In this episode John and Gregg revisit their discussion from last podcast, where they considered the validity of claiming that certain experiences are “from God.”
In this episode they discuss the example of “the eagle” (i.e., being on a hike with a group of people and seeing an eagle in the sky, and one person claims that “God put that eagle there for me.”). Gregg sees this as essentially a “faith claim” and wonders about the reason for making such a claim. So if the eagle was put there by God for this person, what is the significance of such an act?
Gregg speculates that perhaps someone is “having a good day” and the presence of the eagle is simply a form of reassurance / a way of punctuating those feelings. But Gregg believes that interpreting such experiences as being “of God” can also be (and more likely, is often) taken by the recipient as a way of validating the thoughts / understandings that accompany those feelings.
Thus “the eagle” may be taken to legitimate someone’s thinking rather than assessing such thinking on the basis of its rationality or its coherence with real life, the biblical text, or whatever criteria would actually be most appropriate!
John wonders what constitutes “enough” for a given person to claim that a certain experience is “from God” or that the effect of a certain experience is to understand God better, to live their Christian life better, etc. John raises the example of a friend who, will studying for a degree, took a 3 week break to study the Bible and had a transformative experience. John wonders if Gregg thinks this is possible?
Gregg responds that he would wonder what this person is claiming to have understood, experienced, etc., within that period. So if the person studied the Bible for 3 weeks straight and, as a result, developed a greater degree of comfort with the coherence of Scripture between whatever texts they may have been examining, this sounds plausible. In other words, what exactly is the situation (i.e., what was experienced / happened) and what is being claimed as a result (i.e., what is being concluded about this situation).
John suggests that many people would argue that “God can do anything” and thus why couldn’t God put that eagle there? Gregg counters that God can’t just do “anything,” because God has committed God-self to certain things and against others. To fail to see this is to hold a superstitious view of who God (rather than a God of a very specific character who has acted over time repeatedly to reveal that character, in order to prompt human beings to engage with God in very specific ways—in love relationships based on truth), based in part on misperceiving the Bible as a jumble of disconnected stories (rather than an unfolding tale of God acting for the sake of God’s greatest project—bringing about God’s kingdom—a project deeply intertwined with human flourishing).
So Gregg argues: if God can do anything for anyone at any moment for any reason, then we can expect anything. Or more accurately, if everything is plausible then we can expect nothing, because God is then completely unpredictable. Further, we are left without any means of adjudicating between competing claims. Yet such understandings are not supported by the biblical portrayals of God nor the biblical indications of how Christians are to act.
John then wonders: what are better ways to understand our own experiences and, particularly, what are better ways to understand the experiences of others?
Gregg replies that counseling offers an excellent example of what he is aiming at. So from Gregg’s own experience of being in counseling, his counselor rarely questioned Gregg’s observations (i.e., whether he really saw or heard what he claimed to) but would often ask questions about how Gregg had interpreted a situation or about the conclusions that he had drawn from it. Gregg then believes that his experience of having to re-examine his own experiences (and do so alongside of a trained professional) has allowed him to develop certain skills in reading experiences is general—both his own and others.
For example, one situation that raises Gregg’s concern is when the magnitudes of the event and of the conclusion are disproportionate, such as when someone “makes much” of a relatively minor situation. John appreciates this nuance.