Feelings,  Francis Spufford,  John Hick,  Paul Moser,  Religious Experience

More Than a Feeling

Francis Spufford, in a metaphor laden piece for the Guardian, defends his Christian faith against atheism on the basis of his feelings: “I assent to ideas because I have feelings; I don’t have feelings because I’ve assented to the ideas.” Spufford claims that no one can know if there is a god or not; God “isn’t a knowable item.” And so all he can go by is his feel of God.

One might wonder what Spufford means by “feel.” Surely “feeling” means a sensation. And a sensation is how we know that we have stepped on a pin, but we don’t say that a pin is unknowable. What kind of feeling does he mean? It seems Spufford is refering to an emotional feeling comparable, he says, to the feelings aroused by listening to Mozart. Mercy, Spufford says, is not propositionally obtained; it is felt rather as if it is aroused by music.

I have sympathy for Spufford’s defense. Sometimes, when defending oneself from an atheist onslaught, one wants desperately to tell the athiest about the Glory of God, about being on one’s knees and feeling the Holy Spirit bubble up inside oneself, the power of the Spirit to convict of sin, the amazing release of forgiveness. But the attack of the atheist isn’t often an attack on religious experience; it is an attack on one’s reasons for belief. And, for the atheist, that is a different thing to having a feeling.

I am also not completely on board with much of what Spufford assumes. First, accounting for feelings can be part of a defense, but it is not the sole grounds for belief. “I feel, therefore I believe” is not a summary of a Christian epistemology. Second, in part, Spufford is correct in saying that God is not the kind of thing that is knowable. If left to autonomous human reason, God is entirely unknowable. But Spufford’s knowledge of God requires that God reveal himself. How Spufford knows God is by God having revealed himself to him.

Third, it shouldn’t be difficult to notice that answering the atheist by pointing to one’s experience is relevant only in so far as it answers the atheist’s objection. It is a perfectly fine thing to point to one’s experience as evidence for one’s belief, but as one explains it to the atheist the use of reason and observation is required. In other words, experience is not in opposition to reason; it is taken up as part of a reasonable defence of one’s faith – as a reason.

Fourth, although citing one’s feelings on the matter might be powerful in some circumstances, there is an obvious response the atheist can make. If one holds to naturalism it may appear that Spufford’s religious experience has a naturalistic explanation – sensation, chemical reactions, environmental factors etc. It is open to the atheist to say that the Christian has called his sense of transcendence “God” but that in no way means that God exists. This, a least, was Freud’s proposal.

It is possible that Spufford is saying that while he knows God in a certain way–through his feelings–he cannot show God to someone who does not believe God exists precisely because Spufford cannot provide an atheist with identical feelings to his own. Perhaps Spufford means to point out that his inability to satisfy the atheists demand in no way diminish his own belief, even if they are entirely inexpressible, merely because the belief itself cannot cross from one person to another. In that case, Spufford’s aim is not persuasion, only internal reassurance in the face of a challenge, an internal defense of his claim to know God.

Can any religious experience, of the kind Spufford is talking about, act as a reason for an atheist to change his mind about the existence of God? Paul Moser, in his book, The Evidence for God, suggests that an argument can be made in terms of observable evidence of a transformed life. If God is who we claim him to be–loving and capable of transforming human life–we would expect humans to experience God’s love and transformation. We do see a human experiencing God’s love and transformation. Therefore, God possibly exists. The key is Moser’s contention that one only needs to point to a particular human experience to make one’s point. In other words, Spufford’s argument could be construed evidentially. He, Spufford, in all his feelings of God, provides an example of one who, possibly, has felt God in a way that assures him of God’s love.

Another way to think about religious experience is as intelligible experience. In other words, instead of asking for some kind of cause of experience, what makes or causes one feel a certain way, one might ask what the necessary conditions might be for the intelligibility of such experiences – what, metaphysically, must be the case in order for experiences of the religious sort to make any sense at all? John Hick suggested that all religious experience is of one existent “real,” not God in any monotheistic sense, but an explanation for so many relisgious experiences of so many kinds of deity. Although Hick’s suggestion only requires the concept of the real and not really the existence of the real, his form of argument is headed in an interesting direction.

What Hick suggests is that in order to explain religious experience, make sense of it, one needs to explore what might be the necessary condition for such an experience. What might be interesting is to expand the question–something Hick does not do–and ask what might be the necessary condition for the intelligibility of any human experience. This was Kant’s central question (from whom Hick draws heavily). What Spufford might have argued is that human experience, feelings and all, makes sense if there is a God. This is not difficult to do positively despite the atheist protest. One can tell the story of the Bible and show how this explains our experience – the Christian story explains truth, beauty and goodness very well even if one finds the truth of the story itself implausible. It is perfectly reasonable, given the truth of the Christian story, to expect human beings to have profound emotional experiences of the Divine and of Mozart and to be able to understand them as such. 

What Spufford could then suggest negatively is that the atheist story is lacking in this area. The atheist story, while always explaining one thing at a time very capably, does not make sense of human experience when looked at in total. The atheist might explain religious experience in naturalistic terms, but human experience does not stop there. What explains moral experience? The atheist has a frantically hard time supporting his ethical ideas with his metaphysic. Likewise, what accounts for the atheist insistence that the Christian denounce his faith? What possible reason does the atheist think that a Christian should cease believing what he does? It is not as if it matters to anyone. There is no one to be ultimately accountable to for one’s beliefs. And if, as the atheist might suggest, the Christian is in error in his belief, how on earth can he make this observation matter to anyone on earth? Does the atheist think it is morally wrong to believe something that is untrue? If the atheist is suggesting that Spufford and his like, ought to forget their feelings and look elsewhere, on what grounds ought they to concede that they are breaking a moral law? The Christian is quite within his rights to inquire as to how the atheist story arrives at anything like truth. 

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.