Discuss Life and Religion with Tan Tai Wei

A Personal Testimony

with one comment

At about age 15, I attended a series of Christian evangelistic services where I heard, somewhat crudely but forcefully presented, arguments for God’s existence modelled on Aquinas’  proofs that there there must have been a first cause to account for the existence of things, and that “design” in the universe implies a designer. These were told in the context of readings and relatings of biblical passages, mostly from the New Testament, especially the Gospels and Pauline letters, which brought alive for me  things said to us children by our Christian parents and such persons as church “Sunday School” teachers.

As I sat through the first one or two services, it seemed that I was being initiated into what I acutely felt was an entirely new outlook on things and life, that came with absolute conviction that God not only existed but was indeed my “Heavenly Father”. I felt, as I heard scriptures quoted and sung, and prayers said,  what seemed to me later (when I learned of John Wesley’s “heart-warming experience” as he heard read in church that preface to  Paul’s letter to the Romans) to be  experiences similar to Wesley’s “I felt my heart strangely warmed; I felt I did trust in Christ…”  When it was recited that we had to be “born again” and become “new creatures in Christ”, I felt that had happened to me. Recalling, in later years when I read CS Lewis, the experience I had been initiated into, I felt I could empathise with his being “surprised by joy” at his conversion to Christianity. What had entered my life could well be described as joy. Those heart-warming experiences and finding life “full of joy” persisted over the years through constant acute renewalsof them at prayers and devotional readings of scriptures when again and again “I felt my heart strangely warmed” to passages read, which seemed to stand out from the pages signalling they were meant specially for me to note. The most impressive of such experiences I felt at a nightly personal devotion, soon after my conversion, when my heart  “strangely warmed”  at reading for the first time Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 12:1,3 which I now quote from memory, “I beseech you … bethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.  And be not conformed to this world but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove that which is good and acceptable to God”.

Those arguments for God’s existence, as I came later to see  as I read philosophy, were invalid as proofs, but they did usher me into an awareness that did feel like what some theologians seem to be bringing out describing  “an encounter experience” , or Austin Farrer when he said he could not be persuaded by arguments that God Whom he “had conversed with most of his life” did not exist. It seems to me now that  HD Lewis is right in saying that purported proofs of God’s existence, such as Thomas Aquinas’  “five ways”, crude versions of which that preacher presented, have had their real significance by facing the pre-believer in religion with  ultimate questions such as how things that exist came to be, and ushering him into the unique religious consciousness I tried to describe in my earlier posting. As Lewis says, it is not a conviction arrived at as the conclusive step of arguments, but one ” leap of thought”  into a dimension of awareness involving the whole of one’s being in “seeing God” in a “personal relationship”. It could be that I wrongly thought, with that preacher, that those “proofs” were valid and that helped me on, but the experience I was initiated into was real. Taught and eventually accepting that those arguments were flawed, I remained, although intellectually somehow confused,  staunchly within the religious awareness, finding it did not make a difference to belief and commitment. The explanation must be, as HD Lewis points out, that behind the facade of argumentation,  those arguments impressed with the puzzle how anything could have become without ultimate transcendent, purposive  Reality to account for it, contemplating which, within a devotional attitude involving my total self , I was initiated into a unique experiential dimension  the reality of which no clever reasoning could negate. And, as HD Lewis also points out, this consciousness needs  no philosophic sophistication to acquire, indeed such intellectualism could be more of an obstacle. My illiterate mother, whom  I found every morning over several years kneeling at prayer at 5.30 am when I awoke  to let her prepare me for lower primary school, was without doubt on to something real. For such like herself, only to hear such sayings as  the first verse of Genesis that “in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” would already settle that ultimate question for them. This is as religion should be, if every soul ever born is a target of divine love and care. Unaware of the nature of the movement of thought happening within them, they find themselves “within the faith” and holding simple converse with God.

Like aesthetic experience, religious experience too has its ebb and flow, and when one does not maintain  appropriate attending and sentisizing, or  is subsequently deterred by flaws in one’s initial beliefs, one can slip back into the religious counterpart of a philistinism about art where even one’s previous acute consciousness of “spiritual things” is given a reinterpretation in terms of the pedestrian and mundane, somewhat like this former colleague of mine, who, proud of his first class degree in maths and because of that,  was dismissive of  music as “nonsense” and “alot of noise”. Or it is like someone, previously morally conscious and impressed by the imperative of the moral “ought” and its “call to duty”,  losing that unique sensitivity, and now dismisses morals as mere social conventions followed for only pragmatic ends, after reading that sort of social science. Aberrations that desensitize one  religiously  might take the form of mishandlings of flaws amongst  the teachings that initiated one into the faith, and also faulty teachings received subsequent to that. Some such desensitising I have much experienced through the many years following the religious “encounter” related above.

It did not happen till some three years after obtaining my first degree. even though I was exposed to philosophic anti-theistic arguments (our teachers were young and taught only one side of the story) all through my undergraduate years and even a couple of years or so as a post-graduate and tutor in philosophy. The arguments  sounded “academic” and could not affect the reality of a perspective  in which I had  remained more or less sensitised.  I participated, though, in academic discussions which seemed more a game of wit, and in the process thought out crude versions of important replies theistic philosophers had given to those arguments, which I later read, but which  our teachers seemed not aware of. But a combination of such factors, which  I indicated  above   could cause  religious desensitizing, led subsequently to my shift, which lasted a good few years, away from that religious consciousness. An event happened that made me take philosophy more seriously than before, something the sort of Christian “orthodoxy”  that had been the social context and teachings that effected my youthful initiation into the faith  ill-prepared me for. This occurred at a time when I had already become somewhat careless at  maintaining the life of commitment and devotion necessary for keeping religion alive.

An earthquate resulted in some thirty thousand people trapped underneath  concrete rubble, and I felt, if they were “born-again Christians”, whether they could still feel the “heart-warming ” peace many with me had testified to. More importantly, I felt the impact in real life of “the problem of pain”, that an “all-good God would if He could, and an Almighty God could, alleviate suffering and evil in the world. As I now reflect, had I been  still religiously sensitized and thus could not doubt the loving God I was continuing to “encounter”, I would just have to take the suffering and evil in the world that seemed  irreconcilable with God’s omnipotence and love  as a mystery  calling for faith that from God’s perspective they must be necessary for some ultimate good. For, as Austin Farrer maintained, how could one disbelieve God with whom  one was in converse? True,  if the concept of God were internally contradictory, then He could not be, however real He seemed, and the encounter experience of Him must be illusory. But, his ways are not our ways neither his thoughts ours, and, as I later realised, even within our experience, much pain and evil are explanable in terms of the goods they are necessary to bring about, and  those could be the basis of our faith that some such explanation there must be, in the perspective of  His ways and thoughts, of the remaining evil and pain. And as regards whether the “encounter experience” could still be had by those crushed beneath rubble, I now realize I could not know before I experience it; for Jesus writhing on the cross could still call Him “my God” and “Father”, asking for His forgiveness for his enemies and committing his spirit into His hands. And my late sister, dying of cancer and deciding to forgo further treatment in order not to prolong the suffering and to die dehydrated in a week  could still say to me, when I tried to dissuade her, “I am going to gloryland”. So, too, my former wife, dying of cancer also, in much pain, especially every time I half-hourly turned her over to push in her bed pan, could stop me in the process of one of those painful turnings in order to fix her eyes on a makeshift altar on the wall before her,  saying with a glowing smile, “I see a statute of Our Lady”. She told Sister Maria, who had attended to her for some two years and who saw her daily for some two months before her death, “She was beautiful”, and to all of us “I am no longer afraid”. She also said to those who saw her the day before her death, “I am going to where Jesus is”, and to me that night “I am going to be with God”.

To be sure, when crushed or undergoing acute pain and distress, there could not  be any “heart-warming” or such clapping for joy we hear at present-day youth “prayer and praise” worship, but aren’t these only surface trappings that might, when situations are conducive, accompany the experience, and should not be confused with it?  I remember becoming confused as a young adult when I had exhilarated feeling, somewhat similar to that felt when I sang and heard “gospel songs” in church, as I listened to Julie Andrews in “the Sound of Music”; similarly, when in the library I browsed an old English translation of another book, in the sort of English I read in the authorised version of the Bible, I was confused by the same sombre, devotional feeling it engendered. I realized much later as I matured more and reflected, that the deep awakening to God  must not be confused with its accompaniment in feeling under usual, conducive conditions. It is essentially cognitive, what in more sophisticated terms HD Lewis calls “a leap of thought” into acknowledgement of God, and our finitude before  Him in adoration and worship, and all else seen in their proper perspective of createdness and creatureliness. Reality is thus “wonderful”, and the wonder may under conducive circumstances produce euphoria, perhaps even “speaking in tongues”, etc, not too unlike what some drugs might also enable. But Joy must be distinguished from euphoria, and so its serious, underlying confidence and “blessed assurance”, “resting” in that understanding that “God is all in all”, must have been behind the courage and hymn-singing with which the Christian martyrs went to the lions and flames of Nero and the likes.

My being desensitized from religion, related above, might have been avoided, I now think, had that preacher and those in his circle of “evangelists” and church elders, who with him  tried to teach and ground me in the faith,  given me a better religious education, including a more informed and educated understanding of the Bible. For then, such distinctions as those indicated above  would have been made clear. The deficiencies in their teachings included giving a very simplistic account of divine revelation and inspiration of scriptures, and of Bible passages and the doctrines  purportedly  compatible with them but which just could not stand up to intelligent and informed scrutiny. To an already much religiously desentisized me, having been distracted by other concerns and probably subconsciously wanting not to believe so as to justify the distractions, I was  prepared to “throw the baby away with the bathwater”. It was some years later when I realized that God in His grace would allow Himself to be “revealed” even in terms of simplistic, even contradictory teachings, and taught by somewhat ignorant minds.  Prophets could nonetheless be “broken vessels”.  The experience of God they advocated could still be basically genuine, like my baby grandson  really had me when he lunged forward for my grasp, despite that he was totally ignorant as to what “grandfather” meant. But, of course, just as we would worry should he remain thus unknowing all his life, so my mistake in my religious experience had been to confuse the genuineness of it with those simplistic teachings that first helped me towards God, and so I remained intellectually stunted in the faith, for years staunchly holding on and even trying to philosophically defend those teachings. And then, when those teachings came to be doubted, I doubted the experience also. I must hasten to add that however better informed and religiously educated one became, one would remain still “seeing through the glass darkly”  the “great mysteries of Godliness”, and so there can be no room on this matter for snobbery.

I had been taught to be “a person of only one book, ie. the Bible” but I was to find that unless the several sorts of writings, their differring historical and social contexts and significance, and the developing various stages of inspired but still human understandings and insights they represent, which had been compiled into the library called the Bible, were properly understood,  readings of much of them would cause one to hold  beliefs that would seriously undermine the maintenance of the religious sensitivity of the thinking person we all more or less would or should grow to become. Examples of such beliefs I hope will be given in my later postings where some key  doctrines I plan to discuss.

What needs pointing out now is that  the sort of uneducated reading and preaching of scriptures, however well-meant, would unnecessarily place obstacles in the path towards the cultivating and maintenance of religious and Christian sensitivity of many. Many would identify those simplistic teachings with Christianity and, dismissing it entirely, deny themselves the opportunity to “come and see” and “taste” if “the Lord is good”. Properly read and understood, we have collected in the Bible,  in different literary genres, a variety of renderings that authentically and believably convey to us the developing of man’s insightful responses, intrepretings  and understanding of divine incursions into man’s consciousness through some ten or so centuries of a very vast and representational segment of human history. Living ourselves into this consciousness, or making it alive for ourselves, we may find ourselves  initiated into and participating in that sensitivity that  enables the dawning for us of  “things of the spirit”. In my experience, such education, which has enabled a more informed and intelligent  pondering on the  ultimate issues of reality, has played a crucial role in my becoming somehow re-sensitized to God, and my maintenance of that, somehow.


Written by Tan Tai Wei

December 24, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Hi, Tai Wei, read your first blog and browsed through the rest. Good stuff. Honest and open.

    You may want to consider making it easier for reading by increasing the font size and restructuring the sentences to be more concise.

    Thanks for sharing.

    You may want to think about some suggestions to help the clergy improve the robustness of their sermonizing by better critical thinking through asking questions rather than giving answers.

    Thomas Lee

    April 3, 2011 at 3:27 pm

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