Can we trust other people's spiritual experiences? Why should we?
In a discussion of C. S. Lewis's The Great Divorce, Kathleen Lundquist references Fr. Luigi Giussani on the question of whether we can trust the spiritual experiences of others. That is, why should we believe it if it didn't happen to us?
Fr. Giussani writes that of the two ways of gaining knowledge (1: empirical observation/sensory input and 2: indirect knowledge through a mediator, i.e. through persons, parents, teachers, books, etc.), it is indirect knowledge, i.e. that which comes to us through trust in a witness, which is at the core of human culture and foundational to our existence: “Listen, what’s more important: the evidence or this knowledge mediated through a witness? Get rid of this knowledge through mediation and you wipe out all human culture, all of it, because all human culture is based on the fact that one person begins with what another person has discovered and then goes forward from there. If you couldn’t reasonably do this, the ultimate representation of reason, which is culture, couldn’t exist… Culture, history, and society are based on this type of knowledge called faith, knowledge through faith, indirect knowledge, knowledge of reality though the mediation of a witness“[iv] (emphasis mine).
Fr. Giussani thus radically reorganizes the categories of the faith vs. reason debate. Since faith is the foundation of our knowledge about the world, faith is the most reasonable choice to make when evaluating the testimony of someone you know and trust — especially if the encounter is exceptional in some way. He continues: “From a rational point of view, it’s clear that if you become certain that another person knows what he or she is saying and doesn’t want to deceive, then logically you should trust, because if you don’t trust you go against yourself, against the judgment you formulated that that person knows what he or she says and doesn’t want to deceive you.
Should we trust even our own experience?
Interestingly, naturalist (materialist) Gordy Slack notes in a recent article in science, "What neo-creationists get right: An evolutionist shares lessons he's learned from the Intelligent Design camp"(free registration):
Millions of people believe they directly experience the reality of a Creator every day, and to them it seems like nonsense to insist that He does not exist. Unless they are lying, God's existence is to them an observable fact. Denying it would be like insisting that my love for my children was an illusion created by neurotransmitters. I can't imagine a scientific argument in the world that could convince me that I didn't really love my children. And if there were such an argument, I have to admit I'd be reluctant to accept it, however compelling it appeared on paper. I have too much respect for my own experience.So here is someone who thinks that your (and his) experiences are not factual saying that it isn't wrong to treat them as factual. (That by the way just shows how mixed up he and all materialists are but ... a story for another day.)
Personally, I think that if a person genuinely becomes more loving and caring toward others and maintains that change over a number of years, that is powwerful testimony that they encountered a spiritual reality.
Hat tip to The Sheepcat for Catholic Exchange.
See also Fr. Luigi Giussani. Is It Possible to Live This Way? Volume 1 - Faith. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008.