Monday, November 05, 2012

The God of Christian experience vs. the God of the Bible

A recurring struggle I have faced over the past few years as I wrestle with (my) faith is the apparent discrepancy between the claims the bible makes about God and the reality I have experienced and observed as a Christian for over twenty years. 

You see, the God of Christian experience (GCE) seems considerably different from the God described in the bible (GTB). So much so that I have to wonder if the God of the bible is an amplified and exaggerated version of the 'real God' as distorted through the rose tinted lens of faith. Of course it is equally possible that the characteristics of the 'real God' are distorted by experience too. Taking a skeptical position, we might also have to consider the possibility that GCE is purely an illusion based on misunderstood experience.

But anyway, here are a few of the characteristics of the God of Christian experience, based on my experiences and observations of others:
  • GCE seems to be a source of comfort for many.
  • GCE seems to provide some form of guidance sometimes, though this is often ambiguous.
  • GCE seems to answer certain prayer requests, sometimes.
  • GCE seems able to perform a range of mostly minor healings, sometimes.
  • GCE seems to be able to strengthen and embolden people, sometimes.
  • GCE seems to be a source of joy, even in otherwise joyless circumstances.
Most, if not all, of these characteristics appear to be sporadic; sometimes being in evidence while at other times being seemingly absent. The characteristics which most commonly appear active are also those in which it is hardest to be sure that there is any real external influence, such as the comfort, joy and emboldenings. The skeptic could write all of these off as being 'purely psychological' and having no supernatural source. It could be that God provides genuine comfort to the believer, or it could be that believing in God - in itself - is the source of comfort.

But what of the others? Answered prayers are common, but rarely does a believer calculate the probabilities of the things they ask for happening 'by chance'. Indeed, for many believers there is no such thing as chance, so if what they prayed for actually happened, then it must have been God at work. And if the thing prayed for does not happen, then it must have been against the will of God, so he didn't do it. I've commented before about the positive feedback loop here - if the prayed-for thing happens, the believer's faith is boosted, if it doesn't happen, their faith is not lessened, so as long as prayed-for things happen occasionally, the net effect is a boost of faith. If the believer prays for lots of possible things on a regular basis, they will see answered prayers fairly frequently, whether or not there is a God involved.

Surely if there is a real God then it should be possible to observe his actions consistently? The GTB is frequently portrayed as consistent, unchanging, and so on, yet GCE seems to act with no consistency, except perhaps in influencing the feelings of his followers.

Before I started taking a properly critical look at (my own) faith, I would have made the claim (had I thought to express it this way) that the real God was broadly the same as GTB and the reasons that GCE appears to be smaller and less powerful than GTB were that something (either the devil, my puny faith, or some unrepented sin in my life) was blocking the full experience of God from breaking through. I guess this is pretty standard Evangelical belief. Its certainly consistent with the picture of reality expressed by most of the evangelism programmes that I've seen or been part of. The problem is sin, our sin gets in the way. In other words, most of the time, the reason GCE appears so small is my fault. The picture would be something like this:
But when you look at the holiest people you know (and, having been in some good churches for many years, I have known a good many truly godly people) you will see that they have exactly the same experiences as you. Something seems to block God from getting through, so GCE is so much smaller than GTB, even for those spiritual giants. Of course, they would never say it in those terms, but this is my observation.

I eventually, through observations like the above, and through a critical reading of certain bible passages, came to view things a bit differently. While still convinced that the real God was there, I considered that GTB was an exaggeration. The real God, while still powerful, wasn't omni-anything. But I never really reconsidered the presupposition that something in me was also blocking the full reality of the real God, so for many years I guess I believed that the real god was somewhere in between GTB and GCE. Like so:
But then I came to wonder whether there was any actual evidence that the real God was any more powerful than GCE. The claims in the bible are simply that, claims. The more I looked into the evidence for things claimed in the bible, the more I found that the bible itself is the only evidence for all the miracles up to and including the resurrection of Jesus. I've recently posted several thoughts on the so called 'evidence' for God [see here, or here] and it all eventually boils down to assuming that the reporting of events as presented in the bible is fundamentally accurate and true. Without that assumption, all arguments defending biblical miracles, including the resurrection, fall apart.

For several years two things kept me believing that the real God was greater in power than GCE (though less than GTB). These were the firm belief that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead, and the belief/observation that 'miraculous' healings continue to happen today. Let's look at both of these:

Firstly, contemporary miraculous healings. I've been through this issue recently on the blog. The issues here for me remain that while healings undoubtedly and indisputably happen in the world today, these don't appear (as far as I can tell) to happen more in a Christian context than in contexts associated with any other religion or belief system. The other issue is that almost all of the healing claims I have heard of are well within the realms of possible natural occurrences. That is, if someone experiences a remission from cancer, how do we know if this was due to God's healing power or was 'just one of those things' that happen? What we observe is that healings happen, and that the claimed power of these healings comes from some supernatural source, for which there is usually little or no other evidence. What if there is some other explanation other than the involvement of a God? Which is more likely - that some people have some inherent 'magical' healing ability, or that some God chooses to channel his 'magical' healing ability through some people? Given that we don't know the mechanism in either case, Occam's razor would tend to prefer the former option; invoking a God is not required as a source of the unknown ability, that only multiplies the entities involved.

Of course, if this is true, then we are attributing 'natural' healing ability to God which doesn't come from him. Thus actually CGE is greater in power than the real God:

That's an uncomfortable thought, but one we must face if we're really serious about examining the validity of (our) faith. Even if there is a God, if we attribute things to him which he has no part of, then our picture of God ends up positively skewed and we imagine him to be bigger than he actually is.

And so, all that remains is the resurrection of Jesus. If this happened then it would fundamentally endorse the things he taught and go much of the way to proving the existence of God, and not merely any god, but specifically the Christian God. For me, this was the last remaining support holding up my faith. But, like all the other things, I found that this belief didn't really stand up to scrutiny. The evidence for the resurrection is simply not strong enough. All that we can really be sure of is that there were folk who came to be known as Christians who believed that Jesus died and rose again. We can be sure these people believed this a couple of generations after the time of the alleged events. What we can't do is bridge the gap between the beliefs in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries and the supposed events of about 30AD. Nobody wrote anything for at least a generation, and the things written by the first generation of writers were rewritten by subsequent generations.

You can see where I'm going with this. Eventually, I have come to the conclusion that as we can't be sure if the resurrection actually happened, we can't use this as anything remotely like evidence for the existence of God, whether we're talking about GTB, GCE or the real God.

I'm still open to the possibility that there is a 'real' God. But the more I consider the evidence of Christian experience, the smaller he appears to become. Is this really a God worth believing in? Or, more crucially, is this really a God worth trusting, following, or committing your life to? All the truly important aspects of God, which would make him worthy of praise and commitment, are those aspects which are claimed in the bible, but are not evident in Christian experience. These evaporate as we look critically at God.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think that it's relevant to think about whose experiences you are comparing; which characters in the Bible, and which christians represent 'christian experience'.
Obviously if you'd done this it'd be an enormous post that would be far too long winded!
But in the Old Testament, very few people were actually spoken to personally by God and those who were had a message to give to a whole group of people or a leader, or lead the group they represent. "A personal relationship with God " isn't a phrase found in the Bible, it's something that our individualistic society has caused Christian culture to take on. We've lost the sense that God relates to us through other people, we're to be the church not a Christian.
I can totally relate to spiritual envy, it took me a long time to understand that it wasn't because I'm a bad person that I don't have supernatural powers, or a constant awareness of God.
I now believe that God is much more mysterious than my evangelical background would have had me believe. And I think that some Christians totally over-spiritualise some things. I cannot believe that God can find the time to arrange to get people parking spaces when there are people dying of hunger. So God gets credit for a coincidence. God gave people a brain for a reason, and I think we do ourselves and God when we ignore our own capacity to act and simply wait on a sign from heaven.