Personal experience I

Do you think there is a problem when the way we talk about how we relate to God and how God relates to us doesn’t fit how most people relate to each other?”

One of our listeners at wrote the above in response to the lyrics of the song “Fierce,” by the group Jesus Culture: “like a hurricane, that I can’t escape, tearing through the atmosphere, your love is fierce”

The listener went on: “I can understand that God’s ways are much higher and he is greater than I could ever imagine, but if I can’t relate and apply his characteristics in the way these songs say, then are the lyrics just something to evoke an emotional response…?

I think that these questions are very helpful because they point to an area of Christian life and thought that I think is at best underdeveloped, if not simply ignored.

That area is “personal experience.”

Yet I would argue that the risks of inattention to personal experience are massive. So the consequences of underdeveloping our view of personal experience is inconsistency (in how Christians live, engage with the Bible, communicate their beliefs, etc.). Further, the consequences of ignoring our view of personal experience is incoherence: Christians risk presenting themselves as intellectually bankrupt (and thus representing Christianity as irrelevant to “real life”).

And these are consequences that Christians should not be prepared to accept.

The solution, I wager, is becoming more attentive to personal experience in the manner of a “participant observer.” In terms of observing, Christians can do this by adopting an approach that is both more rigorous and more generous: rigorous in terms of how we investigate the phenomenon of experience, more generous in terms of being willing to allow other, non-overtly Christian information sources to inform our understandings.

In terms of participating, Christians first need to focus on their own experiences (those in which they participate) and thereby to become more self-aware: applying rigor and other dialogue partners to ourselves (as understanding our identities via examining our personal and family history, through counselling, and by identifying what we consider as “fundamental truths” of existence).1

Let’s explore the inconsistency and incoherence mentioned above.

I find that most evangelical Christians are at least inconsistent in their approach to personal experience. For example, if during a church service evangelicals experience strong, positive emotions or feel “convicted” of some failing then they typically conclude that they are experiencing the Holy Spirit. In this case, experience is valuable.

Yet where a sceptic or atheist during the very same church service has the experience that people are:
a) manipulating the mood with particular music,
b) guilt-tripping the audience into overly negative self-perception with a one-sided view of human action and value, and
c) making claims about God’s actions that are not substantiated by the facts that they present,
then s/he is simply being mislead. In this case, experience is harmful.

The inconsistency arises from failing to interpret each situation individually and according to its full context (and instead uniformly applying overly-simplistic, pre-packaged understandings) and results in the risk of overlooking the facts: the Christian may well be wrong and the atheist may well be right!

An even worse state-of-affairs arises when evangelical Christians approach personal experience in a manner that is incoherent. By making grandiose claims about divine action (i.e., “This is a miracle”) or extreme claims about God’s nature (“God’s love is like a hurricane / tidal wave”)—claims that both lack substantiation and seem divorced from real world experiences—Christians paint themselves as senseless, and so portray their beliefs as irrelevant.

To avoid both inconsistency and incoherence Christians must develop the skills and stamina required to become competent observers and engaged participants. The upshot of such a combination, I would argue, is that we become more human and more humane.

More human in the sense of being more fully integrated, such that our various faculties and aspects are sufficiently developed and appropriately empowered to allow each one to inform us and to corroborate / critique the others. More humane in the sense of being more truthful and yet also more loving (of ourselves and our communities, but also of others: when we cultivate these skills we are more able to detect the falseness in our speech and practices and to detect the truthfulness in the speech and practices of others—even those who refute our beliefs).

So is needed in order for Christians better to understand personal experience and integrate it within their faith?

To begin, Christians must recognize that the very nature and claims of Christianity show that this is not an optional investigation or point of inquiry. Indeed, where biblical truth claims indicate that Christianity is related to / informs “all of life,” then explaining (and showing!) how this is so in a consistent, coherent way is crucial to allowing non-Christians to see the truth value in these truth claims.

In other words fulfilling the “great commission” depends, in part, upon this!

Looking ahead, then, I believe that a major step toward consistency and coherence will occur when Christians are able to understand everyday experiences better (through dialogue with psychology, biology, sociology, etc.) and then to be able to formulate the relationships with these—and distinctions from them—and uncommon experience: putative experiences of God.

Show 1 footnote

  1. A valuable exercise in this last regard is to consider an important question (such as, What is importat to me about attending graduate school, What are my thoughts about marriage, What is my view on children, etc. Then respond to your answer to the inital question by asking another open-ended question, such as “Why?” By the time you have iterated through these ‘why’ questions three of four times you will find that you cannot go any further: you have reached an answer that represents “fundamental truth-for-you” on this matter.

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