Conversing with me recently, a friend spoke of the demonic encounters of some of his Indonesian classmates. This brings up the idea of the observation of the supernatural. This is an enormous topic, encompassing theological, philosophical, and metaphysical arguments. But it is the crux of why I struggle. I wrote the following in an e-mail to my friend, and I’ve modified it slightly for this post.
This is the most important post I’ve ever left on this blog. I welcome comments.
Allow me, if you will, to attempt to tie a broad philosophical discussion to a single point about the supernatural. If I have any skill as a communicator, I'll get back to this point in a moment. I'm going to attempt to bring up several large areas of philosophy and theology and return to this one -- give me a second, and please try not to get distracted by my rabbit trails. I'll try to bring this all back to a comprehensible, razor's edge conclusion.
I think everyone can agree that there are six categories of arguments for the existence of God. They are:
- Ontological Arguments: Arguments from nothing but analytic, a priori and necessary premises to the conclusion that God exists. In other words, the logic of God requires God. (St. Anselm, et al) All other arguments are a posteriori arguments.
- Cosmological Arguments: Facts about the world require a God. This encompasses first cause, Kalam, and related arguments. (Aquinas, et al)
- Teleological Arguments: Arguments from Design. Creation science and Intelligent Design are the modern incarnations.
- Arguments from Miracles. Attestation of divinity claims through the working of supernatural healings, resurrection, etc.
- Moral Arguments. C.S. Lewis and Ravi Zacharias really like this one. These arguments center around the necessity of an absolute moral being to create the moral order that, it is argued, is present all around us.
- Pragmatic Arguments: The most famous is Pascal's Wager: you're better off believing. This could be excluded from this list, as it makes claims about belief in the existence of God rather than claims directly about the existence of God.
While its apologists have used at various times the myriad forms of each argument, the Bible directly makes claims about itself -- or the characters portrayed on its pages -- using four arguments. Let's use the Bible as the source text, rather than apologists or critics:
- Moral Argument: God is the lawgiver and "the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good" "the Law is spiritual"
- Argument from Miracles: Jesus as God because of healings and resurrection.
- Cosmological: God is portrayed as the first/sustaining cause: "In the beginning was the word..."
- Teleological: God is the Creator: "In the beginning, God created..." "since the creation of the world... His invisible attributes have been clearly seen... so that [unbelievers] are without excuse"
There are certainly other places in the Bible where these arguments are found. The Ontological argument can be injected into scripture, but only through eisegesis, which all honest readers want to avoid. (Not an attempt to discredit the argument; it is simply not in the Bible.) The Pragmatic argument can be seen in parts ('The fool has said in his heart, "There is no God "' -- a comment about belief rather than for the existence of God). But again, there is more eisegesis than exegesis to be done here.
Thus, in examining the Bible, we are left with four kinds of claims, arguments, or proofs of the truth of the Bible: cosmological, teleological, miraculous, and moral. Note that I am not the one phrasing the argument this way -- this is what the Bible puts forward as its own reason-based claims. [Correct me if I'm wrong at this point, because these are still suppositions leading up to my argument.]
One more supposition. We learn through either reason or experience. Reason encompasses logic, science, etc. Experience includes observation, direct interaction, and, in the dualistic view of the psyche, spiritual experiences. Thus, we are left to examine the claims of the Bible using the same faculties we employ when considering any truth claim: reason and experience.
Now for the broadening of my claim, which will result in the major obstacle between me and complete belief in the Bible:
The necessary use of these faculties requires us to compare what is stated as truth in the Bible to other truths learned by these faculties. This comparison must take place prior to accepting the Bible's claims as absolute truth, otherwise we are being intellectually dishonest. When I therefore turn these -- reason and experience -- on the Bible's truth claims, I come to the following basic conclusions. (These are summaries, not my complete thinking).
Faculties available for argumentation: Reason and Experience
There is a lot I could say on this topic that would get us off track -- for instance, is the God of the OT moral in absolute terms? For now, I will focus on a classical formulation of the Moral Argument.
- Without God there is no Law -- How else do we define absolutes?
- Without God there is no Hope -- Theism answers the question of death.
- Without God there is no Meaning -- God supplies meaning to our actions while we live.
While considering his claims, I had the following thoughts, which he never addressed. First, why can we claim that we are owed Law, Hope, or Meaning. Innately, we wish for justice. We want to have eternal hope. We would like to think that our lives mean something. I agree that the theistic world view gives answers to these three neatly, but the bigger question is -- are they the right answers? Life is easier with theistic answers, but who says that we are owed Law, Hope, or Meaning?
His argument strikes me as this: he wishes it so, it gives his life internal consistency, so it must be. Why, other than wishing, are we owed these three? I want to live my life based first on Truth; if Law, Hope, and Meaning fit in with that, so be it. I do not believe in wishing the God of the Bible into existence because he makes my personal world view consistent.
Arguments from Miracles (or, at its root, the supernatural)
Faculties available for argumentation: Experience (reason can only be used indirectly)
Miracles are acts that must be experienced to believe. Reason cannot be used to compel a person to believe in them since by their very definition they are contrary to reason. My friend’s Indonesian buddies believe in the supernatural because of their claim to have directly observed it. New Testament believers commonly found faith due to the direct observation of a disciple or Jesus performing a supernatural wonder. Others at the time disbelieved these because they did not directly observe them. Arguments, such as the argument that the disciples died for claiming belief in the miracle of the resurrection, are indirect uses of reason to describe a miraculous event -- not a direct reasonable argument for miracles.
Thus to believe in the miraculous (or the supernatural), I have to experience it directly. I do not believe I ever have. I have prayed throughout my life to witness the supernatural or a miracle, because I believe that this is a huge barrier to my belief. I am one of those for whom God has allotted a small measure of faith, and I need, like Thomas, to see before I believe. I'll pass on the extra helping of blessing granted to those who believe without seeing to gain the smallest foothold in the world of belief. For now, though, I find it hard to believe in the supernatural or in miracles.
Faculties available for argumentation: Reason (you cannot experience logic)
Cosmological arguments have at their root the logic of the world around us. There are attributes of the universe -- for instance the relationship between space and time -- that make it logically feasible that space and time require a cause or starting point (creation/big bang/the beginning of time), but something outside the universe and the constraints of the space/time relationship does not. This is effectively a little cosmology + the Kalam Cosmological argument. Whatever is outside space and time cannot be described by this argument, though -- and likely it could never be understood by beings who operate within space and time. Thus, attributing first cause to something outside space and time does not lead us to God -- it leads us only outside space and time.
Faculties available for argumentation: Reason (you cannot understand design through experience)
This, of course, is where the Young-Earth Creationist (YEC) interpretation of the Bible finds a mass of incongruence with just about every area that science has ever observed. I do not believe in a massive conspiracy against the literal interpretation of Genesis. I believe that theories about the age of the earth and universe and the nature of biology and evolution are correct according to the simplest explanations of observed attributes of our world. These explanations change as we gain more knowledge, but they typically change further away from the YEC account with each new observation of the world.
My YEC friends and I could write forever back and forth and never solve this, but let me say this: there is ample reason within the Biblical text to believe in a non-scientifically-literal Genesis creation account. First, the Creation account in Genesis is a poem; second... we could go on about this forever. I'm sure by now some have written me off as a God-hating, left-wing, atheistic, baby-eating, Christmas-warring, free-loving, all-colors-of-the-rainbow-of-thought-accepting, Bush-bashing liberal (I am not), but I actually don't believe that arguments from design must be thrown out due to the success of evolutionary theory.
On the other hand, I haven't found a theory of design that leads directly to the Bible's God. The engineer in me, though, has trouble seeing the weak anthropic principle, design in nature, and order throughout the cosmos without thinking that something started this whole space/time arrangement in our universe. Nonetheless, this observaion (I do not say conclusion yet) does not lead us exclusively to the truth of the Bible.
So, I promised that I would go from broad to narrow and make a single point. Here's my best shot. This is where I get back to my discussion of my friend’s Indonesian friends' supernatural observations.
My point: of all the arguments for the existence of God, the only one that leads a person to the God of the Bible is the argument from Miracles. Moral arguments, cosmological arguments, and teleological arguments can lead a person to a God-concept or a moral absolute, but not to the God of the Bible. Proving what you are asserting through demonstrations of the supernatural that augment and agree with your other truth claims about God necessarily shows a uniqueness to your claim when compared to other truth claims about God. Thus, I agree with the Bible in that the most comprehensive way for Jesus to prove his deity was through just these kinds of demonstrations, culminating with the resurrection.
Another reason why the argument from miracles is so important is that it makes all the other arguments fall into place. It grants a person to the God of the teleological and cosmological arguments and a face to the moral absolute of moral arguments. Without it, everything is in the abstract.
My problem is that these miraculous demonstrations were experienced by others, not me. These others include the gospel writers, those in Jesus' time who claim to have witnessed these miracles, and those in my time, like the Indonesian guys, who claim to have experienced the supernatural in a manner consistent with the Bible's description. The only "learning faculty" I can therefore bring to bear on these claims is my reason, and these claims fly in the face of reason. There is no means of reasoning your way into believing these unreasonable claims without, as mentioned before, sacrificing your intellectual honesty by accepting the Bible as true from the outset.
This is where I'm stuck.
I have never experienced the supernatural in a manner consistent with the Bible's description; thus, I do not believe.