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I may be an atheist. But at least I’m a biblical one.
According to the breed of Christian faith that I once held to, it is a dangerous thing to rely on personal experience. You see, all that stuff, feelings, emotions, observations witnessed via the five senses, even the logic used by our minds to interpret the world around us, all this stuff is inherently subjective. And therefore dangerous.
Truth-seekers are to instead rely on the objective. On irrefutable fact. That which cannot be held sway to the turbulent roller coaster of feeling, emotion, and personal experience. Evangelicals claim to find this in their Bible, the inerrant Word of God Himself, written right there in black ink on the pages situated before us. And when personal inklings or urges, encounters or observations create confusion, it is the Bible alone that stands firm, true, and clear. It alone stands as the source of truth. The pre-concluded conclusion.
The Word of God over that of mere men.
The Bible trumps personal experience every time.
But doesn’t the Bible itself validate the use of our five senses in order to assess truth? Isn’t it true that the epistle of First John begins by asserting its own credibility based on the use of natural sensory data?
You can read it for yourself if you’re interested: That “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you.”
The prologue of First John convinces readers that its teachings are divine truth because its author employed his own natural senses of hearing, eyesight, and physical touch in order to verify their legitimacy. And in so doing, the Bible seems to lend credibility to humanity’s natural senses as a means of acquiring and assessing divine truth.
The Bible could simply say, Believe this because I said so, period. Instead, it appeals to reason, personal experience, and the power of observation. Believe this, it says instead, because the person who wrote it learned these truths while employing his natural sense of hearing, seeing, and touching.
And isn’t it the Bible that praises the blind man of the Gospel of John for trusting in Jesus only to the degree as he had personally seen him? No less but also no more?
After all, it’s in John 9 where we find this very blind man held up as an incredible example of biblical faith. One to whom Jesus walked up and literally healed his physical eyes. The man then said: I don’t know if this guy Jesus is a god. I don’t even know if he himself is a sinner. All I know is that he healed my eyes and that now I can see. That’s it. Just a plain & simple, clear observation. But because of this plain & simple, clear observation, the Christian Bible holds him up as a man of great faith. Simply because he proclaimed what he had personally experienced of God. Nothing more and nothing less than what his own sensory data could attest to.
In so doing, does the Bible not validate the use of human observation in order to make conclusions regarding the divine? Does it not legitimize the brain’s ability to reason? And does it not affirm the discipline of trusting in only what can be personally verified?
Indeed, it would seem so.
In fact, isn’t it the Bible that validates the use of human memory when it commands that followers erect memorial stones?
Take, for instance, the twelve stones Israel mounted after crossing the Jordan River in Joshua 4. These were put in place “so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, that you may fear the LORD your God forever.” It was to help provide future generations with secondhand experience of God’s work, to allow them to experience his activity through the personal encounters of others. This testimony is crucial because God cannot expect people to fear and follow him without the provision of experiences which credibly support it. So they were commanded to look around at things like statues and to allow that their mental understanding of God be shaped by its impact.
Does this not confirm the mind as something to be relied upon, something dependable in its ability to connect artistic cues in the world with historical events and to then interpret those cues theologically?
Does this not affirm the practice of sojourning this life with eyes open to see what all the elements, colors, and textures of this earthen landscape have to teach us about God? And about all the rest of this natural existence?
And is it not true that the Bible actually commands its readers to lift their eyes off the printed page and to look beyond scripture to observe the world around them?
Indeed, it does. Even the Bible says, Put down the Bible and look at these twelve stones. Look at this sculpture, this temple, the sky, the landscape, your spouse, your children, your family. Look at the poor and the bereaved. Look at the mighty cedar and the soaring eagle. And let them teach you something about God. Let them teach you divine truth.
Does not even Hebrews 11, with its famous declaration that faith is the “conviction of things not seen,” go on to qualify this as an exhortation to rely on previous experience as we form expectations of God’s future actions?
True, in the long line of examples that follow, Hebrews 11 assumes that believers have encountered troves of positive and constructive encounters with God and therefore predicts a glorious and hopeful tomorrow for its readers, should they only allow their memories to provide them endurance to push through temporary affliction with a confident expectation for God’s future work. But notice the credence it gives for allowing, even encouraging, readers to draw on previous experience in order to define future expectations when it comes to interactions with God.
Faith is the “conviction of things not seen” because it takes a stance on what the future holds. But that stance on the future is entirely based on what has been seen in the past. It is grounded on one’s previous experience with God, that which has been seen firsthand. And believers are then called to draw on the secondhand testimony of others as a support system to it.
But to simply believe whatever one wants without the support of an external world would be to embrace a blind faith. And so far as I’ve ever seen, the Bible never teaches blind faith. It teaches a grounded faith. One that looks around and forms logical conclusions concerning matters of the divine.
Whether the Bible’s conclusions differ from mine is beside the point. It is irrelevant. What is relevant is that it validates my mental capacity to do so. Indeed, it commands that I do so.
“The heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim the work of his hands,” so we read at the start of the nineteenth psalm. Look to the world around us and allow it to teach, so we are instructed.
But what happens when the same observational experiences that the Bible itself praises begin to sound a lot like science? And what if that world around us, which the Bible itself teaches us to sit before as we study and ponder, also begins to proclaim the wonders of natural selection?
And what if, in the use of sensory observation and personal experience, we begin to find a Bible prescribing methods that undermine itself? What if keeping faith in the Bible suddenly requires we ignore its own injunctions? What if we begin to discover that the Bible’s own commands lead us to realize its own fallibility?
What if, in lifting our eyes from the printed page, we see no earthly reason to believe in the existence of the god of which it speaks?
And what if, after two years of praying every hour on the hour, begging this god to restore your faith in his existence, what if your prayers come up repeatedly empty and unanswered? What if one’s faith, rather than growing supernaturally strengthened through an honest beseeching of One True God, becomes continually broken beyond recognition?
What set of sensory data does this kind of experience support?
And what if, just what if, in taking every biblical command seriously and in trusting God’s guidance through them all, one actually becomes an atheist in the process?
Well, in such cases, if I suppose such things are possible, then I suppose that someone would look an awful lot like me.
“I once was blind but now I see.” The Bible taught me that.