Sunday, March 11, 2012

"How do you test the hypothesis of God?"

A gentleman named Harry Marks asked me this morning:

"David Marshall, How would you test the hypothesis of God?"

Here is my brief answer.

You ask how I would test that "hypothesis," so let me give a personal reply. 

When I was in my early 20s, growing up in a Christian home, then educated at a secular university, studying Marxism, I was full of doubts, and decided to do just that: test whether God was real.  My method was to join the missions organization Youth With a Mission in Hong Kong, and see if "God would show up," to put it in Forrest Gump's terms.

I found that sometimes, he seemed to. What I found was that (a) sometimes, remarkable answers to prayer seem to be given, with real probative value; (b) God seemed to have arrived in Asia before me, in the sense that the ancient Chinese had known about Him; (c) I saw that the Christian faith was making things better, for individuals and societies, as Genesis 12 prophecies; (d) I found that the Gospel fulfilled deep truths in Asian cultures.

As with subatomic particles, though, in this case the observer influences the outcome. Who is this "I" that is observing?  Who is seeking God? And does he really want to find God?  What influence might the observed have on the observer? 

This is another level of awareness, and testing, that may be more real than "the God hypothesis" version of the test implies. 

Before I went to Asia, I spent a summer working as a counselor at a Bible Camp in the most beautiful place in the world, Berner's Bay, Alaska.  I didn't do much actual counseling -- aside from one week with my own cabin of kids, most of the time I spent on ladders, counseling spruce branches with a chain saw.  I walked on the beach, rode horses, climbed Angel Peak across the bay with other staff, and must have spent considerable time in meditation. 

One evening, I stayed in the main building while everyone else was off somewhere, and reread C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity.  I read the chapter on "The Great Sin."  Probably the sin I felt most guilty about was lust, at the time.  But Lewis argued that sexual sins were trivial compared to the real monster: pride.

I came to realize that I was full of pride.  I saw that I needed to repent of that sin, and that I would have to fight it, for the rest of my life. 

And so it has proven. 

One way God proves Himself to me, in the Bible, is by speaking truthfully about my own heart.  I find that many non-Christians don't even recognize, what Lewis proved to me beyond doubt that night, and that the biblical writers clearly understood, that pride is the heart of all sin, and reflection of our deep need for a savior -- not just from obvious vices like alcoholism or prostitution or even war-lordism or pimping, that caused so much devastation in parts of Asia I would soon visit.  No, the evil began inside me, and could not be disconnected from me. 

God reveals himself to me in the Bible, in short, by telling the truth, on a deeper level than I find it anywhere else, and more salvifically.  Having studied the religions of the world, and read many books by atheists, many rather brilliant, and thinkers like Lao Zi, Confucius, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Tolstoy, I do not find a parallel to the Sermon on the Mount, though I find much that supports the teachings of Jesus. 

Everyone is different. Pascal, who helped develop probability theory, seemed to see some sort of probabilistic argument in the prophesies of the OT, but was most deeply convinced by a mystical experience of the Holy Spirit.  I have met philosophers for whom philosophical arguments worked, scientists for whom scientific arguments worked, and lots of people who find the life of Jesus, and the evidence for the resurrection, convincing. I doubt I would much like God, or maybe trust him, without Jesus as His image.

I'm not pretending this is simple.  If we want to test a chemical, we put it in solution.  If we want to test a tortoise, we race him with a hare.  If you want to test your girlfriend, or boyfriend, don't try chemicals: try life.  Watch how he or she interacts with other people.  Bring her home to mother.  Watch him hang around your girlfriends. 

So the smarter the object, the harder and more "existential" the test. 

Can we test God?  Jesus said "Don't put the Lord your God to the test!"

What I think he means is, we shouldn't presume that God is like a protein compound or our laborador puppy.  The test, in this case, as with our lovers only more so, must involve our whole lives. 

And each of those lives is different.  So the test -- whether of Him, or of us -- will also vary accordingly. 

Such, at least, is the best I can make out.  Because my testing -- or His, apparently -- does not seem anywhere near complete.


Crude said...


Maybe you saw it, but Mike Gene recently wrote an entry touching on this.

David B Marshall said...

Crude: Thanks. No, I haven't read any of Mike's posts, just one of his books. Will take a look.

I also added more to my original post, which I realize left out too much. May continue to develop my response to Harry's good question.