Lessons In Apologetics #3: Experientialism & Evidentialism
By: Frederick Meekins
The next methodology is experientialism. Though fideism strives to make faith alone the justification for religious knowledge or belief, Geisler observes that this faith is ultimately justified in terms of an experience had by the individual (65).
To the experientialist, God or the Ultimate is not so much something to be understood or comprehended but rather felt. Stretching all the way back to the Neoplatonist Plotinus, experientialism views what the believer refers to as God as “the one beyond all knowing and being (66).”
In fact, God is so far beyond what the finite mind is capable of comprehending that to really say anything about God is highly inaccurate as to do so would be limiting God. As such, the best the individual can aspire to is an intuitive mystical union with the universal by turning inward through an ascetic detachment from the physical world around us in pursuit of a metaphysical unity.
Friedrich Schleiermacher provided for a more accessible apprehension of the cosmic or divine by equating religious experience not so much with monastic solitude but rather with the feeling of absolute dependence we all feel from time to time. According to Schleiermacher, this feeling is actually the World Spirit reaching out to us and actualizing within each of us.
To experientialists, dogmas and doctrines are not that important (that itself actually a doctrine though) as these conceptual formulations are merely shadows or echoes of the deeper experience. While experientialists are correct that the individual must have some kind of encounter with God beyond that often referred to as “book knowledge”, one begins to trod upon dangerous ground when the experience becomes the ultimate criteria for judgment by positing that those having more intense experiences are somehow more in touch with the cosmos as in the case of certain meditation cults.
If experience itself is made the highest standard, the individual will end up not knowing whether or not he is being led into deception. I John 4:1 tells us to test the spirits to see if they are from God.
The next apologetic methodology is evidentialism. Rationalism, fideism, and experientialism are largely inwardly focused approaches to knowledge of God with both fideism and experientialism also being highly subjective as well. Evidentialism tends to be more objective as it points to evidence existing independently of an individual’s internal emotional or intellectual states to make a case for the existence of God.
While experientialism stresses the importance of a personal acquaintance with what we categorize as the divine, evidentialism provides an anchor to prevent such hypothesizing from meandering off into exceedingly esoteric or individualized speculation by providing a basis for belief any interested party is free to investigate at their own leisure. The primary forms of proof offered by evidentialists are nature and history.
Nature is probably the form of evidence best used when the individual being appealed to is not yet even a theist. This proof for the existence of God is known as the teleological argument in that it holds that the intricate structures found in the world point to the need for a designer.
This idea is expressed in terms of the Watchmaker Hypothesis formulated by William Paley. Paley contended that, if one found a watch in the woods, one would from the intricacies of its parts working together in tandem for a purpose assume the contraption would need a designer. Likewise, since the world is no less complex and actually even more so, it is only logical to conclude that the physical universe around us would also require a designer.
Having lived from 1743-1805, Paley himself did not face the Darwinian onslaught. However, others since then have tweaked the argument to make it stronger against criticisms such as those of John Stuart Mill. Mill argued that the watchmaker analogy was weak because we know things like watches have watchmakers and, without a perspective beyond which a finite human being is capable, Hume’s speculation of organicism with the world growing like a vegetable could very well be correct.
To counter the Darwinian and Humean notions that given enough time a number of elements could be reshuffled enough to fortuitously result in the world we see around us, A.E. Taylor and F.R. Tennat have argued that the world around us shows too much adaptation and anticipation to have been the product of random chance. For example, Taylor notes how the bodyâ€™s need for oxygen is anticipated by biological structures such as membranes and organs. Geisler writes, â€œIn fact, mind or intelligence is the only known condition that can overcome the improbabilities against the development and preservation of life…In short, the order evident in natural development of life is evidence of God (90).”
While this brand of evidentialism is vital in convincing the atheist or agnostic that God exists, it is not enough to bring someone to a saving knowledge of Christ as many of the world’s religions such as Judaism, Islam, and even apostate forms of Christianity are full of theists barreling down the road to Hell. An evidentialist approach emphasizing history directly confronts the unbeliever with the decision he will have to make to decide his eternal destiny.
One of the aspects of Christianity that sets it apart from many of the other religions and belief systems is its historical nature in that the validity of its claims ultimately rest upon the veracity of actual events. II Peter 1:16 says, “For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty?”
Since these events took place within the flow of normal time, by utilizing research methods similar to those used to investigate the past such as the examination of ancient documents, one can construct an intellectual framework reasonably assuming that Christ did indeed exist. Prominent evidentialists utilizing history would include John Warwick Montgomery and Lee Strobel.
Despite the strength of evidentialist apologetics, its efforts to elevate religious dialogue beyond one’s internal feelings (the burning in the bosom referred to by the Mormons which could very easily be indigestion), the approach is not without drawbacks. For while facts can indeed exist as objective realities, the individual can often go to great lengths to put a spin on them that fits them into an individualâ€™s preconceived worldview.
For example, those inclined to marvel at the world around them can more easily be persuaded that everything was created by a wise and loving God than those who view the world through a survival of the fittest mindset focusing on the violence, bloodshed, and disease that often characterizes both the human and animal realms. Evidentialists will counter that often the theistic interpretation turns out to be the most credible rather than naturalistic ones that stretch plausibility such as the Apostles absconding with Christâ€™s body or Jesus being revived in the cool of the tomb.
Geisler, Norman. “Christian Apologetics”. Baker Academic, 1988.