Further reflecting on the recent “rash” of celebrity deconversions in the Evangelical church, I now consider what kinds of personal experiences, in contrast to intellectual habits, may increase epistemic resiliency with regard to Christian faith. In other words, apart from intellectual preparedness, will some people have a greater capacity to overcome doubt, both emotional and intellectual, due to particular kinds of experiences they have had?
I think there are people who have a greater capacity to endure through doubt, and I believe there are three kinds of personal experiences that strengthen the epistemic resiliency of the Christ follower.
Profound Religious Conversion Experiences
Many adult believers who fall away from faith often relate some subjective feeling or experience of a personal encounter of Jesus they had, either as a youth, or teenager, which supplemented their belief that Christianity was true. This, along with community and a sense of purpose, provided the foundation for their adult faith. Thus, when they deconvert after being presented with counter-evidence they had not previously seen, they find themselves torn between this subjective, albeit deep, feeling of Jesus being real, and this apparently more objective and rational data that undermines the Jesus story.
However, there are also cases of converts who personally attest to an intense visual or audible appearance of Jesus, and this not in their youth, or still cognitively malleable teenage years, but as fully developed, mature adults. Some of these adult conversions also take place apart from the right kind of community (think current trends in Muslim conversions), and when the person already has a sense of purpose in their life. Moreover, many such cases of dramatic religious experience, whether occurring during an actual church service (as was my case), or in some other more private context, are reported by adult converts as being far more real than the daily reality that surrounds them.
In this sense, there seems to be a qualitative difference among kinds of religious experiences. Some seem generated in, or under, the “right” kinds of conditions: a youthful church member who has a feeling of Jesus during a Christian worship service, youth camp, or summer retreat. But others are not, they are had by non-church members, living adult lives already full of meaning and purpose, yet where there is also some accompanying visible or audible quality to their experience of Jesus. Of course, there are more types of religious experiences than just these, and various combinations of the qualities of such experiences could be considered. However, if we take adult conversions which occur through profound religious experience, under non-optimal conditions as genuine, it seems that we can identify at least one kind of religious experience that may lend to epistemic resiliency when counter-evidence to Christian truth claims is presented later in one’s life.
My conversion, for example, was at 34 years old. I was at the top of my game physically, and mentally, having just qualified for the Army special forces “Q-course” a few months prior. My motivation for going into my first ever Evangelical church the day of my conversion was not any particular desire to seek out and find God, but the girl who had asked me to go with her. After all, I already had my own personal, and very syncretistic beliefs about deity, and girls just interested me more than Jesus. However, the experience I had was so real, and also so altering when it came to my beliefs and behaviors, that it is difficult now, as a 44 year old, to not see this experience as a significant piece of evidence for the veracity of the Christian faith. Of course examples like mine can be abundantly multiplied, and are certainly not limited to white, male, heterosexual Westerners like myself.
Therefore, it seems that profound, religious experiences with visual or audible content that occur under sub-optimal conditions (e.g. not in an explicitly Christian environment, not being sought out directly, etc.) can increase epistemic resiliency in the journey of faith.
Witnessing or Interacting with the Demonic, or Extraordinary Evil
Another kind of experience that may lend to epistemic resiliency in the journey of Christian faith, is prior encounters with the spiritual realm. Many, even skeptics, attest to observing or encountering things that are so bizarre, as well as extraordinarily real, that they cannot be explained away as mere psychological phenomena. Interactions with demonic agents, or experiences of horrendous evils (genocide, torture, etc.), can open one up to something that can only be described as “non-physical,” yet entirely actual.
People who have converted to Christianity out of the occult are often very aware of this, and because of their many interactions with a realm beyond the natural one, they too have a certain epistemic resiliency that those who have not had these kinds of experiences do not. For when the abstract claims about supernatural agencies (like the many references to demonic possession in the New Testament) become real, concrete experiences, such experiences are rarely forgotten, remaining as vivid memories, and cognitive reminders, that, at a minimum, the Bible is right about the supernatural world.
My own account of this involves two experiences with the demonic. One particularly malevolent one took place in a small apartment in a densely populated part of Munich, Germany, during a “sting” operation against child sex trafficking in which I participated (on the side of the investigative journalists, of course, not the perpetrators). The other, far too personal to relate in a blog post, had to do with someone I was involved with, who had dabbled with various forms of religious Yoga, and practiced things like astral projection.
One of my best friends, however, who converted to Christianity out of native American shamanism, relates a harrowing account of what it is like to live “on the other side.” Here is his story, one that will not leave you skeptical about the reality of the spiritual realm: http://www.readphoenixroad.com/
Thus, encounters with spiritual forces, especially demonic agents, or horrible moral evil, can also serve to bolster fidelity to some core claims of Christianity, in spite of other epistemic challenges. That the spiritual is real, and that it seems to be fundamentally dualistic, i.e. there is real evil and real good, increases our confidence in the biblical worldview.
Finally, a third kind of experience that may provide greater epistemic resiliency is one’s personal struggle with, or long-term involvement in gross immorality. What I mean by gross immorality here is those folks who have committed acts like murder, rape, unjust war, and torture; or who have engaged in sexual perversion over extended periods of time, or egregious forms of greedy behavior, fraud, or even political corruption, e.g. Chuck Colson.
People who have sinned in dramatic fashion, or pursued sensual pleasures or egotistical behaviors all the way to their fullest extent, often come to know experientially the total bankruptcy of what the world has to offer. Thus, upon conversion, they tend to more fully appreciate Peter’s words in John 6:68-69 when doubt comes to them later in life, “Lord, who will we go to? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that You are the Holy One of God!”
People who have been forgiven much, love much. And it is often the case that even if they come across challenges to their Christian faith, they nevertheless have had the experience that there really is nothing else out there to turn toward when the existential chips are down. There is a quality of Goodness and Beauty about Christ, and Christianity, that compels them to see beyond the intellectual challenges to some of its truth claims, and thereby remain steadfast in their faith.
Conversely, not everyone who is an adult Christian has strayed into deep sin, or egregious immorality. Normally, this is a good thing too! But, those Christians who, by and large, have lived a morally decent life, who have not drunk deeply from the well of iniquity, simply have not had the personal experience of moral evil against which they can contrast their current experience of a decent, Christian lifestyle. The “not knowing what it is like,” whether it be that of a bat (Thomas Nagel reference), or of a mafia boss (Michael Franzese), of serious moral depravity, gives the average Christian a sense of not actually being as wicked or depraved as the Bible seems to suggest. And that is in spite of professing it every Sunday with their mouth, or when trying to witness to a skeptic.
True, many adult deconverts will not walk away from their Christian morality, at least in the basics, and certainly not at first. But that is mainly due to the fact that most of their inner life has been shaped by years of Christian moral formation, and even good habits can be hard to break.
Thus, long-term involvement in gross immorality and sin can also act as one more factor in the epistemic resiliency of the born-again believer. Skeptics may make their claims against some propositional truths of Christianity, but the Goodness and Beauty of the faith is powerful to those who have engaged in evil, and know ugliness from the inside.
Conclusion: Personal Experiences can Increase Epistemic Resiliency, but They Cannot Be Actively Pursued
Of course, the main problem for epistemic resiliency based on personal experience, is that none of the kinds of experiences I related here can, or should, be actively pursued. They tend to just happen to the person. As such, people who just happen to have had these kinds of experiences will likely have a greater resiliency in their faith journeys than those who have not. But, none of these experiences can be intentionally sought out by a Christian believer! By their nature they are things that either occur unexpectedly, i.e. the profound religious experience, or that either happen prior to one becoming a Christian, i.e. practice of the occult, or that lead one to become a Christian, gross immorality.
Still, it seems to be the case that believers who have been through experiences like these, will often have an easier time of persevering to the end, at least in their beliefs, if not their practices.
Photo By The King of Mars – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78156864