The previous post on Henry’s essay, “Ways of Knowing” can be found here.
In the next section of the essay, Henry considers Experience as the basis for knowledge.
Empiricism: Empiricism relies upon the senses rather than upon intuition. However, that simple concept has undergone significant development over history.
Mystics: Mystics argue that their experiences should not be ruled out of court merely because they are not shared by all. However, in contemporary philosophy only objective sense information constitutes an acceptable experience to consider.
Aristotle/Thomas and Modern Empiricism: Aristotle and Thomas considered empiricism as a first step: “perceptual induction”can then lead to propositions upon which one can build. Thomas famously developed proofs for God based upon empirical perception of the world without resort to revelation.
Modern empiricism could not tolerate such a thing:
The special interest of empiricism, moreover, is to identify events for the sake of the prediction and control of perceptual experience, rather than to render them comprehensively intelligible in relation to metaphysical reality (cf. Edwin A. Burtt, Types of Religious Philosophy, pp. 197 ff.).
Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), 79.
Applied to Theology: Hume attacked the Thomistic proposition that one could move from empirical observation to proof of God:
Thomistic contention that the existence of God, and the existence and immortality of the soul, are logically demonstrable simply through empirical considerations independent of divine revelation.1 Hume’s contention was that those who profess theological beliefs on empirical grounds have no right to such beliefs unless they produce requisite perceptual evidence, and that in the absence of demonstrative empirical proof, belief is unreasonable.
Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), 79–80.
Henry then draws an interesting line between Hume and Schleiermacher: Schleiermacher expanded the scope of empirical data to “religious consciousness” rather than mere cognition. He grounded Christianity in the human experience — thus attempting to rescue knowledge of God from Humean skepticism but at the cost of a supernatural Christianity:
Schleiermacher boldly identified the empirical method as adequate to deal with religious concerns and decisive for the fortunes of Christianity, yet he sought at the same time to broaden the definition of empiricism so that—contrary to Hume’s skeptical analysis of theological claims—an appeal to the religious consciousness could yield a positive and constructive verdict. Schleiermacher considered feeling rather than cognition the locus of religious experience, and he applied the empirical method hopefully to the claims of Christian theism. Rejecting the historic evangelical emphasis that the truth of revelation rests on an authority higher than science, Schleiermacher broke with miraculous Christianity and held that all events must conform to empirically verifiable law.
Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), 80.
This trajectory leaves open the development of a completely new religion still calling itself “Christianity” without maintaining the same revelatory content (which has happened in great deal in the West).
As Henry notes, what sort of rationale can ground one’s claim of “religious experience” or “truth”. Even empiricism generally can be of little use beyond analysis of material objects: “But how does one arrive at a permanently valid ought, at fixed norms of any kind, by the empirical method of knowing?” (P. 83) That of course has not stopped many from claiming an absolute authority for empiricism.
It does boast engineering feats, but such feats do not prove or disprove anything with respect to God. One can simply cannot argue from “I made a bridge” to “There is no God.” As Henry explains:
Taken by itself, the empirical method provides no basis for affirming or denying supernatural realities, since by definition it is a method for dealing only with perceptible realities. It cannot, therefore, validate supraperceptible being; nor can it validate moral norms either or confirm past historical events in present public experience. The empiricist must acknowledge that his method leads finally to one of many possible views, and not to final certainty about anything.
Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), 85.