Should We Trust Our Born Again Experiences (And Other Spiritual Epiphanies)?

As I see it, there are two ways we arrive at conclusions about the world, and act on them:

  1. we can think critically (which entails some attempt at objectivity, logic, investigation, appeals to evidence, etc); or
  2. we can think associatively (which entails paying subjective attention to dream, memory, metaphor, images of epiphany or horror, narrative, rhetoric, sense-data, etc).

Evangelical philosopher William Lane Craig thinks that we can treat at least some forms of associative thinking as properly basic. 

In other words, even though associative thinking is pre-rational, intuitive, and not presented to our consciousness as formal argumentation, Craig thinks that we can still regard it—again, at least in some instances—as knowledge; as something we are warranted in saying that we know.

What we recall in memory is one example. A born again conversion as a real encounter with a personal God is another.

But I’m not terribly certain that Craig is right about this.

Read, for example, these lines from the poet James Merrill, and experience what happens to you in the reading: 

Light entered the olive / and was oil.

Isn’t that beautiful? The lines contain associations that are pleasing and seemingly revelatory about the ontological mystery of existence. We don’t arrive at our experience of them by formal argument, but they have the power to move us just the same.

Why?

Because our subconscious is doing a lot of the work for us. In thinking about light, and how it “entered the olive / and was oil”, the pleasure derives from associations we’re, at least at first, barely conscious of (or not at all). Some of them might be of the following:

  • Tuscany;
  • the metaphorical light of consciousness;
  • the first chapter of Genesis (let there be light);
  • intercourse;
  • holy oil;
  • nurturance;
  • how the soul takes on a body.

These associations may be firing in our brains all at once, or in quick alternation. We experience them as a gestalt (holistic) revelatory pleasure of poetic words. We might feel as if we were visited somehow by the god of poetry, and say in response to the god’s words:

How beautiful and true!

In other words, we may sound a bit like the poet, John Keats, who wrote at the end of his “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty; that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.

Should we trust such experiences as real knowledge about the world (and ourselves) when we have them? I would say—depending on how much time pressure we’re under—yes.

But not unironically.

Why?

Because we simply cannot take our associative and subjective experiences to be truth and knowledge for long. To be an adult is always to be in a process of moving from some degree of innocence to experience.

We can put off this movement of innocence to experience for a time, but ultimately we have to pause and ask objective critical thinking questions about our experiences. This entails questions like these:

  • Does my experience fit my background knowledge?
  • Do I have a better theory for my experience than the one I first used to explain my associative “revelations”?

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a good example. He sees the ghost of his father in the first part of the play, treats it as knowledge, but, for the rest of the play, wrestles with what he really saw (and what it should mean to him). He’s a skeptic. There’s no escaping adult irony for him. To be or not to be; to do or not to do; to think or not to think; to act or not to act; to believe or not to believe: these are the dilemmas of the overthinker, and Hamlet (like any post-Gutenburg literate and sensitive adult) is compelled to ask them.

The contrast with Hamlet is Noah in the Bible. God says build an ark, he builds an ark. No questions asked. He’s not ironic; he lacks humor; he doesn’t doubt; he doesn’t question. He just takes his revelatory experience at face value. 

In short, he treats his experience of God as William Lane Craig recommends, as “properly basic.”

A better biblical model for contemporary religious believers is Abraham (who is more Hamlet-like). God says he is going to destroy Sodom and Abraham at least argues and negotiates with God about the matter. God says sacrifice his son, and Abraham shows some anguish and irony in his response. He’s not that much better than Noah, I concede, but he at least brings some level of irony and self-awareness to his encounters with God.

Even Ronald Reagan was a Hamlet, who famously advised the following:

Trust, but verify.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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