Personal Experience

We are starting a discussion on the reasons why we believe in Christianity.  First we will discuss is the role our personal experience plays in our beliefs.

There is something about personal experience that touches our soul in ways other types of knowledge cannot.  The movie “Good Will Hunting” illustrates this by noting we could read every book on art but that would not tell us what it is like to experience the sights and smells of the Sistine Chapel.  We could read every book on war and talk to many war veterans but if we never held our wounded best friend’s head in our arms and watched him gasp his last breath looking to us for help, could we really understand war?  We could read all the books on love but if we had never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable, known someone who could level us with her eyes, felt she could rescue us from the depths of hell, could we really understand love?  Could we, by reading Oliver Twist, know what others have experienced as an orphan? [1]

A few years ago, my wife and I received the most terrifying Christmas gift we had ever received—gift certificates to go sky diving.  Before we went, we talked to other people who sky dived.  We watched videos to see what it would be like.  We read articles and books on the subject.  We imagined what it would be like to jump out of an airplane.  But until we actually jumped out of that airplane, we did not truly know what it was like to sky dive.  Personal experience teaches us more than reading a library of books or listening to the experiences of all of our friends.

Since personal experiences have such an influence on us, can we use them as proof of the validity of Christianity?  There are many people who claim that becoming a Christian made major positive changes in their lives.  Surely such experiences demonstrate what Christianity teaches is true.  However, there are several problems with doing so.

The first problem is that it is our natural inclination to accept as true what we experience within our lifetime.  The ability to doubt, to raise questions about the validity of our life experiences is much more difficult.  Daniel T. Gilbert states:

Much recent research converges on a single point—people are credulous creatures who find it very easy to believe and very difficult to doubt. . .We assume beliefs are under conscious control at all times.  But beliefs can be created merely by passively accepting information without attempting to analyze it. [2]

The same article quotes several philosophers as saying the same.

Aristotle said the ability to doubt is rare, emerging only among cultivated, educated persons. . .Descartes said. . .the mind effortlessly and automatically takes in new ideas, which remain in limbo until verified or rejected by conscious, rational analysis. . .Spinoza argued that to comprehend an idea, a person must simultaneously accept it as true.

The fact that we are predisposed to believe should not be surprising.  If we do not believe what our senses tell us, how can we function in a material world in which we must depend upon our senses?  We do not have the time to sit down and analyze each and every bit of information that strikes our senses.  We can not analyze each sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch that impacts our senses each second, minute, hour, or day.  It would be impossible and so we simply accept (believe) what our senses tell us.  Additionally, we can not question everything we hear or read in one given day.  We could spend the rest of our life verifying the information we gained in a single day.  A better solution is to accept, or at least provisionally accept, the information we accumulate each day.  However, we must also recognize that much of the information we accumulate has the distinct possibility of being in error.  Therefore, utilizing such information to make major changes in our lives requires careful consideration, not just an acceptance of the experiences life has thrown at us.

A second problem with using our personal experiences to prove the validity of Christianity is that if we utilize them to prove Christianity, then Christianity has no validity over any other religion or philosophy.  Someone else’s experiences might convince them to become a Muslim, a Buddhist, or an atheist.  How could a Christian counter such an argument?  A Christian cannot use their experiences as an argument and deny its use to others.

Next week we will continue this discussion of the role personal experience plays in what we believe.


[1]   Gus Van Sant,  Director. Good Will Hunting.  With Robin Williams, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Minnie Driver.  Miramax Films, 1997.

[2]   B. Bower, “True Believers”, Science News, Vol. 139 (January 5, 1991), p. 14.

This entry was posted in Reasons. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *