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Apologetics/Worldview, Religion/Philosophy

Experience: A Firm Foundation?


If the mantra of the modern world was, “I want to see it, touch it, verify it,” the mantra of the postmodern world is “I want to feel it, to experience it.”  While many continue to trust in disciplines such as science for truth, many more have moved away from such a source, to another source, experience. 

This is even incredibly influential in the church in America today.  “Head knowledge” carries negative connotations, while “heart knowledge” is proposed to be the real and genuine basis of true knowledge for faith.  “Heart knowledge” speaks of emotion and experience.  “Head knowledge” speaks of reason and intellect.  Recently I listened to interviews performed by several Christian leaders of those who had attended a pastor’s convention (the link to the interviews and commentary is:     http://www.whitehorseinn.org/previous_programs.htm (scroll to May 11th, 2008, “The Case for Theology and Apologetics:  Part 2”).  Many were asked if they thought it was better to use apologetics or one’s testimony/personal story when sharing their faith with someone else.  All of those in the podcast confidently said their story (the caption under the podcast says “a great many” preferred their story).  A couple even said, “My story, because no one can argue against it.” 

This indeed seems to be the prevailing sentiment of many in our culture, as well as in our church culture.  People today seem primarily interested in spirituality that provides them with a powerful emotional experience.  And they believe this validates the truthfulness of the particular form of spirituality/faith.  The rise of New Age, eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as a new form of spirituality present in America, referred to as “The New Religious Synthesis” by James Herrick in his excellent book, “The Making of the New Spirituality:  The Eclipse of the western Religious Tradition”, reflects this shift.  Even within evangelicalism, people are often looking for a church with engaging, emotional worship services that stir the heart (far more so than the mind).

This, however, can prove to be dangerous territory as well, just as disciplines such as science can show themselves to be unreliable.  What happens when those who are part of the Church of Scientology testify to powerful and real experiences within their own faith?  What happens when your Mormon friend refuses to listen to your case for Christianity because they felt the burning in the bosom, commonly used to speak of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within one?  What about the New Age follower who had an out of body experience that was unlike anything they had ever experienced before?  Or maybe the Satanist who encountered real spiritual power in the midst of a séance?  Unless one decides that all experiences are equally valid and authoritative (which many have done, and is a very short jump when experience becomes one’s authority),   one must acknowledge that experience begins to show itself to be at least somewhat unreliable as a source for truth.

One of the great weaknesses of an experiential foundation for truth is that it leads, essentially, to a game of “he said, she said.”  How is one supposed to argue against what someone experienced, but, what no one else can validate?  Many have relegated Christian truth to such a level of validation.  How often does one respond to the question of how one knows whether their faith (not just their own personal faith, but their faith system [though many really do adhere, unfortunately, to a faith of their own making rather than the historical tradition of their church!]) is real or not with the statement, “Well, I know it’s real/true because I’ve experienced it.  It’s real in my life.”  Many give this answer because of the value of experience, but also because it is an easy answer that can’t be argued against.  Now, I do not deny that Christianity involves an encounter with the true and living God.  This should be a reality for every believer and follower of Jesus Christ.  However, God never intends it to be the primary means of validating the Christian faith/worldview. 

God is a God that values verification (though not the same type of verification the modernist would seek to employ with regards to disciplines such as science).  He grounds His work in historical event.  The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ were historical events that offer validity to the Christian claim.  All throughout the Bible is the record of God’s acts in history.  They were witnessed and recorded.  Throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites return to the theme of the work of God’s hands, and how it stands in stark contrast to the false gods of the people around them.  While the perfect knowledge of the modernist cannot be discovered to verify the accounts of the Bible (nor can they have perfect knowledge of anything in this way), the historical fact of the Bible’s events is a strong point for a revelatory worldview as opposed to an experiential worldview.  James Herrick, in his book “The Making of the New Spirituality” says this (it is lengthy but excellent, and so I offer it all):

“MacLaine (that being Shirley MacLaine, the famous actress and New Age guru) writes within the context of the New Synthesis, a spiritual movement that has taken leave of history, that has severed the spiritual from the physical, the subjective from the objective and has thus rendered irrelevant any effort to prove or disprove experiential claims as “historically accurate.”  By the same token, spiritual claims no longer stand or fall on the merits of their attending historical claims.  Such a division between claims about events in space and time, on the one hand, and claims about spiritual truths, on the other, is unknown to the Revealed Word (Christianity).  Attending the risk of the Revealed Word’s commitment to history is a refreshing honesty before a public being asked to embrace its worldview.”

Herrick’s point is this:  there is an honesty about a worldview, a spiritual claim, that puts itself out there where it can be critiqued.  Because Christianity is grounded in historical event, it can be critiqued and examined by those who would wish to test it.  This solely experiential approach to spirituality requires one to take the proponents word for it, simply on the basis that they have said it.  Maybe one could attempt to give it a shot and try to see for themselves, but there is something honest about putting yourself out there for examination.  Christianity does that.  Experiential approaches to faith do not.  Christianity has received greater criticism through the centuries because of this.  However, it is absolutely more honest than those who simply tell you to take their word for it.

Herrick goes on:

“Revealed Word (Christianity) proponents have long argued that history provides their perspective with an objective foundation that serves to ground spiritual claims in verifiable events, a commitment that also serves to limit theological speculation.  By contrast, the movement of the New Synthesis away from history and toward myth, away from physical events and toward transcendent symbols, away from verifiable occurrences and toward imaginative narratives, is attended by no commensurate promise to the potential convert.  The only promise of authenticity is that myth somehow conveys timeless and universal truths, while history is mired in local events and parochial values.  But this dramatic shift in perspective regarding spiritual truth leaves us in an untenable position where the teachings of the historical Jesus recorded in the four New Testament Gospels carry no greater weight than an imagined conversation with Jesus (or an elephant) in one’s living room.  I have argued that the Revealed Word (Christianity) tradition’s insistence on historical grounding for spiritual truth renders this perspective vulnerable to historical criticism by laying open all of its foundational claims to public scrutiny.  Having said this, it is worth noting that arguments against Revealed Word (Christianity) history often reflect not compelling historical criticism, but an author’s more or less personal objections to elements in the historical narrative (the Bible)….  Religious belief is no longer dependent on outward and historical events in particular locations at remote times, but now finds its source in the ever-contemporary interior life of the spirit, the unfathomable human psyche, the myth-generating subconscious self.”      

There are obviously a number of themes being addressed by Herrick here, nevertheless, we see a further statement regarding the rejection of historicity by many today as it relates to spirituality, and yet the uneasiness one should have about such developments.

In addition to the historical verification for the larger “narrative” of Christian faith, God even calls for verification of one’s own personal claim to genuine faith.  As was stated previously, the Bible does reveal that for the one who would follow Jesus Christ and believe that He is the Son of God, their substitution before the holiness and justice of God, and the sole means of man’s salvation and wholeness, there is a powerful and life-changing encounter that takes place between God and that individual.  However, there is a difference between life transformation, a life lived in surrender to the commandments of God, and an emotional experience.  The experience one has with the true God is validated not simply by the testimony of a real experience, but the sacrificial and selfless commitment to that God in obedience to His commands.  This transformation proves one’s encounter with God, and again, verifies, what has been claimed.  Over and over in the teachings of Jesus He tells us that a tree can be identified by its fruit.

Lastly, just because an experience is real does not make it true, or mean that it reflects an encounter with the true God.  We know the Bible teaches us that there are spiritual forces at work in the world.  Their activity is very real.  They influence people every day.  Such experiences, however, do not lead to the one true God, for they are not from Him.  Not only are other spiritual forces at work in the world, intense experiences can be found even within very human situations.  Concerts, sporting events, movies, and a variety of other things can provoke very intense experiences.  There are many sources of powerful experiences that have nothing to do with the one true God.  We must be cautious of them.

God values verification, but he is no modernist.  God values personal encounter and experience, but He is no postmodernist.  Human philosophy will twist because it is tarnished by human sinfulness.  We must see the place of both (verification, i.e. science, history; and experience) in their proper biblical perspective, but we must not become enslaved to worldly philosophies that distort proper approaches to these activities.  The Bible is the only firm foundation.  It is the only source of reliable truth.  It speaks truth for all of human life and experience.  It has been, is, and always will be completely sufficient for mankind.  And both science, history and other disciplines, along with experience, while not comprehensively and sufficiently in and of themselves, but in their own ways, help us to see that.



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