What Role Should Experience Play in Christian Spirituality? (1)

Kenneth W. Brewer

I have heard pastors counsel people, “Don’t seek experiences, seek truth found in the Bible!” While excessive emotionalism can be a problem for some, who determines what excessive emotionalism is? The expression of emotion varies with culture, ethnicity, race, gender, and personality. Certainly, those of white European decent are not the only arbiters of healthy emotional expression.

True, one should not allow one’s emotions or feelings to be the sole guide to one’s life. Emotions can be unstable, fluctuate, and untrustworthy. However, the dismissal of experience, feeling, and emotion is problematic for a number of reasons. First, humans are not just “thinking” beings. They also will, emote, and act. Second, mind, will, and emotion are holistically connected to our physical bodies. Actually, they cannot be separated. Third, one of the purposes of reading the Bible is to encounter the God revealed in the Bible and to actually experience the things the Bible talks about, like forgiveness, assurance, and holiness. We are to be transformed by the Word so that we embody the Word and become the Word to those who have not met the Word. We can only do that through experience.

It is important to define what we mean by experience. It is not simply emotion or feelings. What philosophers and theologians mean by experience may be categorized in the following ways:

  1. Empirical Knowledge (outer) is experiencing the world around us as we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell.
  2. Experiential Knowing (inner) is the kind of knowing that only comes via experience, like playing a musical instrument or performing surgery. All practical skills are tethered to experience.
  3. Revelatory experiences like Moses at the burning bush, Nathan’s rebuke of David’s sin (2 Sam 12), Jesus’s prophetic revelations to the Samaritan woman (John 4), or Peter’s vision not to call anything unclean (Acts 10) can only come through experience.
  4. Regenerative/Conversion experiences are the beginning processes of the Christian life characterized by conviction, illumination, confession, and cooperation with God’s Spirit to a life of holiness—all of which are experiential in nature.
  5. Dark Night of the Soul (DNS) experiences have been attested to by many Christians throughout history. Essentially, the DNS experience is the experience of the absence of God in one’s life while seeking God with one’s whole heart, mind, and devotion.
  6. Mystical/Numinous experiences have also been attested to by numerous Christians throughout history. These include visions of the crucified Christ and a feeling of dread and awe of God that shakes one to the core.
  7. Extraordinary Revival Phenomena is recorded in many of the great revivals of history, including the Great Awakening in America and the Methodist revival in Great Britain in the eighteenth century, the Second Great Awakening in America in the nineteenth century, and the Pentecostal-Charismatic revivals in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. These experiences include being “slain in the Spirit,” excessive loud crying or laughter, trembling, shaking, the “Jerks,” visions, healings, deliverances, intoxication by the Spirit, and more.

While William James wrote a significant book called The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), I think Johnathan Edwards’ book Religious Affections (1746) is more helpful for understanding the role of experience in Christian spirituality. Edwards, like John Wesley, encountered a wide variety of unusual religious experiences during the eighteenth-century “Great Awakening” in America. Critics charged that true religion was a matter of the mind and right doctrine, not that of the wild emotions on display during the revivals. This led Edwards to investigate the relationship been the mind, beliefs, emotions, and what he called affections.

The word affections is not equivalent to feelings, but affections usually involve feelings because they are strong inclinations. Edwards maintains that those who refuse any place for feelings and affections in true spirituality are making a mistake. He adds that the devil likes to persuade people that emotional spirituality is suspect because the devil knows that religion without any emotion is “a mere lifeless formality.” According to Edwards, once spirituality is stripped of all feeling and affection, it does not threaten the devil’s work. He contends that where there is light and truth without heat and fervor, the divine is absent.

The presence of religious feeling and affection does not prove that spirituality is true. However, the absence of religious feeling indicates that true spirituality is absent as well. Holy affections are not strictly feelings, but warm and fervent inclinations that include heart conviction as well as intellectual understanding. However, for Edwards, true spirituality is a matter of the affections. Kingdom people are moved by spiritual conviction that affects everything they are and do including their feelings, thinking, and actions.

How can we discern true from false religious experience? I will take this up in my next article.

Posted Dec 28, 2020

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