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It is often taken for granted by the wise of this world, believers and unbelievers alike, that “religious experience” is a purely subjective phenomenon. Although it may have various psychosocial functions to play, any claims to its cognitive value can be safely dismissed without a hearing.
William P. Alston
Or, as we shall see, with at best a perfunctory hearing. In this chapter, we shall note and evaluate some alleged results of those perfunctory hearings.
The extended Aquinas/Calvin (A/C) model of the last three chapters is intended to show how specifically Christian belief can have justification, internal and external rationality, and warrant. According to the model, we human beings have fallen into sin, a grievous condition from which we cannot extricate ourselves. Jesus Christ, both a human being and the divine son of God, made atonement for our sin by way of his suffering and death, thus making it possible for us to stand in the right relationship to God. The Bible is (among other things) a written communication from God to us human beings, proclaiming this good news. Because of our sinful condition, however, we need more than this information: we also need a change of heart. This is provided by the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit (IIHS); he both turns our affections in the right direction and enables us to see the truth of the great things of the gospel. The process whereby we come to believe those things, therefore, satisfies the conditions for warrant (and also the conditions for the affective analogue of warrant). But it is obvious that the beliefs in question are also such that they can be and often are both justified and internally rational.
In this chapter, I shall do two things. First, I wish to consider some of the arguments for the conclusion that theistic and/or Christian belief lacks warrant; second, I want to consider objections to my arguments and claims about the way in which Christian belief can have warrant. What I have argued so far, in order of ascending strength, is that (1) the extended A/C model depicts a way in which Christian belief could have warrant; (2) given the truth of Christian belief, there are no cogent objections to its having warrant in the way suggested by the A/C model; and (3) given the truth of Christian belief, it very likely does have warrant, if not by way of the extended A/C model, then by way of a closely similar model. (3) is stronger than (2). (2) says that, given the assumption that Christian belief is true, there aren’t any cogent objections to the A/C model and hence none to Christian belief’s having warrant; but of course there might be no cogent objections to a proposition p, even if p is, as it turns out, false. (3) adds that in fact Christian belief very likely has warrant, given its truth. A successful argument for the conclusion that Christian or theistic belief lacks warrant, therefore, will be a successful argument against both (2) and (3)—provided, of course, that it doesn’t assume (or argue for) the falsehood of Christian belief. Such an objection, therefore, will have to be independent of the question of the truth or falsehood of Christian belief; it will have to be cogent even on the supposition that Christian belief is true. Our question is really this: are there general epistemological reasons, independent of doubts about the truth of Christian or theistic belief, to think that it lacks warrant? If any of the objections is successful, therefore, it will remain successful even if we assume that indeed there is such a person as God and that Christian belief is, as a matter of fact, true.
There is also an initial difficulty. Those who raise the de jure question about Christian or theistic belief typically complain that it is “irrational,” or “unjustified,” or “unreasonable,” or “rationally unjustified,” or “rationally indefensible” or the like; they seldom make a serious attempt to explain what they mean by these terms. Instead, they typically take it for granted that we know perfectly well what these terms mean; then they argue that theistic belief has the unflattering properties expressed by them. But these terms and their associated concepts have had an enormously checkered career in modern and contemporary epistemology; to assume that their meanings are perfectly clear is excessively naive. It is also confusing, making it hard to construe the objector’s complaints with any exactitude. We have seen that the relevant de jure question is really the question whether Christian belief does or can have warrant: the property or quantity, enough of which is what distinguishes knowledge from mere true belief; I shall therefore handle this problem by construing the objections as arguments for the claim that Christian belief has no warrant. This course has the added attraction that, in at least some cases, it is likely that this is what the objector intended.
A number of thinkers consider the question whether Christian belief can be justified or warranted by way of religious experience, and go on to argue that it cannot. Now I argued in chapter 6 that it isn’t clear what it means to say that a belief is warranted by way of experience, and so didn’t propose to say whether or not, on the model, theistic and Christian belief gets its warrant from or by way of religious experience. Technically speaking, therefore, these objections wouldn’t apply to my claims about how it can be that such belief has warrant. For the purpose of considering these objections, however, let’s concede what may well be false—namely that (on the model) these beliefs do get their warrant from experience. Then at any rate we can see the objections as initially relevant.
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