In this article, I simply want to define the phrase.
“Personal Experience” is often used as one of the lines of evidence presented by theists in support of the claim that a God exists. Now regardless of whether this line of evidence is legitimate or not, at this time I simply want to explain exactly what theists mean when they use that phrase. I will start by first explaining what we DON’T mean simply because it is in one of these senses that atheists most often interpret the phrase.
1) The first thing we DON’T mean by Personal Experience is Pentecostal/ Charismatic experiences like speaking in tongues or entering into some kind of “holy trance.” There ARE Christians that engage in these practices and that use the phrase “personal experience” in reference to these practices, but that is not the common use of the phrase and it is not the sense in which I will ever use it.
2) The second sense in which this phrase is not used is the sort of transcendent experience one might feel while admiring a great work of art or a scene of rare natural beauty. A theist might claim that he felt God’s presence drawing near while looking upon some beautiful imagery. But that is NOT what we are talking about here.
3) Another type of experience we are NOT referring to here is the type of emotional HIGH someone might experience when attending a Christian rock concert or listening to an emotionally charged sermon. There are ways to manipulate human emotion so as to almost give the impression of divine presence; but it is not the experience we are referring to.
4) And lastly, we are not referring to highly vivid dreams or visions of angels, miracles, crying statues of Mary etc.
The phrase “Personal Experience” refers to a person’s LIFE-LONG experience with God. This can be generally broken down into two parts: the Initial experience with God and the subsequent providential experiences over the course of the person’s life thereafter.
The initial experience generally happens when a person is dealing with some type of major life problem, they exhaust their own resources trying to resolve the problem without success, they as a last resort appeal to God for help with this problem and, God apparently comes through for them and resolves the situation.
The subsequent experiences are simply similar situations, generally of a lesser magnitude, scattered throughout the person’s life thereafter where God appears to help or guide in a providential way.
None of these experiences would, in and of themselves, be sufficient to definitively convince someone that a higher power is at work. But, over the course of the life, it simply becomes a question of whether a rational, unbiased person should be able to distinguish between repeated, intentional, providential acts of God and random coincidences.
Now if you are an atheist reading this, chances are that you already have a list of reasons why this line of evidence should simply be ignored in the overall debate. And, while I know what those reasons would be and have plenty to say about them, at this time I simply want to clarify my use of this phrase since otherwise it would very likely be understood differently than how I intend.Share