Are you experienced?

  • Question from CM, United Kingdom

    Those who come to Church seem more worried about “experiencing” God these days than about having a deep and full knowledge of Him as contained within the Bible. Is that a just a sign of the times that people want “signs and wonders” and faith just isn’t good enough anymore?

    Wanting to see ‘signs and wonders’ is nothing new. Jesus was asked by the leading religious people to give them a sign in Matthew chapter 12, verse 38. His response, as recorded in that gospel, was vitriolic. Similarly Herod, the puppet ruler of Judea, was apparently eager to see the captive Jesus because “he hoped to see him perform a miracle” (Luke chapter 23, verse 8).

    In both these cases Jesus refused to comply. The religious elite were chastised for not recognising his messiahship, a theme that dominates Jesus’ confrontations with them. They were the people who should have had no need for a sign. Herod was interested out of his own curiosity, nothing more, and Jesus had no intention of pandering to the demands of a spoiled despot.

    However, elsewhere in the gospel accounts, and in the Biblical stories concerning Jesus’ followers, the miraculous is commonplace. Despite originally being included in the gospels to authenticate Jesus’ divinity in the minds of the reader, the miracles have caused immense problems for scholars in Western society since the Enlightenment. The rise of post-Modernism has fortunately rehabilitated the miracle stories, making them more acceptable to people.

    As there has always been a ‘demand for a sign’, except during recent fads of rigorous rationalism, it should not be a surprise that people are looking for that now. Not much has changed in human nature in the past two thousand years and current Western culture is both consumerist and existential. Patrick Whitworth describes this tendency as such: “Reality today is people’s own experience. So we are all, in our Western society, children of existentialism, meaning ‘What I experience is truth’.” [Becoming a Spiritual Leader, Terra Nova, 2005, p.259]

    This is both a challenge and a correction for the Christian Church. It is a challenge because it means the Church has to live good its promise. It is not enough to tell people that God loves them; they have to be shown. Similarly it is not enough to merely say that Jesus has conquered sickness; healing is the proof of the claim. Christians are therefore being pushed to prove their claims, which is only a worry for those who secretly do not believe their own propaganda. It is perfectly legitimate for the unbelieving to demand proof.

    This questioning attitude is also a correction for the Church in that it prevents the development of a purely intellectual faith reliant more on human reason than faith experience. Obviously, there needs to be a balance between the two – experience should keep (fallible, limited) human reason in its place, while reason provides a limit on the possible excesses of charismatic religion. The difficulty is that sometimes the scale tips too far, so there exist churches with shallow theology ‘proven’ by dubious hysterical activity that can be easily manipulated, and churches who go as far as to deny that the miraculous can happen at all these days. In the case of the latter, a cynic could say that such churches have gotten so used to not seeing miraculous events they have had to find a reasonable explanation for why the things they read about in the New Testament Church do not happen in their church. Cue a doctrine of ‘dispensationalism’, prevalent in many non-Charismatic churches, that states that the ‘Spiritual Gifts’ were solely for the Apostolic era.

    The question about faith ‘not being good enough anymore’ is interesting. Of course, this depends on what is meant by ‘faith’. If it means sound doctrine, then the argument can be advanced that any doctrine needs to be tested in the real world. Words have to be backed up by actions. While this probably does not apply to doctrines concerning the divinity of Christ, it does apply, as mentioned, to God’s power in healing. It is not unreasonable to expect pragmatic demonstrations that reinforce the doctrinal claims of Christianity, in some areas. Otherwise the statements made by Christians, however grand they sound, are ultimately meaningless.

    There is a worry, however, that churches which perhaps over-emphasise the miraculous are ‘living in the moment’. As time goes on, and circumstances change, anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that Christians without a sound knowledge of the Bible or Christian teaching (catechism to use its proper description) are more likely to lose their faith. Experience is transient and highly variable. A person who bases their personal faith on the way they feel is therefore constructing their life on something that may change rapidly. They are also partaking in the modern cultural cult, the idolatry of self; making themselves the arbiters of what is real and doing what sinful human beings have always tried to do – put themselves in the place of God.

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