Most personal religious belief is based on hearsay. This includes Christianity — what he said, what the pastor said, what parents say, what tradition says, what the Bible says, we understand our faith because of what others have said. This is a good thing. The Church teaches that the essential beliefs of the faith have been handed down from the beginning orally through teaching and testimony. Most of the early Christians, including that incredible first generation, did not have direct, first-hand experience of Christ. The Gospel spread throughout the known world by way of witness, and reports of witness.
In the gospel of St. John we read: ‘Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”‘ (John 20: 28-29)
Of course I am using the word “hearsay” as a rhetorical device. We normally use the word to mean a rumor, or something heard that cannot be verified.
And yet, for all of us (except, perhaps, a few mystics) we know the basic tenets of our faith because we have been told about it or read about it. This fact does not make Christianity less true, but it does highlight a couple of things. First, we are indebted to those who have gone before us and have taken the time to teach us. This is especially true of the Apostles, disciples, and writers of the New Testament, but it is also true of parents, pastors, fiends, and many others. Second, belief by way of hearsay is not the same thing as belief because of encounter. Encounter is one’s own experience of God. At various times in history individuals have had powerful encounters with God — Moses, Christ’s disciples, St. Paul, and numerous saints down the ages. These are the more obvious encounters, but most Christians have also had encounters with God. It is arguable that one cannot be a Christian without having an encounter with God.
This is why a person can grow up in a Christian family, go to church regularly, and be a Christian in one sense, but then have a profound conversion experience later in life and become “born again” as it were. In other words, without “encounter” Christianity remains for the individual, essentially hearsay.
When the Holy Spirit moves within the heart of a person a profound experience occurs. God has reached out, presented Himself in some mysterious way, has penetrated the hard heart, and established a level of faith within the individual. For many this encounter comes as a surprise. For some it comes from searching, seeking out God, asking that He enter in as it were. Regardless, surprise or answer to prayer, when we have an encounter with God we are never the same.
Encounter is also something that can happen invisibly until, perhaps much later, the individual realizes what has happened. Encounter can occur frequently, perhaps even regularly. But it may happen rarely in a given person’s life as well. It is a mystery. Like the wind, it comes and goes, and we only see the effects.
The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)
Finally, there is no competition between hearing and encounter. Our faith is not based on one or the other, but on both. But we should recognize that mere knowledge, or being able to repeat what we’ve been told, does not constitute a full knowledge of Christ. And our encounters should be tested against the words of truth.