutely exceptional – intelligent minds capable of understanding the universe. This is why Sir Roger Penrose, and many others, conclude that the universe has deep purpose built in (teleology). Both parts are important to the argument – directional pattern and goal.
Returning now to divine encounters on the Christian path, it is clear from testimonies over two thousand years, that a period of intentional leading with specific signs is a common experience. This trail, with informational content, precedes and anticipates the exceptional “goal” that the person eventually comes to – full conversion in the Holy Spirit. Further, the qualities of this “goal” are utterly exceptional, exceeding in every good way anything else known by the person. Nothing else surpasses it (Philippians 3:8; Matthew 13:44-46). This testimony, concerning something found of unsurpassed value, has been consistent for two thousand years.
I know this pattern myself. It is exactly how I was led to conversion against much resistance and trepidation on my part. The closer I got to the threshold, the more I was tempted to turn away. Were it not for a series of mysterious encouragements I may never have crossed that threshold, for I had plenty of reasons to reject the Church. The encouragements were each exceptional experiences. Each was brief and private, ambiguous in nature and origin, but associated with sublime peace. Each one stopped me in my tracks, causing me to reflect on which path I really wanted. They each had specific content. They each pointed to the Church and to a life of purification, in some way. Nevertheless, I did not fully understand the signs at the time. A few, such as a dream, I wrote down. Little did I know what was coming, that was prefigured precisely in that dream. These encouragements were spread over 1-2 years, initially rare, then increasing in frequency, and urgency, prior to conversion. All the time I was living in sin, but on a quest, sincerely seeking truth.
Finally, full conversion came: sudden, unexpected, completely life changing, immediately releasing from sin, setting me upon a new path, and opening an awareness of God. There is no need to rely on my testimony however, for the same is reported in countless testimonies for two thousand years, not just the conversion event, but the intentional leading towards it. (See Conversion: Spiritual Insights into an Essential Encounter with God, by Father Donald Haggerty).
The convert, like the lover in the wood, may reflect back, drawing on memory (as Saint Augustine did) and see more clearly the trail that led to this encounter, a trail of exceptional encouragements with specific content. They realise they were not alone along the way, but had a transcendent helper leading them.
This is not the end of it, but rather the beginning, for at conversion this helper is received within, and continues to prompt, remind, guide and reveal, teaching the convert the ways of God (John 6:45; Isaiah 54:13). This is something utterly new, not known before. It is the beginning of the Spiritual life.
“I will lead the blind by a road they do not know, by paths they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light…” (Isaiah 42:16)
I have only given a very brief sketch, but hopefully you will see the form of my argument. I have not raised possible objections and how these could be answered, but I invite others to do so. It is important to recognise that the intentional pattern of signs is not the cause of one’s conviction. No, the interior working of the Holy Spirit, too deep for words, is the cause of that. What the intentional pattern of signs provides, however (to the one experiencing conversion) is confirmation to the critical reasoning mind, that their conviction about divine encounter and the Holy Spirit, is not a mistaken attribution. It is a confirmation of an objective, transcendent cause, with foreknowledge and providential power. It serves as a personal check to the new convert that their sudden “re-birth” is not mere “feelings”, “all in the head”, but from an agency beyond them, an agency who knows a greater truth and beauty – a hidden, Holy Kingdom.
Thank you for reading.
Comments and discussion are very welcome @andrewjrparker
 “Certitude is not the test of certainty”, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
 Anthony Flew, God and Philosophy (Hutchinson and Co. Ltd. London., 1966). Flew was one of the foremost atheist philosophers of religion, until his own intellectual conversion.