[These are the notes of a sermon I preached at Holy Trinity, Norwich, in June 2007. It was one in a short series in which we sought to address some of the issues raised by Prof Richard Dawkins in his well-known book, The God Delusion. One or two people nearly fell off their seats when they heard what I had to say in the first 2 or 3 paragraphs. But I was just teasing, as you will see:-]
Manx Shearwater! Manx Shearwater!!
The two ornithologists almost fell off their seats with laughter. They were sitting in a pub in Oxford, and they had just been told the story of a young man – well-educated, level-headed, and deeply religious – who had been camping up in the Scottish Isles. He had been awoken in the middle of the night by a terrifyingly diabolical noise. It was the voice of the Devil – Satan himself – of that there could be no doubt. In fact, the experience was so powerful that it was one of the factors that led him eventually into the ordained Christian ministry. But the two ornithologists were sure they knew the real owner of that fearful voice. A species of puffin called the Manx Shearwater. They were well aware that the shrieks and cackles of this bird have earned it the nickname, ‘Devil Bird.’
Many religious people claim to have seen or heard the devil, or an angel, or God, or Christ. But they’re fooling themselves. Some of these experiences are clearly symptoms of a seriously deranged mind. Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, distinctly heard the voice of Jesus telling him to kill women. Most of the experiences, however, are not signs of mental illness. They are merely illusions. The human brain, you see, runs excellent simulation software. When presented with an eerie sound, a susceptible person might easily mistake it for voice of God, or of the devil. When faced with an unusual pattern of light the brain can readily be tricked into thinking it has seen a ghost, or an angel, or the virgin Mary, or Christ himself. On September 11, 2001, a number of pious people thought they saw the face of Satan in the smoke rising from the Twin Towers.
We can be quite sure that alleged supernatural voices and visions do not provide us with any evidence at all for believing that ghosts, or angels, or demons, actually exist. And people who appeal to such experiences to justify their belief in God are either crazy, or confused, or just plain gullible.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is a summary what Prof Richard Dawkins has to say about the so-called ‘argument from experience’. Prof Dawkins, you may recall, is a distinguished Oxford scientist who has gained notoriety for his increasingly strident atheistic views. His book, ‘The God Delusion’ has become widely read and referred to in recent months. And so it has seemed to us that it might be helpful to explore some of the issues and arguments set forth in that book. Supposing a friend of yours has heard of Dawkins’ opinions on this question of religious experience. What would be your response? What might a Christian reply be to someone who thinks that all religious experience is illusory?
I would like to try to encourage you in your thinking and in your Christian witness. In doing so, I’m not going to attempt an exposition of any particular Bible passage. I will, however, be referring to a number of different scriptures as we consider together this question of our Christian experience of God and whether we have been deluded by it.
I want to deal with two things.
1. Firstly, I want to begin by affirming what Prof Dawkins denies. He denies that there is any reality behind visions and miracles and similar manifestations of God’s presence. Now, I do not doubt for a moment that our senses can sometimes deceive us, or that wishful thinking can sometimes make people believe in something that does not really exist. But I am by no means convinced that all the evidence can be dismissed so easily.
Consider for a moment the testimony of Scripture in, say, the Gospel of Luke. Highly qualified New Testament scholars, such as the late Prof F.F Bruce, have demonstrated that in every instance where Luke’s historical accuracy can be checked, he has been found to be correct. This suggests that Luke’s reporting is also reliable in those instances where we do not have the means to check up on him. So, when Luke reports that an angel appeared to shepherds and announced, “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord,” he should be taken seriously. When Luke says that Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus on a mountain, that his appearance was transfigured, and that a voice was heard saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him,” we should not dismiss it lightly. When Luke declares that Jesus, who was dead and buried on the Friday, became gloriously alive on the Sunday, and appeared to Simon Peter, and the two on the road to Emmaus, and to many others, it simply will not do dismiss the account as either a myth, an illusion, or an hallucination.
If I had time I could refer to many other accounts where credible witnesses testify to remarkable manifestations of God’s power and presence. And not just in Scripture. Some years ago I studied a considerable number of accounts of spiritual renewal. I wasn’t looking for stories of miracles and visions. But I found them anyway – in good, solid, historical sources, recorded by reliable witnesses who had no particular axe to grind. But then again, there are some Christians today who have had remarkable experiences of God. My own dear mother has just celebrated her 90th birthday. She never expected to live so long. Over 30 years ago, her identical twin sister died after a long illness. My mother has always described the loss of her twin as not so much a bereavement as an amputation. They had been so close, she didn’t know how she would be able to carry on. But one day, not long after her sister’s death, the Lord made himself present to my mother in an unusually powerful and reassuring way. I’m not sure that she has spoken in tongues before or since, but she did then, and when the hour passed the words that remained on her lips were, “My Lord and my God.” And some of you will have had similar experiences, and you know that you have not been deceived.
I want to affirm, then, what Richard Dawkins denies, regarding visions, and miracles and other unusually powerful spiritual phenomena. I simply don’t accept that they are all illusory, and I don’t think you need to either. I think that you can point to the testimony of credible witnesses, and suggest that these people are not liars, nor are they deluded. God does sometimes speak in wonders.
2. But I want to move on to my second point, which is to suggest that Prof Dawkins is mistaken, not only in what he says, but also in what he fails to say. He spends five pages trying unsuccessfully to rubbish extraordinary religious experiences. But actually the Christian experience of God does not depend at all on these extraordinary experiences. The evidence for this is right here this morning. Although some of us may have had extraordinary experiences of God’s presence, many of us have not. And yet here we all are, praising God and praying to him and telling him that we love him. The truth is, there is an experience of God which does not belong just to those few who have witnessed signs and wonders, but which is the precious possession all followers of Jesus Christ.
This experience of God involves knowing Jesus Christ. Jesus spoke of this when he prayed, “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” Peter wrote of this in 1 Pet 1:8 ‘Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.’ ‘Knowing Jesus Christ [writes John Stott] is a unique emphasis among the world’s religions. No other religion offers its adherents a personal union with its founder. The Buddhist does not claim to know the Buddha, nor the Confucianist Confucius, nor the Muslim Mohammed, nor the Marxists Karl Marx. But the Christian does claim – humbly, I hope, but nevertheless confidently – to know Jesus Christ.’
This experience of God is a matter of personal commitment. The summons is not merely to study, observe, dissect and debate, but to enter into a relationship. You do not get to know a person by reading their biography, but by having personal contact with them and interacting with them. You do not learn to swim by reading a manual: at some point you’ve got to take your feet off the bottom and trust the water to support you. You are not nourished by studying a menu, but by tucking into the food. The invitation is to ‘taste and see’, Ps 34:8.
This experience of God is a matter of grace, from beginning to end. The wonderful thing is that it isn’t so much that we make friends with God, but that he makes friends with us, Gal 4:9 ‘But now that you know God–or rather are known by God…’ It is God himself who declares, Heb 8:11, “I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” It is God’s truth which enlightens our minds. It is God’s Son who paves the way for our return to our loving Father. It is God’s Spirit who breaks down every barrier, overcomes our blindness and deafness and makes God known to us.
This experience of God is a powerful witness. John Bunyan lived a troubled and godless life as a young man. Then one day he overheard some women talking about Christian things. “They spoke of God as if they knew him,” he recalled. And it proved a turning point in his life. It is one thing to be able to point to objective evidence and arguments for the Christian faith. It is another thing to be able to say, “You ask me how I know he lives – he lives within my heart.”
Christian, I want you to have confidence in your experience of God. Or, rather, I want you to have confidence in the God whom you have experienced, and who has made himself known to you in Jesus Christ.
Let us pray, then, for ourselves, that our God would draw us ever closer to himself, and that we may have a clear and winning testimony to his reality in our lives. Let us pray for our friends, and especially for opportunities to share with them our experience of God in Christ. And let us pray for sceptics that God would open their eyes – and their ears, too, that they may hear his voice unmistakably calling them, and that they may not mistake it for the screech of a Manx Shearwater.