Thursday, August 18, 2005

Didactic Dialogue on God II

Christian Believer: Faith is not based exclusively on personal experience. Once someone has an experience of faith, s/he seeks to make sense of this experience. To give it an interpretation, as it were. Language plays no small role in this interpretative quest to make sense of one's personal experience. Is an experience less real because it is personal? Subjectivist is not having personal experiences. Subjectivism is saying that one is the cause of all of one's own experiences and that self-generated experiences are our only experience- which makes any further investigation ridiculous. As a phenomenon, personal experiences are quite universal insofar as we all have them.

Dialogue Partner: "You had me with the first sentence. Faith is not based exclusively on personal experience. But then you lost me when you went on to support the 'figuring out' as based on experience. Once someone has an experience of faith, s/he seeks to make sense of this experience.

Christian Believer: One has to interpret one's personal (i.e., unique) experiences. In seeking to interpret this personal experience one begins to look outward- to interpret and to some degree verify one's faith experience. It is verified insofar as we realize that other people have such experiences too. We interpret by reflecting on our own experiences in light of the experiences of others, usually religious communities. Such reflection gives us a language, a lexicon with which to communicate the meaning of our experience. Our faith experience (our UR experience) is analogous to raw data. As with raw data obtained through experimentation and observation, the need to verify and interpret arises. Verification and interpretation are the only ways to make our experiences which, in many instances, are quite ambiguous meaningful. Language (narratives, meta-narratives, poetry, music, etc.) is what gives meaning to our experiences. By giving meaning to our experiences, our experiences are not subjective. In other words, we want and need to get them "out there" in some kind of objective, or more precisely inter- subjective, form. This is true for many reasons, but chief among these reasons is our desire for our experiences to be meaningful to ourselves. This cannot occur without others. After all, to paraphrase John Donne's "no man is an island", one person in no person.

Dialogue Partner: "I understand. Thanks. So we agree that it begins with experience? And to be clear, we're talking about experience of what is interpreted as the divine - and not simply 'experience', as in walking, breathing, changing the bed sheets..."

Christian Believer: Yes, it does begin with experience. Science begins with experience. What I experience can in no way be seen as not real. This is where the crass atheist gets confused. Perhaps the atheist has had no such experience. Or, if s/he has had such experiences, it is attributed to the enchilada sauce. But even blaming red chilis is to interpret the experience. How can the chili-blaming atheist be absolutely certain that it was not the Absolute seeking to break though her/his consciousness? You write: "We're talking about experience of what is interpreted as the divine - and not simply 'experience', as in walking, breathing, changing the bed sheets..." It depends. Some people don't divide up experience in that way. Our dear brother Thich Nhat Hahn, for instance, makes no such distinction nor did my beloved Pater Tom [Merton]. You're correct, however, most people do. In the case of people who make such divisions between divine experiences and the daily grind as it were, the answer to your implied question is "Yes."

Dialogue Partner: "Yes but it is still experiencing the divine, whether that comes in the form of a white light, burning bush or walk along the seashore. I was opposing it to experience that one does NOT link to the divine."

Christian Believer: Thanks for the clarifications. You are correct in that by my writing faith is not exclusively a personal experience, I was not "actually disagreeing as it would have seemed". I also agree when you write: "it is still experiencing the divine, whether . . ." Faith is complex. Faith begins with experience on a personal, even intimate, level. I am not certain it can be called faith (in Christian terms anyway- the actus fidei) until it is given expression and begins to acquire meaning. What sets me off in this discussion is when what I can only call crass, boiler-plate atheists insist that believers must provide them (the atheists) with empirical proof for the existence of God. It seems so obvious that belief in God begins on the level of personal experience. As I have written, personal experience, while certainly conditioned by our biology, culture, family, upbringing, experience, etc., is no less real for it being my experience. However, I cannot be content to just leave it at the level of ambiguous personal experience. This is where I seek to make sense of my personal experience and conform it to reality (i.e., what is known). Many people short-circuit this process because complexity is just too much for them, extremism and fundamentalism are the results.

Dialogue Partner: "As I was discussing with somebody else recently, *IS* the proof one can offer for belief, since empiricism is based on one's personal experience. However, I know what you're talking about and it *IS* annoying. Not for the reasons some would have, that I/we are too fragile to discusser entertain challenges to faith, but because those challenges are rooted in broad-brush, ignorant prejudice. Those challenges only workif one clings to those prejudices. We've all countered them and they've all been ignored. We've all said, 'But what you're fighting against, isn't what I believe, so either reform your argument or concede it's limitations" - and eachtime, the mighty intelligence of those who claim strength of analyticcapabilities, withers in a stunning silence. Attacking those who believe because they're afraid of death? Theyneed a cookie cutter faith that lets them live on? That's not me.That's not you. But the assertion continues....causeit....works....for the person making it. Attacking those who have experiences and can't prove them in a courtof law? Well do you have experiences that you can't prove in a courtof law? Again: silence. Because to address this issue....makes theargument evaporate. But the assertion continues....causeit....works....for the person making it. So either they're not intelligent enough to recognize this (and theyignore it because they don't see they've been bested by their ownargument) or they *DO* understand it's message and ignore it becauseignoring it allows for and feeds their need to continue theirposition. But you know what they say about someone who puts a lot of energyinto fighting something. J. Edgar Hoover comes to mind....

Me: Exactly, empirical data is sense data. As sense data it is perceived by a human perceptual apparatus and, hence, by human beings. In a word, it is experienced. In the realm of science, such experiences are described, written up and submitted for peer review. Ideally, in the case of a claimed scientific breakthrough, the write-up is such that peers can repeat the experiment and have the same experience. This inter-subjectivity is taken as verification of the results (assuming the repeat of the experiment replicated the initial results predicted). Sense data is always already interpreted, otherwise how do does one make sense of a red object? Gestalt is indicative of the almost imperceptible distinction between brain(i.e., physical organ) and mind (i.e., the synthesizing function innate to (most) human beings). Of course, in assigning meaning to the red object, we can and sometimes are mistaken. As a Christian who believes in resurrection, death is still the horizon against which I live my life and beyond which I cannot see. I want to live my life in such a way that whether there is an after-life or not, whether or not there is heaven or a hell, it will have been a good life. This desire, which is constitutive of who I am, is but one very convincing proof of the transcendent nature of human existence.

Christian Believer: To cut some critics some slack, referring back to writing: "It seems so obvious that belief in God begins on the level of personal experience." As I have written, personal experience, while certainly conditioned by our biology, culture, family, upbringing, experience, etc., is no less real for it being my experience. When people write about the tendency of Western peoples' failure to understand that there is a difference between one's understanding of the Absolute (even communal understandings) and the Absolute, he is quite convincing. I would be interested in pursuing this line of reasoning. Why? Because such failures do cause violence and smug self- satisfaction of the kind all too prevalent today in Bush's United States. It pains me to no end that so many of my fellow Christians fall for this kind un-Christian distortion of the faith. So, this seems to me a valuable avenue of discussion. I offer the Parable of the Four Blind Men Who Met an Elephant Four blind men met an elephant. "The first touched its feet and said, 'This is a building with Doric columns.' The second touched its trunk and said, 'This is a snake.' The third felt its belly and and said, 'This is the dried skin of a lion.' The last man felt its ears and said, 'This is a leaf of a palm tree.' They began to argue and finally to fight for their truth which left no room for the other man's truth." Edward Schillebeeckx, OP God the Future of Man, Sheed & Ward, 1968, pg. 66

Finally, "How can the chili-blaming atheist be absolutely certain that it was not the Absolute seeking to break though her/his consciousness?" If the answer is because there is no Absolute, no ground of existence, nothing beyond what I can see, hear, touch, taste, or smell, the chili-blaming atheist is guilty of the fallacy of begging the question. In other words, the answer is based on a pre- supposition, not empirical data (i.e., seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting). If not based on empirical evidence, this undermines her/his demand for such evidence on behalf of those who believe. In other words, a priori atheism is not defensible on its own empirical principles.

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