Hearing His Voice Today:

The Believer and Apologetics

Photo by Skyler Gerald of WTM

By Drew Freisen

 

Published August 1st 2020

           What does hearing from God look like? How can one be certain that he or she has heard the voice of God? Is there a “science” to understanding the God of the Bible, or are we all destined to spend our lives wondering if what we have received is anything more than a projection? 

           What follows is written for the believer. I am assuming that you, the reader, have already received a faith tradition. Believers experience Christ in his Church through the Spirit. Scripture assumes that believers meet as the Body of Christ in the name of Jesus in the presence of the Spirit.[1] Even a congregation which seeks to distance itself from the ancient church’s history and liturgy bears the unmistakable marks of the Christian tradition. As the Church, we receive the holy identity of the Bride of Christ and the holy Sacraments which continually point and remake us; we are participating in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. 

           These realities, though utterly beautiful and true within the narrative of Christianity, are obviously met by a different response from without Christianity. Unbelievers cannot be expected to understand the received tradition of faith, but at the same time, believers are commanded and compelled to proclaim the faith, hope, and love of the gospel. As believers we understand this tension; it is a lived tension, a source of great debate among Christians. What ought apologetics [2] seek to do, and how should it seek to go about it? Given the breadth of this topic, what follows will be limited to examining how believers can have confidence in the reception and proclamation of a message which transcends the rational and scientific—a message that edifies and transforms those around us. God does not require a faith which bows to the mores of rationalism and enlightenment, but a faith of a received tradition which confesses the paradoxical and ever counter-cultural message of the Christian Apostle, a message which contrasts human genius and all its sensibilities.

 

The Science of Religion 

           How many of the greatest religions and spiritual movements have begun because the founder (or founders) heard the voice of God? This fact is oftentimes leveraged against the entire notion of religion by those to place themselves “on the outside,” [3] that too many competing claims exist for anyone to be certain what God is saying, if there is even such a God to speak. 

           It is in this framework that a “functional view” of religion finds traction [4]. “What can religion, broadly, accomplish that is scientifically identifiable?” Many studies demonstrate the personal and interpersonal value of religion including positive influence over mental health, non-family network of social support, coping strategies, and a perspective which suppresses existential questions from arising [5]. 

           Within this naturalistic framework, a comparative examination of religions develops most naturally. Stephen Sharot writes, “The rational choice theorists of religion have attempted to build up a body of transcultural, universalistic generalizations, beginning with basic axioms of human rationality” [6]. To simplify this statement, the study of comparative religions seeks to use a scientific approach, comparing and contrast religions through empirical means . In short, there is little to no speculation in the comparison of religions. “Muslims believe ‘X’ while Christians hold to “Y.” “Mormons profess ‘A,’ while Hinduism teaches ‘B.’” The rational approaches of the Functional View and Comparative Religions assumes a naturalistic orientation, that is, all that exists is physical and/or can be logically explained. Philosophers who hold to this understanding are known as “physicalists” [7].  

           Against this bulwark of scientific examination, is there a place for confession, for tradition, for faith? How can we as believers believe that we as a faith community have heard—and are hearing—the voice of God? Is it all just another demonstration of humanity creating structures around which to build and order community? Is it all in our heads?

           The questions continue. All too often, Christains unknowingly fall into the trap that the Functional View and Comparative Religions offer. Faith becomes about demonstrating how one can logically make a case for God’s existence, or how it is empirically justifiable that Christ arose from the dead. It becomes about making the voice of God a primarily scientific process through inductive literary means. It seems to me that all these endeavors, though well intentioned, are working off the morays of naturalism, functioning with the assumptions that everything which is experienced can—and should—be explained scientifically. Hearing God’s voice becomes an exercise of reason at the expense of faith; Passages of Scripture are reduced to equations needing to be solved; Christian lives are being spent defending the faith using categories which are inherently counter-Christain. We are playing the wrong game on the wrong court, attempting to justify that which is categorically beyond the rational justification pursued by the modern world. 

The Genius and the Apostle

           It is at this point that Søren Kierkegaard makes a distinction which is both powerful and wonderfully simplistic in the face of naturalism’s premise: the distinction between the genius and the Apostle. 

           The genius uses reason to pull himself up above the masses; to use personal powers and faculties to demonstrate a higher mode of existence; he or she is ahead of the times. Geniuses are found within Christianity and without: the classical apologist who wields reason as a weapon against the atheist in debate; the Comparative Religions expositor who contains all experiences within his one logically deduced reality. It is not that personal discipline or scientific examination should be neglected, but the thrust and preeminence of these endeavors is where the critique lies. The genius possesses internally that which sets him or her apart.

           On the genius Kierkegaard writes,

Genius may, therefore, have something new to bring forth, but what it brings forth disappears again as it becomes assimilated by the human race, just as the difference ‘genius’ disappears as soon as one thinks of eternity...Genius is what it is of itself, i.e. through that which it is in itself; an Apostle is what he is by his divine authority. Genius has only an immanent teleology...[8]

           In contrast with the genius, we are met by the apostle. The apostle receives and proclaims that which sets her apart; the genesis of confession is exterior to the one who proclaims. It is a prophetic voice, not merely a rational one. This voice cannot be tested and cannot be weighed against reason. In fact, its paradoxical existence usually runs in rejection of the claims of the genius. The apostle is a profession for one who has heard the voice of God. It is his or her duty to receive the call and to proclaim it [9]. 

           As believers, we have received the voice of God and a tradition of faith. To spend our lives wondering and worrying about faith in scientific terms is wholly unsatisfying, self-defeating, and inexhaustible; we cling to a faith which expands beyond the horizon of rationality, looking instead to the beauty of the God-head and the tradition of faith through the eyes of a divine narrative. In the face of the genius, are we to abandon that which is received, opting instead for that which is attainable through internal logics and a rationalism which forbids anything but the physical? We can expend our energy wondering if we’ve truly heard the voice of God, weighing it against competing voices of other religions or our own reason, or we can receive what is given us. It is something for which scientific categories fail, but the poetics of faith and the testimony of Scripture demand it. 

           “For Kierkegaard the truth of faith is not only above reason but also against reason. It is an ‘objective uncertainty’ that can be held to only by the passion of inwardness. It requires a leap into the darkness of the unknown rather than rational supports” [10]. Myron Penner writes,

What is needed in our witness, if those we engage are to be edified, is a poetics that performs the essentially Christian, in which there is no gap between the form of witness and its content. We do not need a philosophical argument that rationally justifies the objective content of Christian belief to show us it is edifying [11].

Penner argues an ethics of faith is more essential than an ethics of epistemology because an ethics of faith is edifying; The proclamation of faith is primary because it is essentially Christain, that is, it is the witness and the content of Christainity. Proclaiming Christ is the joy of the believer because Christ is the means and the message of that very faith just as edification is the joy and goal of truth [12]. 

           To become lost in epistemic justification (arguing for how we know we have heard the voice of God, for example) is to become caught up in arguments of secondary importance, and arguments which are not edifying for the believer and unbeliever alike. Worse yet, these secondary arguments have no truly helpful answers as they must all too often bow to the systems and structures of modernism which gave rise to the questions in the first place; they seek to meet the genius on his or her own plane. The edifying witness of the Christian embodying the narrative of redemption is the apologetic witness in the tradition of Kierkegaard’s Apostle, one who cleaves to the ever counter-cultural message of the God-made-Man.

“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”

-Hebrews 3:15b ESV

           The writer of Hebrew does not seek to answer what it means to hear the voice of God, but what to do once you have received it. The writer assumes a mode of existence which modernism seeks to dissipate: that God can speak. This is the tradition we receive, the narrative we possess as Christ-followers. As a reference to the 95th Psalm, the author writes of those who were witness to the powerful acts of God in leading his people out of Egypt. Even in the presence of these wonders, the people of Israel let the rationality of the genius overwhelm the proclamation of their tradition-story of God’s power and faithfulness. 

           As we wrestle and converse with the naturalistic impulses of our culture, how are we to stand against the genius, and what form ought our apologetic take? It should be noted that both the Psalm and the epistle were written with a people in mind, not isolated individuals. It is in community that revelation is given and with the greatest force proclaimed. Just as in community the people of Israel fell from obedience in the wilderness, so it is in community that the people of God cling to and proclaim that which is received.

           There is also an immediacy in the “Today” employed by the author. As members of the Body of Christ, we have a call to respond to the call of Christ here and now—forsaking the dulling and effacing effects of sin, proclaiming the truths of the gospel in the Apostolic tradition. This counter-cultural message defies the calls of the genius and gives way to an edification and poetic potency which stretches beyond the horizon of the modern world. It is in this message of edification that our apologetic bears the gospel openly, moving beyond argumentation and debate. It is with this message that we can proudly proclaim the paradoxical beauty and hope of the God-made-Man, the person of the Gospel who is  the means and message of our proclamation. When looking into today, “if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”  

    

________________________

Footnotes:

            1.  1 Cor 5:4-5. While this passage is dealing directly with church discipline, the author is clear on the nature and power of church fellowship, rooted and built up in and through Christ in the presence and power of the Spirit.  

           2.  Apologetics meaning a defense and proclamation of the faith.

           3.  See James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 40-47. 

           4.  For a quick overview of the Functional position, see this article from Lumen: https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-sociology/chapter/the-functionalist-perspective-on-religion/#:~:text=Emile%20Durkheim%20argued%20that%20religion,a%20reality%20of%20its%20own.&text=For%20example%2C%20religion%20may%20incite%20violence%20by%20a%20fundamentalist%20religious%20group.

           5.  Ibid. 

           6.  Stephen Sharot. “Beyond Christianity: A Critique of the Rational Choice Theory of Religion from a Weberian and Comparative Religions Perspective.” Sociology of Religion, (vol. 63, no. 4, Winter 2002), pp. 427–454.

           7.  Jack Ritchie. Understanding Naturalism. (Routledge, 2008), 2-3. Ritchie asserts that “Many philosophers who call themselves existentialists, such as Sartre, or positivists, such as Carnap, or critical theorists or postmodernists are atheists but not happily classified as naturalists."  For the purposes of this examination I am dealing with a simplistic presentation of naturalism in setting the stage for a Christian’s interaction with modern religious study.    

           8.  Søren Kierkegaard. Of the Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle. Translated by Alexander Dru. Harper Torchbooks, 1962, 91.  

           9.  Ibid. Contrasting the genius, Kierkegaard wrote, “the Apostle has, paradoxically, something new to bring, the newness of which, precisely because it is essentially paradoxical, and not an anticipation in relation to the development of the race, always remains, just as an Apostle remains an  Apostle in all eternity, and no eternal immanence puts him on the same level as other men, because he is essentially paradoxically different...the Apostle is placed as absolute paradoxical teleology.”

           10.  Donald G. Bloesch. A Theology of Word and Spirit: Authority and Method in Theology. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 62.  

           11.  Myron B. Penner. The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context. (Baker Academics, 2013), 90. 

           12.  Ibid., 110. 

Terms of Service: Worthwhile Theology © 2020. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher, except as provided for by USA copyright law. If you would like permission for ministerial or academic use, please reach out to us at contact@worthwhiletheology.com.

© 2020 Worthwhile Theology

© 2020 Worthwhile Theology Magazine