Why do people today seek extraordinary experiences? Why do people seek to have experiences that are outside what one would call ‘the norm?’
These are the questions I would like to ask my charismatic friends today.
This past year as I have engaged charismatic Christians I have heard and seen a lot of people who seek to have an encounter with God. The emphasis in these circles appears, to me at least, to be motivated by a genuine desire for the mystical, the other worldly. As one who has had his share of the experiences outside the norm, I have often wondered what they mean and why they matter. I have come to several conclusions.
The first conclusion I have come to is that Christianity grounded in Protestant ‘Orthodoxy’ with its focus on hair splitting doctrine, argumentation over minutiae, and criticism of the jots and tittles of dogma produced a sterile approach to faith. In traditions influenced by this orientation, conformity to a set of beliefs determines ones relation to God. I have spent a large part of my work examining this particular approach to the Christian faith and found it lacking. So have many others. In the 20th century the futility of such an approach has been the bane of Protestantism and people have rebelled against such an approach seeking a genuine more robust spiritual approach seeking for a personal encounter with the living God. God is not a dead letter but a living Being, and a relationship with a dead letter or a dry doctrine does not equate to a vibrant and vital relationship with God. Correct theology only gets one so far in life.
On the other hand, movements within the 20th century, the rise of global Pentecostalism, the emergence of the charismatic movement and now the blending of Christianity with new age spirituality have all created a new form of this exact same phenomenon, which I call ortho-experience. So it is that this way of thinking insists that one must be ‘baptized in the Holy Spirit’, or manifest certain unusual phenomenon such as speaking in tongues, or participating in exorcisms or worshipping until ‘God’s presence’ [sic] fills the room. These encounters or these ‘gifts’ are all alleged to be signs that God has indeed come upon the individual or worshipping community. Without these signs, so some say, God is not ‘fully present’ or God is not present at all.
Doctrinal orthodoxy and ‘ortho-experience’ are mimetic doubles of one another. Both seek to determine who is in and who is out by a set of predetermined experiences or belief systems.
Genuine Christian mysticism does not operate in such a manner. Authentic experience(s) with the Living God do not operate within an economy of exchange as though a certain pattern must be followed in order for God to finally impart the divine presence to the believer or the believing community. Just as conformity to doctrinal belief creates a mimetic community where all are in agreement, so also conformity to charismatic experience creates a mimetic community where people seek to ‘manifest’ the ‘higher’ gifts. I find it strange that the charismatic movement with its emphasis on the spontaneous has never valorized the ‘gift of administration.’ Why? Because administration is (for most) boring. Who wants to plan, program and count? What could possibly be divine about that? Yet, ‘other-worldy’ experiences seem to count for far more than what one might call the average everyday ordinary experiences and gifts.
In the charismatic world, this has led to an ever increasing desire for the abnormal. So experiences that no one has ever thought of before are created that are ‘outside the box’ and people flock to schools [sic] and seminars or buy books on how to have the strangest of experiences. Take gravesucking as an example. Pioneered by the charismatic school out of Bethel in Redding, CA, this claims that when people die they somehow leave behind a little bit of the Holy Ghost and practitioners can go such these remnants out of the bones of the dead. I won’t even bother with the problem of the physics of such folly, let alone the metaphysics. So what is happening here? What is it people are experiencing?
I would contend that the people in the video have been ‘set-up’ to believe that when they do such and such an activity they will experience such and such a phenomenon. In other words, one can account for such bizarre behavior in terms of group conformity, hypnotic suggestion and naivete. People believe what they want to believe and those seeking ‘supernatural’ experiences ‘find them.’ I would content that they are simply finding what they sought, that is, that this experience is nothing abnormal, nothing divine, but is pure auto-suggestion. The same thing can be said for those who participate in seeking to be drunk in the Spirit. Here are a group of people who believe that God is good and who desire to experience or feel this goodness. Nothing wrong with that. The problem arises when this search leads to a formulaic encounter. In other words, in both cases the experience of the ‘spiritual’ gets reduced to a method or a formula. The same thing can be said where Christians gather and claim to see ‘glory clouds’ which they identify with God’s presence. One could add to this list snake handlers, slain in the Spirit practitioners and Amway salespersons.
What is the point of all these so-called supernatural manifestations? The point for most is to be able to say “See here, we have the real God in our midst, or my encounter with God is genuine and yours is not.” In other words, these experiences have the same apologetic function as do those who seek to defend the inspiration of the Bible by proving its inerrancy. We all want to believe that ‘our’ experience of God is the real deal. We all want our experience to be validated.
If there is one thing we can learn from the sciences about all of this is that group psychology plays a large part and the desire to be accepted by a group looms large in people’s psychology. In other words, people will imitate other’s experiences in order to ‘feel’ accepted. If I told you that one day I ate my cell phone SIM card and from that point on could have perfect communication with the divine, and I backed that up with the occasional divine phone call and told you what God was saying to me, how long before everybody and their brother would be consuming their cell phone SIM cards in order to have such a majestic communion experience? Now if I could back this up with some Bible verses and maybe a quote or two from some ancient Christian mystics, I could lead a seminar where I could show you how to actually eat your SIM cards. I could stand on the stage and ‘receive’ revelations from God and you would want the same thing, so you would imitate my actions.
We all have a deep seated desire to have our experiences validated. We all want to know that our beliefs are true. We all have a need to feel accepted by our peers. Hucksters make a tremendous amount of money creating ‘SIM card’ experiences and sadly, naïve and uneducated people buy into these fraudsters and their folly.
I am a believer in what some call the miraculous. I have seen totally unexplainable healings. I am also a believer in the various and manifold gifts of the Spirit to the Body of Christ. I have been in worship services where speaking and praying in tongues and interpretation of these tongues has occurred. I have also been in Christian worship services where the interpretation of these ‘tongues’ could only be called crass manipulation, bad theology, and abuse.
People who seek such experiences are looking for ‘proof’ which is the very thing they rejected when they abandoned Protestant Orthodoxy which sought for intellectual proof.
Faith, genuine faith, needs no proof. Genuine faith lives not by certainty but by assurance and the difference between the two cannot be understated. Just as I cannot prove the existence of God intellectually, so one cannot prove the existence or presence of God through signs and wonders. All religious traditions can claim to have supernatural manifestations, not just the Christian religion. A voodoo priestess, a Muslim cleric or an African witch-doctor can each claim ‘supernatural’ experiences which they can use to validate their theological or religious traditions. Therefore, it is impossible to claim that certain Christian religious experiences are proof of the divine presence.
Oddly enough, Jesus does not appear to have any out-of-the-box experiences, or if he does, they are not recorded in the Gospels, outside of his baptismal experience. Jesus never appears to wander around drunk in the holy ghost, nor does anyone accuse him of such. Jesus never appears to create hysterical crying audiences who fall down, bark like dogs, or giggle like silly children or adults in a bar. Outside of the first letter to the Corinthians there isn’t much in the New Testament where the Christian faith seems to be ‘manifested’ in the dualism of the ‘supernatural’ or ‘abnormal.’ The historical credibility of the book of Acts and the theological tendencies of its author ought to least give charismatics pause.
All of this to say: First, Go seek the Living God. Have your encounter with the Living God. Just don’t turn your encounter into a formula or method. Second, ask how your encounter with the living God is Jesus-like. Does your encounter with God move you to show the same compassion to others that Jesus’ did? Does your encounter with God just feed your own narcissistic need or does it turn you toward ‘the other?’ Does your encounter with God only validate you or does it challenge you to pay closer attention to Jesus, his work and his ways? Third, use your brains. God gave them to you. They are the most complex mechanism in the universe. They are a gift to you. Think through everything. Don’t check your brains at the altar of your heart. Nowhere are we required to check our brains at the door anymore than we are required to check our hearts before we encounter the Living God. We are whole persons. Finally, text the spirits. There are so many phonies, hucksters, frauds, manipulators and pretentious leaders out there all claiming to be able to impart the divine. The divine was once for all imparted, wholly and completely in Jesus of Nazareth. We are in him and he is in us. We can be no closer to God than we already are. Stop looking for the unusual or the weird. Live in the normal. you may just discover the unusual in a bird song or the cry of a baby or the smile of a loved one or the tears of the homeless. Live life as life not as afterlife and you may just discover the beauty of this life infused as it is with God. Soren Kierkegaard once said “mysticism has not the patience to wait for God’s revelation.” It is when we go about our daily living and our daily encounters with each other that, if we open our eyes and ears, we may just discover how incredibly present God is with others as with us, and we may celebrate, not our experiences, but in the character of the God who has come to liberate and heal us all. The Gospel is not about us, it is about our Abba. I hope charismatic Christianity will learn this. Otherwise it will just end up as sterile as Protestant Orthodoxy.