08 Review: Wiebe, God and Other Spirits.

Amos Yong, J. Rodman Williams Professor of Theology and Director of PhD Program in Renewal Studies, Regent University School of Divinity


Phillip H. Wiebe, God and Other Spirits: Intimations of Transcendence in Christian Experience (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004). vii + 259 pp.

After receiving his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Adelaide, Australia, in 1973, Phillip Wiebe taught philosophy first at Brandom University (Manitoba) and then (since 1978) at Trinity Western University (British Columbia). His doctoral advisor, the analytic philosopher J. J. C. Smart, has been well known for his physicalism (materialist ontology) and atheism. Arguably, Wiebe’s work in philosophy of religion over the decades has been shaped in part in response to the thought of his doktorvater. His first book, Theism in an Age of Science (University Press of America, 1988), was concerned with the rationality or reasonableness (not truth) of theism as a postulated theory to explain extraordinary (paranormal) events of an “intersubjectively observable kind.” This was followed by Visions of Jesus: Direct Encounters from the New Testament to Today (Oxford University Press, 1997), where Wiebe described and analyzed christic visions and apparitions in the New Testament, throughout Christian history, and as reported by contemporary visionaries. His motivation then was not only (as a philosopher) to critically explore the phenomenon of religious experience in order to advance the discussion in philosophy of religion, but also (as a believing Christian) to look into how contemporary visions of Jesus may illuminate New Testament accounts of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. After subjecting the empirical data to supernaturalistic, mentalistic, psychological, and neurophysiological explanations and finding each wanting in certain respects, Wiebe proposed in conclusion a theory of transcendence as a supplementary account for the variegated visions and apparitions of Jesus, and outlined avenues for further research.

God and Other Spirits is the first booklength report of the further research needed to test the theory of transcendence advocated in 1997. While still concerned about the rationality of theism in general, Wiebe has expanded the range of his theory to include the existence of angels and other (evil) spirits. Again, his concern is not only with the rationality and reasonableness of the belief in the existence of spiritual beings that transcend the natural and material order of things, but also with understanding human claims to experience such beings. His thesis is that such an empirical approach to human experiences of transcendence provides the best way forward for contemporary philosophy of religion.

Five chapters follow Wiebe’s introduction. The first describes what Wiebe calls “intimations of evil” preserved in the Bible, prevalent throughout Christian history, and reported by contemporaries (not necessarily in that order). While Wiebe grants that many of these putative experiences can be accounted for variously, there are those which resist all such explanations. The paradigmatic cases that invite some theory of transcendence involve those which connect two or more distinctive persons or groups of entities that are otherwise disconnected and that are corroborated by multiple witnesses (“intersubjectively observed”). Wiebe points to both biblical examples – e.g., Legion’s request to enter a herd of pigs, and the herd’s subsequent stampede into the sea, as reported by the swineherds (Mark, ch. 5) – and other accounts – e.g., the case reported by a well-known contemporary exorcist of the demoniac who threatened to enter another named human being if exorcised, and another person with this name, unknown to the first demoniac, being possessed at about the same time that the exorcism occurred – that fit these criteria.

In chapter two, Wiebe describes a broad range of experiences of the “holy” in the Judeo-Christian tradition. These include alleged encounters with angels, fire and radiant light, the experiences of prophets, the virgin birth of Jesus, the Shroud of Turin – Wiebe presents an excellent summary of the status quaestiones on this artifact, along with a succinct case for the resurrection of Jesus as providing as plausible an explanation as any for it – and other biblical and post-biblical visions. Wiebe calls these “intimations of transcendence” since they do not provide conclusive “proof” in the mathematical sense for the existence of spiritual beings, but they also resist purely materialistic or reductionistic explanations.

Following out his empirical approach to religious experiences of transcendence, Wiebe proposes in chapter three a sophisticated theory of spirits as best able to do justice to the described data. Here, Wiebe is careful to articulate what is meant by theoretical postulation and by spirits as incorporeal beings or unobservable beings, with the goal only of defending the existence of spirits as a rational notion. At the same time, there is also clear admission that we know far too little about spirits and the spiritual realm to conclude definitively that they are either “natural” or “supernatural” entities.

Chapter four confronts head on various naturalistic accounts of the experiences under discussion. Focus is put on the materialism of Smart, the nonreductive physicalism of Nancey Murphy, the contextual and realistic naturalism of Richard Schlagel, the linguistic nonrealism of Donald Wiebe (no relation to Phillip), and the atheistic positivism of Kai Nielsen. In each case, the strategy is not undermine the naturalistic explanations offered. Rather, Wiebe attempts both to defend the plausibility and coherence of his theory of transcendence and to suggest that the conceptual resources of orthodox Christian faith provide even better overall elucidation of human intimations of transcendence than naturalistic counterparts.

The concluding chapter returns to deal more explicitly with the God-hypothesis in order to determine how the proposed theory of finite spirits can or cannot inform human understanding of God as infinite spirit. Discussions of deductive, inductive and probabilistic approaches to God’s existence, the concept (and experience) of divine revelation, the idea of God as properly basic to human understanding (as advocated by Alvin Plantiga and Reformed epistemology), and other matters related to religious epistemology are directed toward what Wiebe calls “naturalizing supernaturalism” – i.e., accessing the transcendent empirically, through human religious experiences.

Readers of AusPS will be intrigued to know that while Wiebe was raised in and currently attends a Mennonite Brethren church, for sixteen years (from 1974-1990) he was a fully active member in congregations in the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. Perhaps this sheds some light on why one trained in the analytic philosophy of religion would be interested not only in investigating paranormal visions and religious experiences, but also in exploring and defending a fairly traditional theology and ontology of created (evil) spirits. In any case, Pentecostal responses to this book can proceed along at least two lines.

First, Pentecostals are beginning to ask questions traditionally reserved to the discipline of philosophy. More and more Pentecostals are pursuing graduate studies in philosophy. In 2001, the Society for Pentecostal studies added a philosophy track alongside the Bible, theology, etc., tracks. Wiebe’s God and Other Spirits serves as an exemplary model of philosophical analysis and theorizing for the up-and-coming generation of Pentecostal philosophers. His empirical approach deserves extended consideration by Pentecostals, especially given the emphasis in the tradition on the discernment of spirits. How else can “intimations of transcendence” be engaged except by careful discernment, and is this not what Wiebe proposes as empirical engagement? Throughout, Wiebe negotiates the fine line between philosophical, religious and theological reflection, acknowledging the integrity and limitations of each mode of inquiry even while allowing their dialectical interplay to lead the careful investigator to appropriately provisional theories and conclusions.

But second, from within the realm of Pentecostal experiences, as convoluted as this arena may be in reality, various questions persist. How do we wade through the massive numbers of reports regarding experiences of the holy, of the demonic, and of the transcendent, so prevalent in our circles? Do not the fantastic nature of many of these accounts strain the principle of credulity – the idea that things are probably the way they are reported to be unless we have good reason to doubt this – even the finely nuanced one defended by Wiebe, on the one hand, and beg the coherentist question regarding how “intimations of transcendence” are often embedded within one narrative/theoretical framework or other, as Wiebe also acknowledges, on the other? Last, but certainly not least, can the reflective abstractions of the discipline of philosophy of religion really help us to hypothesize, study and understand the realm of the demonic? How should Pentecostal philosophers negotiate the tension between “casting out the evil one” and releasing all those who are oppressed by the devil on the one side, while being led to theorize about the ontology of the demonic on the other?

To be sure, even Pentecostals who are not trained in philosophy have been and will continue to wrestle with these matters. Herein lies the special vocation for those Pentecostals called to be philosophers. And for the growing number of these, Phillip Wiebe’s God and Other Spirits provides plausible explanations given the state of the discussion in the early twenty-first century, and points one way forward to those looking to advance the conversation.

Amos Yong

Associate Professor of Theology,

Bethel University, St. Paul, Minnesota


© Southern Cross College, 2004.