The Problem with Experiences with God

Recently I was alerted to an analogy intended to help understand the relationship between doctrine and religious experience. Supposedly it came from Lewis, or Chesteron, or someone. It went like this. Imagine two people gaining understanding of the Atlantic Ocean.

One is at the Atlantic Ocean and experiences the awesome realness of an ocean. He smells the salty fishiness, sees the vastness, feels the sand on his feet, hears the waves splashing on the shore; he can taste the salt.

The other has an incredibly accurate map of the Atlantic Ocean. He’s an oceanographer and has all the understanding of the depths – the underwater plains, ridges, and sea mounts. He knows the effects of the continental shelf on wave activity. He knows about erosion, the whys and whats of the salt.

The former, according to the analogy, is the one who experiences God, the latter is the one well equipt with doctrine.

Working with this analogy, the weakness of the first is its narrow focus, its lack of a broader understanding of what an ocean is. It’s like the person who has an experience with God but doesn’t understand the doctrines of the incarnation, of sin and salvation, or of the Church. The strength, of course, is that, however narrow the focus, this one has beheld a unique and sublime beauty, something he’ll treasure forever.

The weakness of the second is it can lead to an overly academic approach to something with overwhelming power. This is the person given over to doctrinal dryness, to a loss of the beauty and awesomeness contact with God should entail.

Going with this analogy, clearly America is at the first. Everyone is claiming to experience God – about half of the country believes God has spoken to them – but fewer and fewer people are caring about any doctrinal component.

The analogy was told to me as a moderate way to trump up the importance of doctrine – just as, in the end an oceanographer’s assessment of an ocean must stand – while not disallowing people’s heartfelt insistence that they’ve experienced God in real and powerful ways.

I don’t buy it.

As my favorite professor, Dr. Nagel at Concordia Seminary used to say, when it comes to the Gospel, all analogies break down. And this one breaks down big time.

The implication is borderline pantheistic, or at least Gnostic. The idea is, God is floating out there in nature, available for anyone to experience, and those properly tapped into Him have a sublime meeting with Him. These are said to be real indeed. It only remains for a Christian to come and explain what they’ve experienced, like St. Paul explaining to the Athenians who the “unknown God” is.

But the exact wording of this text are that people are “groping” for God, and that He is not far from us, but they are NOT finding him. Rather, they are trading their natural knowledge of God for idols. This is actually more like the person who lives near an ocean, hears talk of oceans, sees pictures here and there, and decides he’ll paint a picture of what he thinks an ocean is.

The analogy also minimizes the Word and Sacrament, turning them into dry similitudes of the real thing, like a map. This is the classic Romantic critique of Christianity, that it is nothing but dry rituals and doctrines undermining true experience with the transcendent.

My biggest critique of the analogy, however, is that it acts as if religious experience of God is going to be this awesome, beautiful, amazing thing, not realizing that nowhere in Scripture is experience of God anything but utterly terrifying! To experience God in His naked presence and glory puts one on his face. “Woe am I” said Isaiah. Peter at the Transfiguration began talking nonsense. Moses fell on his face.

The presence of God often means darkness, cloudiness, fear, trembling, lightning, and a lot of things that, well, Israel at least didn’t want to have anything to do with. And we shouldn’t fancy ourselves more mature than they.

Why is contact with God in His naked presence so terrifying? Because of our sins. As children of Adam we are always needing to hide from God, just as he and Eve tried to do.

This is my gripe with those who claim God speaks to them or moves them to do this or that. Really? If that’s the case, (a) they should have a halo like Moses did, and (b) I’d expect some sort of stunned countenance, like they just, um, had contact with God which is what they are claiming! At least this was the case in the Bible.

Yet, how often am I listening to a radio preacher and hear them casually speak about how God spoke to them last night, “Y’know, the other day God said to me – now, God has a sense of humor, so this didn’t surprise me – but, He said, ‘Billy Bob…’”

I have the sneaking suspicion that this preacher has an active imagination and has crafted a wonderful imaginary friend who, while perfectly winsome and cool, has a slight tendency to nag in a way approximating current evangelical trends.

Now, here’s the interesting thing. God terrifying us is what is known as His “alien” work. He is love. He doesn’t want to terrify us. He terrifies us because, as a just God He has an obligation to His nature to have wrath toward us. But His primary work is to show love. Of course, this is why He sent His Son Jesus Christ into our flesh, or, going back to the Old Testament, why He set up the tabernacle and sacrificial system, or why He built the temple, or why He used prophets, or why He used burning bushes, donkeys, and whatnot.

He wants to be with us, but He doesn’t want to kill us doing so! That’s why His entire purpose of love climaxed in the person of Jesus Christ. Here, He can be with those He loves not through his alien work, but through His primary work, that is, of love. That work required that Jesus die on the cross, as an answer to His justice, to satisfy His alien work. That’s why in Jesus we have all of God at work for us, His justice and love working in consort together in the one Person, Jesus. But again, the end goal is love.

Let’s step back and look at what the incarnation of Jesus Christ is, or what the construction of the tabernacle, or the sending of prophets, or the using of donkeys and burning bushes meant. It meant setting aside some material thing – some physical thing – as the location where God would reveal Himself to us in His love. God set aside a bush. He set aside certain men. He set aside a specific flesh that was Jesus. He set aside specific words that we study, in which are spirit and life.

Those words are doctrine! And that person is our Savior! And those words about our Savior are spirit and life. Over and over again in the Gospels, those two “set-aside things” conspired to bring salvation and life to someone. Jesus and His Word. If a leper went to a man named George and George gave him a good feeling, the leper got nothing, no matter how awesome or amazing the feeling. But when he went to Jesus and received a word of healing, he was healed. That’s a doctrine, a teaching, a distinguishing of truth from error. Go to that man and not that man if you would be healed. That word and not that word will heal.

The same is true of the Church today. People act as if doctrine is “man’s traditions” or man’s attempt to draw up the contours of the experience with God. No it isn’t. Doctrine is the Word of God. And not just that, it’s the doctrine of how God makes His presence known to us through His primary work, that is, in His love.

So, for example, Jesus took bread and said, “This is My Body.” Then He took wine and said, “This is My Blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.”

This is no similtude. This is Jesus. This is salvation and this is life. This is God essentially saying, “Here I am for you to find Me in My love for you. And there I am not so don’t go there.”

The same is true with the preaching of the Word, which ought to be an unpacking of Jesus’ words, precisely because in these words are spirit and life. So often preaching becomes some preacher bragging about what he thinks was his experience with God that week. No Jesus. No words of Jesus. But, when we challenge him and say, “Why don’t you talk about Jesus, about the doctrines and teachings of the Gospel, and give out the Sacrament?” The retort is the ocean analogy. This preacher has had a powerful experience with God; don’t get too caught up in all that doctrinal gobbledygook.

By contrast, we experience God through doctrine, through His Word and in His Sacrament. And quite frankly, it’s a far better way to experience Him. Through nature, in our consciences, in our hearts, in our minds, God’s work is, again, alien. It can be the accusing voice of Satan. It can lead to false understandings and our own idolatry. It should lead us to absolute terror of God.

More often then not, it’s nonexistent, which has its own set of problems for a lot of people. “Why does everyone else have this daily walky talky with God but not me? I want to talk about the amazing things God does for me on my Facebook page too!” This, then, leads to one of two things, despair or hypocrisy. You can fake it for awhile. “Hey, I think I heard the voice of God today! I did! I did! I heard it!” The self delusion lasts for awhile until you give up and fall into despair. The silence of God, in fact, can become deafening and a harsher dark night of the soul than anything we might think He did say.

That’s why the Gospel and Sacrament in Church are such wonderful gifts. In the midst of all God’s alien work in our world, we have the weekly statement of God Himself through His Son Jesus Christ – in a testament He set up Himself as an enduring statement to us – that He is giving His Body and Blood to us for our salvation. Through all the alien, confusing, darkness, silence, and frustrations of our lives and world, at the communion rail it’s like we have this secret pact with God: “Psst, come here for a second. Just so you know, this is what I really think of you. My Blood given for you, for your forgiveness.”

So, if we had to go with the analogy, it would be more like this. Being at the ocean IS the doctrine, IS the sacrament, IS the things we hear and learn in Church. It’s where we experience the glory and majesty of God in His primary work, a work limited by His words and doctrines, just as He limited Himself in the Person of Jesus Christ. Like God saying to Job, “Where were you when I fixed My limit for [the waves], And set bars and doors; When I said, ‘This far you may come, but no farther, And here your proud waves must stop!’”

That is what doctrine is, setting limits, saying “This is where truth ends and falsehood begins.” Or “This is where I begin and where I end, that is, at this Person named Jesus bound by His flesh and blood.” And that continues in the doctrines learned through the Church and in the limits established by His Body and Blood in the Sacrament.

Where God has limited Himself and located Himself through physical and material things – i.e. Jesus Christ Himself – He is doing so as an extension of His primary work, His love. Where God has limited Himself by the grammar of the text, again, it is because of His love. Where things are limited, there it is given as a gift. It is grace. It is something to be received as a gift.

By contrast, when, as my Latin student once said, “God is bigger then the perfect tense,” that’s where things get scary. That’s where I’m put on my face and terrified. That’s His alien work. That’s where I enter into a cloud of uncertainty. That’s where I get confused where God ends and my emotions or feelings begin. That’s where the Lord is no longer a gift because the limits have been lifted.

And in fact, when people document this experience, pretending that it’s an experience with God, is not that the true idolatry?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *