Objections to “Hearing God” (Part Three): The Value of Testimony and Experience
December 27, 2011
There is a view about knowledge that says that the Bible is the only means by which we can reliably know about God and his actions in the world. I called this claim in earlier posts “the Methodological Claim”, and we looked at what happens when it’s applied to HG ("hearing God"): if the Bible were silent (I don’t think it is [see J.P.’s article]), skepticism would result, and we wouldn’t know whether God speaks in the fashion described by HG.
The Methodological Claim says, "there is only one way to answer [the question of HG], and the proper method is not by appealing to personal experience or citing godly authorities who disagree [but only by appealing carefully to the biblical text]." Previously, I argued that the Methodological Claim is false. In this post, I show a serious implication of the Methodological Claim for everyday knowledge, and offer an alternative suggestion for how to decide on issues like HG.
Even though the Methodological Claim is false, it’s popular. In the case of HG, this popularity seems to be because people recognize that personal experience and testimony are fallible. It's almost always possible to be mistaken with respect to beliefs formed on their basis, and the simplest way to avoid being mistaken in these cases is to deny the evidential value of experience and testimony. Of course (and thankfully), this skepticism is applied selectively and inconsistently.
Here's the problem: if one adopts such radical skepticism toward experience and testimony regarding issues like HG, there’s no principled way to resist treating any and all other experiential and testimonial claims likewise. Skepticism toward HG would also mandate a kind of global skepticism that’s inappropriate—a skepticism in other areas where skepticism would be inappropriate.
No one should hold a view that entails such global skepticism. It would mean giving up much of what we in fact know, since a vast number of our beliefs are justified either directly via our experience of the world, or indirectly via the testimony of credible witnesses. (Think here of beliefs such as, "That voice sounds like Dad's," [when hearing a sound of a certain type] or, "There are salamanders in the yard," [when looking at the yard and seeing salamanders] or, "Lincoln was shot in Ford's Theatre," [after reading a Lincoln biography] or, "There are rocks on the moon." [after watching a TV show].)
Give all those up. That's the unfortunate cost of global skepticism.
Such skepticism has detrimental consequences for spiritual knowledge; I don't think a Christian—or anyone else—should endorse it. The worries motivating the Methodological Claim could be addressed without endorsing something so radical and implausible. Personal experience and the testimony of credible people should generally be taken as truthful unless and until there are specific reasons to judge them otherwise.
The Methodological Claim is false. So how do we assess HG, both the practice itself, and the various “words” people claim to receive?
Of course, we must guard against gullibility, cavalier attitudes and the potential for theological error—these are valid concerns. But if it turns out that experiential and testimonial evidence confirms rather than disconfirms HG, one may not ignore that evidential force merely on the basis of principle. Instead, treat HG just like any other claim—deal with each instance of purported divine "speech" case-by-case, assessing them according to the details of each case. No special methodological restriction will do them justice.
Part Four in this series is available here.
Thanks for this. Looking forward to the next part in the series.