Monday, August 24, 2015

The Wesley Experience

Helen de Cruz has been writing an interesting series of interviews with philosophers at the Philosophy of Religion blog Prosblogion. She asks these thinkers to share with readers their own religious views and there are posts from philosophers who run the gamut from Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Mormon, Anglican, agnostic, deist, evangelical protestant, and quasi-atheist. One of the most interesting to me was an interview with David McNaughton who teaches philosophy at Florida State University. Here's part of the interview:
Can you tell me something about your current religious affiliation/self-identification?

I was brought up agnostic, but my parents sent me to Methodist Sunday School (for as long as I wished) so I might find out for myself. After considerable prayer and heart-searching I joined the Methodist Church around 1960 and stayed there for ten years, including being a very active member of the Methodist Society at my undergraduate university. I did my graduate work at Magdalen College Oxford and attended College Chapel, at the end of which I was received into the Church of England.

Shortly thereafter I drifted away from Christianity, eventually becoming both sceptical and slightly hostile until my mid-30s when I began slowly to re-evaluate my position. Strong influences here were C. S. Lewis and William James, as well as teaching philosophy of religion with Richard Swinburne. I remained a highly sympathetic agnostic until 2004, when I decided to recommit to the church.

Could you say a bit more about the factors involved in your recommitting to the church in 2004 (I’m especially interested in the influence of your teaching philosophy of religion – many people allege that personal faith has an influence on one’s philosophy of religion, but here it seems the other way around!)

The immediate cause of my returning to the church was the death of my wife in July 2004. She was diagnosed with terminal secondary cancer of the lining of the lung in 2002. I had signed up to come to FSU and she was keen to be in the USA where her parents lived. As you can imagine, the move in conjunction with her illness and the medical treatment was horrendous.

During this time I prayed regularly and received much help in return. Shortly after her death some of her relatives invited us to a vacation at Port St. Joe. Walking along the beach at dawn, it seemed to me that God was reminding me that he had come through for me and now it was my turn....

In the course of my conversation with God I distinctly remember saying that I would give up my old complaint that I had never had the ‘Wesley experience’ (I was originally a Methodist). Indeed, I recall saying that I assumed He knew best, since as a philosopher I would probably regard any emotional experience with profound suspicion. The temporary priest at my church was part of a husband and wife team at Grace Mission in the most deprived part of Tallahassee, so I started going there. On my second or third visit, I suddenly had the impression that some physical weight had been removed from my shoulders. Puzzled, I thought about this, and realized that, for the first time in my life, I did not feel guilty about the many things I have done that I regret. I realized that my sins really were forgiven, i.e. The Wesley Experience. (This merely confirmed a view that I had long held: that God has a rather Puckish sense of humor).

I learned a number of things from teaching philosophy of religion.

  • Hume’s objections were nothing like as strong as I had supposed.
  • There was more to traditional arguments for theism than I thought.
  • A combination of Pascal’s Wager and William James seemed to me to make a very strong case for commitment. One objection to Pascal is that the wager only makes sense if there is only one form of religion to choose from. James, however, points out that, for the recipe to work, the option must be a live one.
Since Christianity was the only live one for me (I had tried Buddhism) then a combination of James and Pascal’s arguments was irresistible. I say ‘irresistible’ but of course I did resist, or at least, made no move, until impelled by my wife’s death.
I was glad to see that McNaughton, like many, if not most, philosophers of religion, found Hume's arguments to be less than compelling. I realized some time ago that Hume was held in much higher esteem by the free-thought skeptics than he was by philosophers who spent much of their careers studying his arguments.

Anyway, the rest of the McNaughton interview is pretty interesting, too, so you may want to check it out.