Andrew Byers, in his very fine new book, Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint, claims “cyncism is a sickness” and defines it as being contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives. Some become cynical because of experientialism, and Andrew tells a funny story of hoping to reach the full level of spiritual maturity when he went with some friends to a Toronto Blessing meeting in Kentucky, and ended up getting into a “contest of sorts” where the charismatic bless-er was trying to push Andrew down and Andrew was convinced that if he was going down, God would have to floor him.
Many of us have either been there, or gotten very close to this kind of experience, and some of us have been profoundly disappointed by what we discovered, and some of us became cynical about it all because of this experiential emphasis on the part of some. Andrew admits that “this non-experience precipitated a gradual descent into disillusionment with the mysticism” of Christianity (61). And some are deeply, deeply distrustful of any kind of feeling or experiences.
Let’s talk about this: How many of you have had experiential hopes that were dashed by reality that led to disillusionment and even cynicism? What do you do about the high level of experientialism on the part of some? Are you cynical about such things as the Toronto Blessing and holy laughter? I’ve got solid Christian friends who say they’ve never had any kind of spiritual experience.
Experientialists measure spirituality by highs. Healthy spirituality is felt spirituality. A good quiet time is one in which we feel God. It is not uncommon for a college professor who listens to students to hear stories about one experience after another in high school or college, or at least the searching for that experience. Some speak of missions trips as motivated more by the experience to be had than the ministry to be done.
Yet, think of Abraham, Moses, Elijah, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and good grief Ezekiel above all, and Jesus and Paul and Peter. They had some profound experiences. God is emotional and so are we. Reliance on emotions though is not a good thing. “Just follow your heart” can go only so far.
So Byers suggests three things about experiential spirituality:
1. Spiritual experiences can be as much occultic as holy. Think Saul.
2. There are valid responses to valid spiritual experiences: spiritual pride or power are not valid.
3. Valid spiritual experiences do not necessarily validate our spirituality.
And this: The Spirit and experience are not one and the same. Too often we think the more normal something is the less spiritual it is. The Spirit is not an “it” but a person. It is not the “force.”