Evidence From Christ's Own Voice

by Matthew Raley Let's step out of the mode of persuading skeptics for now, and think more specifically about the experience of conversion. We'll get back to the issues of persuasion next week. They're important. But I'm convinced we can't construct a sound apologetic for our Christian faith without understanding of what has happened to us.

Jesus is specific in John 10 about what moves people to follow him: recognition.

"The sheep hear [the Shepherd's] voice." (10.3) "[T]he sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow ... for they do not know the voice of strangers." (10.4-5) "I know my own and my own know me." (10.14) "And I have other sheep that are not of this fold ... and they will listen to my voice." (10.16) "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me." (10.27)

Jesus is describing at least two things.

There is a quality in his voice that turns his sheep. The quality is personal, unique to Jesus, and it is communicable from him to his sheep. In other words, there are subjective characteristics inside Jesus (pardon the redundancy, but I'm emphatic about this point) that are expressed in his voice. His interior qualities constitute the object of the sheep's recognition.

I know him.

Further, there is something in his sheep that instinctively responds to his voice. Subjectively, each sheep recognizes the qualities of the Shepherd through the medium of his voice. This experience is, by definition, not something one person can share with another, but only describe.

So Jesus teaches that the decisive factor in conversion is an interaction. While the experience is subjective, Jesus clearly expects people to reflect on it. He describes, in other words, a reasoning process that accepts subjectivity as part of decision-making.

Last Sunday evening, as part of our church's discussion of the morning's sermon, I asked participants to tell me how they knew God was speaking to them. They described several characteristics, of which I give two:

1. Automatic change.

One woman said that after her conversion to Christ some of behaviors simply reversed. She no longer did the things she had desired in the past. It was a change she couldn't help noticing, but had never initiated.

2. A source of thoughts and motives other than self.

Several people described the experience of thinking, saying, or doing things that they could not attribute to themselves. The source, they said, had been Other. This is a different experience from an intuition or sub-rational process issuing in an action. A person can say, "I don't know why I did that," while still recognizing that the action came from him- or herself. But the participants described actions that they could not recognize as coming from themselves.

There were other characteristics, but these two illustrate that the people could describe a specific kind of experience.

Remember, we're out of the mode of persuading skeptics. We'll get back to it later.

Suppose we accepted this subjectivity as a legitimate part of spiritual decision-making. Is there a basis for reasoning about it? True, information from the two kinds of experiences above is fragile, and will only bear so much weight. The information is falsifiable, and is not open to objective proof. Even so, can we reason about this kind of subjectivity?

Consider two analogies.

The many indicators of falling in love are also fragile, also open to falsification, and all too frequently misunderstood. But romantic love is nevertheless a real experience.

A more fruitful comparison might be made with pain. Medicine does not have truly objective measures of pain, but tries to plumb the experience in search of diagnosis. The question What do you feel? is primary. Such information as location, kind, and scale of pain is limited by the patient's ability to communicate, verbally and physically. The information is indirect, fragile, and open to falsification.

But pain is real. Reflection and conversation about it can yield legitimate conclusions.

I believe our understanding of evangelism and apologetics should be revolutionized.

No one's decision-making process is purely objective. Decisions that mix objective and subjective priorities are the only decisions human beings are capable of making. So in evangelism, we shouldn't merely give evidence that points to Christ, urging people to make an inference that Christ's claims are true. Nor should we merely give evidence that proves competing claims false, hoping that people will convert to Christ by an analytical process of elimination.

Rather, the evangelist's goal should be to nurture an awareness of Christ's voice, the recognition of which is all the evidence people will need to follow him.