Tag Archives: certainty

“How Can I Experience God As Real?” (The Highfield Letters #1)

Over the years I’ve received many letters asking my opinion on various issues or requesting my help with a troublesome concern. I take these inquiries as occasions not only to do something good for others but also to think about an issue of interest. I received a letter a few years back in which the correspondent asked this compound question: “Why does God seem so distant to me, and how can I experience God as real?” Perhaps you’ve also felt this absence and asked this question. I know I have. I was so happy to receive this note, because it gave me an occasion to think about my own experience. Here is the essence of what I wrote in response:

Dear God-Seeker:

God is not a physical object we can experience through the five senses. God is not merely a concept we can think in a clear and simple way. Nor is God an idea or image we can picture in our imaginations. How then can we experience God, if God is not like anything else we experience? Let’s not give up hope. God can be real and active without being real and active in the same way that other things are. I know you believe that God exists, creates, and takes care of us and our world. And because of Jesus, you believe that God loves the whole world and you. Hence you know that God is everywhere active and loving. But we don’t experience God’s omnipresent action in the way we experience the local acts of people and animals and the forces of nature. Why? Local acts stand out from their backgrounds and call attention to themselves, but God’s action—except in the case of miracles, which we are not discussing—touches everything at once. As the most universal agent, God’s actions are undetectable in the ways we notice other actions. So, we should not be surprised that we feel God’s absence from the array of our ordinary experiences. But we are not satisfied with this. Is there another way to experience God as really real?

We crave experience because experiencing gives us immediate certainty, which beliefs, thoughts, and ideas do not. To experience something is to be changed by that thing so as to become in some way like it. In our awareness of ourselves—in what we call our feelings—we also experience the other thing. I know you believe that God is active and loving. The idea of God is clear in your mind. What you want now is experience. Here is my opinion on how to attain what you seek: In this life, we can experience God best by becoming like God in his activity. God is present in our world in his loving, self-giving action. Hence when we join with God in loving what God loves in the way God loves it, we will experience God in action in us. We will experience ourselves as changed and formed by God’s loving action on us and through us. As in all experience, we receive an immediate certainty of the presence of the thing we are experiencing; we know that the changes in us don’t come from us alone.

And perhaps you have guessed already that I am speaking here of the action of the Holy Spirit, which is the cause of all human experience of God. As Paul promises, “And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). Notice also how John connects our confidence, our immediate certainty, with the action of the Spirit working in our actions of loving others in imitation of God’s love for us:

 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other…This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters…Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us (1 John 3:14-24).

By the witness of creation and Word we come to believe that God is real and that he loves us. And by the action of the Spirit we are prompted and empowered to respond to God’s love with our love. God’s love frees us to love him in return and to love what God loves in the way he loves it. In our acts of love we experience a taste of God’s own feelings of love for us and the world. What joy and certainty can be ours if only we will heed the Spirit’s prompting, follow Jesus’ example, and dive into the flow of God’s love.

I hope these thoughts help.

In Jesus,



Christian Belief: Knowledge, Faith, Opinion, or Just Wishful Thinking?

In this installment of our study of Christianity’s truth we continue clarifying the basic vocabulary, framework, and rules for the discussion. Many discussions about God’s existence and Christianity’s truth suffer from confusion. We get in a hurry, talk past one another, and express our feelings rather than take the time to communicate clearly and understand each other. So, I believe it is necessary to give some time to these introductory matters.

In recent posts I’ve addressed the issues of truth and reality and the issue of who bears the burden of truth. Today, I will focus on knowledge. What does it mean to know something? In transitioning from truth to knowledge, we shift from the issue of the properties of a proposition to the issue of how a proposition is held by a knower. In addressing the question “Is Christianity True?” how would it profit us to clarify what it means to claim that Christianity is true, if we have no idea what it would mean to know that Christianity is true? And, of course, in due time we need to secure that knowledge.

What is Knowledge?

What does it mean to know something? To say that we know something speaks about the way a truth is held by the knower. First, knowledge concerns truth. Belief in a falsehood is not knowledge, no matter how certain you are of its truth and no matter how diligently you work to discover and test its truth. There is no such thing as mistaken knowledge. Second, believing a truth is not sufficient for knowledge. You may guess correctly how many fingers I am extending behind my back; that is not knowledge. Guessing, tossing the dice, accidents, wishful thinking, and prejudices of all kinds, even if they hit on the truth do not count as knowledge. You need something else. The “something else” concerns the way you hold that truth to be true.

Contemporary philosophers differ on the exact thing needed to transform a true belief into knowledge. I am not going to take sides in this debate. We need either “justification” or “warrant” in addition to true belief. The justification criterion demands that we make a good faith effort to examine a belief and that we are able to give good reasons for accepting it as true. The warrant criterion focuses on the proper functioning of our belief-forming mechanisms. If our belief is true and it is formed under the right conditions and our belief-forming mechanisms are functioning properly, we possess knowledge.

Does knowledge come in different quantities and qualities? The answer is yes. There is a qualitative scale of knowledge, with perfect or absolute knowledge at the top and complete ignorance and falsehood at the bottom. And our vocabulary of knowledge reflects this scale. We speak of knowledge, faith, opinion, supposition, educated guesses, probability, certainty, likelihood, etc. Absolute or perfect knowledge is held by God alone. Everything that is, is either God or the effect of God’s action. And God knows his own being and action perfectly. God knows everything about everything. Human beings do not and cannot possess such knowledge. Does this mean that anything less than absolute knowledge is not knowledge at all, that human beings know nothing? This skeptical conclusion would imply that in relation to knowledge there is no qualitative difference between guesses, wishful thinking, prejudices, etc., and true, justified or warranted belief, no difference between science and superstition. I reject this view. I believe our efforts to discover truth are worth the struggle.

What is Faith?

What is Faith, and where does it fall on the scale of knowledge? A common misunderstand opposes faith to knowledge. It assumes that to hold a belief by faith rules out its status as knowledge, and that to know something rules out its being held by faith. This opposition would be correct only if knowledge had to be defined as absolute knowledge. To say a belief is held on faith specifies that the believer has only indirect access to the reality to which the belief refers. The act of faith holds a belief to be true on the word of a trusted person or authority that has direct access to the reality in question. For example, to possess faith in the resurrection of Christ is to hold this belief to be true on the word of Paul, Peter, the Twelve and other witnesses to the resurrection appearances. Can such a belief be justified or warranted. Sure, it can. And, if it is true and justified or warranted, it counts as knowledge. There is no opposition between faith and knowledge. However there is a difference. One can believe a falsehood to be true, but one cannot know a falsehood to be true or a truth to be false. Knowledge concerns how a true belief is held and faith concerns merely how a belief is held whether it is true or not.

The true counterpart to faith is intellectual or empirical intuition, not knowledge. Intuition has direct access to the reality it knows whereas faith has indirect access. We intuit logical and mathematical truths, and our senses make direct contact with the physical/empirical world. These intuitions produce beliefs. Logical deduction is slightly removed from intuition, and so its relation to reality is also indirect. It grasps the truth of a proposition through its logical relationships to other propositions that we hold to be true.

What is Opinion?

Like faith, the word opinion refers to an act of the knower and does not require the thing held as probably true to be really true. One forms an opinion by assessing the evidence for the truth of a proposition as weighty enough to make the proposition more likely true than not. In contrast, faith trusts the word of someone it believes really knows. In this sense, faith stands higher in the order of knowledge than opinion.

What is Certainty?

Certainty is a measure of the subjective purity with which a belief is held. A belief held with certainty by someone is beyond doubt to this person. They hold it with untroubled passion. However, certainty is not a measure of truth or knowledge. One can be certain that a falsehood is true and that a truth is false.

Are Christian Beliefs Knowledge, Opinion, Certainties, Or Faith?

As we proceed in our study, we will see that many of the central Christian beliefs are held by faith. However, as I argued above, their being held by faith does not rule out their also being knowledge, that is, true, justified or warranted belief. Some Christian beliefs are supported by intellectual and empirical intuition. Some require a chain of logical reasoning. Other beliefs fall into the category of opinion. And Christians experience different levels of certainty in their faith at different times.


“Is Christianity True?” Understanding the Question

This post begins year two of ifaqtheology. As I said last week, I plan to give this year to the theme of Christianity’s truth. I will take my time. I need to clear away some bad arguments, confused language, and rash and uninformed claims, some made by unbelievers and some by believers. In my view, most apologetic efforts in recent history have done as much damage as good and created as much doubt as confidence in the Christian faith. Bad arguments in favor of a good cause are worse than silence. Some arguments for Christianity overstate their case and understate the force of objections. Some try to prove too many things.

So, in the course of this year I will be critiquing certain types of apologetics as well as unfolding my own argument. I will attempt never to misrepresent our situation with respect to what we can know and what we cannot. I want to state fairly the case against belief as well as the case for belief. I want to be clear about the kind of evidence I am presenting: a claim to historical fact, a logical truth, a metaphysical truth, a practical truth, speculation, opinion, trust in the reliability of others, religious experience, and others. I want to be clear about what I am asking the reader to do in response: open their minds to alternative views, accept a conclusion as possible, preferable, probable, or true. At minimum, I want to clarify the choices we must make and what is at stake in each.

I do not plan on attempting to prove God exists or Christianity is true. Proof is a strong word that applies only to a limited number of activities, mostly in logic and mathematics. And even proofs in these areas begin with unproven axioms or assumptions. The “proved” conclusions in logic or mathematics are true only if the axioms or assumptions are really true. Logic and mathematics use clear and simple language and don’t challenge us morally, existentially or spiritually. Philosophical and theological approaches to religious questions deal with highly complex data and must use language that is far from clear and simple. And they deal with the most important, challenging and emotion-laden questions human beings ask.

What is at stake in the question, “Is Christianity true?” Already we have moved into uncertain terrain! Exactly what is this question asking? (1) Am I asking about our ability to show that Christianity is true? (2) Or, about our subjective certainty that it is true? (3) Or, am I asking about the difference for the meaning of human existence between the objective truth and objective falsehood of the claims of Christianity? Each of these interpretations is worth pursuing. In (1) perhaps you are a believer but you have limited ability to give reasons for that belief. Your inability may limit your capacity to engage with unbelievers on a rational level, but it need not dampen your faith or restrict your living of the Christian life.

In (2) your certainty is in question. How certain are you of the truth of Christianity? Your level of certainty may affect your joy and your willingness to live thoroughly as a Christian. But the question of certainty is not the same as the question of truth. Certainty is a subjective measure. People have been completely certain of things that turned out to be false. (3) This question gets at the central issue I want to address. The claims of Christianity are either true or false. If they are false, every hope, moral rule, comfort and belief that depends exclusively on their truth is also false. Likewise, if the claims of Christianity are true, every hope, way of life and belief that depends on them is also true. If you think that nothing of existential or moral consequence depends on the truth of Christianity, then you won’t be very interested in the question. It does not matter either way. But that view itself is contestable, and refuting it is a very important part of my argument.

But the question, “Is Christianity true?” cannot be limited to the particular claims Christianity makes about Jesus of Nazareth. It is true that if Jesus Christ is not the Son of God and Lord, and did not rise from the dead, Christianity is false. But Christianity also makes claims about God and the world. If there is no God, Christianity cannot be true. If there are millions of Gods, Christianity cannot be true. If God is not good, Christianity is false. If materialism is true, Christianity cannot be true. If the divine is completely unknowable, Christianity cannot be true. Hence in addressing the question about the truth of Christianity I plan on dealing with the most comprehensive issues involved in this question: Do we have reasons to think anything really exists other than matter? Does it make sense to believe in God? Where do we begin in moving from belief in God to full Christian faith?

Next week we will begin to clarify some concepts needed to think about the truth of Christianity. I find that many people have no clear understanding of such concepts as reality, truth, falsehood, fact, knowledge, opinion, fancy, subjective, objective, mythical, historical, and many others. We will think first about the qualifiers real and true.