Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Christian view of Conviction

I want to enumerate my understanding of the Biblical Christian view of conviction- how the Bible says we are supposed to arrive at the doorstep of Jesus.  The sources I use for this are many- "Reasonable Christianity" by William Lane Craig, Mere Christianity, my own knowledge from my history with Christianity, and of course the Bible itself.

Christianity isn't scientific, and it's not supposed to be.  God is by definition supernatural, and the supernatural cannot be measured and quantified in a repeatable way by the natural.  If he could, he would not be God, but gravity, or magnetism, or some other as of yet unnamed force of nature.  Moreover, science allows for no act of will by the natural forces, but rather a deterministic application of rules.  And that is not God.  Boxing God in in this way is a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between God and existence.

To look for God by scientific means is therefore nonsensical.  How, then, are we to look for God?  I am reminded of the classic xkcd comic, "my normal approach is useless here".

I cannot offer an answer to the previous question, for I am not convinced one way or the other myself.  Is it even rational to look for answers in a non-rational framework?  Or perhaps non-rational is a poor choice of words.  Is it rational to look for truth in a framework in which nothing is objectively verifiable?  Suppose you do find truth in such a way- or at least the conviction of truth.  But that's just it, isn't it?  How do you differentiate truth from the conviction of truth if its not objectively verifiable?  For certainly people of all faiths have obtained the conviction of truth, despite the mutual exclusivity of each faith.  It seems to me that we are left at the whim of the human psyche.  Is there any amount of subjective conviction of the soul that is enough to be sure?  But I leave this question for another time.  For now, I will equate finding religious truth with finding religious conviction.

The Biblical understanding of how we reach this truth is that the unbeliever feels the conviction of the Holy Spirit.  In John 6:44, Jesus says “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him”.  As William Craig puts it, “The Holy Spirit... convicts the unbeliever of his own sin, of God's righteousness, and of his condemnation before God. The unbeliever so convicted can therefore be said to know such truths as 'God Exists', 'I am guilty before God', and so forth”.  This is either a quite ingenious lie, or a frustrating truth.  For those of us who do not feel such a conviction, the Believer is perfectly justified in saying "The Father has not drawn you in (yet)".

Mostly though, when you press Christians on this, they will admit their suspicion that you are in fact convicted in such a way, and are simply choosing to ignore it.  This sentiment is echoed by Craig when he says "Therefore, when a person refuses to come to Christ it is never just because of lack of evidence or because of intellectual difficulties: at root, he refuses to come because he willingly ignores and rejects the drawing of God's Spirit on his heart. No one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments; he fails to become a Christian because he loves darkness rather than light and wants nothing to do with God."  I think it would be disingenuous for me to respond to this at the moment, as I'm trying to give a voice to both sides of the argument, and that statement frankly makes me very angry.  So in response, I will simply quote what I wrote in the margin of my copy of Reasonable Faith: "Wow... quite a claim.".  I suppose it's not so different from the Atheist who thinks that all Christians share his doubts and simply refuse to acknowledge them.

For the believer, the Bible teaches the Holy Spirit is a constant and present companion.  Experiencing the Holy spirit is for the Christian as real and tangible as any other experience in life.  Craig says "the experience of the Holy Spirit is veridical and unmistakable (though not necessarily irresistible or indubitable) for him who has it”.  And again, "How then does the believer known that Christianity is true? He knows because of the self-authenticating witness of God's Spirit who lives within him”

The self-authenticating nature of both the Holy Spirit and the Bible is an important claim of Christianity.  The claim is that both the Holy Spirit and the Bible are knowable as truth based on the strength of their character.  That is, someone who has experienced the true Holy Spirit simply cannot deny its reality, just as one who has read and experienced the Bible with a truly open mind cannot deny that it is the word of God.  I have not yet seen this second claim, that the Bible is a self-authenticating work, anywhere but in Craig's theology, though I will look for it as I read through the Bible.

As you can likely guess, I have two points of contention here.  The first is that I did not experience the self-authenticating nature of the Holy Spirit and the Bible when I was a Christian.  That is not quite fair; there were several cases when I was a Christian that I would no doubt have claimed to have these experiences, and been quite well justified in claiming them, for I truly did believe them.  And therein lies the problem- if we depend on self-authentication, we depend on belief rather than truth, on conviction instead of substance.  A Christian could quite rightly, by their worldview, claim that I was correct in my earlier conviction of the truth of Christianity, and have simply resisted the Holy Spirits conviction for the last three years.  But that is a bit like the movie Inception- if this is a dream within a dream within a dream, how am I to know which is the outermost reality?  How many reversals of belief are proper to undergo before finally being convinced that the current reality I live in is the real one?  Moreover- and this is paramount for me- how am I to know this won't happen again?  I was once in this exact same position, with the exact same evidence, but on the other side of the fence.  And I turned.  I changed.  I was unconvinced of the veracity of the Christian Doctrine.  Without something new, something more, how can I claim that my belief is not simply driven by my current (and no doubt fleeting) desire to believe?

My second point of contention is that I do not feel particularly convicted right now.  I feel rather like a good, moral person who occasionally makes mistakes.  I cannot for the life of me see how that makes me "guilty before God" to such an extent that I am deserving of eternal torment in Hell.  I understand it from a doctrinal perspective, but it simply does not ring true to me.

I must confess here that as much as I question the first point, that of Christianity's self-authenticating nature, it is the only thing I can imagine bringing me back into the Christian fold.  I suspect that, given an internal, non-verifiable conviction of sufficient strength, I would indeed be forced to accept Christianity as true.  The question remains, then, if that inward conviction would be stable and lasting, or short-lived and fleeting.   I've been to too many Christian summer camps and seen too many alter calls to think conviction above the slow, numb fade of time.

I leave this as an open question that I will tackle in my next post- probably with lackluster and unsatisfying results: even if you are convicted by the Holy Spirit of the truth of Christianity, how are you to know that conviction is true?  Particularly for someone like me, who has seen that conviction disappear in the past? (Whether that disappearance happened through a lack of evidence or through a willful act of disobedience to the Spirit, it matters less than you would think)


  1. Jake, I'm really enjoying reading your blog and I think you are quite brave to put your life like this on a pedastal for all to see. I found myself intrigued at your latest post and I just had to read the rest! Thank you for your thoughts and I am looking forward to reading your next post. If I can make a request, I would appreciate your thoughts on spirituality or the idea of a spiritual realm especially in relation to the purpose of existence. Thanks again, Jake!

    1. Woo, first comment! ;)

      Yes, I definitely intend to talk about purpose, and the consequences if we have none. I think there's a great deal to be said on both sides of the argument- purpose can be seen either as one of the prime offerings of Christianity, or as the great placebo of religion, depending on your point of view.

      Thanks for the comments!

  2. Thanks for pointing me to this post, sorry I missed it. I've been trying to read all your past writings (you've been very prolific for just three months), but I hadn't read this yet. While I respect William Lane Craig as a great thinker and debater, as a Catholic, I still have problems with some of his theology. Here is a section on atheism from the Catechism that I think refutes his assertion, from a Catholic point of view, that the non-believer is always a lover of darkness.

    Section 2125
    Since it rejects or denies the existence of god, atheism is a sin against the virtue of religion. The immutability of this offense can be significantly diminished in virtue of the intentions and the circumstances. "Believers can have more than a little to do with the rise of atheism. To the extent that they are careless about their instruction in the faith or present its teaching falsely or even fail in the religious, moral, or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than to reveal the true nature of God and of religion".

    How can someone love darkness and seek the truth? I will attempt to address self-authenticating faith in another post.

    I would like to discuss the self-authentication of the bible, but perhaps after we have finished our discourse on how a believer comes to believe. Let's just say for now that I don't agree with it and I think the bible itself refutes that idea.

  3. Hi Jake! I found your blog a little late, but I'm here starting at the beginning and planning to read through your blog. I am similar to you in that I grew up in Christianity and was very committed to my faith above all and now am wondering if I want it to have any place in my life at all.
    The weird thing about me is that I did have a couple of real interactions with the "holy spirit" while attending a spirit-filled prayer group that was not connected with any church. (I was doing this in rebellion because I was raised in a church that didn't believe that stuff happened anymore. Only in the early church). Eventually it was these experiences that led me away from Christianity. Weird, right? These made my faith whole and real for the first time for just a little while. Then I found out that people of other religions have the exact same experiences that I did. Which means what I experienced was a trick of the brain somehow or that "the holy spirit" is larger than Christianity and therefore nullifies Christianity's claim as the only way. Also I still equated "the holy spirit" with God the Father because I believed in the Trinity, but God didn't show up when I needed him the most. Like really badly needed Him. So...if God exists he's nothing like a father. Then "the holy spirit" stopped showing up and I got really depressed because it's kinda like a drug. Then I decided I didn't care anymore and my life right now is more important than any god that is so freakin' impossible to please. Then I was free, and happy, and I could ask any question I wanted. So I'm asking them all. At the moment I'm officially one of the "Nones" and I like it. =)

    P.S. I put "holy spirit" in quotes because it's the only word I have for what happened to me, but I don't really mean the Christian Holy Spirit, I mean "whatever it is that happened to me."

    1. Hi Lara,

      I'm also officially one of the "Nones" and liking it :)

      There's a (supposedly good) book (which lives on my bookshelf but I haven't yet found the time to read) called When God Talks Back that talks about socially and psychologically induced spiritual experiences- might be interesting if you've gone through a similar experience yourself, or if you're looking for more information on the topic.

      Anyway, this is just a quick note to say that I've been meaning to reply to a few of your comments and haven't been able to find the time in the last few days- hopefully one of these days soon!

      Good luck in your "spiritual journey" (whatever that means), and let me know if you have any questions or want to pick any fights with any of the things I've written :)